Cartoon nation: redrawing boundaries of creativity
Our Oscar hopes rest on an animation studio in Kilkenny, but it's not the only one putting Ireland on the map. John Meagher on a vibrant industry redrawing the boundaries of creativity and business
Cartoon Saloon's creative nerve centre might just be the quietest office environment you will ever encounter.
In a dimly lit room, a dozen or so young animators are hard at work on their computers, and there isn't a peep to be heard. Most of them wear headphones - none of which leak noise - and even the tapping on the keyboards is barely discernible. When one of them speaks, you have to strain to catch their words, so whispery is their delivery.
There is something of a monastic atmosphere to this studio next to St Mary's Cathedral in the heart of Kilkenny city as the tech-savvy artists work diligently on the new series of Puffin Rock - a pre-school cartoon whose first season is being shown on RTÉ at present.
These are heady times for Cartoon Saloon: tomorrow night, the company will be represented at the Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles, for the Academy Awards having been nominated for their feature length animation, Song of the Sea.
It won't hit Irish cinemas until the summer, but Cartoon Saloon's key people have been hard at work over the past few weeks to try to ensure that as many Academy voters as possible get to see it.
The firm, founded by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, represents Ireland's only hope for an Oscar this year. It's a remarkable achievement for the 16-year-old company, considering that the other nominees are all big studio productions and there was no room on the shortlist for the hugely popular Lego: The Movie. To get a sense of how far Cartoon Saloon is punching above its weight, it's worth remembering that last year's winner was Frozen - Disney's global smash hit that's a fixture in virtually every Irish home with a young child.
"Getting nominated means a great deal to us," Nora says. "Not only does it raise awareness about the work we're doing, but it makes it that bit easier to get the next project off the ground."
Cartoon Saloon has been down this road before. In 2009, it was nominated for best animated feature for The Secret of Kells. Pixar's Up - with a budget 30 times greater - bagged the Oscar, but the nomination put Cartoon Saloon on the map. "Just like Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells was completely different to the work of the big studios," she says. "It's very Irish and it's nice not having to compromise that vision when it comes to international recognition."
Nora always had a love of art but shortly after leaving school she found herself working in a factory in her native Cork. At a crossroads in her life, she decided to pursue an interest in cartoons at Ballyfermot College, Dublin (its School of Animation, to this day, accepts students based on the quality of their art portfolio rather than any CAO requirement). "Straight away, I found I loved it," she says. "The creativity appealed to me and so did the discipline of working so meticulously on something."
While computers play a major part in modern animation, Nora is at pains to point out that they are simply "tools" to facilitate the work. "You still need to be really good at the fundamentals," she says. "Computers are there to help but the quality of work is down to the ability of the animators, nothing else."
There is still a great deal of line drawing - usually done on a screen that resembles a giant iPad. Even comparatively simple cartoons like Puffin Rock require much planning for even a second of time and it's that attention to detail that is essential for any in-demand animator today, she believes.
"You really have to have patience," she says. "To give you an idea of the pace in which an animator would work, we'd be very happy if they were able to do six seconds of animation for a feature in a given week." (A less detailed cartoon - such as the phenomenally popular Peppa Pig - could see an animator deliver more than 40 seconds in the same time period.)
One of Cartoon Saloon's animators, Paul Ó Muiris, has been working in the field for four years. "This is what I've wanted to do since I was about five years old. I went to see The Jungle Book then and after that there was nothing else I wanted to do. It's a good time to be an animator in Ireland right now - if you're good enough and talented enough, there's plenty of work to be had. But it's like everything - this is not a career for someone unless they feel they really have a vocation for it."
For Paul, there's something magical about being able to come to work every day and create beautiful art: "It's great working in a creative environment where people are passionate about what they do and to see new ideas take hold and develop into something special."
The next great hope for Cartoon Saloon is a feature film based on The Breadwinner, the award-winning children's book from the Canadian writer Deborah Ellis. Just like other aspects of the film industry, it will be a co-production with several other studios throughout Europe. The project is in its infancy at present, but in the room adjoining the main studio, one animator is busy painting beautiful watercolour scenes which will be 'transferred' to digital. It seems like an especially lovely way to make a living.
And there is a good livelihood to be had, according to Dr Mark Byrne, head of the School of Animation, Ballyfermot: "The industry is really buoyant again in Ireland and good people have no shortage of work. Much of it is on a contract basis, but the pay is good - a storyboard artist would get in the region of €1,000 per week and that would go up to €1,500 per week for a director on a project."
It's estimated that about 1,000 people work in Irish animation at present, with companies like Brown Bag, Cartoon Saloon and Boulder Media the biggest players on the market. Robert Cullen, creative director of Boulder Media, says the work done by Irish animators is getting recognised on a global stage.
"We've had an Emmy nomination and we have relationships with international broadcasters, such as Nickelodeon," he says. "The local industry has been in good shape for quite a few years now - even during the recession it was doing well. But you can't get complacent.
"Seeing the likes of Cartoon Saloon getting Oscar nominated lifts us all - it shows the quality of the work being done here."