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25 Years Of Cartoon Saloon: The Story Of Ireland's No. 1 Animation Studio

Ireland might seem an unlikely place for the birth of an animation revolution. But the Irish town is the home of Cartoon Saloon, the five-times Oscar-nominated studio. 2024 marks the studio's 25th anniversary- and what a long way they've come.

Their latest feature film Puffin Rock and The New Friends is a big-screen spin-off of their preschool television series, Puffin Rock. Like the series that preceded it, the movie was co-produced by Northern Ireland-based studio Dog Ears. The film was originally released in Ireland and the UK in 2023. After festival screenings at the New York International Children's Film Festival and elsewhere, it was released digitally in the United States this April.

Cartoon Saloon was founded in Kilkenny in 1999 by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey and Paul Young. The three had all studied animation at  Ballyfermot College of Further Education. They dreamed of producing animated features from the very beginning, even if the funding and resources were out of their reach at the time. They produced a proof-of-concept trailer for their first feature The Secret Of Kells within their first year. It wouldn't go into full production until 2005, and in the meantime, the studio had to produce work-for-hire productions such as advertisements and corporate videos. At the time, the studio employed 12 people, and as well as animation they also worked on website design and CD ROM production. 

By 2005 the studio was able to secure the funding, and co-producers came on board with French/Belgian studios Les Armateurs, Vivi Film and France 2 Cinema, with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey co-directing. The film very much set the standard that would become a hallmark of the studio. The 'house style' that would be used in most of their subsequent films was first established here. The art was part cartoonish and part inspired by illuminated manuscripts (such as the real-life Book of Kells) and Celtic art. They also took inspiration from Richard Williams's unfinished opus The Thief and The Cobbler, Mulan and the work of Hayao Miyazaki in the way they incorporated cultural artwork. The film opened to near-universal praise, although there was some criticism of the portrayal of an African character. Nonetheless, the film earned the studio their first Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Moore would fly solo for the studio's second feature Song Of The Sea. The film again took quite some time to produce, arriving in 2014. It was a co-production with Luxembourg's Melusine Productions, Big Farm, Super Productions and Noerlum Studios. Again drawing from Irish mythology but this time in a contemporary setting, it follows the siblings Ben and Saorise. Ben discovers his little sister is a selkie (an Irish mythological seal that can take on human form). The brother and sister end up on an adventure to free the fairies and save the spirit realm.

Song of The Sea feels like a much more ambitious film than Kells, and ups the game in almost every respect. The art and animation are an evolution of the style seen in their previous feature, and it is one of the most visually distinctive animated features out there. Everyone involved is at the top of their game. It earned Cartoon Saloon their second Oscar nomination. Closer to home, Song Of The Sea won the Best Film at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards.

The third feature they released was definitely a change of direction. Leaving Ireland (metaphorically) for the first time, their next film was set in Afghanistan. Based on the popular book The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, the film was the solo directorial debut of Nora Twomey.  In depicts 11-year old Parvana, living under the Taliban regime (the first time). When her father is unfairly imprisoned, she must disguise herself as a boy to be able to support her family. This is a very different type of film for the studio and it can get quite intense (it earned a 12A certificate in the UK).It really shows that they can make more than just Irish films.

The coming-of-age tale was co-produced with Canada's Aircraft Pictures, Guru Studio, Melusine Productions and Angelina Jolie's Jolie Pas. Jolie was also an executive producer on the film. The artstyle is definitely still within the house style, but it has a less colourful pallet reflecting the harshness of Parvana's world. That is except for in several colourful fantasy sequences, which vary the animation style. The film earned Cartoon Saloon their third Oscar nomination in a row, as well as winning Best Animated Feature- Independent at the Annie Awards.

It was back to Ireland for their next film, 2020's Wolfwalkers. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, it was their most visually dazzling film yet, with the designs taking on a more organic hand-drawn quality. Set in Kilkenny in the seventeenth century, where young English apprentice hunter Robyn has come with her hunter father to try and wipe out the last wolf pack. She befriends a local girl named Mebh, who turns out to be a wolfwalker, able to take on the form of a wolf when she sleeps.

