(This piece was for FILM IRELAND in 1998 - Note since then, Alan Shannon’s company became JAM MEDIA which he founded with other Ballyfermot students Mark Cumberton first year and John Rice who Alan sat beside in the course’s second year. Richie Baneham has now won two Oscars for his work on ‘Avatar’ and it’s sequel. Also it should be mentioned Ballyfermot has produced more ‘Specials’. Animators like Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Nora Twomey who founded Cartoon Saloon people and more. Finally there is now an IFTA for animation.)
They say that you're never aware that your era is golden, that it's only years later when you look back that you see how important a period has been. I had occasion to look back recently when two friends (who also happen to be ex-students of mine) were nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Animation. It got me thinking of a special time in the history of Irish animation - such as it is.
It was a time when the state, through the IDA, decided to invest in film (ironic, as a short time later the government would close down the first Film Board). However, animation was seen a big employer, with as many as 200 inkers and painters potentially working full time in a factory-like set up. One large and two smaller studios opened up here. This in turn brought many kids out of the woodwork who saw animation as a career possibility. With the extra incentive of a Diploma in Animation to be had in Ballyfermot Senior College, the elements were there to create a wave of Irish animators.
It shouldn't necessarily follow that something special had to result from this set of circumstances. But strangely it did, I think probably because the students who answered the call were particularly special. Which is why this era should have its own name. The name I'd choose for them would be the B Specials, 'B' for Ballyfermot. They come from the initial two years of the course.
The first of these is Cathal Gaffney, the director of Give Up Yer Auld Sins, recently Oscar nominated. Cathal's enthusiasm for animation is now legendary as is his business acumen. He developed the latter in a course for budding entrepreneurs, which Ballyfermot Senior College provided as a consolation for his being kicked off the course - diplomatically speaking, Ballyfermot had a problem that Cathal wouldn't limit himself to the born-again Disney ethos that the Don Bluth studio was expecting from the graduates (I agreed and left with him).
Ann Gunn-Kelly worked in Disney, Paris after graduating and before taking up a teaching post in Ballyfermot with Eddie Hallahan, also from that first year. Both head the animation department now and maintain a standard which has made the College one of the three best schools in the world for... well ... Disney animation - many ex-students working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan and Fantasia 2000 to name a few. Jason Ryan took a good credit in the latter and now works in the 3D department in Disney; Los Angeles. Keith Foran teaches animation in Coláiste Dhulaigh and Dun Laoghaire.
Finally Damien Farrell of Kaboom Studios. From the second year there are: Darragh O'Connell, Cathal's business partner and Oscar co-nominee, who also didn't finish the course. Darragh's film Racism - written by Cathal is in competition this June in Annecy, the 'Cannes of animation'.
Alan Shannon, who for many years was the chief animator in Brown Bag Films, where he among other things directed and animated the acclaimed The Last Elk.
Richie Baneham, recruited by Warner Bros straight from Ballyfermot, has gone on to be a major animator noted for his work in the feature The Iron Giant, where he animated the giant's runaway hand.
Andrew Kavanagh teaches in Dun Laoghaire and co-created with Keith Foran From an Evil Cradling and has just finished The Milliner (see main feature).
Gary Timpson is working in Australia with a team on the latest Gorillaz video. And then there's
Seamus Malone who animated the female interest chicken in Aardman's Chicken Run.
Perhaps I'm leaving someone out. Certainly there were other worthy animators in Ireland before Ballyfermot set up its course. Indeed others like the model animator Ruairi Bresnihan (Guy's Dog and the just completed Ape) and John McCluskey (Midnight Dance and The King's Wake) belong to this golden era and are honorary B'Specials as their careers rose on the same tide - though John who incredibly learned all his animation from a book would feel uncomfortable with the title since he's from Derryl.
Of course other excellent animators are coming out of the colleges and I sure another cluster of specials will emerge. Next academic year will see a degree course in animation beginning in Dun Laoghaire Institute, Thelma Chambers, who oversaw the introduction of the degree, was a teacher in Ballyfermot and has always promoted a close relationship with the industry world-wide. She believes Ireland is a breeding ground for animation, all the more amazing when we don't have a great visual art tradition in this country. The achievement of the eleven I have mentioned, plus the two honourees have marked out a space which demands recognition by the Irish Industry.
What chance of an IFTA award for animation?