Think of animated films and California’s Disney/Pixar studios or Japan’s anime creators usually jump to mind. But in Ireland’s medieval town of Kilkenny, Cartoon Saloon has carved out a factory of hand-drawn artistry that flourishes despite being far from the high-tech communities of today’s other studios. Cartoon Saloon is headquartered among cathedral spires and castle parapets rather than metal-and-glass office buildings with open concept work stations.
Kilkenny lies in southeast Ireland. The region is rich in local folklore and myth, interwoven inextricably with Catholic tradition and biblical truth. The village makes an unlikely setting for a repeat Oscar (Academy Award) contender. Yet the brainchild of Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart thrives there.
The founding pair met as kids in Kilkenny. Both set out as animators. They believed success would be found in the typical entertainment centers like New York, Los Angeles, or London. So they decided to stay in Kilkenny and work together on just one film.
The duo collected a staff of 12, who set up shop in an old orphanage. There they crafted the 2009 Oscar-nominated, full-length animated film, The Secret of Kells.
The film uses spare, geometricized, full-color art in the woodcut style. It tells a fanciful story of Brendan, a boy apprentice in the monastery where his uncle oversees the creation of the famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells. Brendan is sent on a mission deep into the woods. His goal is to retrieve the legendary “gall nuts,” needed to produce ink vital to the manuscript’s ornate design. The story unfolds with adventure, mystery, magic, and a friendship with an other-worldly woodland fairy girl.
Twelve years after that initial film, Cartoon Saloon remains in Kilkenny. Nearly 400 people work for the company and its sister project, Lighthouse Studios. The Lighthouse offices are housed in the secondary school that Moore and Stewart once attended. The directors recall the school as sports-centric, not art-friendly.
“Our teenage selves would be glowing with pride,” says Stewart.
“Revenge of the nerds, I’ve always said,” adds Moore.
Wolfwalkers, the final film in the Irish folklore trilogy that began with The Secret of Kells, was nominated this year for Best Animated Feature Film, right alongside Disney’s Soul. It’s the studio’s fifth Oscar nod.
What do Moore and Stewart credit for their unlikely success? They say it is authenticity. Contrary to film industry standards, Cartoon Saloon is doing everything it isn’t supposed to: making uncompromising, authentically Irish, hand-drawn animation right in the founders’ own hometown.
No one is more surprised than they about how it’s all turned out.