Becoming an animator: ‘Keep an open mind, be curious and observant’

Speaker’s Corner: The head of animation at Cartoon Saloon tells us about his trade

Fabian Erlinghäuser has more than 21 years industry experience at Cartoon Saloon where he works as assistant director on Nora Twomey’s upcoming feature film My Father’s Dragon. He has won many awards and worked on award-winning productions.

He was animation director on Cartoon Saloon's Academy Award-nominated feature films The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells.

How did you first become interested in animation?

It started in childhood. Children are drawn to the design and colours in animation. It is viewed as children's entertainment but I didn't lose interest in it as I got older. I wanted to know how the images worked together. I was always drawing growing up – as is par for the course for children – but I kept that interest. The view that animation is not a proper job is gone. It is a strong and growing industry in Ireland.


What did you study at college?

I was a student in Ballyfermot College in Dublin. I learned classical animation and production – the pillars of animation as a career. I learned to draw anatomically. There are two types of animation principal: the basis of performance to make a character walk or jump with timing and the illusion of living you need to make sure that people believe the character is real emotionally.

Ireland seems to do really well in international animation awards – why is the industry so strong here?

In my opinion there was huge influence from the founding of the Sullivan Bluth studio in Dublin in the 1980s and 1990s. Classics like An American Tail were made there. They left a legacy for students like Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey that led to the founding of studios such as Brown Bag or Cartoon Saloon and created a talented workforce.

Then courses like in Ballyfermot – the Irish School of Animation – and now in a number of different colleges around the country. Right now is a really busy time in the animation industry in Ireland and it is so strong that people come from all over the world. I work with people from 40 different countries. It makes for a very international and very interesting environment. Now you don't need to move to Hollywood to work on a Hollywood movie.

What advice would you give to students interested in animation?

I think it is good to keep an open mind but also know what you would like to do – what it specifically is that interests you. Is it the character performances, designing characters or the production? To look at all the different disciplines and think what really interests you.

In my experience I was nurtured in Cartoon Saloon. I started as a character animator and then supervising. Nora Twomey is very generous to the people around her. It is important to nurture talent and make sure people have chances.

There are so many different disciplines so always keep an open mind and be curious and observant. Keep a sketchbook.

What does the success of The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells mean to you?

The success of those films meant we could look at a demand for stories that are not mainstream. We can tell stories that are difficult to tell or that handle more grown-up topics. You can address or teach a topic really well in animation and it shows that people really want to hear the less mainstream stories.

What is the best part about working on an animation film?

The best part is working with a team of like-minded people. Each has their strength. It is like in a football team, everyone has a different position. The biggest enjoyment is seeing a scene come out really strong and everyone has played their part. To see an audience laugh, cry or gasp is wonderful.

What style of animation do you like?

I am probably biased because I have been working in Cartoon Saloon a long time. I like the expressive graphic style of different productions.

Recently there was a movie Into the Spider-Verse – it had a slightly revolutionary style. It crossed the boundaries between comics and animation. So anything that plays with the medium, that pushes the boundaries of what can be done graphically and isn’t just formulaic, I find interesting.

Fabian is a speaker at the 2021 Higher Options expo. For more information go