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The Envelope... Please

The commonplace daydream of an Oscar nomination has come true for Kilkenny-based producer Paul Young with his film The Secret of Kells. He tells Sue Conley about the current boom in Irish animation

Have you ever imagined being nominated for an Oscar? Even if you don't do anything remotely notable by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' standards (Best Performance in a Jostling Bus Queue, anyone?), it's a standard kind of daydream, one in which, even before you get to the part where you're giving the speech and wittily thanking all the little people, there's the part where your phone rings. Can you even imagine what it must be like to get That Phone Call? The one where the dude in LA rings you up and says, 'Ms Insert-Your-Name-Here? I'm delighted to inform you ... ' Except there's no phone call. You find out on the internet.

At least that's how Paul Young found out that the film he'd produced, The Secret of Kells, had been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. The film was written by Tomm Moore, his partner in crime in Cartoon Saloon, their animation production company based in Kilkenny. Both are graduates of Ballyfermot's lauded animation programme, and are among the growing number of Irish animators who are getting the Hollywood seal of approval. With both Brown Bag Films (who themselves were nominated for Best Animated Short in 2002, for Give Up Yer Oul Sins) and Juanita and James Flynn pitching up to the 82nd shindig this Sunday, you've got to think that, for such a little island, we're producing some serious artistic animating giants.

Why? "You know what really helped us? Section 481, the tax shelter for visiting production companies, that has been frowned upon a little bit," says Young. "Sullivan Bluth came over, the company that did American Tale and The Land Before Time. Those films were made in Dublin. That studio was there for a few years and they had set up Ballyfermot College, and a lot of students were going through that course and directly into Sullivan Bluth. When they left there was bit of a lag, but plenty of studios set up in the wake of them. So that tax shelter allowed people to stay here."

The establishment of the school made Irish artists think about the possibility of a career in animation; Young himself is mainly working on the production end of things these days, but had been a talented child, always drawing. "I used to do illustration -- I travelled in Greece doing caricatures, and murals in restaurants. When I came back my dad told about this school in Ballyfermot, and that Walt Disney were picking people for feature films. I thought, 'There's a way to earn some money and earn a proper wage, going from nine to five and drawing every day.'"

It's more like nine to ten or 11 at night, which is par for the course for any artist, particularly if they're running their own business. And business is good: Kells copped a Best Animation IFTA last week, and the studio's TV series, Skunk Fu!, has been playing on televisions in 120 countries.

Featuring the voices of Brendan Gleeson and Mick Lally, Kells involves several highlights -- and low moments -- of that time on this island. "Brendan is an orphan who lives in the abbey at Kells and wants to be an artist. He gets inspired by a monk who arrives with an unfinished book, which is the Book of Kells," explains Young. "Brendan wants to be like this monk and rebels against his uncle, who is only concerned with building a wall around the abbey to protect them from Vikings. Father Aidan wants to create a book that would give people hope -- because art and culture are important even in the darkest times. Even in the dark times we're having now!"

The film is a beautiful example of 2-D animation, and it was drawn almost exclusively by hand. It's a refreshing, classic approach, what with all the CGI capers coming out of Hollywood. Young is adamant that method suits function, that every story be told in the fashion it requires. "When you're watching a film you shouldn't be so focused on the way it's done if it tells the story. For our story, it was much better for us to do it in this style because it looked more like the Book of Kells. We wanted it to be flat and stylised, with a Celtic design."

It's interesting to note that only one of the five films nominated this year used CGI; perhaps the tide is turning back to animators huddling over drawing tables, making faces in the mirror while they sketch out their characters?

Whichever way the tide ends up flowing, Cartoon Saloon are sure to be sailing right along with it. They are busily working away on a new production, and were in a budgeting meeting when the big news from America came down. "It was half one and I thought, 'Oh, the Oscar results will be out', and then my phone started to go. So I stuck my head out for someone to have a look at the website -- and they just started screaming. It was just a shock. We had to look at it couple of times." Despite his nonchalance, Young's voice, recounting the tale, is enough to give you gooseflesh. Fingers crossed for the lads on Sunday, and for what may be a boost to Irish animation to give Disney and Pixar a run for their money. HQ

See our interview with Oscar nominee Richard Baneham in tomorrow's Herald