Drawing new inspiration at Cartoon Saloon

Founder of Kilkenny animation studio Paul Young talks Oscars, raising finance and working with Angelina Jolie


Paul Young had just returned from the bathroom of the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, to find his Cartoon Saloon co-founder Tomm Moore shaking his head in his hands. “You’ll never believe what I’m after doing,” Moore said.

The two were at the hotel for the Oscar Nominees Luncheon and, moments earlier, Young had asked Moore to mind his seat while he went to the bathroom.

“Tomm told me a woman had come up to him, introduced herself as Sandy and asked if anyone was sitting in the seat next to him. He said ‘sorry, my friend is sitting there’. The woman was Sandra Bullock,” Young laughs, recalling the event.

It was the first time Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon received an Oscar nomination. The animation studio founded by Young, Moore and Nora Twomey in 1999 received a nomination for The Secret of Kells in 2010, and another this year for Song of the Sea.

Young says the nominations have helped open doors for the company, resulting in introductions to people such as Jurassic Park producer Kathleen Kennedy and director Steven Spielberg.

“Kathleen asked me to send her the prints for The Secret of Kells so she could watch it in Steven Spielberg’s house. He then called asking could he keep them for a second week so his kids could watch the film.”

It was while on a summer working holiday in Greece that Young first realised he could make money from drawing.

“I got a job in a late night burger place. I could see Russian guys across the road drawing portraits and making lots of money. I quit the burger place after the first night and joined the Russians, doing caricatures.”

After completing a degree at the University of Ulster, Young lived in Brighton and Edinburgh for a while. He then decided to go back to college to study animation.

“Disney was hiring a lot from Ballyfermot at the time. By the time we graduated, that had all stopped. Tomb Raider was huge and computer games were on the rise so a lot of my college friends joined games companies.”

Young set up Cartoon Saloon while still a student at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. He had been offered a job doing the illustrations and animation for a CD Rom company that he didn’t think he could do alone, so he drafted in college friends to help.

Young and several of his college classmates were in Young Irish Film Makers. The digital film training and production centre had space in an old orphanage in Kilkenny, which they let Cartoon Saloon use. And that is how Young, Moore, Twomey and the team ended up in the city.

“We took around 15 of our college friends to Kilkenny. We did a lot of work on e-cards. It was around the time of the dotcom bubble. It was only when we did a Cadbury’s ad for Christmas that our parents started to think we were legit.”

The team began working on The Secret of Kells but it would take more than five years to raise the money to go into production. Along the way, they did commercials to keep income coming in.

He says setting out to raise €6 million for an animated feature film soon after leaving college was daunting, but the team got there in the end. They quickly realised that to raise the finance needed to make a TV series or a feature film, they would have to go outside Ireland. While the company gets support from the Irish Film Board, to raise budgets of €5 million-€8 million it had to secure pre-sales from broadcasters and advances from distribution partners all over the globe.

They were advised to go Cartoon Movie, an event in Europe where a lot of people go to pitch their movies and a lot of buyers and distributors from around Europe attend. Young met French producer Didier Brunner on the bus on the way to the event. They got chatting, and Brunner then came to see Cartoon Saloon’s pitch at the event.

“I overheard him tell someone he was having great trouble with a studio in Canada. I handed him my card and told him to come see my pitch. He came on board The Secret of Kells as a producer.”

“He raised a third of the money in France. We were raising €6.2 million. We were unknowns and you can’t get that kind of money in Ireland. You need co-producers from other countries.”

Cartoon Saloon quickly went from 15 employees to 75 in the space of a few months, as The Secret of Kells and animated TV series Skunk Fu! both went into production at the same time.

Skunk Fu! went on to be broadcast in 120 countries, while The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination.

While most of the Cartoon Saloon team was in a meeting in March 2010, one of the employees decided to flick on the Oscar nominations.

“She started screaming. We ran out of the boardroom thinking there was a mouse. She said The Secret of Kells had been nominated.”

