The Irish animation industry has become increasingly robust over the last 10 years, despite the pandemic and other challenges thrown at the entertainment business. It reflects an overall passion in the country for animation and storytelling as well as a commitment by the Irish government to support the business through economic incentives.
Much of those incentives have come through Enterprise Ireland. Established in 1998 by the Industrial Development Act, Enterprise Ireland is a state-sponsored economic development agency that works with Irish businesses to help them grow and develop. It’s been instrumental in working with the Irish animation industry, helping shops grow through a series of loans, grants and other initiatives.
This has made it possible for studios like Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, which has made some of the most notable 2D animated films recently released such as “The Secret of Kells” and “Wolfwalkers,” to create the kind of hand-crafted animation used to illustrate tales of Irish folklore in a way that sustains the artform. It also caused growth in an area of animation often overshadowed by CG projects.
“I think it means that as an industry and as a whole in Ireland, we are more robust, and we’re not blown by the wind,” says helmer Nora Twomey, who co-founded Cartoon Saloon and directed “The Breadwinner” and co-directed “The Secret of the Kells” — both films were Oscar-nominated for animated feature. Her latest film is “My Father’s Dragon.” “There is a stronger support for the indigenous talent that’s here in the country, and how that grows. It means that the studios are sturdier in terms of being able to weather the storms that come across. And indeed then, in turn, to be able to work in co-production with studios who are of a similar size, have a similar sensibility and ethos about how they work across Europe and into Canada and places like that.”
She adds that there’s “more ability to support indie distributors and exhibitors who want to tell stories that are a little bit outside of the box or a little bit outside of the algorithm or the lowest common denominator in terms of what’s going to appeal. The paradox of all of that is that the more specific your story is, the more universal it is. So, then the less fearful you are in how you approach those stories.”
When the U.K. left the European Union — Brexit — it sent repercussions throughout the continent, including the entertainment industry. While it created opportunities for some studios, it also complicated co-production opportunities for Irish companies at times. As incentives in Ireland and the U.K. change, it remains to be seen whether this will prove to be a boon or a bust for part of the animation community.
Still, there are ways to spread the risk. Studios like Piranha Bar have also experimented with original content like “IRL (In Real Life),” which is a workplace mockumentary that’s set in Ireland. It follows a group of co-workers who are mysteriously transformed into their gaming avatars in the real world.
“As we go forward, there will be even greater opportunities to tell different stories with new technology,” says Gavin Kelly, co-founder of Piranha Bar. “There will be a huge amount of training that has to go into working with these technologies so we’re always looking for someone who is part artist and part engineer, but we know we have the support of our country when we’re exploring these new areas. It makes you more bold.”
Studios often seek out a mix of different projects, including creating their original content, so they have a diverse group of clients, giving them more opportunity to thrive as different areas rise or fall in their needs.
As the industry has grown in Ireland, more talent is coming out of schools specializing in animation, visual effects and other areas needed by the growing sector. While many are still self-taught, Irish animation studios are increasingly looking toward these schools to find their next employees.
“We’re starting to see graduates come out now that are employable and ready to go straight away,” says John Kennedy of Windmill Lane. “In the last couple of years, it’s been a big change. That’s down to engagement with the schools here about what we need students to be able to do and probably some discussion with agencies like Enterprise Ireland. And again, a lot of these kids are super, super smart, they’re training themselves are doing their tutorials. They’re interested in the industry. There’s a huge amount of knowledge online that you can just access on your own as well. We see motivated kids who want to get into the industry more and more now.”
Companies like Windmill Lane also used to struggle to keep new talent because, after one or two years, artists would seek jobs in Australia or the U.S. to build their resumes while work was slow in Ireland. With increased funding, companies have been able to develop a more consistent workload that means they can keep their talent busy and avoid seeing them slip away to another local or international company. Without the ramp-up time of finding animators, they can confidently take last-minute jobs or bid on upcoming work.
Giant Animation, which has clients like Disney, Dreamworks, Screen Ireland, YouTube and NBC Universal, has also seen tremendous growth in the last 10 years. With large offices in Dublin to house their crew, they strive to stay nimble through increasing demands for work as streamers are looking for everything from children’s to more adult animation.
“It’s very exciting to be part of an industry that can create any kind of entertainment,” says co-founder Ben Harper. “You know you can be part of any genre of entertainment so that gives us many opportunities as creators.”
Twomey and other leading animation directors also embrace the freedom to tell the stories that mean the most to them. While they are mindful of the marketplace on some levels, they’re often willing to tell stories that capture the heart and soul of Irish literary traditions and embrace diverse communities.
“There are incredible stories all around and ones that we’re really proud to support and to give voice to,” says Twomey. “It might be the smaller artists and indie cinema where it finds its space initially, but the fact that the story exists at all is something that we’re proud of as filmmakers. We got into the business in the first place just because we wanted just to tell good stories. That’s what we’re about. With Enterprise Ireland, Screen Ireland, the IDA, we have all of these kinds of supports, screen training, we have all these agencies linking us to resources. We get to work with different kinds of perspectives and different types of focuses and It allows us then to build that kind of strong backbone, that strong foundation that means that then when whatever is going on with the global economy or the global business, we know we’re more likely to be around next year.”