The Small Irish Animation Studio That Keeps Getting the Oscars’ Attention
When Tomm Moore and eleven friends in the small town of Kilkenny, Ireland, made an animated film based on Celtic mythology in 1999, they could hardly imagine that their love work would become a studio that would revolutionize the animation industry in Ireland. Revive interest in folklore at home and connect with a global audience.
They also couldn’t imagine that their studio, Cartoon Saloon, would receive an Oscar nomination with every release – an impressive feat for a relatively young outfit. And now, with their fourth feature film, Wolfwalkers, directed by Moore and Ross Stewart, the Oscars are likely to howl at them all over again.
The studio draws on its influences from Celtic ornamental art and is known for engaging stories, told from the perspective of children taking their first steps into adulthood, often with a subtext about respect for nature. Visually, the films show intricate designs as if they were Celtic patterns (spirals, knots, triskeles) brought to life by hand-drawn movements.
As a child, Moore hit upon the idea that animation could be a career path when he discovered that international artists are working in Ireland. “I remember seeing things on television about Don Bluth’s Dublin studio and the Jimmy Murakami studio that made the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was aware of that,” the director told me over the phone. Later, as a teenager, he joined Young Irish Filmmakers, a Kilkenny organization that introduced him to like-minded artists and provided access to equipment.
But while the seed for the later cartoon saloon was planted there, it grew while studying animation at Ballyfermot College, Dublin. There he met Paul Young and Nora Twomey, the studio’s co-founders and two of its main creative forces. The original plan was to hire the group at Sullivan Bluth Studios (“The Land Before Time”), but when that company left Ireland for the US, the future became unclear. The only option was smaller animation companies, but weren’t doing any features at the time.
Broke but resourceful, Moore took up freelance work and worked with Young to develop the name Cartoon Saloon. By then, Moore and his friend Aidan Harte had an early idea for a film that was inspired by the old Book of Kells. Celtic mythology had interested Moore since childhood, when he consumed books by Jim Fitzpatrick, which told Irish legends as if they were superhero epics, and later the comic book Sláine about a Celtic warrior.
In 1999, Moore and Harte’s concept received a Young Irish Filmmakers grant that also allowed them to build a studio in an old orphanage that served as the group’s premises. With almost a dozen friends, they left Dublin for Kilkenny to begin producing a trailer for their first full-length project, “The Secret of Kells” (directed by Moore and)
Twomey), the first in a trilogy on Irish myths. However, it would take several years – and include detours in commercials to keep the business going – for supporters to sign up.
“When we started Cartoon Saloon, we didn’t plan to do it forever,” said Moore. “At one point we thought we were going to get ‘real jobs’ in another studio, but it just kept going.” He added that the friends thought they could be doing The Secret of Kells in a year or two. Instead, production didn’t begin until 2005 when the studio began work on Skunk Fu !, a series created by Harte. (By then the workforce had grown to around 80 artists. Today, Cartoon Saloon and Lighthouse Studios, a joint venture with the Canadian film company Mercury Filmworks, have more than 300 animation professionals in Kilkenny.)
With Kells, most of the work was still done on paper, not only because the infrastructure required for 3D animation was not feasible, but also because traditional methods best suited their sensitivities. “We knew we could make some money if we did it by hand,” said Twomey. Now the artists are using digital devices by hand to optimize production, as was the case with Twomey’s solo directorial debut “The Breadwinner” in 2017, another Oscar-nominated project set in Afghanistan.
But when “The Secret of Kells” was released, Cartoon Saloon had problems. Although the film won festival awards around the world, it was a flop at home. The studio was hit by the financial crisis in the late 2000s and threatened to go under as nothing was under development. It was around this time that the film received an unexpected 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. “I thought there might be a footnote in the history books saying there was an animated feature based on Irish history, but I didn’t think it would do something like that, Mark,” said Moore.
The award likely saved the studio. “I think we might have fallen apart without her,” said Moore, although the Pixar film “Up” would win an Oscar. Moore added that the nod “got us to create functions again. It was an affirmation from the other artists in the industry that they wanted to see more of what we were doing. “
For this life-changing nomination, the director credits GKids, the New York-based independent animation distributor who has released all of the studio’s films in the United States (including “Wolfwalkers” in theaters). “If GKids hadn’t picked it up, we would never have received the Oscar nomination.”
GKids, an infant company that emerged from the New York International Children’s Film Festival, launched an Oscar-winning movie and ran its first award campaign on behalf of the film.
With renewed interest in Cartoon Saloon and additional support from Screen Ireland (formerly the Irish Film Board), Moore began “Song of the Sea,” his second film in the trilogy. This time shape-changing selkies were the focus. During this process, Moore made it a goal to keep his country’s heritage in the spotlight. “Song of the Sea” earned him and the Cartoon Saloon team a second Oscar nomination.
“We are part of the rediscovery of Irish culture,” said Moore. “We had a strange relationship with the way Ireland is presented on screen in other countries, so we wanted to speak for our own culture for the next generation.”
Moore’s wife is a teacher at an Irish language school, so preserving the native language of their nation was also a priority for him. All Cartoon Saloon films and shows are in Irish language versions.
With “Wolfwalkers”, the final part of the trilogy, the studio made a conscious decision to create a bigger action adventure. The film is set in 17th century Kilkenny and is set as historical revisionism in a fantastic story in which people can turn into wolves while they sleep. Artistically and narrative, it is her most ambitious undertaking to date. Initially, Cartoon Saloon bought the project from Netflix, but when the streaming Goliath was over, Apple stepped in.
The film was released by GKids last month on 500 screens in the US and on Apple TV + December 11th. It received rave reviews and was the subject of many awards.
Right now, Moore is ready for an inspiring sabbatical. Next on the program for Cartoon Saloon is “My Father’s Dragon”, which Twomey is staging and which is due to premiere on Netflix in 2021. Based on a children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett from 1948, the fable follows a boy who searches for a dragon on a magical island.
For Cartoon Saloon, a company born of friendship and a shared love for drawing among Irish children creating wondrous worlds, the trip so far had been great.