Though the movies budget was small by mainstream standards, it was significant for a tiny studio; at the peak of production, Cartoon Saloon employed eighty-five animators in Kilkenny. Luckily, Young had reserves of entrepreneurial charm. (Brother Aidans look was inspired by Young, Moore told me.) At an industry forum, he buttonholed Didier Brunner, the founder of a French studio called Les Armateurs, which ended up co-producing the film and helped it secure international distribution. Critics loved the movie, and it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It lost to Pixars Up, which had a budget many times as large.
Pete Docter, the director of Up, told me that when he first saw The Secret of Kells he was struck by how it defied prevailing trends. At the time, he said, it was all about 3-D, and Cartoon Saloon were instead embracing the graphic. They were embracing flatnessnot only the flatness of an animation tradition, but also of Celtic design, and merging these things together in ways that were really unexpected but also very sophisticated. In the studios approach to the form, he said, he recognized a countercultural force.
No one expected a childrens film about manuscript-making monks to be the next Lion King, and no one was disappointed when it wasnt. (The studio told me that the movie made around two million dollars.) After it was finished, Cartoon Saloon shrank to twelve people in a single office. Stewart went to Laika Studios, a stop-motion outfit near Portland, Oregon, which also released its dbut feature in 2009, the Oscar-nominated Coraline. Moore told me that everyone at Cartoon Saloon could have got on a flight to L.A. and walked into a job at a major studio; for a time, he thought about doing so. But, after the Oscars, I started to meet people who worked at Pixar and places like that, he said. And they were, like, Man, you guys are living the dream! Youre doing what everybody wishes they could do, making your own films in your own way.
It wasnt easy. The studio had no other projects far enough along in development to attract funding; Young, Moore, and Twomey all had to take out personal loans to keep the company afloat. But Moore had an idea, which had come to him while Kells was still in production. On a holiday in County Kerry, he was sketching on the beach with his son, who had recently turned ten, when they saw what appeared to be large rocks. As they got closer, they realized these were seals that had been clubbed to death. Ben was devastated. The family was renting a cottage from a local woman, who explained that fishermen blamed seals for the declining fish population. The real culprit was overfishing. In the old days, she said, it would have been considered bad luck to kill a seal.
The remark reminded Moore of stories hed heard as a child about selkies, mythical creatures who changed from human to seal form and back again. When people believed in those stories, there was a better, more pantheistic way of looking at the world, he told me, rather than just simplifying everything down to the very commercial logic of The seals are eating the fish, were losing money, kill the seals. With the Irish screenwriter Will Collins, he wrote a story about a ten-year-old boy named Ben, who lives on the coast with his father, a lighthouse keeper named Conor, and his mute and seemingly haunted little sister, Saoirse. Their mother has disappeared. Conor, lost in grief, sends the children to live with their overbearing grandmother in Dublin. Saoirse becomes ill: she and her mother, Ben discovers, are selkies. Saoirse and Ben journey back to the coast, and on the way they encounter a group of fairy folk and a sinister owl-witch named Macha, who steals emotions and keeps them in jars.
Ive watched Song of the Sea with my seven-year-old more than once. His cousin has a small but pivotal role in the filmwhen Saoirse finally sings the titular song, the voice you hear belongs to my niece, Lucy OConnellbut my son is indifferent to her star turn. He reacts strongly, on the other hand, to a scene in which Ben confronts Macha, who has taken Saoirse captive. Youre so full of emotions! Macha says. I can see them in your face. Nasty, terrible things! Macha is voiced by the great Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan, who also provides the voice of the grandmother, and there is an uncanniness to the character, at once predatory and maternal. She gazes at Ben with fiery raptors eyes and strokes his face with hands both soft and lethally taloned. All this seems to overwhelm my son in a way that most of the cartoons he watches never do, because they are precisely calibrated not to. Song of the Sea holds his attention but doesnt condescend to it; the movie is more expertly paced than Kells, but stretches of it are quiet and elegiac.
If you go back and watch Bambi, its very slow and lyrical, Moore told me. Its a little tone poem of a film, compared to what Disney would do now, with their story science, where like every ten minutes something happens that moves the character on to the next bit. Theres a really clear formula for keeping kids engaged now. Cartoon Saloon doesnt exactly ignore this formulathe studio makes adventure stories with child heroes who follow clear narrative arcs. But its movies allow the viewer space to dream and to wander.
Song of the Sea earned Cartoon Saloon its second Oscar nomination, and made more than twice as much at the box office as Kells did. This time, there was streaming money, too. We had Amazon writing a big check, without us having to do much of that work at all in terms of distribution, Gerry Shirren, a onetime Sullivan Bluth production employee who is now Cartoon Saloons managing director, told me. Days before the Oscar nomination was announced, the studio released its second TV series, Puffin Rock, created by Moore and Young with Lily Bernard, then a background artist at the studio. A peaceful show about a puffin named Oona and her gentle adventures on a little island, it became a surprise hit on the Chinese streaming platform Tencent Video, where it was watched fifty-five million times in its first six weeks. It ran for two seasons, was nominated for an Emmy, and is now on Netflix. After sixteen years, Cartoon Saloon had chanced upon something like commercial stability.
