The Amazing World of Gumball
David Neary talks to the movers and shakers making it happen in animation.
It’s been 18 years since Sullivan Bluth Studios closed their doors. One-time Disney prodigy Don Bluth had gone rogue in 1979 and founded his own company, which set up shop in Ireland in 1985, providing Irish animators with an outlet and distributor for their talents. Bluth helped launch an animation course at Ballyfermot College ensuring a new generation of skilled Irish animators would now emerge.
And then the end came.
The apprentices of Bluth went their separate ways, founding a number of smaller animation studios in a shrivelled market. It seemed for a time like the golden age of Irish animation was long gone. But now it appears it has only just begun.
Casual observers of the Irish film industry were no doubt surprised in 2009 when The Secret of Kells, by the Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, emerged from the woodwork. An Academy Award® nomination for best animated feature proved Irish animation could now play with the big boys.
Since then the rebirth of Irish animation has been unmistakable, with accolades pouring in from abroad. Brown Bag Film’s short Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty accompanied Kells to the Oscars®. BAFTAs have been dealt out to JAM Media’s Roy and Boulder Media’s The Amazing World of Gumball (the latter also won an Annie Award). Doc McStuffins, a preschool show animated at Brown Bag, recently launched on the Disney Junior UK channel to record ratings. Elsewhere, Irish producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly joined the Oscar-nominated® elite this year thanks to her work on the short Head Over Heels.
So what’s driving this renaissance in Irish animation? Good old determination and hard work, of course, and that grand tradition of Irish storytelling. But amongst industry professionals there’s wide acceptance that Adobe Flash was the game-changer.
Gerard O’Rourke founded Monster Animation in 1995 in the wake of Bluth going bust. Flash, he explains, was originally used for creating banner ads for websites, but its potential for quickly designing high-quality animation was soon seized upon by the animation industry at large.
‘Flash turned it all around,’ he says. Recalling his days at Sullivan Bluth, he explains that in the traditional cell animation business, an animator’s work had to go through 27 departments, be shot in the camera bay, shipped to Technicolor in London, processed in 35mm, brought back and loaded onto a projector before the animator could see the fruits of his labours. This process took 10 to 12 days. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘an animator on a daily basis can sit there and start with a blank screen and at the end of the day have movie files of what they animated that day.’
The reduction in costs is colossal, and better still has managed to keep those animation jobs in Ireland. ‘Without that digital revolution, a lot of the work would have remained in the Far East, but we’ve managed to bring it back,’ O’Rourke adds.
Monster considers itself ‘your genuine 100% Irish-owned animation studio’. The company nurtures home-grown talent, refuses overseas service work and finds great value in its own intellectual property. The most Irish of Irish cartoons is Monster’s Ballybraddan, about a school hurling team. It’s the ideal Monster property; something that RTÉ can’t import for next-to-nothing like a syndicated Disney show.
Such is the success of Monster that it has separated into two companies. Initially it split into Monster Entertainment, a distribution company and Monster Animation and Design, which specialises in production, but the latter has since re-launched as Geronimo Productions Limited, with both companies now producing and distributing animated projects.
The team at Geronimo showed faith in their own business plan when they produced the preschool show Fluffy Gardens, resisting market demands for characters with ‘generic stories’. The results speak for themselves; Fluffy Gardens is now broadcast in a stupefying 120 countries in 20 languages. With that success under their belts, Geronimo have made even bolder moves since, producing Punky, an animated series about a young girl with Down syndrome. It’s the first show in the world to feature a lead character with such a disability, meaning this company of only 15 has already made its mark.
At its peak Sullivan Bluth employed a staff of some 350 people, producing as much animated material as a company of 80 can produce today. Boulder Media is just such a company. Robert Cullen founded Boulder in 2000 to design E-cards, but after a few animation tests they were handed the reins of Cartoon Network’s multi-award-winning series Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.Roy Their staff of six grew almost overnight to 28. ‘It was a big task,’ Cullen admits. ‘Definitely a baptism of fire.’
Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends
Boulder went on to produce a series for Nickelodeon before returning to Cartoon Network for The Secret World of Gumball. Since Gumball arrived, staff numbers have swelled to 78, with the company developing a 3D department in-house to keep up with the shifting industry. Now in the midst of a two-year stint on Disney’s Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, Boulder have secured a name themselves as Ireland’s premier service studio for animation.
‘We’re definitely punching above our weight,’ Cullen says of the Irish animation industry. ‘With all the big shows that are out there, so many seem to be produced or co-produced in Ireland. It’s great for Ireland’s reputation. As more broadcasters come back to Ireland for projects, hopefully that will incentivise others to pop over to Ireland and make use of Section 481 as well.’
There’s no time for nostalgia about the Bluth era. Cullen admits: ‘If we were offered an endless time frame we’d love to go back to pencil and paper, but I think what we’re trying to do is create that sort of fluid animation within Flash. So it’s still quite traditional animation, just not using paper.’
Nowhere is that clash of old and new in animation more evident than at JAM Media, whose very headquarters reveal a jolting juxtaposition; their offices, complete with glossy logo and a shiny new BAFTA, are located in a deconsecrated 18th Century Moravian Church on Dublin’s Lower Kevin Street. In addition, JAM’s biggest success, the BBC-produced Roy, is about an 11-year-old Ballyfermot boy who appears to be a living hand-drawn cartoon – but it’s all done in computers.
Roy is drawn directly into Flash, to create a hand-drawn shape, before he’s sent through the programme After Effects to add natural-looking pencil lines. As Roy producer Ian Hamilton points out, there is an irony in that the better the digital technology becomes, the more ‘papery and textured’ Roy looks.
Roy demonstrates the technology shift behind the current animation boom better than any other project. The show began life as a 23-minute short, Badly Drawn Roy, which was hand-animated, and took a small team nearly a year to produce; picked up for a third and fourth season, Hamilton points out that JAM will now produce 26 episodes of Roy in almost the same amount of time, thanks to Flash.
Despite the wealth of animation talent, with new students graduating each year from courses in IADT Dun Laoghaire and Ballyfermot, and new programmes as far apart as Letterkenny and Carlow, there is still a deficit of animators, with JAM having to look to Canada to get their projects completed. ‘Animation in Ireland is booming at the moment,’ says Hamilton. ‘It’s very hard to find an animator out of work at the moment.’
This is a sentiment echoed by Robert Cullen: ‘I think the industry is in its golden age now; the biggest problem people have in the animation industry in Ireland at the moment is finding the staff! It’s not been hit by the recession in that sense. The really talented people out there are usually hunted down very quickly, so if you’re a good animator you’re pretty much guaranteed a job at some stage.’
Keith Foran, Director of Animation at the National Film School at IADT, has seen the face of Irish animation change more clearly than anyone. He graduated from the Bluth programme at Ballyfermot in its inaugural class, and was a part of the original line-up at Brown bag. He refutes the idea that there is a renaissance in Irish animation, suggesting Bluth was only a precursor to an industry, never truly Irish.
‘The industry has grown, certainly in the last two to three years, but the cottage industry has been there for 15 years,’ he says. ‘The industry that came in before was American-skilled, American-authored, with tax-break incentives and young Irish people doing the menial artistic tasks. That was the structure of an animation industry but it closed down over night. The industry that’s there today is not a renaissance,’ he adds, ‘it’s actually a new industry – a new dawn.’
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland magazine – Issue 144, 2013