Why is a large town in the heart of Ireland able to attract such talented animators? Well, why not? It’s home to one world famous studio and another which is snapping at its big sister’s heels.
The county town of Kilkenny, sometimes referred to as Kilkenny City, is home to some of the best animation studios in Ireland. And while it is not located near any of the large Irish cities of Dublin, Galway or Cork it still manages to attract the world’s top talent in animation and has been put firmly on the map over the years thanks to the numerous nominations and accolades given to its most famous studio Cartoon Saloon.
We take a look at Cartoon Saloon’s sister studio to see how exactly they manage to attract the world’s top talent to a town in the middle of Ireland.
Lighthouse Studios has two famous parents, Mercury Filmworks are its majority shareholders and of course Cartoon Saloon who were recently Oscar nominated for their Irish animation WolfWalkers are in on the studio too.
“Process wise we operate very much more similarly to our Canadian owners Mercury Filmworks, so we work on software called Harmony Toon Boom, we basically do rigged animation, whereas Cartoon Saloon, until very recently only did traditional animation, so hand drawn ink and paint etc,” explains Claire Finn, Managing Director and Executive Producer at Lighthouse Studios, “We’re quite different in that sense.”
Cartoon Saloon and Lighthouse liaise with each other on some of their roles and crews needed for projects.
“That was one of the reasons that Saloon had enticed Mercury to set up Lighthouse here in Kilkenny, to create really a bigger hub of animation,” she says.
To grew and strengthen the animation hub there are many discussions being had with the technical colleges of neighbouring towns Waterford and Carlow to potentially create a campus, something Kilkenny is missing.
“It’s much harder to have crew and artists come directly from school, or even first year or second year from an animation course, and just come for a week or two and fit in because you do need to have some sort of computer stills. It’s a much harder thing to just drop people into.”
Lighthouse Studios’ first shows Bug Diaries and If You Give A Mouse A Cookie are both now available on Amazon Prime. The studio was originally set up as a service company, but they have begun moving towards the development side of things too with some interesting projects in the works.
They are currently working on The Cuphead Show for Netflix, an animation of the popular video game and they are also working on a show called Little Ellen which is loosely based on the young life of comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
“When people heard we were doing Cuphead first of all people were really surprised but we did a test for Netflix and we won it fair and square and that for me is putting us very squarely on the map as our own company, our own identity and our own style of work,” says Finn. “We’ve got a broad slate and we are unlike Saloons work so that is really good from our point of view.”
One of the places studios meet new animation professionals is the annual Annecy Festival in France. Lighthouse has been in attendance in recent years but thanks to their latest workload they are going with a better hand to play to attract the best in the business.
“It was a challenge in the beginning because people didn’t know us for our work because we didn’t have any work to show, that is what will make a difference in September. We have lots of episodes that are going to drop for both Cuphead and Little Ellen and they’re very different in style and our dance card will be incredibly full after that,” says Finn.
The studio has a diverse workforce with 70% of their staff coming from outside of Ireland making up around 30 different nationalities in the team.
As part of their move into development the studio put out a brief to their whole crew of around 270 members to say they were going to produce a short film and would welcome pitches.
“We ran some development workshops, so people could go along and see what they might need to prepare in order to present a pitch and then we had 25 people presenting 28 pitches,” says Finn. “We went through that whole process, and it was very interesting to see the various stories that are either local, but with a global appeal, or just what the talent is within the studio, who was driven and who has a storytelling streak to them, etc. We’ve shortlisted them and we’re going to develop three and then we will make one.”
Aside from the obvious draw of working for some of the most exciting studios in animation, Kilkenny itself plays its part in welcoming creative people from out of town to live and work. It has a thriving creative arts scene and there are lots of events to attend (post Covid), many featuring around the medieval castle in the centre of the city.
To top it all off, Lighthouse Studios is housed in an old building at Keiran’s College, who wouldn’t want to work in a Hogwarts styled building?