Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Drawing Conclusions: Irish Animation and National Cinema

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Drawing Conclusions: Irish Animation and National Cinema

Article excerpt

Traditionally perceived as the unclassifiable stepchild of many national cinemas, animation has recently become recognised as a form capable of astutely articulating and reflecting a nation's identity and concerns. In 2007, Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi) was chosen to represent France in the 'Foreign Language Film' category at the Academy Awards. The film was adapted by Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi from her own graphic novel, and charted her turbulent childhood growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War. Although the film did not make the final shortlist, its effective use of simple black and white art to convey a child's perspective of complex issues, did see it garner a nomination in the 'Animated Feature Film' category: a section ordinarily dominated by big budget family fare from Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar. The 2008 animated-documentary Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman) also used surface simplicity to more deeply penetrate a complicated topic. The film's examination of the 1982 Lebanon War achieved renewed piquancy by superimposing haunting, comic book-like graphics onto images that have become worryingly familiar in live-action. Like Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir has also become an international breakout 'hit' and was chosen to represent its country (Israel) in the Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards (2009).

Yet, it seems strange that animated features have taken this long to co-habit the privileged status of 'national cinema' automatically granted to live-action films. If one subscribes to Jean Cocteau's belief that 'film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pen and paper' then surely animation, while still beholden to budgetary concerns, is the form better positioned to reflect national interests, avoiding as it does, most of the vagaries of live action production (stars, crew, locations etc.). 2008 found the Irish film industry on the cusp of achieving a consistent level of Irish animated feature production; but do the films of this burgeoning trend reflect their local origins, or do they yield to marketplace pressures demanding cultural ambiguity?

The animated form was first earnestly adopted by Irish filmmakers in the 1970s, with animators such as Aidan Hickey and later Steve Woods producing independent work. By the mid 1980s the form had become an industry, sparked by the arrival of Sullivan Bluth, an American animation studio run by former Disney animator, Don Bluth. Sullivan-Bluth was enticed to relocate from Van Nuys, California to a site near Phoenix Park, Dublin by substantial Industrial Development Authority (IDA) grants and lower wage costs. Although Sullivan Bluth's productions, including The Land Before Time (Don Bluth, 1988) and All Dogs Go to Heaven (Don Bluth, 1989) bore a superficial similarity to the output of Bluth's former employer Disney, the director's newfound autonomy allowed for the exploration of darker themes, with these films proving considerable competition for Disney at the box office. (1)

Sullivan Bluth's impact on the Irish animation scene was game-changing and far-reaching. In order to develop the burgeoning studio, Sullivan Bluth established Ireland's first animation course at Ballyfermot College in Dublin, which continues today under the banner of the Irish School of Animation. (2) Many of the graduates from Ballyfermot College found work not only at Sullivan Bluth but also at Murakami Wolf, a production company that had expanded from Murakami films and was responsible for animating Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Another company founded during this time was Emerald City, established by American Al Guest (clearly emulating the Sullivan Bluth model). This commitment to animation was echoed south of the city by the introduction of animation courses with a more experimental emphasis at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT).

This prolific period of American animated production in Ireland drew to a close in the mid-1990s when financial difficulties, exacerbated by under-performing releases, (3) prompted the closure of Sullivan Bluth. …

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