The Case of Cartoon Saloon

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The late 90’s was an interesting time for animation. Amblimation had folded after its third film (as we talked about last week), Dreamworks SKG was gearing up to release its first animated feature, and Disney Animation was winding down from their 10-year renaissance period. Also, by 1999, PIXAR and Disney had released TWO 3D computer animated films, and Dreamworks produced one as well (as their first release!). The medium was changing, and 3D computer animation was becoming increasingly more popular. Today, it’s considered to be the most popular style of animation. 

But, three artists in Ireland weren’t jumping on the 3D animation bandwagon just yet. They formed their own studio, focusing on 2D animation. In about 10 years, they had produced their first feature film, which was nominated for an oscar alongside the likes of Coraline, The Princess and the Frog, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up. 

Ever since, they have been steadily producing unique and beautiful animated content, from TV shows to major motion pictures. Last year, they released their fourth film, which has already won several Annie Awards. Each film features masterful storytelling heavily influenced and inspired by history and lore, with uniquely beautiful animation that will take your breath away. 

So, this week we are excited to talk about the Irish independent animation studio Cartoon Saloon, as well as their four full-length films!

GETTING STARTED

  • Ireland has had a vibrant animation scene for several decades. Some of our favorite films and shows were animated there, whether in Don Bluth’s animation studio or at Murakami-Wolf, which produced the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  
  • Cartoon Saloon, however, is likely the most well-known independent animation studio in Ireland. Its creators, Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young were animation students attending Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Ireland.  
  • Nora would be the first to graduate, a year before the others. She spent that year working for a studio called Brown Bag Films, which is now known as the studio that creates shows like Doc McStuffins and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. 
  • While in school and after graduating in 1999, Tomm, Paul, and Nora moved together to Kilkenny, Ireland. At this point, they had already started doing small freelance jobs (such as commercials and e-cards) under the name Cartoon Saloon
    • At Ballyfermot, Tomm Moore specifically made sure to take courses made by Don Bluth!
      • Sullivan Bluth opened in Ireland when Moore was a child, and this opened his eyes to the possibility of being an animator. 
      • He was heavily inspired by animator Richard Williams, who believed that animation was an artform. 
      • Tomm Moore later said that starting the studio felt like a way to extend college and continue to work with talented people on animation projects.
    • Moore has directed or co-directed three of Cartoon Saloon’s films. The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers are what he considers to be a spiritual trilogy. All of them are inspired by the mythology of Ireland. 
  • At this time, many were saying that 3D animation would be the new frontier due to the success of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. The team believed that 2D animation was still very much in style. They were discovering such treasures as “The Thief and the Cobbler” by Richard Williams and “The Hungarian Folktales” which was an animated series from Hungary.  Not long after did they decide on their first movie idea: “Brendan and the Secret of Kells.” This would later be shortened to simply “The Secret of Kells.”
  • The operation began with about 10 artists, a couple of whom had been members of the Young Irish Film Makers which was run by Mike Kelly and based in Kilkenny, Ireland. When the Cartoon Saloon creators first moved to Kilkenny, Mike Kelly helped them earn a small grant and gave them a small space to work in. There was only one computer between the three of them, and the experience taught them how to budget and split tasks.
  • As they began developing The Secret of Kells, they released their first television show called, Skunk Fu! This show would be the first to give them a true spotlight. The studio now has four other TV shows. One of the most popular is Puffin Rock, which is an adorable children’s show available on Netflix and narrated by Chris O’Dowd. We are not going to go into depth with these shows but they are: Anam an Amhrain, Dorg Van Dango, agus Cul an Ti.  

THE MOVIES: 

