A Brief History of Irish Animation from TMNT to Land Before Time

It’s not exactly an industry secret that American animation isn’t always produced in America. Economics have made outsourcing labor an appealing option to low-budget studios since the 1960s, and the practice has only grown more popular since then. It’s a reality cartoonists are well aware of. Scores of shows, from The Simpsons to South Park, have mined comedy out of it. The gags, and the general public perception of outsourcing, tend to focus on Korea, or the wider east Asian area. Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine studios have taken up the lion’s share of production work for American animation over the years, but for the past four decades, services have also come from another country – Ireland.

The Irish animation industry has established a strong international reputation for itself in recent years with its domestic productions, but its work handling duties for American films and television isn’t as well-known. But the relationship between American and Irish animation has resulted in some fantastic art and entertainment, and it’s proven mutually beneficial to both industries.

Ireland is a relative newcomer to animation. Its film industry as a whole is still young. Filmmakers of note have been coming from the island nation since the days of silent film, the Irish diaspora inspired many stories and characters (and caricatures) in Hollywood cinema, and the country was popular as a setting and shooting location. But a homegrown film industry at scale was a long time coming, and as was true for live-action film, it was even more so for animation. The odd artist might experiment with the technique or employ it for commercial work, but regular production in animation didn’t begin until the 1970s. That was when the first animation studio in the country was founded, in Tipperary by Jimmy Quin. National broadcaster RTÉ commissioned animated series from former painter Aidan Hickey. And the beginnings of international partnerships came about when pop artist Tim Booth formed connections with Jimmy Murakami, an American animator who relocated to Dublin in 1971 while working for famed B-movie king Roger Corman. Murakami had studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in California, worked for UPA in New York and Toei Animation in Japan, and maintained his own studio in California, Murakami Wolf. After arriving in Ireland, Murakami set up another studio for commercial work, Quateru Film.

the-land-before-time-1988

Image via Universal Pictures

These artists, operating independently, laid the groundwork for Irish animation throughout the 1970s, but the thing that really gave the industry a kickstart came from a markedly uncreative source: the Industrial Development Authority of Ireland (IDA). The IDA’s purpose is to attract and retain foreign investment, and as an outgrowth of that, in 1984 they proposed the Business Expansion Scheme (BES): individuals investing in companies of a specified trade could claim tax relief on those investments. Filmmaking was among the qualifying trades for the BES (which would be replaced with various schemes over the years, until in 1996 a scheme unique to films, Section 481, was created and offered a tax credit of up to 32% to filmmakers for expenditures within Ireland, spurring further growth). The IDA also determined that animation was an industry worth encouraging to challenge Ireland’s then double-digit unemployment rate. For each job created, a studio could receive a one-time grant of up to £9,000.

Around this time, back in the United States, animation director Don Bluth was a busy man. A Disney expat who had fled its Burbank studio (taking a sizeable chunk of the animation staff with him) to set up shop for himself, Bluth made his name in Hollywood with The Secret of NIMH in 1982, which led to a partnership with Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment. While working on An American Tail for Amblin, Bluth’s business partner Moris Sullivan (their studio was known as Sullivan Bluth) became aware of the IDA’s incentives. Financial difficulties and union troubles had plagued Sullivan Bluth in the past. And the partnership with Amblin included Universal Studios, which wouldn’t provide funding for future cartoon features until the box office take on An American Tail was in. Ireland beckoned, not only with its tax incentives, but with the offer of the largest grant offered in the country’s history to get a new studio up and running (a grant that would make the Irish government a 5% owner in the studio). Bluth took the offer. The move happened during production on An American Tail, and only the ink and paint work was done in Ireland (Spielberg apparently balked at the idea of a film called An American Tail being outsourced). By the time of their next feature, however, Sullivan Bluth Studios was up and running outside of Phoenix Park in Dublin. That film? The Land Before Time.

Ireland’s animation industry still being in its infancy, most of Sullivan Bluth’s character animators, story artists, and managerial team were imported from the United States. But in the days before digital tools were industry standard, every step of the animation process from conception to post-production depended on a team of artists and craftsmen working by hand. In-between animators, cel painters, camera operators, assistant editors, optical technicians – the list goes on, and those jobs were filled by Irish talent eager for work and an expansion of the industry. The Land Before Time, produced entirely in Ireland, went on to earn over $84 million worldwide, and spawned a line of direct-to-video sequels and TV spinoffs that continues to this day.

