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Cartoon Saloon at 25: How the Irish Studio Behind ‘Wolfwalkers’ Became a Hand-Drawn Animation Powerhouse and Four-Time Oscar Nominee

The omission of “My Father’s Dragon” from the 2023 Oscar nominations list for best animated feature sparked murmurings of disapproval from within the industry. The Netflix film — directed by Nora Twomey and a gorgeously hand-drawn adaptation of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s beloved children’s fantasy novel — had been lapped up by critics, many of whom assumed it would easily make the cut.

But the disquiet only served to showcase the astonishing track record of “My Father’s Dragon’s” Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, which had earned an incredible four Oscar nominations from its first four features, starting with “The Secret of Kells” in 2009 and followed by “Song of the Sea,” “The Breadwinner” and “Wolfwalkers.”

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For Tomm Moore (who directed “The Secret of Kells,” “Song of the Sea” and “Wolfwalkers”), the lack of a nomination for “My Father’s Dragon” also highlighted just how far animation had come since he co-founded Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny alongside Twomey and Paul Young back in 1999.

“It showed that something amazing had happened in the industry that there were so many gorgeous films that year,” he tells Variety. “We kind of came out of nowhere and seemed like a breath of fresh air. But by the time of ‘My Father’s Dragon,’ Netflix also had its ‘Pinocchio’ stop-motion movie and there were so many other great films. So it’s a positive thing for the industry, even if it was a bit of a disappointment for us.”

Cartoon Saloon — which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year — certainly felt like a breath of fresh air when it came bursting out of the animation blocks with its first feature. Set in 9th century Ireland and based on local folklore, “The Secret of Kells,” was met with universal acclaim for its visually-stunning use of exquisite hand-drawn illustrations, with many saying it hearkened back to the golden age of animation while others were turning en masse to CGI. It became the first animation to be given a theatrical release by GKIDS Films.

The initial idea for what would become “The Secret of Kells” was already there in 1999 when a collection of about 10 people working loosely under the Cartoon Saloon banner first set up shop in what Moore describes as a “freezing cold former orphanage,” a space they were given rent-free as part of Kilkenny’s Young Irish Film Makers initiative. At the time, he says they were “just a gang of animation graduates” who weren’t yet ready for the real world. “We just wanted to keep doing what we’d been doing in college, to keep it going for a while before we got real jobs.”

It would take six years before the financing for “The Secret of Kells” clicked into place, time they spent developing the script and designs, while also doing whatever was needed to pay the bills. They also released their first project, the kids animated TV series “Skunk Fu!,” created by Aidan Harte (now a sculptor). Full time production on the film only kicked off in 2005.

The response — and the Oscar nomination — to their first feature didn’t just put Cartoon Saloon on the map, but earned them a stamp of approval and loud nods of appreciation from their peers in the industry, such as Pete Doctor and John Lassiter. It also led to high-powered fans, including Salma Hayek, who asked them to make her animated adaptation of “The Prophet,” and later Angelina Jolie, who exec-produced “The Breadwinner,” directed by Twomey.

“It’s like reputational armour, so people think, ‘OK, these guys are resilient, they’re not going to disappear tomorrow,’” Moore says.

In late 2014, “The Book of Kells” also took Moore — by now an Academy member and prepping for the release of his second feature “Song of the Sea” — to L.A. to the Governor’s Awards, where Hayao Miyazaki was being presented with a lifetime honor. Having been introduced to the animation legend by Lassiter, he then admits he followed him out to the smoking area to try to hang with his “hero” some more (having borrowed a cigarette from Young as he didn’t smoke himself). Speaking via a translator, the chat may not have exactly flowed, but Miyazaki did share his ashtray with Moore. “It was funny. I kind of followed this poor old Japanese man outside for a cigarette,” he says. “But it was a big moment for a me, as a geek.”

“Song of the Sea” would land Cartoon Saloon another Oscar nomination in 2015, as would “The Breadwinner” in 2018 and “Wolfwalkers” (which, with “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea,” make up Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy”) in 2021. By this stage, much like the work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the Cartoon Saloon look and feel was already well-established and adored — all their films sharing a common aesthetic thread. This happened organically, claims Moore, coming from “the shared tastes within the studio,” but he says they’d become conscious of its importance over the years.

“I think we realized that our strength was being hand-drawn and celebrating the fact that it’s hand-drawn,” he says.

The style has continued into Cartoon Saloon’s other work outside of TV, including its pre-school show “Puffin Rock” (which last year got the feature film spin-off “Puffin Rock and the New Friends”), and even “Screechers Reech,” the 2023 episode of Disney+’s anthology series “Star Wars: Visions” that Young directed.

Cartoon Saloon’s distinctive style has also attracted up-and-coming animators into its orbit, something which is leading its next cinematic phase. The studio is currently developing its sixth feature, “Julián,” based on Jessica Love’s book “Julián is a Mermaid,” about a boy who wants to become a mermaid. This time it’s being directed by Irish animator Louise Bagnall (her debut feature after being Oscar-nominated for her 2017 short “Late Afternoon”), marking the first Cartoon Saloon film not being helmed by one of the founders.

“It’s a big change for the studio,” admits Moore, who adds that, in an age where AI is the hot topic, Cartoon Saloon is keen as ever to champion the craft of hand-drawn animation. “But it’s going to be lovely.”

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