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  • THE SECRET OF KELLS
    • SYNOPSIS
      • The Secret of Kells takes place during the 9th century and follows Brendan, the young nephew of Abbot Cellach. As they prepare for an attack from the Vikings Brendan works secretly with the reverand illuminator, Aidan, to help complete the ancient book of Kells.
    • PRODUCTION
      • This film was directed by Tomm Moore and Co-directed by Nora Twomey. According to Tomm Moore there were about 200 artists that worked on the film. Ross Stewart was the Art Director, and Paul Young produced the film.
      • As the animators were starting out, they needed to find the money to produce the film. They received help from Screen Ireland, but they also started reaching out to other countries to find producers for the film. 
        • They attended an event called, “Cartoon Movie” in Europe, where they met other producers and pitched their film idea. This is where they met Didier Brunner and Viviane Vanfleteren, producers from France and Hungary that helped produce the film. 
      • The original Story was written by Tomm Moore with the screenplay done by Fabrice Ziolkowski.
        • The story is based on the origin of The Book of Kells. The book is an illuminated manuscript that now sits in Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland. 
        • The film combines Irish history with Catholic tradition and Celtic lore. Some have criticised the historical context of the film, as it places the viking invasions to happen around the time that the book was written. 
      • The beginning of the film was drawn to be very flat-looking in style, to model the look of medieval art.
        • Another key detail is that while the town was done with ink, the studio thought that the forest should be done with pencil because it is much more organic looking.
      • Although Abbot Cellach, young Brendan’s uncle, is not a bad guy, he is much stricter and has lost his way. In order to show the difference between him and other characters, his character and the rooms he inhabits are angular and sharper with a Gothic influence (think of gothic cathedrals and how they often come to a point). For example, there is a scene in which he and Brendan are seen in the window, and since they take up the entire space, it is almost as if it is stained glass. In comparison, Aidan and the Scriptorium have more rounded edges with a Romanesque influence.
    • CAST
      • Evan McGuire as Brendan
        • The character Brendan was actually based on Tomm Moore’s son, Brendan! They went through hundreds of designs though in order to get his design the way they wanted.
      • Christen Mooney as Aisling
        • Aisling’s early concept art and movements were based on Tomm’s sister, whom he claims was a little pest(lol.) She originally had black hair as well as the wolf being black.
      • Brendan Gleeson as Abbot Cellach
        • He is known for things like In Bruges, The Guard, and Calvary.
        • The Abbot’s character evolved from their beginning concepts of him. When they started he was more of a villain but he became more nuanced as they continued to develop the film.
      • Mick Lally as Aidan
        •  Mick has been in Glenroe, Bracken, and The Secret of Roan Inish.
        • Aidan Originally was drawn with spiky red hair and was supposed to look like Paul Young, but he ended up looking more like Willy Nelson they said (unintentionally.)
      • Liam Hourican as Brother Tang/ Leonardo
        • He is also in Song of the Sea, Murder in Successville, and Sanctuary(2012.)  
      • Paul Tylak as Brother Assoua
        • He is known for Skunk Fu!, Informer, and Capital Letters.
      • Michael McGrath as Adult Brendan
        • He has been in The Interpreter, Changing Lanes and Memphis the Musical.
      • Paul Young as Brother Square
      • Nora Twomey did additional voices
      • Pangur Bán (the cat) is the only character that they told kids was real. Out of all the characters in the film there have actually been stories and a poem written about Pangur Bán.
    • MUSIC
      • The music was done by French composer Bruno Coulais, who also wrote the music for Coraline (which was also nominated for an oscar the same year.)
      • The film also features music from the Irish band Kila! 
    • RECEPTION/AWARDS
      • The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards and also for an Annie Award but unfortunately did not win either. It did however win many other awards overseas at several film festivals, one being the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films. It also won best animation at the Irish Film and Television Awards.
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Song of the Sea