This past summer, shortly after Irelands internal travel restrictions were lifted, I met Paul Young, now a bespectacled fortysomething with a neat red beard, at one of the studios three offices in Kilkenny. It was nearly emptyalmost all the animators were still working from home. As we walked through the I.T. department, Young plucked a stuffed animal from a shelf. It was Oona; a line of plush toys will go into production next year, to coincide with the release of a Puffin Rock movie. Young made a point of saying that the prototypes manufacturer had strict standards for sustainability and fair trade. Later, Moore told me the same thing, but he was plainly ambivalent about the prospect of commercial diversification. I used to sort of buy into that whole sustainable-consumption model, he said, but I dont see it that way anymore. You know, No ethical consumption under capitalism, and all that.
Moore originally imagined Cartoon Saloon as a kind of artists coperative. Its actual structure is more corporate than thatlargely, Moore said, because people prefer a regular paycheck and a gaffer they can complain about over pints on a Friday. There is necessarily some tension between the commercial possibilities offered by a successful studio and the vision that drew Moore to the work in the first place.
That hoped-for spirit does live on, everyone told me, in the culture of the studio. Louise Bagnall, who went to work there eight years ago, in her late twenties, said that, almost as soon as she was hired, she was encouraged to pitch ideas for things she wanted to make. Moore and his co-founders didnt want Cartoon Saloon to employ the industrial approach hed seen at Sullivan Bluth. Bagnall worked on the animation for Song of the Sea, and then on Cartoon Saloons third feature, The Breadwinner, which was directed by Twomey. Set in Kabul in 2001 and based on a young-adult novel by the Canadian writer Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is about an Afghan girl who is forced to earn a living when her father is imprisoned by the Taliban. An elegantly structured film, aimed at an older audience than the studios other features, it also has a distinct visual language, with clean-lined characters and a more realist style. The movie garnered the studio its third straight Oscar nod. Bagnall got a nomination the following year, for a short film she directed, called Late Afternoon.
While Moore, as a director, develops the art and the story for his films hand in hand, Twomey, Bagnall learned, focusses first on the narrative. She spends a lot of time, when directing, on whats called the animaticthe rough storyboard that is used for editing before the animation proper begins. She obsessively tweaks the narrative, doing many of the voices herself. Midway through production of The Breadwinner, she was diagnosed as having breast cancer; she would go in for chemo on a Friday, and feel well enough by Tuesday to get back to work. Work gave me some sense of normality, she said. I could look at a scene of animation, and if there was a problem with it I could fix it.
Shes now working on an adaptation of My Fathers Dragon, a childrens book from 1948 by the American author Ruth Stiles Gannett. It will be released by Netflix and will have the studios largest budget to date. Bagnall is the assistant director. Twomey, whose husband also worked in animation at Cartoon Saloon before becoming a stay-at-home dad, told me that the studio has begun to be shaped by a younger generation of animators, whose sensibilities were informed, in some cases, by watching The Secret of Kells as kids. Theres kind of a weird circular thing going on now, where they were influenced by us early on, and then in the meantime theyve taken on board lots of other influences and become themselves, and then were influenced by them in turn, she said. These days, one of the founders primary ambitions is that the studio outlive, and outgrow, their own involvement with it.
When the pandemic hit Ireland, in the spring, Wolfwalkers was in the final stages of production. Cartoon Saloons hand-drawn animation was mostly complete, and a skeleton crew in Kilkenny completed the visual effects. The films score was in the can; vocal tracks were recorded by singers in their own homes. The studios staff in Ireland had been working with overseas partners since the beginning, so Zoom was familiar to them long before it became the predominant global mode of workplace chatter.
Late in the summer, I finally met Moore in person, for lunch at an otherwise empty restaurant a short walk from one of the studios offices. Hed grown an impressive lockdown beard since I last saw his face on my laptop. As I studied the menu, he pointed to a subheading below the vegetarian section: Inspired by Cartoon Saloon. The company has more non-meat-eating staff than your typical Kilkenny business, he explained. Hed just returned from putting the finishing touches on Wolfwalkers, with Stewart, at a partner studio, in Paris. His fingernails had been painted matte graythe work of his granddaughter, he told me. Two years ago, Ben had a daughter, and Moore, at forty, became a grandfather. This clearly brought him great joy, but at first, he told me, hed found it difficult to accept that his son was about to have all the responsibilities of fatherhood. Various strands of anxiety, personal and political, became entangled: hed wake in the night terrified about climate change and capitalism and the kind of world that awaited his granddaughter. Shirren eventually took him aside, he said, and gave him a gentle pep talk about the negativity he was bringing to the office.
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