Freelance screenwriter Maria O’Loughlin attended last weekend's Annecy International Animation Film Festival, where she rubbed shoulders with the crème de la crème of the animation world, some Oscar-nominees, and 700 animated party-goers as the French festival cast its spotlight this year on Irish animation. But what does the attention mean, if anything, for the Irish animation industry as it pushes forward? Read her report here:
Asked if he was planning to attend the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland party at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival last Friday, legendary Aardman co-founder, Peter Lord is said to have replied, “Who isn’t?”
Along with Lord, over 700 people eventually rolled up at the party, which was co-hosted by Animation Ireland, a collective of companies that promotes Irish animation internationally.
In the ensuing melee at Finn Kelly’s Irish pub, Jackie Edwards of CBeebies, ‘Peppa Pig’ producer Phil Davies and all the Disney executives networked shoulder-to-shoulder with animation students from IADT and Ballyfermot College and Irish Oscar-nominees such as Nicky Phelan (Granny O’Grimm), Paul Young (The Secret of Kells) and Darragh O’Connell (Give Up Yer Aul Sins).
Legend in the animation world Jimmy Murakami (Where The Wind Blows), who won the Grand Prix here 50 years ago, held court with a group of star-struck German students, while representatives of all the Irish animation studios, including Keg Kartoonz, Monster Entertainment, Boulder Media, Monster Animation, Brown Bag, Cartoon Saloon, Jam Media, Kavaleer Productions and Giant Creative, happily held up the bar.
The party was the pinnacle of a week during which Annecy, the world’s most prestigious animation festival, celebrated Irish animation. Each year, the festival chooses one country to put in its spotlight - and this year, for the first time ever, it was Ireland’s chance to shine.
As a result, the main Bonlieu film exhibition area was festooned in green, white and orange for the week, while Irish-themed stings created by Irish animation students preceded all official programmes.
‘Forty Frames of Green’, a retrospective programme of 60 Irish works, curated by Galway Film Fleadh co-founder Steve Woods, received numerous screenings and Brown Bag’s Darragh O’Connell was to be seen out and about doing his duty on the short film competition jury. He himself joked about being, “the token Paddy”, but SDGI executive director Birch Hamilton was keen to put things in perspective: “Getting onto a jury at Annecy? In the world of animation, that’s rock star status.”
On Wednesday, the opening day of the festival’s MIFA industry market, Christophe Erbes, former head of programmes at Nickelodeon, Germany, chaired a ‘territory focus’ panel discussion which featured James Hickey, chief executive of the Irish Film Board, John Rice, CEO of Jam Media, Cathal Gaffney, CEO of Brown Bag and Gary Timpson, managing director of Kavaleer Productions.
Outlining the funding opportunities and tax incentives on offer in Ireland for both film and TV production, Hickey drew laughter when he quipped: “I think we’re so good at it, there is a terrible rumour going around that the UK is going to try and copy what we do.”
However, the reality is that even with RTÉ, BAI, Section 481 and Irish Film Board development funding in place, Irish animation companies still have to raise more than 50 per cent of their finance for TV and feature projects abroad. And so, the studio chiefs were here to demonstrate Ireland’s creativity and business acumen.
Cathal Gaffney grabbed their attention with the stat that every week, up to eight million children around the world watch Irish content. But when it came to the subject of Ireland’s recent bad press, he joked: “That was our bankers. We’d nothing to do with it. We make cartoons - and who’d have thought five years ago, we’d be the people in Ireland with the real jobs.”
The next day, the Irish Ambassador to France, Paul Kavanagh, endorsed this view at a lunch he hosted for the animation chiefs. Apparently, he laughed, Ireland produces twice as many hours of animation per year as Europe’s powerhouse, Germany.
Later on Thursday afternoon, the Irish Film Board and Enterprise Ireland hosted a networking reception attended by over 300 international animators, broadcasters and distributors. In his moving keynote address, Tomm Moore, the Oscar- nominated director of ‘The Secret of Kells’, charmed the assembled Danes, Fins, Indians, French, Germans and Canadians as he described how Irish animators draw on the wellspring of Ireland’s visual, musical and literary traditions.
Then came the party on Friday night. Gazing with quiet delight at the throng outside Finn Kelly’s pub, Jimmy Murakami, remarked: “This will put Irish animation on the map, seriously. And if you’re put on the map at Annecy, then you’re accepted throughout the world.”
According to Darragh O’Connell: “It’s the equivalent of Irish live-action directors going and hanging out with the likes of Guillermo del Toro or Tom Cruise, with all these guys high-fiving them in Cannes.”
Tomm Moore agrees that for animators, “This is our Cannes. But Cannes is a little bit superficial; it’s about ego and movie stars and glamour. Annecy is more about camaraderie and celebration and art.”
The word ‘nerd’ is often used in Annecy – and with good reason. The connoisseur audiences here have been known to boo loudly if a film displeases them or contains too much live-action. Indeed, the presence of numerous students adds an almost feral quality to the packed screenings, as they shower the stage with paper planes and make animal noises in the dark. Hearing that many of them had hitched their tents in campsites around the town, RTÉ’s Pauline MacNamara commented that perhaps Annecy is more Glastonbury than Cannes.
However, for all that it is a director’s festival, Tomm Moore admits that Annecy can also be good for business. When ‘The Secret of Kells’ won an audience award here in 2009, he said: “It was huge for us. It was the start of a path that led to the Oscar nomination because we started to get noticed by other festivals, then we started winning at 15 other festivals, and then we got noticed in the States and found an American distributor - just in the nick of time to qualify for the Oscars that year.”
