Cartoon Saloon are somewhat of a golden child of Irish animation at the moment. Hailing from Kilkenny, the group have been nominated for two Oscars, the most recent of which Song of the Sea, will be released in Ireland this summer. With Ireland becoming an increasing hub of exciting animation activity, we bent the ear off co-founders Paul Young and Tomm Moore about coming up in the world of cartoons.
Can you give us a bit of background to Cartoon Saloon and how you guys got started?
Paul: Cartoon Saloon started when myself and Tomm were in college together in Ballyfermot and we were really just looking for work. When college ended, we decided to do it properly and took a load of fellow animators with us down to Kilkenny because we could get space for free from the Young Irish Film Makers, and also Tomm is from there.
Tomm: There were a few of us that were in Young Irish Film Makers before we went to college and they had space in this old sort of orphanage set up which was a bit freaky, but it gave us a space and made us feel a bit more legit. It helped that we weren’t working out of our bedrooms and that there was a studio where people had to show up in the mornings.
P: So then we got a FÁS millennium culture grant where basically we could write our own FÁS course and we topped that up with commercial work. Then we were lucky enough to funding from the Film Board to develop some short films and then another grant to develop a feature film which was The Secret of Kells.
We had the idea to make a film but we were quite naive about the process and how you got funded, so we asked some people for advice and Gerry Shirran who was making films here in Ireland – he was an ex-Sullivan Bluth producer, which was a big production company here in Ireland – he advised us to go Cartoon Movie, which is this event in Europe where a lot of people come to pitch their movies and a lot of buyers and distributors from around Europe attend. If you get selected you get the chance to pitch your idea for about 40 minutes. It’s a really brilliant networking opportunity though, before I even got to the conference I met Didier Brunet the French producer on the bus on the way in. Then he came along to our pitch and afterwards he said that he’d help us raise the money through France. After that we met a Belgian producer called Viviane Vanfleteren who said she’d raise money in Belgium. That way we had money coming from three european countries and that’s how the film got financed.
That’s quite interesting that there was such interest from France and Belgium, what aspect of it was so interesting to them do you think?
T: I think Didier, because he’s an art history buff, was actually quite interested in us taking on the Book of Kells. He’s quite an interesting producer actually because he’s been involved in a few films that have been Oscar nominated but he always tends to go for more risky projects. He wasn’t looking at it like a traditional producer with dollar signs in his eyes, he was more interested in it from an artistic standpoint to start off. He guided us to make it more commercial and universal and not overly Irish-centric. He also pushed the artistic style to be even more unusual and less like American-style cartoons because he knew that to make an independent film you really need to stand out from the crowd, so he was great that way. Having the French partners involved really spurred on the Irish industry though…
P: Yeah, we were fairly unknown here and we suddenly met this well-known partner in France, and they’d raised so much money in France that the Irish funders saw that there was so much interest there – plus, we were doing a film about the Book of Kells for God’s sake – that they realised that they should sit up and take notice or else they’d be left behind. The Film Board were always very good supporters though and always got involved first.
That’s interesting because when I was at OFFSET last year and listened to the guys from Brown Bag speak about how important it was to go to these international expos and get your work out there and gain momentum. Was that the same for you? Would staying solely in ireland have been a problem?
P: Oh yeah if you just stayed in Ireland it would nearly be impossible. Relying on the domestic market to fund you is definite doom. Gerry again suggested we go over to MIPCOM [entertainment industry expo in France], and I remember myself and Tomm going over and it being totally overwhelming but it was a rapid learning curve. You would learn more in those few days than you would on a business course because you’re almost round the clock meeting and talking to people. You get to understand who has the money and how it works, for example we might have previously thought that all the money would come from one broadcaster but that’s not really how it works, it’s normally a patchwork of financing from broadcasters all over the world. Irish companies learn very early on to become an export business and that’s why we started Animation Ireland and we learnt it very early on in our gestation.
There’s a huge amount of money coming into the country through animation at the moment, how do you view the Irish landscape considering it’s an export business?
P: Well I think it’s great, I mean animation is associated with the film industry but also associated with the export industry. I think in one sense we take the best of the film tax shelter, because there’s a tax shelter for making and developing film here in Ireland, and the difference that animation studios have is that we hire people permanently. We typically have a staff of about 30 – 40 people but that can go up as high as 80 people if we have a big project in. Brown Bag would have nearly 200 permanent staff, so it’s great for employment and obviously it’s great for Kilkenny in terms of Cartoon Saloon as well.
I suppose we’ve always been seen as an export business but we’re finding more and more that RTÉ are starting to buy into our product as well. The great thing is as well that now all the big animation companies are Irish-owned and we’re starting to employ new animators from the colleges and even Irish animators coming back from the States and getting involved with Irish companies again.
