Toontime in Ballyfermot


Four of this year’s Oscar nominees are past pupils of Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s animation department. Talk about raising the bar for the current crop of students, writes FIONA McCANN

THE OUTSIDE walls of Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s arts block may be as drab and colourless as any other third-level institute on a rainy spring morning, but inside they’re chequered with colour. Most of it comes from student drawings, storyboards and project sketches, images tacked all along the corridors.

The only text visible is from the newspaper photocopies that now have pride of place. They’re all articles relating to four individuals who each spent their time shuffling through these corridors, but have gone on since to successful careers culminating in a trip to Hollywood that will see them shuffling down the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

Richie Baneham, who has already won a Bafta for his work on the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, is up for a best visual effects Oscar on Sunday, while Darragh O’Connell and Nicky Phelan have been nominated in the short-film category for Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty. Former student Tomm Moore has also been nominated, as the director of The Secret of Kells, which is up for the Oscar for best animation.

The four Irishmen will take their seats on Sunday alongside Hollywood’s glitterati, thousands of miles from the place they studied the skills that helped get them there.

So how much is down to talent and individual achievement, and how much credit can this college take for producing Oscar nominations? “We must be doing something right if they’re able to move on and be nominated for Oscars!” says animation tutor Eddie Hallahan, who taught both Moore and, more recently, Phelan. Was it always clear that these guys were destined for greatness? “Tomm was always very, very gifted. He would have stood out,” admits Hallahan. Yet what he recalls most about both his former pupils is their passion for animation and their commitment to the work involved. “They were both hard workers and they both loved what they were doing.” There are a number of ingredients necessary to have a shot at success. “Obviously you do need to have an innate artistic talent at the beginning, and obviously the principles of animation can be taught, the process, the technology, the skills can be taught, but also you need to love what you do, you need to have an interest and enthusiasm that really helps carry you through,” says Hallahan. “Animation is hard work. It takes a lot of time. You need to like it.” He points out that Moore started work on the seeds of what was to become The Secret of Kellswhile still in college at Ballyfermot over 12 years ago and that Baneham worked on Avatarfor four and a half years.

One student, hard at work on an animation project as we pass through the classrooms where O’Connell, Baneham, Moore and Phelan honed their skills, admits the two-and-a-half minute short he’s currently working on will have taken nine months to complete by the time he’s done.

Yet these are students freshly motivated by the successes of their predecessors. “I feel kind of optimistic about things,” says Sanna Myllykangas, in her second year of a Higher National Diploma in Classical and Computer Animation. “I feel inspired. I don’t feel pressured. It’s encouraging to know that people who did these courses had such success.”

Megan McMahon, who is studying for an Advanced Diploma in Animation, concurs. “It brings it home a bit more. I think encouraging is definitely the word. There’s a little bit of pressure there, but it’s good pressure. It raises the bar.” Rory Wolahan, also on the Advanced Diploma in Animation course, admits the success of the four Oscar nominees does put down a marker. “It shows what can be achieved. But that’s down to the individual more than anything else. We can’t all be Oscar winners!”

As Wolahan points out, four Oscar nominations in the 21 years since the first animation course at Ballyfermot was established is not necessarily a guarantee of success. Yet as Hallahan sees it, the fact that this Sunday’s ceremony boasts four Ballyfermot College graduates among the nominees does help motivate those following in their footsteps.

For his part, Baneham paid tribute to his alma mater on a recent visit to the college, where he was joined by the other Oscar-nominated graduates. “The teachers were fantastic and there’s a lot of lessons in the four years that we were here,” he said.

McMahon was at the talk he gave and the question and answer panel with all the nominees. “It was an electric atmosphere,” she recalls. “They were talking about their darkest days and how to get through them. As a student, you’d have self doubt, but you think if they had it and got through it, you can too. We’re hoping to do them proud, because we’re the next generation.”

They may find things a little easier in the wake of Baneham, Moore, O’Connell and Phelan. “It’s easier for these students to get on because these guys have broke some ground and paved the way for them,” says Hallahan. “Their international reputation is developed, so hopefully they get more work, they get bigger projets and there’s more work for the students . . . It filters all the way down, and it’s all indigenous, it’s home grown, it’s exactly what they’re looking for in the smart economy.”

Recalling the recent visit of the four past pupils, Hallahan describes “a great feeling of camaraderie . . . They had this shared experience of being here and Ballyfermot has that – both the past and present students do feel a camaraderie, a shared experience, a shared road.”

Would any of them have made it to the Hollywood red carpet without Ballyfermot College? Who knows? What is clear is that a certain kind of chutzpah also helps. On the wall of one of the animation classrooms hangs a sketch by Tomm Moore, a cartoonish cityscape with a director’s chair in the foreground, emblazoned with the legend: “1998 – Tomm Moore, Director”. Twelve years on, the director of the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kellshas shown that with persistence, even student sketches can be brought to life.