A PHOENIX RISING FROM ITS ASHES
Ireland has a perhaps surprisingly strong animation community for a relatively small country, with Irish animators regularly picking up prizes at international festivals and Irish animations showing on cinema and TV screens around the world. This productivity and success is particularly surprising considering that before the mid-1970s there was very little animation activity in Ireland. While commercial mainstream animation thrived in the US, and more political and experimental animation was being created in parts of Europe, in Ireland the very few early animators tended to be isolated individuals.
The most famous Irish animator of the 1970s and 1980s – Aidan Hickey – also worked for a long time as a school teacher, before finally being employed in 1978 by RTE (the Irish national broadcaster) to produce the first animation series on Irish television – 'An Saol ag Dul Thart' (Life Going By). Other animators based in Ireland, such as Jimmy Quin, Steve Woods, Tim Booth and Jim Murakami, were also producing solid animation work in the 1970s and 1980s, however they were far from household names. The most significant animations produced during this period were 'The Prisoner', a feature based on William Butler Yeats's poetry, produced by Booth and Murakami in 1983 and Hickey's short 'An Inside Job' made in 1987. The latter was the first Irish animation to gain significant international recognition, including awards at the Stuttgart and Annecy animation festivals. However, at this stage it was difficult to talk of any integrated Irish animation sector.
ENTER THE AMERICANS
This 'cottage-industry' type look to the Irish animation sector was superceded by the arrival of large international (mainly-US) animation studios in the 1980s. The Irish government offered tax incentives and grants to foreign companies to set up operations in Ireland, and a steady stream of majors – including Sullivan Bluth, Emerald City Productions and Murakami Wolf Swenson – arrived in Dublin.
Sullivan Bluth, run by renowned ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, had the greatest impact on the Irish animation scene. After moving production to Ireland in the mid-1980s, the studio soon employed over 200 people and produced an average of one full length animation feature a year, including such blockbusters as 'An American Tale' (the highest grossing feature animation ever on its release), 'All Dogs go to Heaven' and 'The Land Before Time'.
Emerald City Productions, run by Canadians Al Guest and Jean Matheson, produced animated television specials including 'Oliver Twist', 'Ben Hur' and 'Les Miserables', for customers including the BBC and HBO. Murakami Wolf Swenson (later known as Fred Wolf Films) was responsible for projects including 'Budgie, the Little Helicopter' and, most famously, the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' series. Smaller studios such as Quateru, Animedia Teo, Fred Craig Paramedia and Shepherd Films were also very active in Ireland during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
An industry of this size needed a skilled workforce, and in 1989 Sullivan Bluth and Ballyfermot Senior College came together to establish the Irish School of Classical Animation, which offered the first university-level animation course in Ireland. Another Dublin institution, Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design, soon introduced another degree-level programme. The two courses differed slightly in emphasis, with Ballyfermot training classically skilled animators, and Dun Laoghaire producing directors of animated pieces.
By the late 1980s it was fair to say that Ireland had a fully functioning and profitable animation industry, which employed more than 500 people. In December 1990 the Irish government and Sullivan Bluth announced plans for a Disneyland- like theme park to be built in Ireland. It was a boom time for animation in Ireland. However, the bust was just around the corner.
The animation theme park was never built, and for a variety of reasons most of the big American companies had either gone out of business or left the country by the mid-1990s. Interest in funding animation from the national broadcaster RTE also dried up. These developments stunned the Irish animation community, and a large proportion of animators left the country to find work.
A significant number of other Irish animators set up their own studios. Prominent among these were Monster Productions and Terraglyph Productions, which were both formed by ex-employees of Sullivan Bluth. These studios were initially working on much smaller projects than An American Tail or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, however, slowly, a more grounded Irish animation sector was assembled. The Irish government – through bodies such as The Arts Council, the Irish Film Board and RTE – established a number of schemes to fund shorter animations. The college courses continued to train and inspire new generations of Irish animators. Little by little the Irish animation sector got back on its feet, and started to produce significant work, often of a higher artistic standard than the mainstream TV and movie animations from the 1980s.
A strong community ethos was built up in the Irish animation sector in the 1990s. An organisation called Anamu Animation Base was established in 1992 to encourage the development of animation in the country. The first Irish animation festival was held in 1994 to provide a showcase for Irish animators; this also brought them together to share experiences and gave access to international work that was screened at the festival. The Irish animation community has always been keen to grow links with other European animators, and the EU-supported Cartoon Forum Conference was held in Galway in 1996.
The most successful films of this period tended to have an introspective air and examine elements of Irish history and culture. These included An Bonnán Buí (1995) by independent animators Edith Pieperhoff and Máire Murray, based on an Irish-language song of the same name, and 1848 (1997), a documentarystyle animation depicting the Great Famine, a formative event in Irish nationalism. These films can be seen as signs of a growing national animated cinema in Ireland. Other films, such as Terraglyph's Carnivale (1999) and Duck Ugly (2001) were more global in appeal, and have been very successful in international markets.
NEW ERA OF SUCCESS
In the last decade several small, but growing, animation studios have been established in Ireland. These include Brown Bag, Boulder Media, Campbell Ryan Productions, Cartoon Saloon, Magma Films and Telegael. These companies tend to combine creativity and technical skills with an appreciation of commercial reality. As well as producing many of the films that are being screened at this year's festival, they also work on projects ranging from adverts to websites to computer games. Some animators combine this work with teaching on the Ballyfermot and Dun Laoghaire courses. This puts the industry on a solid commercial funding and, the theory goes, gives creative animators the resources to also work on more personal projects.
Co-productions with international animation companies have been a very successful way for Irish animators to get their films made. In recent years Irish animators have partnered with companies such as Millimages in France, Spain's Moro Studio and A.Film from Denmark. Funding from the Irish Film Board and Arts Council also continues to play a key role in helping animators make films. The larger indigenous Irish companies can employ up to about 50 people, but smaller operations go all the way down to one guy and a laptop, and can also produce good work.
The recent burst of creative activity has seen Ireland become recognised as one of the leading European animation countries. Irish animations are now seen on TV screens around the world, while awards have rained thick and fast on Irish animators during the last few years. Brown Bag Films's 'Give Up Your Aul Sins' and Ruairí Robinson's self-produced debut 'Fifty Percent Grey' were both nominated for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2001. Telegael has received recognition at the Emmy awards for its 'Tutenstein' animation series. Earlier this year Cartoon Saloon won the Best Production Company title at the Cartoon Forum in Ludwigsburg, Germany for its "Skunk-Fu!' series.
The good times have returned for animation in Ireland, as visitors to the 'Irish Animation Season' at this year's festival will no doubt discover.
SOURCES FOR FURTHER RESEARCH ABOUT IRISH ANIMATION
Maeve Connolly – Theorizing Irish animation: heritage, enterprise and critical practice. In:
Film History and National Cinema /John Hill, Kevin Rockett/
www.animationireland.com - Irish animation community website
www.iftn.ie - news from the Irish film industry
www.filmireland.net - magazine covering film in Ireland
www.filmbase.ie - resource for Irish film-makers
www.bcfe.ie and www.iadt.ie - universities running animation courses
www.irishfilmboard.ie - information on funding schemes available to Irish animators