She dropped out of school at 15 and took a factory job before finding her calling in animation. Now, Cork's Nora Twomey - one of the founders of the Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon - is working with Angelina Jolie and has been hailed by Variety as one to watch. Ahead of the release of her passion project The Breadwinner, she meets our reporter.
It may be one of the most creative places in the country - and a leading light in Ireland's renaissance as an animation nation - but the studios of Cartoon Saloon are easy to miss. Located in a lane-way close to St Mary's Cathedral in the heart of Kilkenny city, this innocuous- looking building would be easily overlooked if you were none the wiser. Those who visit this vibrant tourist town might expect a place that has twice been Oscar-nominated to be a bit more visible, but the trio behind it seem to like it just the way it is.
Inside its dimly lit rooms, scores of young animators work on creating TV shows like Puffin Rock that are adored by today's pre-schoolers, while others are putting the finishing touches to a new feature film, The Breadwinner, which may, in time, get Academy Award recognition too.
There's something of a monastic feel to the studio where these gifted young artists ply their very particular trade. They may not be working on parchment or labouring over perfect calligraphy, but all are hoping that their work will be seen to have artistic merit, and not just a medium that's perfect for telling stories to children.
For Nora Twomey, this place is a home from home. She founded Cartoon Saloon 18 years ago along with Paul Young and Tomm Moore, and she has seen it grow from a fledgling operation away from the animation heartland of Dublin into a leading player in the global cartoon landscape.
The 45-year-old Cork native, a mother of two boys, may not be known to the wider populace, but Twomey is a big deal in the animation world, and she's helping to ensure that Ireland's healthy animation industry continues to punch well above its weight. Now, she has been selected by film industry bible Variety as one of 10 top animators to look out for this year. "It's a huge honour," she says. And it's largely thanks to her latest project, the aforementioned The Breadwinner - a 90-minute animated feature based on the enormously popular children's book, set for release this year.
Written by Canadian author Deborah Ellis, the story is set in present-day Afghanistan and centres on a headstrong young girl, Parvana, who's trying to make her way in a hostile, male-dominated world.
The 2000 novel resonated powerfully with Twomey when she first read it and, as this is the first feature she has had a sole director credit on, she's shouldered all the pressure to take it from a green-lit idea to something that will resonate with young audiences on the big screen. "As soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to make this film," she says. "It's such a captivating story, but I wanted to make sure that whatever we did would truly do justice to it."
She shows me a five-minute snippet of the as-yet-unfinished version on a wide-screen computer, and it looks sensational. Anyone who has seen Cartoon Saloon's previous feature-length films, The Secret of Kells and Star of the Sea, will be familiar with its animators' attention to detail - and it's no different here. There's an artistic sensibility that is a world removed from Disney and one can see why animators from around the world want to move to Kil- kenny to work with them. And thanks to a successful showing among distributors at the Cannes Film Festival, it's likely to be seen all over the world.
"We wanted to do something that would feel classical, timeless," she explains. "There are sophisticated techniques that can be used now, but they might date it and we didn't want that."
I first met Nora Twomey in early 2015 when she was starting in earnest to work on The Breadwinner. She showed me drawings of what the film might look like and, even in such a rudimentary state, you sensed it was going to be special. But all the talk then was of Song of the Sea, which had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Twomey had been the voice director on that film and she was looking forward to attending the Oscars ceremony and wearing a dress specially created by Irish designer Laura Jayne Halton.
Looking back, she says that night in Hollywood's Dolby Theatre comfortably lived up to her expectations. "It is strange to be in a room with all these very famous people," she says, "but it is a very big room.
"And there are two red carpets: one for the celebrities and the other one for industry people." Despite the nomination, she walked down the lesser of the carpets. "I've never worn as much make-up in my life," she adds, "but I suppose if you're really going to get done up, that's as good a place as any to start."
In the end, Song of the Sea failed to win an Oscar. It lost out to Big Hero 6, a movie that pulled in $650m at the box office. But such nominations - the second for Cartoon Saloon, following the nod given to The Secret of Kells in 2009 - helped get the studio, and Twomey, noticed in Hollywood and among heavy-hitters like Angelina Jolie.
A-lister Jolie is one of the producers of The Breadwinner and, Twomey says, has been dedicated to the project since day one. "She really gets it," she says, "and, like me, she wants to be true to a story that's an important one for our times. She has been to Afghanistan a number of times, and has always been keen for this film to be as authentic as possible."
Twomey has met Jolie "on several occasions" and says she is warm and down to earth. The meetings have happened abroad, although she jokes that Cartoon Saloon is open for tea and biscuits too. She acknowledges that having a heavyweight backer like Jolie can help with funding. "I'm an animator," she says. "It's what I'm trained to do and it's my passion, but you have to learn to be a diplomat and a salesperson too because you're trying to sell the idea of this story and why it's worth investing in it."
Jolie came on board in the summer of 2015, initially as part of Plan B - the production company she ran with Brad Pitt before their acrimonious split last year. "I know they [Cartoon Saloon] will do justice to the richness, creativity and strength of Afghan culture and to little girls like Parvana," Jolie said at the time. "Millions of young girls like Parvana are growing up today under oppression or conflict and helping their families to survive in those conditions. This story is a reminder of the immense value of their contribution."