Would you hire a lot from Ballyfermot or would you be looking abroad?
P: We’re in a tricky position in that being in Kilkenny, it used to be that you couldn’t get people down from Dublin because it was such a hub. Our employment trend had typically been from Europe, from colleges like the Animation Workshop in Denmark and one in Paris and they would be some of the top schools in the world, but they enjoyed coming to Kilkenny because it was such great value living here. So it’s funny now that only recently we’ve been able to draw more students from Dublin so it’s a nice mix now.
T: When we first started we were all Irish and we’d all come from Ballyfermot and those guys who worked with us early on then went on to Europe and the States, and I meet up with them when I’m away on business. So there was a trend of starting here and going out places and now I think it’s come full circle and we have a new animator with us now who’s from Kilkenny so it feels like the tide is changing a bit.
Tomm can I ask you about your trip to LA a bit?
T: Well the voting for the Oscars is this week and we’re waiting on that, but I’m a member of the short films and animations branch so I have to vote on the shorts as well and we’re also doing screenings all around the city with academy members of Song of the Sea, just to make sure that everyone has seen it. We get to do all the red carpet stuff as well at the awards and Paul is coming out and we’re getting jewelry designed by Yvonne Ross for the girls and Louis Copeland has made us suits so we’re all excited about that!
This isn’t your first time at the Oscars what with the Secret of Kells being nominated, how is this experience different?
T: Well with Secret of Kells we were very green, everything was a first time experience. First time getting a film financed, first time understanding how to make a film and the first time going through the whole awards circuit. We didn’t really know what to expect or what we wanted out of it so we were kind of running around LA like headless chickens. But now we’re a bit more mature and I’ve joined the academy so I know a bit more about what goes on behind the curtains and we just know what we want to get out of it and we can enjoy it a bit more too!
P: We’re also able to take a bit more advantage of the week beforehand as well, Gerry and Nora Twomey, who’s going to direct our next feature film The Breadwinner, are coming out with us and now we’re looking for a distribution partner so we’ll be able to enjoy the sunshine but also do a bit of work and have a clear focus. Having two Oscar nominations under our belt has really cemented us as well so we can really get meetings with whoever we want which is great.
You’ve been nominated for, and been awarded with a whole load of stuff and obviously the Oscars are tip top but I wondered were there any others that were close to your heart?
T: Well we won the Audience Choice award at Annecy, which is this amazing festival in France and it’s really an ‘animator’s festival’ as it were and for me that was really huge and meant a lot. Annecy is a beautiful little town and every year at the festival it gets overrun by animators and animation fans who elect to go and sit in dark rooms and watch cartoons instead of exploring this beautiful town. It’s probably the only place in the world that you get to be a celebrity as an animator because everyone there is such an animation devotee.
In terms of your own roles and day to day work, what do you like doing?
T: Well for me I’m hoping that after this trip I can actually get back to drawing and be of use to Nora as an artist on this next project. I think when myself and Paul started out our roles were very clear, I was the Creative Director that sat in the studio drawing and we used to call Paul ‘Paul Hollywood Young’ because he was the one travelling and doing meetings. We’re dividing that work between us more and more these days though.
P: My next while is focussed on trying to develop some of the talent we have here and get more directors involved and concentrate on a few more tv series. Louise Bagnall here has developed a TV series that’s going to be taken to market and we have Puffin Rock in production and so between myself and our MD we’ll be progressing those and growing the business.
I always find one of the most interesting topics at OFFSET is the disaster stories – were there any times that things went totally tits up for you?
T: Well the story of the flood has a great irony to it…We were going through the transition period from drawing everything on paper to drawing things directly on screens and after Secret of Kells we had boxes and boxes of paper stacked up in our offices downstairs. It was that unbelievably cold winter in 2010 and we were in the middle of a job and I had to go in on Stephen’s Day, only to find that one of the pipes had burst so we were basically up to our ankles in water. The studio was totally flooded and we were desperately trying to get everything off the floor and save the computers and we were literally bailing out the water into the sink. Then the panic set in when we realised, ‘Shit, the server!’, because this was before we’d converted to cloud storage. so we ran down to the room the server was in and amazingly, all the paper from Secret of Kells had absorbed all the water at the door to the server room, so the room was dry, but all the hand-drawn animation had sacrificed itself for the digital, which we felt was very symbolic.
Don’t forget you can win tickets to each of the #Absolut DIY workshops curated by OFFSET in collaboration with Absolut Ireland right here. They’re all sold out so this is your chance!
Words: Emily Carson