Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon looks to draw more animators to Kilkenny

Upskilling part of sell for ‘grown-up’ studio vying for talent with global giants

Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, a nominee for best animated feature at Sunday night’s Oscars.

Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, a nominee for best animated feature at Sunday night’s Oscars.

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As Cartoon Saloon prepares for Oscar night for the fifth time this Sunday with Wolfwalkers, the Kilkenny animation studio has never been busier or bigger, with 201 crew working on a feature-length version of Puffin Rock, Netflix film commission My Father’s Dragon and a mystery-adventure TV series.

The ability to work remotely has seen animation “thrive” as Covid-19 shut down live-action productions, but when it comes to hiring there is a flip side.

“We no longer feel like we’re fishing from an Irish pool or a European pool. Now we’re all fishing from a global pool,” said chief operations officer Catherine Hehir Roycroft. “If you’re competing against the larger studios in Europe and America, it can be very trying.”

So together with State-backed Animation Skillnet and Screen Skills Ireland, Cartoon Saloon is zooming in on making cross-training and upskilling opportunities a key draw for attracting talent. “What we want to sell is the fact that Cartoon Saloon is a workshop where people can get better at their craft,” Ms Hehir Roycroft said.

Wolfwalkers was created in TVPaint, a hand-drawn animation software not widely used or taught in Ireland. While this prompted the company to recruit from outside Ireland, it also worked with Animation Skillnet and Screen Skills Ireland to bridge this skills gap.

The title of the film – second favourite behind Disney/Pixar’s Soul to win best animated feature – provides another clue to its training needs. “Because we were animating wolves instead of people, we brought in some industry heavy-hitters to teach our artists how to animate quadrupeds.”

Inclusive growth

Animation crews swell and contract when productions start and finish, but about 1,600 people are estimated to work full-time in the Irish sector – up from about 70 a decade ago – and there is still room for it to grow in an inclusive, diverse way, said Gareth Lee, manager of Screen Skills Ireland and network manager of the Animation Skillnet.

“We want to make it clear to young people that animation is an industry for them, potentially, and that there are lots of roles. It is not just necessarily creative roles that require drawing skills, there are also roles in business and technology.”

Cartoon Saloon – founded by Paul Young, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey in 1999 – has never had as many productions running simultaneously, nor as many crew. “We’re a very grown-up studio all of a sudden,” said Ms Hehir Roycroft.

The critical acclaim its work has garnered is another calling card that should help it lure dispersed crew back to Kilkenny once pandemic restrictions end.

“There’s never a better time to be advertising jobs than when you’re waiting to hear about whether or not you’re possibly going to win an Oscar on Sunday.”

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