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Q&A with Irish Filmmaker Kealan O'Rourke
26 Nov 2013 : By Kevin Cronin
'BB agus Bella', the first Irish language pre-school animated series for TG4, produced by Igloo Films.
National Film School graduate Kealan O’Rourke - best known for his animated short ‘The Boy in The Bubble’ – is now attached to several major films in development including 'Bolivar', 'Emily the Strange', and 'The Houdini Box'.

Winner of last year’s IFTA for Best Animation, ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ has also picked up awards at the Galway Film Fleadh, the Omaha Film Festival and the Palm Springs International ShortFest – confirming O’Rourke as a rising animation talent.

Ahead of the debut of his new Irish language pre-school series ‘BB agus Bella’ on TG4 this December, Mr O’Rourke spoke to IFTN about a career that has led him from making imaginative shorts like ‘Fairycatcher’ to big-budget literary adaptations for Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Universal in the space of a few years.

Kealan, can you tell us a bit about how you became involved in ‘BB agus Bella’, based on the Irish speaking teddy bear? What attracted you to the project?
I was approached by producers Brian Willis and Adrian Devane about developing a series based on the Irish speaking bear Bábóg Baby, which Adrian had brought to market. I had worked previously with Brian and Adrian on ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ and ‘Fairycatcher’. It was a very open brief and I came up with the idea of adding a little girl named Bella. She is this curious, inventive little girl and when she needs to learn something, she journeys to a magical forest with her toy bear BB. In this world BB comes alive and they set off on an adventure with the other magical animals that live in this forest. And through her journeys, she learns a specific thing in each episode like counting, colours, shapes, etc.

I was attracted to the project as I haven’t done an animated series before. As it is for a pre-school audience, it was a great opportunity to work with more basic animation techniques but still find a way to develop a striking style. I felt that most pre-school shows on TV are looking more and more similar and I wanted to do something that looked a bit different. We researched a lot of illustrators of children’s books and finally came across Ciara Ní Dhuinn, a great Irish graphic designer working and living in the U.S. She has such a wonderfully quirky style that was simple enough to lend itself well to pre-school animation but also featured really clever use of patterns and textures. When you see the show in high definition you really notice that almost every element, grass, sky, trees all have very detailed patterns incorporated into them which gives the series a very unique and somewhat tangible feel.

What were the challenges in creating a programme aimed at pre-school kids, apart from the fact it’s in Irish? We had great help from our early learning advisors from SmartLab and they had a lot of great ideas on story and design elements that may connect with younger viewers. If anything the challenge was simplifying and refining all the ideas that were on the table into a format that we could repeat episode to episode. With a show like this, you want to let younger viewers get used to a rhythm and a familiarity with the world.

‘The Boy in the Bubble’ has won many awards, including the IFTA for Best Animation. Did the success of the short open a lot of doors for you in Hollywood? Were you surprised by the scale of the positive reaction it received?
There is no doubt that it got things rolling. I think as a filmmaker exploring your craft through short films with a view to moving on to feature length projects, ultimately you have to get to a stage where the story and visuals all connect. I had learned so much from my previous shorts and was very confident visually, so that going into ‘The Boy in the Bubble’, it was all about the story. Everything has to support the story and when you do that, you end up with a more meaningful result. ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ certainly got people’s attention, particularly in Hollywood, but the short only gets you so far. It gets you the initial meetings but at that stage it is all about what other ideas you have. So when I went over for those first meetings, I was sure to have a bagful of concepts ready to talk about.
I’m constantly surprised at how fast the studio system can move, particularly in the early stages of development. It is a very refreshing atmosphere where good ideas can really open up any door. I still find it incredibly surreal looking at the last year, having secured major studio deals with Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox and Universal.

Can you give us a brief update as to what stage you’re at with the big three projects you are working on at the moment - ‘Bolivar’, ‘Emily the Strange’, and ‘The Houdini Box’?
At the moment I can’t say a whole lot about the projects in development. As I’m starting these projects from scratch, the development process will be long and no doubt eventful! I can say that I have completed drafts for both ‘Bolivar’ and ‘The Houdini Box’ and we’re really happy with them. Universal have just signed off on my treatment for ‘Emily the Strange’ and I’m just beginning my first draft on what is a really exciting project.
And a little closer to home, I’m developing a feature length version of ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ with the Irish Film Board, producer Brian Willis and writer Will Collins.

Who were your biggest creative influences growing up, in terms of animators or directors you admired?
The early Disney movies and shorts from the 1930’s were a huge subconscious influence on me. My favourite and probably most influential movie is still Disney’s Pinocchio from 1939. But saying that I love all kinds of film. From a design point of view I’m hugely inspired by German Expressionism, I’ve always loved that blurring of reality and fantasy worlds. Certainly as a child of the 80’s, Spielberg is engrained in my consciousness and I’m finding him to be a huge influence on my feature work. And as a teenager I discovered the joys of Vincent Price and haven’t been the same since - my favourites being his collaborations with Roger Corman on the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, particularly ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’.

Would you have any career advice for anyone interested in studying animation or filmmaking?
I can only talk from my own experiences but one thing I’ve certainly found thus far is that there are no rules to making a career for yourself in film. Don’t view Live-Action and Animation as different things, it’s all about telling stories. Today more than ever, the two mediums are becoming so entwined, so get as much experience of both as you can. There is no step by step guide. The most important thing is to make your own path to find and create stories that fulfil you. Everything outside of that will happen on its own. If you’re getting into this for money or awards, then you’re going to have a very short and disappointing career. If you have the talent, be patient and develop your craft and people will see it. The breaks will come if you stick at it and the most important thing is to be prepared when they do.

Are you working on any other projects you would like to mention?
One of the most refreshing and also intimidating things about working in the Hollywood system is just how many projects you work on at the same time. Because projects take so long to develop and most never see the light of day, it is really important not to put all your eggs in one basket. So yes there are other projects both original and adapted that I’ve been developing with some great producers here, the U.K. and U.S. that I hope to be able to share with you soon.

‘BB agus Bella’, produced by Dublin-based Igloo Films, will begin on TG4 in December.


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