5 stories of Oscars glory with Irish roots

26 Feb 2016

An Oscar held aloft in victory at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party, February 2015. Photo via Helga Esteb/Shutterstock

While we’re all rooting for Saoirse Ronan and Lenny Abrahamson at this year’s Oscars, we look back at some of Ireland’s past offscreen Oscars glory, with honours for visual effects and animation.

Looking at the 2016 Oscar nominees, we know Ireland’s got acting talent and we know we can give good direction, but there’s plenty more work that goes into bringing a film to fruition.

Think of the software that makes ‘bullet-time’ possible, the CGI that makes giant blue aliens look realistic, and the hours of animation that bring a story to life. The people who make this on-screen magic happen are the architects of our escapism, and we’re proud to see that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has honoured such talent coming out of Ireland.

1. Cedric Gibbons

You may not have heard of Cedric Gibbons, but you definitely know his work. Born in Dublin in 1893, he and his family soon emigrated to the US, where he studied as an architect and artist.

A founding member of the Academy, Gibbons was nominated for 39 art direction Oscars, winning 11. It helps, of course, that he was overall art director at MGM and oversaw most of the films produced between 1924 and 1956.

Gibbons even designed the Oscar statuette back in the late 1920s, with it relatively unchanged ever since (though, during WWII, the gold was replaced with plastic).

Cedric Gibbons - Irish Oscars winners

Cedric Gibbons at the 2nd Academy Awards in 1930. Photo via IrishAmerica

Gibbons’ wins for art direction took in (deep breath): The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1929), The Merry Widow (1934), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Gaslight (1944), The Yearling (1946), Little Women (1949), An American in Paris (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Julius Caesar (1953) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1957).

2. Richard Baneham

You might not have heard of him, but you’ve probably watched much of his work in Hollywood movies countless times.

Tallaght-born Richard Baneham is one of the country’s most successful animators and visual effects supervisors, having developed his skills at Ballyfermot College of Further Education before deciding he’d like to try his luck at breaking the intensely competitive film industry of Hollywood.

Baneham’s first big break saw him work as an animator on 1999’s The Iron Giant before establishing himself as a major player in Hollywood as animation supervisor for the second and third Lord of the Rings movies.

Richard Baneham - Irish Oscars winners

Avatar animation supervisor Richard Baneham (left) with the film’s director, James Cameron, during shooting of promotional footage for Avatar. Photo via Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment/Dan Steinberg

However, his most celebrated work, which won him the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the 82nd Academy Awards (alongside Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum and Andrew R Jones), was in his role as animation supervisor for the 3D spectacle Avatar.

3. Brown Bag Films

A familiar name to many, Brown Bag Films has been at the forefront of animation in Ireland for more than 21 years and has been nominated for an Academy Award, not once, but twice.

The first time was in 2001 when delightfully Irish Give Up Yer Aul Sins received a nomination for Best Animated Short, with Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty getting a nod in the same category at the 2010 Oscars.

The studio has also seen its work nominated for a host of BAFTA and Emmy awards, winning a number of Emmys for its 3D-animated series Peter Rabbit.

Based in Smithfield in Dublin, the animation studio was founded by Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell in 1994 and since then has worked with some of the world’s biggest entertainment names, including Disney, Nickelodeon, BBC, Chorion and Silvergate Media.

Last year, the company was acquired by North American 2D animation studio 9 Story Media, in a move Brown Bag said would result in the creation of 50 new jobs.

4. Cartoon Saloon

This Irish animation house has also proven to be Oscar bait in the past, even if it’s yet to win any of the iconic statues. Cartoon Saloon is a two-time Oscar nominee, for Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells.

Founded in 1999 by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, Cartoon Saloon is based in Kilkenny, from where it puts out a high-quality portfolio of work. This is no mere two-bit studio – Cartoon Saloon produces gorgeously rendered, wonderfully acted stories, depicting myths and legends in a way that appeals to all ages and generations.

All eyes will no doubt be on next release, The Breadwinner, adapted by Twomey from the Deborah Ellis book of the same name – slated for release in 2017 – to see if it can live up to its predecessors, or outstrip them.

5. Dr Anil Kokaram

In 2007, Dr Anil Kokaram, a professor at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), won a Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy for his work in developing breakthrough image editing software for the movie industry while working as a consultant for UK-based The Foundry. He accepted the award along with Dr Bill Collis, Simon Robinson and Ben Kent from The Foundry.

Kokaram’s technology uses motion estimation to embed special effects and enhance movies in an automated rather than manual fashion, as had been the case for decades, and he won the Oscar award for transforming how movies were produced. The technology, called Furnace, used advanced algorithms to track the movement and properties of every pixel in every one of 25 pictures per frame in every second of a movie. Without it, the famous bullet scene in The Matrix wouldn’t have been possible, as well as other killer effects in films such as Casino Royale, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Da Vinci Code and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Upon winning, Kokaram commented on what a great honour it was, given the stringent examination process for these technical awards, which involved six months of deliberation and assessment by panels made up of both academics and members of the film industry.

Dr Anil Kokaram

Dr Anil Kokaram

Trinidad-born Kokaram also founded his own company, Green Parrot Pictures, which was acquired by YouTube in 2011 for an undisclosed sum. With this acquisition, YouTube aimed to make advanced image-editing tools available to the millions of creators who upload 500 hours of video to the site every minute.

Now working as a tech lead in the transcoding group for YouTube at Google Ireland, Kokaram leads a small team responsible for video quality and develops video processing algorithms for quality improvement in various pipelines.

Honourable mention: David Puttnam

Of course, we couldn’t close off a list of noteworthy Oscar successes without an honourable mention for Ireland’s Digital Champion and multi-award-winning film producer David Puttnam.

Puttnam might be best-known to readers of Siliconrepublic.com as a figurehead heavily invested in helping kids develop their digital skills, most recently endorsing the Digital Youth Council’s Let’s Teach Code programme.

But, long before the British Skibbereen resident was doing work like this, Puttnam was a celebrated film producer for some of Hollywood’s biggest films of the 1970s and 1980s, including Ridley Scott’s feature film debut The Duellists, and Oscar-nominated The Killing Fields.

While Puttnam and his production company won a string of awards, it was the film Chariots of Fire that won him the Oscar for Best Picture at the 54th Academy Awards in 1982.

David Puttnam

David Puttnam (left) with Dr Frances Pinter. Photo via John Naughton/Flickr

Following a year-long stint as Columbia Pictures CEO in 1986, Puttnam retired from filmmaking in 1998 to pursue the many digital outreach programmes that he is still involved with today. The siren song of the silver screen evidently lured him back, however, as he announced his return to film in 2015 to produce environmental drama Arctic 30.

Main image of Oscar statue at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party via Helga Esteb/Shutterstock