Animation in Ireland: How Cartoon Saloon became a major draw

Paul Young of the award-winning Kilkenny studio talks about the opportunities that come with Oscar nominations and how the arts are being neglected on this isle…

Animation in Ireland: How Cartoon Saloon became a major draw

Song of the Sea. Credit: cartoonsaloon.ie

Enrolling in animation college in the hope he might land a job where he could spend his 9-5 days doodling away by himself, these days one of Paul Young’s biggest worries is that his company is going to get too big.

“We're at 80 now,” he says regarding his staff. “There are some plans ahead to increase work in Kilkenny for more people. Fingers crossed. Though 80 is quite a nice number… It’s a nice level to be at.”

He’ll still pick up a pencil, but dealing with people is now his chief role at Cartoon Saloon, one of the standard-bearers for animation in Ireland.

While two Academy Award nominations in the ‘Best Animated Feature’ category – for 2010’s Secret of Kells and 2014’s Song of the Sea – will certainly book you meetings, the passion Young can communicate in the pitch most likely sells the projects.

You get a sense of it in his articulate condemnation of how the arts are currently being treated by the Irish State. Young wasn’t best pleased – as with most in the creative fields – to see “the Department of Arts” receive a “Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs” appendage from the new Government.

“The arts and creative community of Ireland – and it has just happened to be us over the last while – are always held up as the poster boys for how great Ireland is.

“Any opportunity a politician gets abroad, they'll talk about our writers and our great artists. But everybody in our studio has had some sort of leg up by doing theatre or writing in the arts. Working at a festival or becoming a painter or doing art in school...

“And for it to be swallowed up amongst rural activity and signposts or whatever it is, the Gaeltacht… That’s all good, those things are great! But if we want this to be the ‘content economy’ or the ‘knowledge economy’, then you can't have it completely ignored like that.

“We definitely need a dedicated Arts Minister, I believe. Or at least a portfolio that's focused more on improving the arts and growing the ‘intellectual property’ economy.

“There's such a contrast in the news stories, the story we try to tell about Ireland, and the complete lack of support for that in reality. Really disappointing.”

While he does praise the work of the Irish Film Board, Cartoon Saloon has primarily become a success through the sheer hard work of Young and his partners Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey.

The trio's efforts found them nominated for EY Entrepreneur Of The Year in 2015.

Paul Young

Early sketches

Years before that stamp of approval, tumbling blocks presented themselves straight out of the gate back in the ‘90s. It quickly became clear that converting a love for illustration into a desk job at a big studio wasn’t an option.

Luckily, meeting Moore and Twomey at the Ballyfermot College of Further Education led him down an alternative path.

“By the time we were in there, the big studios had left Ireland,” he recalls. “It was a bit of a downturn. And the only work for you was with games companies in the UK.

“I remember when we were graduating, Tomb Raider [had come out] and a lot of the games companies were hiring animators. Myself and Tomm started working together in college to earn money. Doing CD-ROMs and stuff.

"So that's where we came up with starting up the studio.”

Beginning with the “simple” ambition to work on books, Moore eventually got the idea to delve into Irish heritage with a fantastical tale that really needed to be spun on the big screen.

When it eventually landed, The Secret of Kells was declared to be “a beautiful, unique project that deserves to find an audience beyond mandatory school trips to the cinema” by Tara Brady in the pages of Hot Press and earned the team their first trip to LA’s Kodak Theatre. The time between the notion and the Oscars nod was substantial, however.

“When I first went to one of the markets… a guy told me it was going to take about seven meetings with somebody until they'd do business with you.

“’If you want to do a feature film’, he said, ‘you might as well start now because it's going to take about seven years to get it done.’

“I thought 'really?!' I couldn't believe it. So we knew we were in for a long haul.

"Funnily, when we pitched it in Berlin we met our French co-producer right after our first pitch. I met him on the bus on the way to the event and he became our partner. Didier Brunner was probably one of the biggest animation producer's in France.

“He really helped lead us. He got us money from France initially, but then of course he had his own films to do.

“You’re trying to raise money in Ireland and with Belgium partners. Everything takes time with the schedules and cycles of funding in each country, before you finally get people to focus on your film and it can get the green light.”

Do you need a thick skin when looking for backers?

“Especially when you’re going out pitching a TV series,” he says.

“There's so many out there fighting for attention in the market. I went through a series of rejections on Puffin Rock [their series airing on RTÉ and Nickelodeon UK this summer, as well as Netflix worldwide].

