By Phillip Walker
GALWAY, Ireland – Irish animation has experienced explosive growth in the past 10 years, with employment in the industry increasing by more than 2,000 percent, according to Screen Ireland, the national agency for film.
Despite the country’s small size and population, Irish studios produce much of the world’s animated children’s programming, regularly collaborating with international companies like Cartoon Network and Disney.
Some studios in Ireland have produced Oscar-nominated animated features as well, such as Cartoon Saloon’s “Wolfwalkers.” According to Screen Ireland, employment grew from 70 full-time jobs in 2012 to 1,600 workers in 2022.
Funding and Production
While animated film and television series are on the rise, short films are still a niche segment of the growing Irish animation field. Short filmmakers work within their own production and distribution system separate from the larger industry, according to Cliona Noonan, director of the animated short film “Soft Tissue.” Noonan said that as a result, funding for projects is hard to secure.
One alternative is for animators to self-fund his/her projects, meaning budgets can vary wildly, based on the amount of money a filmmaker invests in his/her project. This often means that an animator must sacrifice part of his/her income to put towards a project he/she believes in. Animators who are self-funding will either work jobs with television studios or freelance to save up for their passion projects, sometimes knowing they may even lose money on the film, Noonan said.
Joe Loftus has produced three short films and works at a television studio based out of Ireland. However, he said he was unable to secure funding for his most recent animated short, “Still Up There,” and had to recruit friends to help with voice acting, animation, and sound design, creating the film without a budget.
He said his team worked on the film purely as a passion project, without any expectation for payment.
“Everyone on crew has added something that I didn’t expect,” Loftus said. “It’s grown into something that is miles better than what I would make on my own.”
Noonan said that, since animation is such a small community, animators will often work with the same cast and crew on multiple projects. Noonan and Loftus said the industry is all about “who you know” since work often has to be done without a budget.
“They signed up knowing that there probably wouldn’t be any money,” Noonan said. “So, I guess you have to be lucky, or you have to get people around you who equally want to make something.”
Government programs help seed filmmaking projects, with programs such as Screen Ireland’s Frameworks. The agency describes Frameworks as “an initiative for the support of short animation film-making” and “a flagship scheme for the Irish animation sector.”
According to the Frameworks website, they fund a pair of two-minute short films per year, with a maximum budget of 20,000 euros, as well as two five-minute short films per year with a maximum budget of 55,000 euros.
Screen Ireland requires that applicants go through an established studio they have worked with previously in order to acquire funding. Noonan said that the program is the main method of receiving funding for animated shorts in Ireland.
An initiative called the National Talent Academy for Animation (NTAA) was established by Screen Ireland in 2021. NTAA is designed to support emerging animators, specifically those from diverse backgrounds, according to their website.
Rather than funding, NTAA offers workshops, mentoring programs, and networking events “to support and nurture new and emerging Irish based creative talent, with a particular focus on diverse and regional talent,” according to their website.
Rachel Fitzgerald, who directed “Cost of Curiosity,” said animated shorts are an independent part of the Irish media industry, separate from the studios that make television series and feature films.
“I think there are so many independent filmmakers in Ireland, that would kind of be where my community would lie,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re just a lot of people who like to make films and we make a lot of short films, and I think within that community there is a lot of hand-drawn animation of really high quality.”
Short Film Distribution
Marta Sniezek and Christian Spurling, two recent graduates from the National Film School at Dublin, co-directed an animated short film titled, “Small Hours,” during their time at the university.
According to Sniezek, there are challenges for young filmmakers that come with trying to emerge into an industry where networking is essential to finding your next job.
Sniezek and Spurling debuted “Small Hours” at the 2022 Galway Film Fleadh, which featured an animated shorts category.
Animators here said festivals are what keep the animation short film industry going. Since movie theaters only show feature-length films, submitting to a festival is the most common way of distributing a short film.
“Now that we’re done with college, I have to say producing has been kind of a challenge,” Sniezek said. “You kind of have to pitch your idea to different [production] companies and hope that they want to produce your film. I recently got funding from Frameworks with Screen Ireland, and that was like a formal process, but informally you kind of have to go to events like this.”
Animators can either submit their work to festivals or hire a company to do it for them, both Noonan and Spurling said. These companies look at a variety of festivals and suggest appropriate ones where films might get attention. Spurling said hiring a company isn’t something that is easily affordable at this stage in his career.
Submitting and keeping films in the festival system is like a full-time job for young producers. Spurling said that in Ireland, the Galway Film Fleadh is an important outlet for bringing attention to films and creators.
“There are obviously government bodies that commission films or support films, and they’ll have their own distribution system, but, generally speaking, if you make a film, like in our case, you’re doing all the distribution yourself,” Spurling said.
Noonan’s film “Soft Tissue” also showed at Film Fleadh.
“Really [distribution] is just submitting to festivals,” Noonan said. “The more you get into, the more your film gets advertised.”
Noonan said she plans to eventually post “Soft Tissue” online, which is the distribution route for most animated short films. Once a project runs the festival course for a year, the animator will post them online for viewers to watch for free. Since the film is not generating income, Noonan said the economics is the biggest challenge animators face trying to emerge into the industry.
COVID-19 and Industry Growth
While the pandemic shuttered film studios and theaters, restrictions in Ireland actually spurred some animators to create short films with their time. Noonan said the shutdown ended up being helpful for the Irish animation industry, since collaborative work could be done remotely and doesn’t require cameras and locations, like live-action filmmaking.
Phil Shanahan, director of “Tides of Time,” also said Covid was helpful in getting animation work.
“I’m very lucky to say that I never stopped working throughout the pandemic,” Shanahan said. “I probably worked too hard.”
Animators involved with the 2022 Film Fleadh say the nature and themes of their films reflect the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of “Small Hours” the feeling of longing for connection became highly prevalent as a result of the isolation brought about by the lockdown.
“We just wanted something that would make people feel warm and fuzzy inside,” Spurling said.
Irish animation is a growing part of the media industry, bringing increased recognition for animators. The Oscar nominations for films by Cartoon Saloon were cited by Spurling as evidence of Ireland’s growth in this industry. He said that the studio is a spearhead for Irish animation, and part of being an Irish animator is pushing them along into the global animation industry. Sniezek said she is happy to be a part of that growth as an animator working in Ireland.
“It’s a proud feeling, because it just means that Irish people are very persistent,” Sniezek said. “We’re very motivated.”
Sniezek said that this persistence is because Irish animators tend to stick to their vision for a story, rather than what economic trends will tell them is most profitable. According to Spurling, international recognition for Irish animated feature films is an inspiration for him to continue his career.
“As long as, as a country, we keep innovating, keep creating; we don’t just get stagnant and stuck in our ways, we’ll stay on the world stage,” Spurling said. “We’ll contend with the big kids one day.”