SYNOPSIS
The story follows a ten-year-old boy named Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. After being removed from their beloved home and father by their well-meaning grandmother, Ben discovers that his sister is in fact a selkie, a being capable of transforming into a seal. Not only that, but Saoirse’s song is the only thing that can save the other fairies of the land as they are all being turned to stone. Ben must find a way to bring his sister back to the sea so she can sing her song before it’s too late.  
  • PRODUCTION
    • The film was directed by Tomm Moore, and produced by Paul Young. Tomm Moore wrote the original story, but the screenplay was written by Will Collins, who would later write the screenplay for Wolfwalkers.
    • Tomm Moore came up with the idea for the story when he was on holiday on the Dingle Peninsula with his family. After arriving, they were saddened to discover that many seals were lying dead on the beach. He spoke to a local woman and tour guide, who told him that the superstitions and stories surrounding the seals would usually protect them from being killed. He said, “She was saying the seals would have been respected – they would have been seen as the Selkies, containing the souls of the dead – the people who were lost at sea.” Moore was inspired by the relationship between folklore and how it shapes and protects the environment surrounding it.
      • He found the Selkies fascinating, because he understood that they are often a way to deal with loss. So, he began developing the story for a film. 
    • The animation surrounding an Irish story is a concept that was inspired by Hayao Miyasaki. He found it incredible that viewers don’t need to understand Japanese folklore to appreciate the films and their universal themes and characters. Moore admires how Miyasaki depicts Japan from an animator’s perspective, and the more you know about the country and its culture, the more you get from the piece. 
    • Each location in the film is inspired by a real place, or a mash-up of places, but most heavily the Dingle peninsula. Moore took his team to the area to get a familiarity with the landscape. They used real landmarks and scenery, like the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin to ground the film firmly in its location. They depicted the landscape from the perspective of a child, and how they would perceive the country. 
    • When asked about why they chose a hand-drawn style for the film, Paul Young commented that when young children see a hand-drawn film, they come out of the theater inspired to draw themselves. 
      • The studio is famous for its hybrid style of computer and traditional animation. For this film, the animators used the computers to imitate animation techniques that would have been impossible with cell animation. For example, Paul Young said, “We were able to make the clouds, the watercolor layers, actually move. That would have been incredibly difficult to do [without a computer]. You couldn’t put watercolor on a cell.”
    • Cartoon Saloon coordinated with studios in five different countries to complete the film. This approach has helped them make films on a tight budget, in contrast to major studios that can afford to spend hundreds of thousands on productions.
  • CAST
    • David Rawle as Ben
      • Moone Boy!
    • Brendan Gleeson as Conor/ Mac Lir
    • Lisa Hannigan as Bronach
    • Fionnula Flanagan as Granny/ Macha
    • Lucy O’Connell as Saoirse
    • Jon Kenny as Ferry Dan/ The Great Seanachaí
    • Pat Shortt as Lug
    • Colm Ó’Snodaigh as Mossy
    • Liam Hourican as Spud/ Bus Driver
    • Paul Young did additional voices
  • MUSIC
    • Bruno Coulais scored this film as well as Secret of Kells, giving the films a unifying sense in their music. This makes sense since Tomm Moor considers Song of the Sea to be a spiritual sequel to The Secret of Kells.
  • RECEPTION/AWARDS
    • Song of the Sea was nominated for an Oscar for best animated film, along with several Annie Awards.
    • Tomm Moore said of the oscar nomination: “With the nomination, I met a lot of people like Pete Docter and Henry Selick, and it really felt like the industry saying, ‘Oh no, this is great. It’s great to see something independent. Keep going. Let’s see more.’ That’s what it felt like. It felt like the industry itself, or our peers in animation, endorsing what we were doing. And that was massive.”
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Ben showing his hand drawn map to the bus driver, in order for him and his sister Saoirse to find the way home to their father.