It wasn’t just on the feature film front that American and Irish animators came together. Jimmy Murakami was already experienced at handling production chores from outside Ireland; he was a supervising director on the acclaimed British short The Snowman. His Quateru Films would eventually close, but Murakami Wolf Studios established a Dublin branch in the 80s as they took on producing an American TV series. After storyboards were prepared in California, they were sent overseas for animation and post-production. South Korea took most of the work, but Murakami Wolf Dublin (MWD) got its fair share. And the show they had to work on just happened to be one of the breakout hits of the 1980s: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their work on TMNT won MWD a profile in the Washington Post, which also drew attention to the growing Irish animation industry.

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Image via Murakami-Wolf-Swenson

And it was growing rapidly. From having a tiny smattering of activity at the beginning of the decade, Dublin alone saw three large animation studios employing 530 workers by 1990. The growth wasn’t limited to professional opportunities either. After relocating to Dublin, Don Bluth recognized that he would need more animators than those Americans who came with him. In 1989, taking inspiration from Sheridan College in Canada, Bluth helped to organize an animation program at Ballyfermot Senior College in the Dublin area, and hired a good number of the students once they graduated. A second program soon followed, at the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design. The Ballyfermot program was tailored to classical animation, the character and narrative led form developed at Disney and pursued by Sullivan Bluth. Dun Laoghaire was tailored more toward European animation traditions, experimental animation, and arthouse cinema. This gave animation education in Ireland a founding in two distinct schools of thought about the medium, a boon to the next generation of animators and cartoonists coming up.

Unfortunately, the good fortune of the 80s didn’t last. Don Bluth was a man of strong creative opinions, and his partnership with Spielberg and Amblin strained during the making of The Land Before Time over the vision for the film. Bluth severed the partnership, hoping to win creative autonomy by funding his films through their grosses and through Irish investment. But the next two Sullivan Bluth projects, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rock-A-Doodle, did not replicate earlier box office success; Rock-A-Doodle was a flop, and a critical disaster to boot. Investors withdrew, and the studio’s prospects were so grim – and its importance to the Irish animation industry so large – that its future became the subject of debate in the Irish parliament. New investment (including from British filmmaker John Boorman) offered a temporary lifeline, but it also meant financial control, interference with creative decisions and altered release order of upcoming projects. By Bluth’s own admission, the films his studio made at this time were not his best, nor did they reverse his sagging fortunes. The disastrous production of The Pebble and the Penguin so disillusioned Bluth he took his name off the film and accepted an offer to head the animation division at 20th Century Fox. Several Irish animators followed him to the United States, while the studio they left behind quickly folded. Due to its primacy in the Irish animation industry, its closure meant the end of a lot of work and a lot of jobs. A drying up of television work at the same time saw smaller studios shut down, and even Murakami Wolf greatly reduced its size (and rechristened itself Fred Wolf Films after Murakami left the company).

But the IDA’s schemes to encourage indigenous film production were still in place, and the loss of studios didn’t mean a loss of talent. There were now a good number of displaced animators, fully trained and prepared to work. There was also a fresh crop of aspiring animators, fresh from the university programs that had been established. And in the mid-90s, the newly reconstituted Irish Film Board (Board Scannan) created the Frameworks scheme, providing funding for Irish animators producing short films of up to €27,000. They also encouraged branching out into digital animation with a program offering €3,000 budgets for films made with Macromedia Flash, then the industry standard.

Flash was the software used to animate Cartoon Network’s Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends in the 2000s, and the network partnered with an Irish studio for animation production. It was a new studio that took up the work, Boulder Media. They continue to provide animation services to American producers to this day, for TV and feature films (among their current projects are DC Super Hero Girls and My Little Pony).

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Image via Apple TV+

Another studio of note providing animation services to international productions is Lighthouse Studios, a joint venture between the Canadian Mercury Filmworks and the Irish Cartoon Saloon, headquartered in Kilkenny. Announced in 2017, Lighthouse offers full services for 2D animation projects, operating independently from its sister studios. The Irish sister, Cartoon Saloon, is the studio of Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young. They were among the generation of Irish animators that studied at Ballyfermot, hoped for employment at Sullivan Bluth and, when that hope was dashed, set up shop for themselves. Lighthouse may carry on the tradition of Ireland providing excellent animation services to American and global partners, but Cartoon Saloon’s all-Irish feature films – including the loose “Irish folklore trilogy” of The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers – have done much of the work in establishing Ireland as a force in the animation world. And it’s no less than the industry deserves, after decades of building a talent pool and providing so much to outside productions.


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