Ireland has received global recognition for its animation industry, which continues to grow and create new jobs. Laura O’Brien looks at how it got to where it is today.
The Irish animation industry has gained worldwide recognition for the work its indigenous companies have created.
In recent years, Irish companies have produced animation across numerous mediums, such as film, television, the web and video games, for companies like RTÉ, BBC, Disney, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
Their work has gained critical acclaim globally, with Brown Bag Films’ Give Up Yer Aul Sins and Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty‘s Oscar nominations for best animated shorts and Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells‘ nomination for the feature animation Oscar.
Irish animation sector growing
It’s now a multimillion-euro industry, with hundreds of people employed in the sector and it is still growing. Brown Bag Films recently signed a deal with Disney for a new pre-school series called The Happy Hugglemonsters, which could generate 40 new jobs. Kavaleer Productions is creating 30 new jobs over the course of 2012.
"The animation industry in Ireland has certainly experienced a growth spurt in recent years and is showing no signs of tapering off," says Gary Timpson, managing director of Kavaleer Productions.
"It’s largely fuelled by the well-established perception that Ireland is the place to go if you require exceptional content or if you are seeking a service provider to bring your own concept to life."
The success of the Irish animation industry can be attributed to several factors. In the 1980s, Sullivan Bluth Studios, which had made independent animated features such as An American Tail, relocated from California to Dublin to take advantage of the IDA’s tax incentives.
Its founder and former Disney employee Don Bluth also helped set up an animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. Other studios, such as Emerald City and Murakami Wolf Swenson, were set up around the same time.
While Sullivan Bluth closed down in 1995, the legacy remained and in recent years, smaller indigenous animation companies established themselves.
"A lot of the companies started up at the same time with the same age profile," says Gerard O’Rourke, MD of Monster Animation, which has produced shows such as Punky and Ballybraddan.
"Don Bluth’s studios closed down in 1995 and they had set up great structures in the animation colleges.
"People started to set up smaller companies and they took between five and 10 years to find their feet. Now they’ve all started to become successful companies around the same time."
International involvement in Irish animation
The small size of the domestic market has meant that Irish animation studios have had to look to international television markets to sustain the sector, which has put the global spotlight on it.
"A good mixture of talent and entrepreneurship over the years has resulted in the international animation community realising that we have a lot to offer," says Paul Young, CEO of Cartoon Saloon.
"A number of companies set up in Ireland after graduating as we didn’t want to emigrate so we started our own companies. All of these companies are creatively led also, which is a major factor. People started out as animators and designers and learned how to do business after. The ideas came first."
Tax incentives are also a major contributing factor to the sector’s success, such as Section 481 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. The scheme offers tax relief to filmmakers investing in Irish-made films.
"Everyone around the world is looking for ways to find money to get projects off the ground," says Damian Farrell, creative director of Caboom and former chair of the Animation CEO Forum, which brings together the heads of leading Irish animation studios to discuss the sector.
"Section 481 still proves to be one of those key components when added to the entrepreneur drive and the creative power. It really makes the whole thing work."
Support for Irish animation
Farrell recognises the support from the Irish Film Board and Enterprise Ireland. He believes both saw the potential in animation in the film, TV and gaming industries.
Technology has made a major impact on the animation industry as a whole, with studios using digital tools for both 2D and 3D animation.
"For producing (animation) it’s a lot easier than it was 10 years ago," says Robert Cullen, creative director of Boulder Media, which has produced shows such as Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, El Tigre and The Amazing World of Gumball.
"Everything that we do is pretty much all digital. It still has the same principles as hand-drawn animation but it’s done directly on the computer. We use programs like Flash, we composite in After Effects and we use Photoshop and Illustrator for backgrounds. It means we can produce shows quicker and cheaper than you would have done 10 or 15 years ago."
O’Rourke recalls working at Bluth’s studio in the Nineties, where everything was done on paper.
"We had almost 500 staff, 40,000 sq feet, six floors and people walking with trolleys stacked higher than the height of two people distributing scenes.
"If that studio was around today, it would have 80 people in about 4,000 sq feet and everything would be digital. It just transformed the way we work and how everything operates. It’s the biggest contributing factor to where we are today."
Promoting Irish animation
Farrell points out that technology has also allowed for young animators to promote their work to a wider audience through YouTube and Vimeo, potentially getting them hired in the industry.
"There’s a generation of people coming now who understand that space very well. They’re very good at self promotion so I think you’ll see a generation now where that’s just part of their world and that’s part of how they promote themselves," he explains.
If this growth is to continue, more talent needs to enter the industry in Ireland to help it produce the animated hits of the future.
However, the demand is now outweighing the supply, with many companies having to hire animators outside of Ireland to support their work.
Farrell believes that more collaboration between the animation industry and third-level colleges is needed to get the talent up to par.
"The barrier to growth and scale is talent. We’re one of the smaller studios but we’re turning down work because we can’t find people.
"We’re also sending work overseas because we can’t get the people here and it’s just very difficult.
"The biggest criticism I would have would be around the training. I think there is a willingness there to want to make it better but I find the structures that are in place to co-ordinate that to scale just aren’t there," he says.
The domestic market could also help grow the industry further. Young notes that while local broadcasters are doing better than before at financing Irish animation, they still need to do more.
"Irish children deserve to see Irish content and not be forced to watch shows with American voices and environments.
"It would be great to see the day when we sell Irish accents to the Americans on TV like we did with our first feature, The Secret of Kells.
"They love our accents over there and around the world! Take the success of Chris O’Dowd in Bridesmaids as a recent example. We can sell Irish culture and sensibilities abroad easily. Animation makes it even easier. The Irish broadcasters could share more in this if they were willing to invest more," he says.