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How an Irish town became home for an animation powerhouse



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By Jake Coyle , New York, Apr. 11 : The medieval town of Kilkenny in the southeast of Ireland is an unlikely home for a perennial Oscar contender.

But there, among cathedral spires and castle parapets, the animation studio Cartoon Saloon has carved out a factory of hand-drawn artistry and local folklore that has persisted and flourished well beyond its creators’ expectations

When Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, directors of the enchanting Oscar-nominee “Wolfwalkers,” met growing up in Kilkenny — or even after they finished college and were setting out as animators any success seemed sure to be found in typical entertainment epicentres like London, New York or Los Angeles.

Instead, they decided to stay in Kilkenny with the mission of making a single film. (It turned out to be 2009’s Oscar-nominated “The Secret of Kells.”) Their beginning staff of 12 worked out of an old orphanage. Twelve years later, there are nearly 400 working for Cartoon Saloon and their sister studio, Lighthouse Studios, in the heart of Kilkenny.

The Lighthouse offices are housed in the secondary school Moore and Stewart once attended — a very sports-centric school, recall directors.

“Our teenage selves would be glowing with pride,” Stewart says.

“Revenge of the nerds, I’ve always said,” adds Moore.

Formed when much of the animation world was following Pixar into computer generated animation, Cartoon Saloon is an underdog no more. “Wolfwalkers,” their most ambitious film — one that completes Moore’s trilogy of Irish folklore begun with “The Secret of Kells” and continued with 2014’s “Song of the Sea” — is expected to give Pixar’s “Soul” a run for its money at the Academy Awards later this month. “Wolfwalkers” marks the studio’s fifth Oscar nod.

The independent studio now has some very deep-pocketed backers in Apple, which released “Wolfwalkers” along with theatrical distributor GKIDS. Cartoon Saloon’s next film, an adaptation of “My Father’s Dragon” by Cartoon Saloon co-founder Nora Twomey, is for Netflix.

Founded in 1999 by Moore, Twomey and producer Paul Young, Cartoon Saloon has arrived at these heights by doing everything they weren’t supposed to — making uncompromising, authentically Irish, hand-drawn animation in Moore and Stewart’s hometown. No one is more surprised than they are about how it’s all turned out.

“People just told us we were mad,” says Moore, chuckling.

“Wolfwalkers” is a fitting pinnacle for Cartoon Saloon because it’s set right in Kilkenny. The film, streaming on Apple TV+ and recently brought back into theaters, is about Robyn, the daughter of a British soldier in 17th-century Ireland, who comes upon a “wolfwalker” — a human who can take the form of a wolf.

That, naturally, comes from mythology, but the historical backdrop of “Wolfwalkers” is true; this is the time of Oliver Cromwell’s brutal invasion of Ireland.

Set between the woodcut-styled drawings of the British-controlled castle and incredibly lush, swirling forests, “Wolfwalkers” is — like Cartoon Saloon, itself — a tale of reclamation.

“I definitely felt these three movies that I directed and co-directed were about speaking back to the next generation stuff that I was afraid was going to be completely lost,” Moore says by Zoom from Kilkenny, alongside Stewart.

“I had grown up being completely immersed in Batman comics and Japanese and American cartoons and didn’t realize this was all around me.”

Increasingly, they’re finding a flock of animators from across Europe eager to follow in their footsteps, as Ireland’s answer to Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

For “Wolfwalkers,” Moore showed the storyboard artists the intensely period-appropriate horror film “The Witch” for inspiration.

One artist got so into capturing the era that she drew constellations as they were in the 1650 sky.

“When people come here, they’re taking a risk,” says Young. “They’re coming to live in your small town. You better have work for the when they get here.”

With a now teeming staff, the earlier, scrappier days of Cartoon Saloon are still vivid to the founders. When their first Oscar nomination was announced, for “The Secret of Kells,” they were in a meeting working out how to stay financial afloat for the next two months.

“We survived, but it was tough times,” recalls Young. “At the early stage, the mistake we made was thinking: If we’ve got money, we’re hiring artists. I think what we needed was a few more account-types.”

Twomey, who directed the studio’s Afghanistan-set 2017 feature “The Breadwinner,” disagrees.

“But if we did, they would have definitely told us that there’s no money in independent film.

It doesn’t make any sense. You should try to be like the big studios. And we would have lost all our freedom,” she says. “I’m glad our hearts were in the right place, and our hands were in the right place.”

Stewart, art director on “Kells,” a concept artist for Laika’s “ParaNorman” and a painter, always believed hand-drawn animation had more potential. Unlike digital technology, it doesn’t age.

In “Wolfwalkers,” you can often see pencil lines have deliberately been left in. Moore wanted to be even more experimental on “Wolfwalkers,” playing with aspect ratios and perspectives.