Animator Nora Twomey: ‘Nobody knew you could make a living out of drawing’

Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon’s global success is undeniable, but the film-maker is still surprised she’s able to draw for a living

“Was I surprised?” Nora Twomey says, mildly aghast, when I ask if she expected to end up where she has ended up. “I’m still surprised that I can draw for a living — that I can tell stories, that I can make something that ends on a huge platform like Netflix. That’s all just incredible stuff.”

She is, indeed, part of an extraordinary story. Of all the enterprises that helped launch the recent boom in Irish cinema, none is more impressive than Cartoon Saloon. Formed in 1999 by three alumni of Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s animation degree course — Tomm Moore and Paul Young completed the triumvirate with Twomey — the studio, based in Kilkenny, released their first feature 10 years later.

Directed by Twomey and Moore, The Secret of Kells won plaudits the world over for its delightful design and whimsical, captivating story. Three more equally well-received features followed. It is vulgar to measure success by Oscar recognition, but it remains an astonishing fact that all four of Cartoon Saloon’s films have been nominated for best animated feature. The Saloon team has, in recent years, been up that red carpet more often than Glenn Close.

Twomey has had an eventful decade or so. She has raised two children. She coaxed Cartoon Saloon into its current world-beating status. On top of all that, she was diagnosed with cancer

They stand every chance of getting there again with Twomey’s new film. My Father’s Dragon, produced with Netflix, has just premiered at the London Film Festival to the expected rave reviews. “Mellow but never dull in its unhurried telling and picture-book aesthetic, it’s a pleasing corrective to the slick, high-concept freneticism of sundry Disneys and Pixars,” Guy Lodge noted in Variety.


Following a young boy as he runs away from a grim city to rescue a baby dragon on a fantastic, possessed island, the feature is adapted from an admired 1948 novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Rooting round in the digital files, I am pleasantly surprised to note that Ms Gannett is still with us.

“She is. She is 99,” Twomey says. “I went to visit Ruth a couple of years ago in a little village called Trumansburg in upstate New York. And she’s an incredible woman. When I was in the village, I was staying in a little hotel. The woman who ran the hotel had been taught to read by Ruth. Ruth used to go into the schools and teach children who were having difficulty reading.”

She goes on to detail further acts of kindness for which Gannett is legendary in the area. Twomey first came upon the book in 2012 before embarking on her (what else?) Oscar-nominated 2017 film The Breadwinner. Producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn felt the Kilkenny team were perfect for a film version.

“Julie and her husband had read the book as children and they had read the book to their children as they were growing up. She had seen The Secret of Kells and she wanted to put the two together. That was the origin.”

Twomey has had an eventful decade or so. She has raised two children. She coaxed Cartoon Saloon into its current world-beating status. On top of all that, during the making of The Breadwinner, she was diagnosed with cancer.

“Life happens to everyone,” she says in her relaxed manner. “Everything that happens in my life deepens my experience as a storyteller. I’m glad to get the opportunity to make more films and to have got the all-clear to continue doing what I’m doing. But everybody in our world is touched by cancer in some way, shape, or form.”

Twomey is a Cork woman. Educated at St Mary’s High School in Midleton, she left school at 15 and spent some time working in a vegetable processing factory. “My job was to sit there watching frozen or dried vegetables on the conveyor belt and pick out the black bits,” she told this newspaper in 2018.

She feels the time spent grading peas held her in good stead — allowing her to contemplate future plans. She was eventually admitted to Ballyfermot and moved through the now legendary animation department. This is not a million years ago, but the notion that one could advance on Hollywood from such beginnings would have seemed absurd in the mid-1990s.

“I went through secondary school in the mid-80s. I left by the age of 15 and fell through the cracks entirely,” she says. “Certainly, that wasn’t a career choice at the time. Nobody knew you could make a living out of drawing pictures or anything like that. I didn’t think there was any kind of a path forward for me. I was in my early 20s when I went back to college. I found that there were animation courses. Maybe I could make a living. And then that’s when I met Tomm and Paul.”

The partnership between Twomey, Moore and Young has remained the core of Cartoon Saloon ever since. Most press focuses on their high-profile features, but the operation also has a line in popular TV series such as Skunk Fu! and Puffin Rock. Throughout all those projects, the team has managed to maintain an independent aesthetic both on and off the screen.

Whatever the content, the Celtic spirit that first drew worldwide attention in The Secret of Kells remains present. Speaking to me from Texas, Tomm Moore makes an attempt to explain the trio’s professional dynamic and where Twomey fits in.

“Nora would be strong on story and editing,” he explains. “She does a lot of editing herself — even though she works with good editors. And she’d be very strong on the writing side. I’d always lean on her a lot for feedback on writing side. But she’s also an excellent artist. I suppose I focus a bit more on the design side of thing. Me and Paul are a bit more from an illustration point of view. But getting it’s kind of getting blurry as the years go by.”

We met in college as a group of friends who liked animating. We were inspired by each other’s work and just wanted to draw together

The end credits of My Father’s Dragon remind us of the enormous number of people required to get such a project on to the screen. We draw a line between the 2-D work for which Cartoon Saloon is known and the digital 3-D animation that Pixar pioneered in the 1990s. Computers are, of course, peripherally involved in the process of making any animated entertainment — any entertainment now — but, like so many in her field, Twomey feels the art still begins with a pen.

