By Maura Kelly
The headlines about the Irish economy may be all doom and gloom but there is a magical side to it if you look at its exports. Namely, a sassy little pig named "Olivia," a Skunk who knows Kung Fu, little Brendan and a book, and more -- all cartoons created by Irish animators for the global marketplace. Stateside, Disney Jr, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and PBS are among the broadcasters who commission and collaborate with these imaginative creators. As a result, Irish animation has moved to the forefront of the international animation sector, attracting global admiration and three Academy Award nominations.
I got a first-hand look at Ireland's animation scene while working at PBS and the Jim Henson and witnessed a vibrant scene filled with talented animators, and astute business executives. So it came as no surprise when award-winning animation company, Brown Bag Films recently announced 30 new job openings in Dublin. Galway based Telegael and Cartoon Saloon made similar announcements -- also recruiting technical and production personnel to feed the demand for this form of entertainment. According to the Irish Audiovisual Federation, animation is the only independent audiovisual sector which predicts strong growth this year in the country. Today it is the largest provider of full-time employment in the Irish independent film and television sector.
The Irish animation industry is still relatively young and so are the people masterminding its growth. It started slowly in the early 1960s with television commercials for Lyons Tea and other household items. With the arrival of Sullivan Bluth Studios in Dublin in the 1980's, the sector was ready to take off. Attracted to Ireland by tax benefits and incentives, Don Bluth, a former Disney animator and Irish-American businessman, Morris Sullivan wanted to compete with Disney and produce features. With a team of American animators and local talent they produced An American Tale, The Land Before Time and other box office hits. In the mid-90s, Bluth even helped set up the animation department at Ballyfermot College to ensure there would be a pool of talent available for future productions. As a result, the Irish animation industry was shaped by a strong American influence. This could explain why so many Irish companies collaborate successfully with US broadcasters in children's daytime television.
In the past ten years, several smaller animation studios have been set up in around Ireland. Among the superstars are two time Academy Award nominated Brown Bag Films, Barley Films, Cartoon Saloon, and Telegael -- all producing visually imaginative works. Belfast's Flickerpix Animation is getting notice, while Kavaleer Productions recently moved into iPhone and iPad development for Sesame Street and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is a credit to Ballyfermot College, Dublin that in last year's Academy Awards four alumni were nominated -- Tomm Moore for 'The Secret of Kells'; Darragh O'Connell and Nicky Phelan for their short 'Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty' and Richard Baneham for special effects on 'Avatar.'
Kevin Moriarty, chairman of the Audiovisual Federation committee, says that the animation industry is a perfect example of the smart economy. "There are innate advantages to animation. There is a wide audience given that animation is easily dubbed into other languages." To fuel this smart economy, Irish studios are moving beyond contract work for international clients and are busy producing and owning the rights to original content which will generate sales and merchandising revenue.
The industry recently launched a new website to promote projects in development and provide news and views to a growing global fan base. The digital world may be evolving rapidly but luckily the Irish are easy adaptors to new technology. Combining a long tradition of compelling story-telling with artistic prowess, it's no wonder the Irish animation sector is thriving -- keeping the fairytale alive.