“You’ve a bit more grá for a show if it's something you're doing in-house. Which is what we try to do all the time now. You just keep going at it...

"Because broadcasters' attitudes change. What they might say no to this year, they might be looking for next year.

"They're always very nice about it but the thing you want is someone to say no. A lot of the time they say 'oh we really like this...' [and string you along]. The people that you like the most are the people that say 'look, I can't give you anything now'.”

The protracted conversations can inadvertently present creative positives. With its first feature, Cartoon Saloon had all the space in the world to properly develop its feature-length baby.

“While we were doing commercials and service work for different broadcasters, we were continually developing the film, its storyline and so on. So it meant it was stronger. You need that gestation.

“If we had started out with someone giving us all the money all in one go, I'm into sure it would have turned out as well. It was interesting to have that time. Of course… We're trying to shorten those times!”

Success has made the process far less arduous. Song of the Sea followed a similar timescale, but when that beautifully-drawn story of childhood and celtic faeries matched The Secret of Kells’ critical acclaim, people starting taking genuine notice.  

The latest project

The Breadwinner took a lot shorter [amount of time] to finance and that's mainly because of our reputation now for making feature films.”

It also had something to do with the enthusiasm of one Hollywood A-lister.

The adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ children’s novel tells the story of a young girl growing up in Afghanistan in 2001.

It clearly struck a chord with Angelina Jolie, who met with Twomey for two hours and promptly decided to executive produce. Young has noted, perhaps unnecessarily, that the partnership will be “phenomenal” when it comes to promotion.

Animation production on the project was announced in May, though the wheels had been in motion for a year. Now the financing is fully in place, with a release slated for 2017.

It should be another example of Ireland punching above its weight in the animation game. And Cartoon Saloon isn’t a lone creative force.  The old hands like Cartoon Saloon and Brown Bag have been joined by relative newcomers such as JAM Media to create a fertile scene at home.

“Compared to what it used to be, yeah. Brown Bag was in existence about four to five years before us.

“They were pretty small, doing commercials and doing the odd series for very low budgets with RTÉ. I did one myself, called Barstool, while I was in my final year in college.

“There was TerraGlyph, who were the only people doing features and co-productions with Europe.  When we left college, Murakami-Wolf, who used to do Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, had to close down.

“In fact,  we bought all their animation desks and brought them to Kilkenny. So it was pretty slow, compared to now.

“There were about six companies only a few years ago and now there are 19 members of Animation Ireland. It's really taken off.”

This small island has enough room for so many production houses because they are so outward-looking. With huge amounts of money unavailable at home, necessity has meant Irish studios make themselves international concerns.

“This is why animation in Ireland has been pretty successful,” Young ventures. “Because most of the companies that are in operation are creator-led and owned. Ireland is such a small territory compared to the UK, France and even Germany, which we're beating now in production output. We all had to go abroad and pitch.  So we automatically created international partnerships because we never were going to get the money out of Ireland.

“It's a co-production or you find a really big daddy like a Disney or a Nickelodeon that either loves your idea or has an idea they want you to partner on and they just pay for the whole thing.”

Is that the dream?

“Yes but in one sense you're selling off your rights then.

“It depends how well you can negotiate. If they’re going to buy it completely, they’re probably going to want all the rights to it. So you become a well-paid service provider, really, at that point.”

The end game

Always striving for creative freedom and control in the south-east, that is decidedly not the dream for Cartoon Saloon.

“The success of the two feature films has been great because it's given us this reputation for creating original, unique stuff, and it being somewhat successful critically and commercially.

“We're building on that. It's been a slow uptake but now we can get in any door we want to in terms of Amazon and Netflix and any of the studios in the US.

“We're just figuring out what we want to do with this recognition!

“More and more it's creating our own IP [intellectual property], which is the long-term value for any company that's making content.

It seems to be that there's so many ways you can get your content out there now and it's all pretty much changing how broadcasting works and where you find money now to help you finance it.

“When you get a reputation for doing good stuff, unique stuff, then you get a lot of the bigger players [wanting you] to do work for them. This is always the strange dialogue we have going.

“We're in that space. But as long as we're able to do stuff that looks unique and keeps the Cartoon Saloon quality up, then we're doing good.

“We're just building on our value all the time.”

Click here for more information on the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award. For more on Cartoon Saloon, click here.