But it wasn’t always thus for the Irish at Annecy. For decades, the only reason the Irish flag flew at all outside the Bonlieu was because of Jimmy Murakami. According to Steve Woods, “I think Annecy never gave Ireland a fair crack of the whip. They acknowledged people like Aidan Hickey and Jimmy Murakami, but they seemed totally unaware of the new stuff that was being nominated for Oscars. There was a bit of a blind spot. I’m quite sure we were seen as just service providers for American or UK-driven projects. They basically thought Irish animation was American because of the Sullivan Bluth legacy - and I suppose our animation does have a very strong American feel to it.”
This is perhaps why, to date, Irish animation has tended to be somewhat snubbed on the European animation scene. Darragh O’Connell comments: “It is ironic that neither of our most successful films – ‘Granny O’Grimm’ and ‘Give Up Yer Auld Sins’ - got into competition here. Annecy is known to be a bit avant garde and so I don’t think we’ve been taken as seriously by the arty-arty crowd.”
However, Woods believes that the Annecy audience award for ‘The Secret of Kells’ in 2009 and Tomm Moore’s subsequent appointment to a selection jury were major turning points because, “’Kells’ seemed to be totally made in Ireland – it wasn’t of course, it was a co-production - but the main work was in Ireland and there was a lot of Celtic aspects to it. I think it made them begin to realise that the studios here are Irish-owned and are driven by Irish creatives and we’re now a centre of excellence for producing both for ourselves and other countries.”
After ‘Kells’, Woods and Darragh O’Connell decided to approach Annecy’s artistic director, Serge Bromberg about making Ireland the focus country and it is due to their continued efforts, under the auspices of SGDI, that this goal was finally realised in 2012.
Still, both Woods and O’Connell expressed some disappointment that so few Irish films were selected, even this year. Chris O’Hara’s ‘A Different Perspective’ made it into the shorts competition, while Giant Creative’s ‘The Last Train’ competed in the commissioned films category and student Eamon O’Neill’s ‘I’m Fine Thanks’ was selected for the graduation film competition.
“I thought because we had this profile we would get more in,” said Woods. “This has been a learning curve and what I’ve discovered is we need to be on the selection juries. But maybe because we’re on the radar this year, there’ll be a greater awareness of Irish films next year.”
Still, there is a sense that Annecy is playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Christophe Erbes who chaired Wednesday’s panel discussion commented that the Irish reputation has been growing for some time now: “They’re known for being very dynamic and creative. In the storytelling, there is something very distinctive and ‘The Secret of Kells’ drew on traditional design. There is also a lot of feeling in the work - just look at ‘Tilly and Friends’ [Jam Media]. I think the Irish have a really well-researched, sensitive approach to the topics with long development and pre-production periods.”
Roddy McManus of the National Film Board of Canada goes even further. He described the place “just erupting” when one of the Irish stings came on during a screening he attended. “When I see Irish animation – there’s a special signature to it which is an embodiment of the people of Ireland and their stories and their wit. I wouldn’t call it angst, but it’s a great combination of the human spirit with a good dash of humour and pathos.
"I spent the last decade going to international festivals and markets and Irish animation really does punch above its weight class. You cannot just throw tax credits and economic factors and incentives at an industry and hope it grows. There has to be something really in the soil in order to grow it.
"In Ireland, there’s been a wonderful marriage of good financing initiatives and incentives, with talent through your schools and industry clusters. I get the impression you work as a team. There’s a community within Ireland that goes out to the world with animation. It’s not ‘I need my IFB money and I’m elbowing to the front of the line’. There’s a camaraderie there that you don’t find everywhere. It’s really, really rare.”
That camaraderie was very much in evidence throughout the week at Annecy and in particular, people seemed pleased that James Hickey, a noted lover of animation, was in attendance alongside IFB’s animation executive Emma Scott. Jimmy Murakami felt that, “It really is the first time that the Board has given that level of support for this festival.” It was seen by many as a new and welcome level of endorsement for the animation industry as a whole. However, Andrew Kavanagh, CEO of Kavaleer Productions, was also keen to pay tribute to the work of Enterprise Ireland and the way in which the state agencies now worked in tandem with SGDI and Animation Ireland.
However, the jury is still out on whether this year’s Annecy will lead to more actual business for the Irish industry. Steve Woods insists that the real significance of this year’s Irish focus is cultural and creative, but Andrew Kavanagh sees the business benefits too: “The fact that there were three events over three days was really useful. When you’re a small country, you’re often competing with bigger events. But this time, if people couldn’t make it to one event, they were able to make it to another one. I think a lot of extra networking got done as a result.”
Tomm Moore agrees: “One of the best pieces of advice we got when we set up the company was go to Annecy every year and don’t stop going - because you’re building up relationships and eventually relationships turn into deals and jobs. I think more Irish animation companies came than any other year before and that probably implies that there’ll be more deals and connections than ever before.”
Looking at all the young Irish students and young animators in attendance, veteran producer, Michael Algar of Keg Kartoonz commented: “There are so many of them now who can actually look forward to a career and lifetime working in animation in Ireland because there is a viable industry there now.” He then pointed to the Creative Capital Report, which suggests that the industry has the potential to double in size. Time will tell if this year’s Irish focus at Annecy 2012 will help to achieve that.