THE BREADWINNER

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  • SYNOPSIS
    • Based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, this film takes place in Taliban-controlled Kabul in 2001. It follows 11-year-old Parvanna, a girl that risks her life by posing as a boy so that her family can survive. She is determined to save her father’s life and reunite her family after her father has been taken to prison.  
  • PRODUCTION
    • The film was the first Cartoon Saloon feature directed by Nora Twomey, and it was executively produced by Anjolina Jolie. 
    • The screenplay was written by Anita Doran, based on the novel by Deborah Ellis. When Nora Twomey read the novel, she immediately connected with the character, and loved that the story didn’t talk down to its audience. She knew that it would make a beautiful animated film. 
      • Nora understood that to make this movie the best it could be, she needed input from people who understand Afghan culture, and those that might have had similar life experiences to the characters. She loved the challenge of telling a story that would appeal to younger and older audiences at the same time, and chose an animation style that lent itself to that. 
      • The filmmakers looked at the difference between western and Afghan culture, and wanted to depict universal struggles that would apply to everyone. 
      • Nora was also dedicated to finding as many actors from Afghanistan or with a strong connection to the country and its experiences. She not only wanted authentic voices, but she also wanted people that could draw from the emotion of their own experiences.  
    • The animation team was made up of 100 artists spread across three countries. 
      • To give animators an understanding of how the characters would move in each scene, she acted out every scene of the film as a reference point. 
      • Before the animation started, they made three drawings per scene to show what the characters should do, which gives the animator a better idea of how the character is feeling and how the scene should be approached.
      • Then, they entered the rough animation stage where the animators use quick, rough drawings to bring the characters to life. This is about the general movement of the characters.
      • Those rough drawings are tidied up after they have been approved. This makes sure that they can be painted easily and that the characters are in the correct style for the film. Animators then start adding shadows to put the characters in the real world, before adding color.
      • Every color is specifically chosen for a reason. They used the colors to guide the audience and make every scene as clear as possible. 
    • The film consisted of two separate types of animation. The look and feel of the real world that Parvanna inhabits needed to be naturalistic and based heavily on the specific setting. Animators went for a cinematic feeling, based completely on the main character and what she would need. It was physical and immersive.  
    • The story world needed to be bright and colorful, and essentially as limitless as a child’s imagination. 
      • For the story world, the animators met with a paper artist to understand how light works with paper, and how it feels to animate with paper. They then recreated the paper imagery for the film, using the computer. They added shadows and textures, to give the audience a sense of puppetry. The acting of the characters in the scenes was also as theatrical as possible, with bold movements. 
    • Sound designer JR Fountain wanted the sounds of the real world to feel oppressive and overwhelming. He treated the story world as a sort-of “playground,” not with cartoon effects necessarily, but still bringing joyful and playful sounds to the scene.
    • Much like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this film weaves the beauty and culture of its setting with a very real world experience. Producer Anthony Leo commented on how much loved that audiences would get to see Afghanistan’s rich culture, art, and storytelling; a contrast to how the country is often portrayed, especially during this time period.
  • CAST
    • Saara Chaudry as Parvana
      • Saara felt that the role was a dream come true, and that her role in the film reminded her that there are people out there trying to improve the lives of people like Parvanna. 
    • Soma Chhaya as Shauzia
    • Noorin Gulamgaus as Idrees/ Sulayman
    • Ali Badshah as Nurullah/ Talib Security Man
      • His wife is from Afganistan, which gave him a strong frame of reference to his character. He said he focused on the loneliness his character must feel, as an educated man that has lost his way of life as well as a child and his leg. 
    • Shaista Latif as Soraya
    • Kanza Feris as Sorceress/ Woman in Courtyard
    • Kawa Ada as Razaq
      • He said of The Breadwinner, “The writing in this film, it speaks to Afgan culture as well as that it’s not sentimental. And, I mean obviously there is great heart in it, and there is such a broad scope of the people and even within the story you have all these other characters who are given their due, which I think is brilliant.”
    • Kane Mahon as Optician/Kiln Owner
    • Ali Kazmi as Darya/ Fruit Juice Vendor/ Jail Warden
  • MUSIC
    • The composers, Jeff and Mychael Danna, used a different approach musically to the real world versus the dream world. 
    • Real world was scored more like a live action film, and it was desolate and serious. In the story world, the music followed what was happening on screen. 
    • The composers knew it was important to honor the afgan traditions so they used afgan artists and instruments, and researched the music of the culture. 
    • The ending music of the film was meant to leave the audience with feelings of hope and beauty, as the story is about love and strength above all else.  
  • RECEPTION/AWARDS
    • Overall, The Breadwinner was nominated for 55 awards, winning 22 of them. It was the third Cartoon Saloon film to be nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature. It was also the first to win the Annie award for the same title!
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WOLFWALKERS