Young says there was a perception that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs would be the fifth Oscar nominee in 2010. A Sony executive later joked to Young and Moore, that The Secret of Kells had taken their place.

“Their next movie was The Lego Movie. The perception again was that we knocked them out of the Oscar nominations, this time with Song of the Sea. They joked to us not to make a film in the same year as them anymore.”

Young says the team was so consumed by The Secret of Kells and Skunk Fu! that they had nothing lined up in the pipeline. As a result, the company found itself in a black hole with no cash coming in in 2011.

Skunk Fu! was sold everywhere but we weren’t getting the proceeds straight away. Similarly, The Secret of Kells was Oscar-nominated but no money was coming in from that either. The investors had to get their money back before we got any.

“It was hard as it happened right after the Oscar nomination. Everyone outside the company thought we were doing so well but we had to borrow €200,000 to keep going.”

Niche producer

Around the same time, the company was transitioning from paper drawings to digital. During the transition, the Kilkenny office was flooded. A burst water pipe in the cold winter of 2010 meant everything was ankle deep in water.

It was before the company had converted to cloud storage and panic set in as everything was saved on a server.

Luckily, the paper from The Secret of Kells had absorbed all the water at the door to the server room, so the room was dry. The hand-drawn animations had sacrificed themselves for digital.

Young says technology has saved the company and made it easier to share files.

“With The Secret of Kells, we had to ship boxes of paper to Brazil and Hungary as we had teams in those countries cleaning up the drawings and animating. It is 12 drawings a second so we had to ship a lot of drawings. Now we can send everything digitally.”

He says the television industry is changing rapidly. Everything is moving to on-demand for consumers and, in the future, traditional broadcasters will only get the big advertising revenue from airing live events like sports and talent competitions, news and current affairs.

For a small independent studio like Cartoon Saloon releasing a feature film, the whole world has opened up with online viewing and on-demand services.

“As a relatively niche independent producer, our audience is very wide and not restricted to any particular city or country. If we have a fan in Donegal or Kansas, they can find our film on Netflix or other similar platforms.”

Young, who is a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition, says there are many studios around the world making high budget CGI animated feature films. A lot of them try to imitate the American studios like Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks. “We want to continue to make original stories. . They already do what they do really well.”

He says the desire to do original things helped secure Angelina Jolie as an executive producer for their upcoming animated film The Breadwinner.

“An agent said to us would we consider working with Angelina. Some people then got the project in front of her. She asked to meet Nora [Twomey]. They met and were very much in tune with one another from the start.”

But Young says the real commercial return is with TV series. “British series Peppa Pig will cross the billion dollar mark in licensing at the end of this year. For us, Puffin Rock is already doing the best from a monetary perspective.”

Cartoon Saloon has signed a global deal with Netflix for Puffin Rock. The Chris O’Dowd-narrated series already shows on RTÉ Junior and on Nick Jr but will now reach audiences in the US, Canada, Latin America, the Benelux countries, France and Germany from this autumn.

As for the future, Young says the company wants to keep developing stories within the studio, “keeping a tight creative control over everything”. While the studio ultimately didn’t get an Oscar, Young did manage to blag a ticket to the Oscars for Moone Boy actor David Rawl. “I kept ringing the organisers and they kept saying no, that everyone gets their allocated number of tickets and we already had ours. The day before the Oscars, I took a photo of David and sent it to the poor woman in the Academy that I’d been harassing, saying ‘how can you refuse that face?’ She gave me a ticket for him.”

“That was one of the highlights of my career as tickets are so coveted.” CV Name: Paul Young Age: 41 From: Boyle, Co Roscommon Lives: Kilkenny Family: Engaged to Yvonne Ross with a young daughter Robyn. Education: BA in Art & Design from the University of Ulster, PLC Course in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. Something that might surprise: He played mother superior and Renton’s mother in Trainspotting on stage for Kilkenny-based Devious Theatre Company. Something readers might expect: He pitched a cartoon about two drunks in a bar to Brownbag Films in his final year of college. It aired.

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