Drawing inspiration from the Celtic Tigger
The animation boom has also brought an increase in applications to third-level animation courses run by Ballyfermot College of Further Education and the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Back from the dead
It’s a second act for an industry that faced extinction in the mid-1990s following the closure of Sullivan Bluth studios, which made Irish-animated feature The Land Before Time, co-produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Set up in 1985 by Don Bluth, who had jumped ship from Disney in 1979, and Morris Sullivan, the studio was attracted to Ireland by the generous tax breaks and funding offered at the time by the IDA. But things didn’t evolve as planned, and the studio’s subsequent features failed to replicate the success of The Land Before Time.
“What happened with Sullivan Bluth was it closed down, as companies do, and a lot of people were left unemployed, around 300 were let go,” recalls Prof Gareth Lee, who runs the Irish School of Animation in Ballyfermot. “But a lot of people who were let go, or were graduates at the time, they became the seeds for what’s currently in existence. So graduates from that period set up studios that are still going now. They’re all small studios – the biggest would be Brown Bag with 100 to 130 staff, Jam Media with around 67, and Boulder would be quite big too, but a lot of the other ones have between 10 and 15 staff members. So a lot of studios, a lot smaller, which makes [the industry] more robust. You don’t have the whole industry reliant on one big studio or one big project.
“They’re also very export-focused, doing stuff for Disney and others, and for the US and Europe, which means they’re not relying on the domestic market, which is depressed right now.”
Lee runs the annual Irish School of Animation Conference (ISA Con), which had its fourth outing earlier this month at the Printworks in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin. Of the four guest speakers, three had studied in Ireland before moving into high-profile jobs in the international industry.
Simon Kay graduated from Ballyfermot Senior College in 1999, and now works as a motion-capture supervisor, using his specialist skills to create realistic animated characters for films such as Paul and John Carter. It’s the same technology that was used to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, and it’s increasingly used to allow animated characters to rub shoulders with real-life actors.
“I started off in traditional animation, and there was a massive boom around that time. The Lion King was coming out, and Beauty and the Beast, and we were going, great, when we come out of here, we’re going to go straight into jobs. But then everything started closing up. Then it all started coming up again with Pixar.”