  • SYNOPSIS
    • In a time of superstition and magic, when wolves are seen as demonic in nature and an evil to be tamed, a young apprentice huntress, Robyn, comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out a pack of troublesome wolves. But when Robyn saves a wild girl, Mebh, their friendship leads her to discover the world of the Wolfwalkers and transforms her into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.Production
  • PRODUCTION
    • With “Wolfwalkers,” the final installment in the trilogy, the studio made a conscious decision to create a larger action adventure. Artistically and narratively, it’s their most ambitious undertaking to date. Initially, Cartoon Saloon shopped the project to Netflix, but when the streaming goliath passed, Apple stepped in.
    • Written by Will Collins, Wolfwalkers has roots in the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland (Lord Protector is based on Oliver Cromwell) and Irish folklore about the Wolves of Ossory, a tribe of beings who could transform themselves into wolves.
    • Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart developed the film’s visual style to show a contrast between period Kilkenny, with its blocky look to convey its oppressive nature, and the more fluid, free look of the forest. Both were inspired by 17th century woodcuts. Stewart said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “[Robyn’s home in Kilkenny] is a cage, and the visuals reinforce that. The linework is very harsh and very black-and-white. There’s high contrast and there’s a lot of geometric patterning, like a kind of a warped perspective.”
    • Maria Pareja, a production designer on Wolfwalkers, notes that for period Kilkenny, they took creative license but also relied on extensive research, including stops at Kilkenny’s Rothe House, one of the oldest houses in Ireland. 
      • The Rothe House was built between 1594 and 1610 and is now a must see museum and garden dedicated to the life and times of 17th century Ireland. 
      • The film’s signature look is hand-drawn with the help of computers to augment the process. Every frame is still drawn by hand, but with a computer screen and stylus. Moore explains, “We use special digital brushes to look as much like the pencil line that we want. Backgrounds on the other hand, are painted with watercolors and the linework is also done on paper with pencils and pens. They’re combined and photoshopped to make the final background.”
        • The artists were also heavily encouraged to leave the pencil lines to give it a very two dimensional feel!
      • Screenwriter Collins’ early research focused intensely on hunters’ lives in and out of Kilkenny during the era of the Cromwellian War. He said that it was important to fill the audience in on it, but not get bogged down by it. For Stewart, the story was the most important thing. There is a time and a place for historical stories and being truthful to the original tale. But that doesn’t mean that everything has to stick to that. Stories have to adapt to the way they’re being told in this century, and they will be different in the next century.
  • CAST
    • Honor Kneafsey as Robyn Goodfellowe
      • She has made small appearances in the BBC Sherlock, as well as the Netflix original “A Christmas Prince” film series.
    • Eva Whittaker as  Mebh Óg MacTíre
      • This is her first full length feature roll (way to start out strong!)
    • Sean Bean as Bill Goodfellowe, Robyn’s father and town wolf hunter
      • A well known actor famous for many fantasy roles including Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and the most recent Snowpiercer. 
    • Simon McBurney as Lord Protector
      • He has been in many films including the 2007 version of the Golden Compass, the 2010 Robin Hood, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    • Tommy Tiernan as the farmer who is put in the stockade, Seán Óg
      • Known for his roles in many Irish shows such as Derry Girls, Small Potatoes, and Little Crackers
    • Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mebh’s Mother, Moll MacTíre
      • An actress known for her roles in Outlander, Orphan Black, and Dexter
    • Reception/Awards
      • Released by GKids on 500 screens across the United States and on Apple TV+, the movie has received glowing reviews and has earned the studio another Oscar nomination.
  • David Ehrlich of Indie Wire said in his review “Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon may not be able to match the impact or consistency of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, but the outfit has gradually emerged as one of the world’s last and most valuable assets against the crude and sometimes soulless nature that has defined the post-“Shrek” era of mainstream animated movies. With Wolfwalkers, we have an animated film that finds new beauty in ancient traditions; a film that fights back against the temptation to surrender what little magic this world still has left.”

They have also done animated shorts and tv series.

We eagerly await their next film in 2022 entitled My Father’s Dragon.

Last week, we mentioned how it can be difficult to succeed in animation without a lot of name recognition. There are so many studios out there, with talented artists, making incredible stories come to life with animation. Cartoon Saloon is just one of them! It’s a studio that has stayed true to itself, and has had remarkable success. Its films are absolutely breathtaking, with refreshing animation styles that are, quite frankly, a balm for the eyes. Cartoon Saloon takes its time with their work, using what they believe to be the best techniques for each particular story. These films are the kind that we watch not just because they are entertaining and beautiful, but because we can see how passionate the animators are about their work. 

We wanted to close animation April with Cartoon Saloon because this is a studio that everyone should know. It often seems that in order to be successful, you have to have the most money or be the most popular, or that you need to make certain kinds of films using specific techniques. But in this case, Cartoon Saloon’s success comes strictly from passion, hard work, and a whole lot of talent. They’re an inspiring group of masterful storytellers, and we cannot wait to see what they will do next. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES:

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