“It’s the paper that changed for us,” she says. “We draw on to a screen. And then, when we need a new page, we click and it gives us a new frame or a new page. It still is hand drawn. It is just the page that has changed. And the same is true of the artwork that forms the backgrounds in the film.”

She points out that backgrounds in the wilder sections of My Father’s Dragon still have that painted quality.

“You can see the artefacts of the brushstrokes,” she says. “And you can see the bunch of lines that form a character as they move around the screen. Those are all hand-drawn by one of our team of animators.”

The attitude is as important as the style. Over the last decade, Cartoon Saloon have emerged as friendly rivals to Netflix, Aardman, Universal and, of course, various bits of Walt Disney (Pixar and Fox are now both in that squad). We know they have to juggle large sums of money. We know they have to negotiate with major players.

Their last film, Wolfwalkers, was ultimately released by Apple. My Father’s Dragon was made in collaboration with Netflix. Yet they still give the impression of being a family operation run in relaxed style. One remembers the team standing merrily in front of Kilkenny Castle when the winner of the 2021 Oscar was announced. Wolfwalkers lost to Pixar’s Soul, but the Cartoon Saloon image was enhanced. Nobody could have mistaken them for moguls.

How did they pull this off? Where did they find the confidence?

“We weren’t really business people when we started off back in the in the late 90s. Ha ha!” Twomey says. “I think if we had written a five-year plan and tried to finance that five-year plan, somebody would have told us this doesn’t make any sense. ‘You shouldn’t be trying to make movies. Go away and work in a game company or join the big studios. Or try and sell your idea to one of those big studios.’

“Something like that. We met in college as a group of friends who liked animating. We were inspired by each other’s work and just wanted to draw together. We found a place in Kilkenny — for no rent. That’s how it started out. When The Secret of Kells was nominated it was a massive surprise.”

It was a bit of a strange experience going on red carpets for The Breadwinner, given the subject matter of the film

The professional and personal relationships must have changed over the years. They began with the late flushes of youth still visible on their cheeks. Now they are middle-aged folk with everyday middle-aged worries. Have there been shifts in power? Have responsibilities changed within the core trio?

“It’s a bit like a marriage,” Moore chips in. “It’s evolved a lot. But we’ve relied on each other. We’re more tight together because we’re taking financial risks together. I think it’s evolved in a positive way. At the start, I may have been a bit more like the lead singer. Paul would have been the person out kissing babies and shaking hands and trying to do deals. We find a way for each of us to be directors in our own right. I love to see Paul and Nora finding their own voices.”

Twomey is keen to stress the importance of working within a wider European framework. They co-operated with a French operation on My Father’s Dragon. The company is part of an animation community that sways together in the prevailing breezes.

“Things come and go. Everything happens in cycles,” she muses. “Even with Wolfwalkers we were having trouble selling that to start with. Then it became very hot all of a sudden. So we are used to things changing and conditions changing. They will continue to and we just continue to be a bunch of friends who like to make stuff together. That’s something that’s probably not going to change in those cycles — the way the industry does.”

Oscar season comes around and Cartoon Saloon finds itself in bed with Netflix. That has certain advantages and potential disadvantages. As Twomey notes, following its imminent theatrical release, My Father’s Dragon will be available to millions worldwide on the streaming service. Apple had a smaller subscription base when Wolfwalkers arrived there two years ago. On the other hand, Netflix has more to distract itself with. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild and Chris Williams’s The Sea Beast are also being handled by the company. All are potential best animated feature nominees.

“The potential for this film reaching audiences around the world with one click of a controller was something I couldn’t say no to,” Twomey says. “If a family can see this all around the world from November 11th then, as a storyteller, I am in. We were able to really dig into this story. It’s been a really interesting journey with Netflix and a really incredible one. But they’ve been supportive all the way through the pandemic. Remember, we ended up having to work from home and work from our bedrooms and all of that. They were just really supportive all the way through.”

She regrets missing so much of the Oscar hoo-ha during the Covid era.

“Apple came on to Wolfwalkers later on the project,” she says. “But they were fantastic putting the film out there. It was a pity it happened during the pandemic. But there were posters all up Sunset Boulevard.”

She was under considerably greater pressure during the Oscar campaign for The Breadwinner. Executive produced by Angelina Jolie, Twomey’s debut as sole director dealt with an 11-year-old girl’s trials under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The picture received a storming response at the Toronto International Film festival before picking up best film from the International Animated Film Association (the Annie), best animated film from the LA Film Critics Association and that Oscar nomination. Through it all Twomey was dealing with treatment for breast cancer.

“I don’t mind talking about it,” she says, when I approach the subject gingerly. “It’s life and life happens to everyone. So yeah, It was a bit of a strange experience going on red carpets for The Breadwinner, given the subject matter of the film — doing the whole Hollywood thing with a film that was really relevant, really serious and had a really special heart to it. That was a story that I was so proud to get out there, especially with everything that happened afterwards in Afghanistan. Initially it was a weird experience going on a red carpet, having had no hair months previously and with drawn-on eyebrows.”

Twomey continues in impressively measured fashion.

“It’s part of life. And the older we get, the more part of our life it becomes,” she says with a resigned smile. “I’m glad I am through it. But you can never turn your back and run completely from it. It’s always the spectre on your on your shoulder. But it certainly does change your perspective.”

My Father’s Dragon is released in cinemas on November 4th and streams on Netflix from November 11th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist