- 11 Sep 15
With two Oscar nominations and Angelina Jolie on board for their next project, Kilkenny's Cartoon Saloon are the heart of Irish animation's worldwide success. Co-founder Paul Young talks to Craig Fitzpatrick.
A love of Comic Relief magazine, a sadly-defunct topical humour review from the aptly-named Californian town of Eureka, led Paul Young to study illustration in Belfast. He subsequently earned his keep doing caricatures on the street of Greece. So how did he go from there to being in the running for 2015 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year?
Put it down to Young’s excellence in his self-described role of “travelling salesman” for Cartoon Saloon, the acclaimed, Kilkenny-based animation film studio. His talent for drawing hasn’t fallen by the wayside – you’ll see his work weekly in the Sunday Independent – but his knack for persuasion has opened doors for his company. Founded in 1999 by Young and college friends Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey (who still do a lot of drawing), when you see their enchanting work, you know that all they needed were the breaks. Early days found them securing a FÁS millennium culture grant, before funding from the Film Board allowed them to develop shorts. All the while they were doing commercial work to get by. But success on a whole different level came with 2009 feature The Secret Of Kells. It had been a long time coming.
“We were naive but I think that was probably a good thing,” says Young. “It took five years to get financed, so it takes a long time.”
A chance encounter with French producer Didier Brunner brought the much-needed international support, and they had lift off. A French-Belgian-Irish production, The Secret Of Kells delved into Irish heritage and was described by Tara Brady in this publication as “a beautiful, unique project that deserves to find an audience beyond mandatory school trips to the cinema.” It triumphed over Coraline to win Best Feature Film at the Annecy Animation festival in France, scooped an IFTA and many other accolades, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 82nd Academy Awards.
Remarkably, their success continued with their very next film, Song Of The Sea. January of this year brought the news that the twist on the legend of the Selkies was up in the same category at the Oscars, something the massive The Lego Movie infamously failed to achieve. Meanwhile, small-screen success has been achieved with Puffin Rock and the BAFTA-nominated Skunk Fu!.
“You never get used to it,” says Young. “We really didn’t expect the latest Oscar nomination. There were a couple of 2D films that could’ve gone there and we thought The Lego Movie was obvious. It was a big shock. We don’t have the biggest marketing, but getting an Oscar nomination is the best marketing of all – because it’s such a big brand. Everyone knows the Oscars around the world.”
Cartoon Saloon have managed not only to revive children’s interest in Celtic mythology at home, but have uncovered its universal appeal.
“People do think of leprechauns, so you’ve to be careful,” he says. “We’ve changed the mythology a bit and made our own stories – but we were always told by the likes of [Irish storyteller] Eddie Lenihan that it’s no good being precious about the old myths; they are always being re-invented for the next generation to make them better. The old stories are there, but you can do your own version.”
For their next trick, they’re leaving Ireland to work on the adaptation of The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis’ children’s novel, which tells the story of a young girl growing up in Afghanistan in 2001. Having met with Twomey to discuss the project, Angelina Jolie is set to executive produce.
“There’s been a lot of input from Angelina, who has been really on the money on this. Nora spent two hours talking about the film and she loved it. She’s very happy. She’ll just help at different stages of the production and give feedback. It’s going to be phenomenal when it comes to promoting the film.”
The biggest critics can be children, of course.
“Kids will smell inauthentic stuff pretty quickly Young nods. “Doing Irish stories for an Irish audiences, they will always know if it’s not authentic or if it’s become embarrassingly twee. The Breadwinner has nothing to do with any of that. The cast are mostly first or second generation Afghan-Canadians who are actors. We’ve cast great people and we have cultural advisers. The only thing is we haven’t been able to get out there yet, because it’s been a bit dodgy. Angelina has a lot of experience out there and has a school where she helps poor Afghan girls outside of Kabul. So it needs to be authentic art and culture from Afghan culture.”
What drew them to the project? “When we read the book we thought it would be challenging because it’s not a story about squirrels with fart jokes and things like that. It’s a story about a girl who acts just like a boy, being the breadwinner for the family. It’s very uplifting and motivating and we thought: ‘It’s probably going to take us 10 years to raise the money for this but at least it will get us up in the morning’.
“It will be great for kids to see a whole different side of life. The book is really popular in schools and recommended reading. It turned out to be the fastest thing to get funded. There were people with money who were motivated by the story. People like Angelina were motivated by the subject matter.”
Hollywood superstars are one thing, but getting the national broadcaster to loosen their purse strings is an altogether different kettle of fish. While Young says Enterprise Ireland have been “brilliant” for animation companies, and he has no problems with the Film Board or the BAI, he feels RTÉ have neglected homegrown content for kids.
“In a lot of countries in Europe there are quotas in things made for children and that’s a real issue, because I think we’ll wind up having Irish kids speaking in American or lovely Peppa Pig accents... [The other boards and agencies] are nothing compared to the coppers in the big RTÉ pot – and the problem is that there’s no real legislation for making content for kids.”