The film was acquired by Apple for streaming, although it did get limited cinemas releases in Ireland, The United States, The United Kingdom and elsewhere- limited even further by Coronavirus restrictions.The film earned the studio another Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature as well as a Best Animated Feature- Independent, and several other gongs at the Annie Awards. It was perhaps Cartoon Saloon's most acclaimed film to date- and that's saying a lot. Sadly, the box office was a bit behind their earlier films, but the release was affected by pandemic restrictions.

The Secret of Kells, Song of The Sea and Wolfwalkers have become retroactively known as 'The Irish Folklore Trilogy'. The three films have been released as a deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD box-set on both sides of the Atlantic. The box-set is the only way you can get Wolfwalkers on disc- it's otherwise streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

Nora Twomey made her return as director for their next film My Father's Dragon. Twomey collaborated with writer Meg LeFauve, best known for scripting Inside Out, based on the American children's book by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Produced for Netflix and with a largely US-based voice cast, it's their most international film to date. Still, they managed to find room for a role for local lad Chris O'Dowd, who is something of a good luck charm for the studio, having appeared in Puffin Rock.

My Father's Dragon didn't attract the same avalanche of praise and awards as earlier films, although the reviews were largely positive. There was no Oscar nomination this time, but it did win a Special Jury Prize at the Animation Is Film Festival, where it received its US premiere.

But movies are only part of the story. As well as Puffin Rock, they have worked on several other TV series including Skunk Fu, Anam an Amhráin and Vikingskool (which is available streaming on Disney+). Moore and Stewart are said to be working on an "epic" Irish-mythology-based TV series for Apple, but we await more news on that one.

They have also produced several animated shorts, starting with Nora Twomey's From Darkness in 2002 and also include Old Fang, Somewhere Down The Line and The Ledge End Of Phil: From Accounting. Late Afternoon, directed by Louise Bagnall won the studio their next Oscar, this time for Best Animated Short.

While directing Wolfwalkers, Moore somehow found time to co-direct an animated short for a cause very close to his heart. There's A Monster In My Kitchen was made in support of Greenpeace, and was co-directed by Fabian Erlinghauser. Moore also produced a segment for Roger Allers's anthology Kahil Gibran's The Prophet.

And in "dream come true" territory, Cartoon Saloon were invited to contribute to Lucasfilm's anthology series Star Wars Visions. Their segment Screecher's Reach was a stand out in a generally excellent series. Bringing the concept of ghost stories to the Star Wars universe, the segment gave studio co-founder Paul Young his directorial debut. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart also contributed design work to Mamoru Hosoda's Belle.

In the quarter century they've been around the studio has grown from those original dozen employees to a company employing 300 people and attracting talent from around the world. They also opened a second studio Lighthouse Studios, a joint venture with Canada's Mercury Filmworks Projects they have worked on include Rick and Morty, The Cuphead Show and The Bob's Burgers Movie.

Cartoon Saloon have done a wonderful job of spreading Irish culture to audiences around the world. but they've also shown they are anything but a one-trick pony and can tell stories from anywhere (even a galaxy far far away) just as well. They also prove that hand-drawn animation is certainly not dead- in anything its in more rude health than it's been in many a year.

The studio is often compared to a Gaelic Ghibli, and Tomm Moore in particular is frequently compared to Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike in many cases, with Cartoon Saloon the comparison feels apt. And there are few bigger compliments that can be paid in animation.

They are currently at work on their next feature Julián, which will be the feature debut of Louise Bagnall. Based on the picture book Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Set amongst New York's latino community, it looks to be new territory for the studio.

Beyond Julian, what does the future hold? Who can say? But we can be sure it's going to be exciting finding out! Beyond established auteurs like Moore and Twomey, there are several talents like Bagnall and Loraine Lordan who are coming up. And with five Oscar nominations in the bag- a haul any studio would envy- surely it's time they're due a win?