One of the most inspiring talks at the VFX + Animation Summit Dublin was from Paul Young, one of the founders of Cartoon Saloon.
The Kilkenny-based animation company, founded in 1999 by Young and Tomm Moore, is best known for its 2010 Oscar nominee, The Secret Of Kells.
Cartoon Saloon is certainly a business that sets itself apart artistically - Kells and the company’s new feature, Song Of The Sea, which premiered in Toronto, feel like work that could only be made in Ireland.
Song is about a brother and sister sent from their home by the sea to live with their granny in the City. They are drawn into a world of their mother’s Irish folktales, and the girl discovers she is the last of the selkies.
The lead character’s name is Saoirse - and, no, they aren’t changing that for the international market. “Kids are like sponges, it’s the adults who might think it’s too much,” Young says. “It’s been sold to Israel and Japan, and a Chinese deal is hopefully on the way. Animation is very universal.”
The traditional animation style - so beautiful that each shot could hang on a gallery wall - also feels a world away from Hollywood. “Our film cost $5.5m,” Young explains. “The fact that we’re so different is good for us. We want to stand out and have our own shelf space. We don’t have that same cash, the same marketing budgets, so being different is a selling point.”
The art is something to behold, but there’s plenty of business acumen to admire behind the scenes at Cartoon Saloon. Rather than handing over the licensing to outside contractors, Young explains that the outfit has set up a sister licensing company: “We want to control much more of what we do than selling them on to other companies.” That can be kiddie toys related to their TV show, Puffin Rock, or limited-edition prints of The Secret Of Kells.
It is also a business that’s thriving thanks to a powerful combination of local support and global reach.
The company can benefit from Irish Film Board backing on specific projects (IFB has supported Cartoon Saloon ever since the time it was only making shorts), and also company backing from the government agency, Enterprise Ireland. Everyone in the animation and VFX communities I spoke to at the summit praised this double level of support, which Irish businesses combine with the entrepreneurship it takes to succeed.
Cartoon Saloon is just one of a number of exciting companies - also including Brown Bag, Monster and Kavaleer - which band together as Animation Ireland to have more global might as a collective force.
As Young explains: “All of us are international-focused. We’ve always had to rely on pre-sales for our films, so it taught us about making commercially sellable works for the international market.”
With Ireland’s Section 481 tax incentive set to become even more attractive, more international attention will follow.
And the VFX community in Ireland - banded together as VFX Association Ireland - is taking animation’s lead in starting to compete on the world stage.
Song Of The Sea would be a very welcome nominee in this year’s animated Oscar race; but regardless of that, Cartoon Saloon is the kind of company - you might compare it to Studio Ghibli - thriving locally and globally whose work should be championed.