Jolie is not the only big name to take an interest in the project - Cartoon Saloon had some royal visitors last month. "Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall called to see us during a recent visit to Kilkenny and they were fascinated by The Bread- winner. Camilla had read the book and really liked the story and Prince Charles has set up a charity for the arts in Afghanistan called Turquoise Mountain, so you really sensed that the film meant something to them and they weren't just being polite. Their questions were intelligent too - he asked one of the animators a very technical question after seeing a demonstration. There was an engagement there for sure."
Twomey had long, flowing hair when I last met her; today it's a short crop. It's a style that suits her, but such a drastic change was not by design. She says she has been undergoing treatment for cancer - having been diagnosed late last year - but is keen not to talk about it.
Why dwell on an illness that she is coping well with, she reasons, when there's so much more to talk about? Despite the tribulations, she looks healthy and her enthusiasm for her work is infectious.
She's at that really exciting stage of The Breadwinner now where the final touches are being applied and she will be able to sign off. She's not sure yet when the film will hit cinemas - it could be before Christmas, or in the New Year. That will be up to the distributors.
Twomey is one of the least showy people you could hope to meet. Quietly spoken and seemingly petrified of anything that might even be construed as self-praise, she's something of an anomaly in an entertainment industry where one ego is bigger than another. She always had a passion for art but could hardly have imagined that it would prove so fruitful -especially when one considers that she left school in Midleton, Co Cork, before completing the Leaving Cert. "It was an uncertain time," she says of those teen years. "I wasn't sure what I wanted to do." She wound up doing manual work in a local factory but continued to draw and paint in her spare time.
This period - the late 1980s/early 1990s - coincided with the first golden age of animation in Ireland, with the likes of US firm Sullivan Bluth employing hundreds here. Ballyfermot College in Dublin was turning out a generation of fine animators and she applied, having initially studied fine art but realising it wasn't for her.
Ballyfermot's School of Animation - then, as now - accepts students based on the quality of their art portfolio, rather than on school exams. They liked Twomey's work, and she was in. "I was lucky that it had nothing to do with the CAO," she says. "And it's great that it's still all about your portfolio." The first week in college convinced Twomey that she had found her calling. "As soon as I started there, I realised this was perfect for me," she says. "I like the discipline of working so meticulously on something and that's really important for an animator.
"You need to have patience and an eye for detail. That mightn't be appealing for some creative people, but it's a very particular skill that's essential in this craft."
Walk around the open-plan design studios, laid out over several floors in this modernised old building, and it's plain to see that computers play a major part in modern animation. But, Twomey insists, these are merely tools to facilitate the work.
"You still need to be able to draw really well by hand, especially for the type of animation we do here. Computers are needed, of course, but they only do so much. You need the skill to begin with and no software programme is going to compensate."
Animation is a painstaking pursuit and, in a good week, Cartoon Saloon animators might deliver six or seven seconds of action for a sophisticated project like The Breadwinner. Even comparatively simple cartoons like Puffin Rock, which is narrated by Chris O'Dowd, requires major planning for even a single second of run time. For four years now, Twomey has thought of little else but The Breadwinner. As director, she has had to oversee everything, not just the animation. There were voice recordings, done with a predominantly young cast, in Toronto and a specially written score which incorporates elements of traditional Afghan music.
She had a €10m budget to work on. It may sound like a significant amount but it pales into comparison with the recently announced Frozen 2, which will be made for $150m. The Breadwinner was part-funded by the Irish Film Board, but money has also been raised by overseas partners in Canada and Luxembourg. "It's very much an international production," she says. "It's too big a project for everything to be done here, but it's exciting to be able to call on so much talent from around the world."
At least half of the 60 or so people working in Cartoon Saloon at present hail from overseas. As with many creative industries, they work on contracts that last the length of a project - it could be anything from six months to two years. They are keen to hold on to animators - an off-shoot animation company, Lighthouse Studios, has been established. "The hope is that once somebody finishes a project at Cartoon Saloon, they will be able to work immediately at Lighthouse. That way, it will feel like an animation hub in Kilkenny."
Attracting people to the Marble City has not been difficult for Cartoon Saloon - those Oscar nominations certainly help - but the chronic shortage of accommodation is starting to be a headache. "It's something that businesses of all descriptions are finding, whether it's in Dublin or here," she says. "It's a pity something as fundamental is becoming an issue when it comes to attracting talent into the country."
That's a worry for another time, though. For now, it's all about ensuring that The Breadwinner will be as good as it can be. "I think we've made something special," she says, "something we can look back on in the years to come and think: 'Yeah, I'm proud of my work on that.'"
"I've been accepted as a member of the Academy [of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences] so I get to vote on the Oscars. When the letter came through, I had to pinch myself. It's the sort of thing I couldn't even have dreamt of happening when I was in college in Ballyfermot."
"I dropped out at school at 15. It wasn't for me. I didn't excel academically, but I had a talent for drawing. It's a case of finding what you're good at and being lucky enough to pursue it. In that regard, I've been very fortunate."
"There's a lot of exciting work being done by Irish animators right now, and by companies like Brown Bag [where she worked after Ballyfermot and before Cartoon Saloon] in Dublin. And these are Irish companies producing Irish work, whereas in the 1980s the likes of Sullivan Bluth was an American company making American films."
"It's been very full-on with The Breadwinner, and we haven't taken a holiday in a long time. I just want to relax with the family before getting started on the next project. It's good to work hard and to give your all to a project you're passionate about, but that down-time is really important too."