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Interview with LEFT Director Eamonn O’Neill

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eonEamonn O’Neill is an independent filmmaker currently based in Ireland. A director at Studio AKA, Eamonn’s work has turned heads since his early years. His RCA film I’M FINE THANKS, a simple yet high-impact animation which hits you between the eyes with its bold imagery and its graphic content, was nominated for a BAFTA. Eamonn is truly a great storyteller, his often raw but incredibly insightful narratives derived from personal experience, exaggerated for artistic value.

Having recently also worked with Cartoon Network and the NSPCC, this director has already carved a space and name for himself with in the industry. With his new film LEFT making its way online earlier last month, we took some time with this busy animator to discuss all things O’Neill.

Can you tell us a little about your background growing up in Ireland and how that has influenced your creative voice?

I grew up in a small fishing town in the south east coast of Ireland, and at about the age of 10 I met a local artist who brought me on as a student. Every Saturday I would visit him, he was a print maker and he made a lot of copper etchings. We would work in his studio or we would go out to the rivers or sea to draw, he had probably the biggest artistic impact on me when I was growing up. It was the first time I was exposed to someone who was making a living from being an artist.

In terms of how it informed my voice, I’m not really sure. A lot of it comes from personal experience; A lot of those experiences will be in my hometown. I suppose I just try to be honest with what I put into my work.

Films like My Day and On the Quiet were created whilst studying in Ireland, could you tell us a little about how the stories were developed and why these forms of human nature stories are so close to you?

I did four years of animation on my degree at the National Film School in Ireland. My Day was my third year film and On the Quiet was my fourth year film. In my first and second year the work I was doing wasn’t as personal but more informed by my own interests, like 50s/60s design.

As I went on to third year, I was just about to embark on a new film and when I pitched it to the course coordinator, at the time she said “Why are you doing this again? Its kind of repeating yourself, you’ve done this before”. That really stuck with me, she had hit the nail on the head. I wasn’t really pushing myself, so that’s why I started going a little bit more insular, and tried to figure out ways to tell more personal stories based on my own experience.

My Day was my first attempt at that, and it just came from an experience of going to college one day and this guy totally invaded my personal space. It really annoyed me for a long time and it stuck with me, so when I had this film to make that scenario was already in my head, it just seemed natural to go that way.

Can you tell us a little about your move to the Royal Collage of Art and what that did for your work and your directing abilities?

After my degree, and when I was working in Ireland, I really liked the films that were coming out of the RCA. I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was I liked about them but I also know through talking to people that had been there that it was a good environment there. I also knew that they had a really good colour library there and I wanted to start bring colour into my work as On the Quiet and My Day were both really grey and monotone. Also the people in my year group I learned a lot from, as at the RCA they bring in people not just from an animation background, I think out of the 14-15 people in my class only 3-4 of us had done any animation before as a degree, so suddenly this massive influx of all these different areas like architecture/textiles/painting were all lumped in together. Suddenly your perception of what animation can do is a lot broader.

I’M FINE THANKS was the first film of yours I saw, it did extremely well even shortlisting you for a BAFTA. As with your others it has a rather brutal theme, does this have any basis in reality?

I made I’M FINE THANKS in my first year at the RCA, again I was trying to draw from personal experience, I’m always a little afraid of saying that, because how people may judge me. But it’s based on the fact I just moved to a new city and I’d never really experienced anything like London. I’d lived in Dublin, but its not really comparable – there’s a lot more space, its a lot more laid back. So I guess I was just thinking about these different thoughts we have, these dark thoughts we have every day but don’t really share or admit to having, so I started to think about what might happen if you acted on these thoughts. Not that I wanted to act on them myself! (laughs)

Your style has developed into something very graphic and bold, but when it comes to film-making what or who are you biggest inspirations?

character_sheetA lot of my inspirations are in live-action in terms of storytelling, but graphically there’s a painter called Euan Uglow who I really like, he deals with flat surfaces and his paintings always look geometric in how he cuts up the planes. I was also introduced to the work of Norwegian comic artist Jason, all his characters are animals but how he tells a story and evokes emotions in each panel is through very limited movement. That really appealed to me, as he was able to convey a lot by these very subtle head moves. Then there’s obvious people that influence me like Chris Ware and other comic book people.

Your graduation film LEFT was released online recently, the relationship between the two boys is familiar – from a small town, making friends and staying friends despite best judgements. This was a very raw and gripping account, how much of it is based on your own experience?

It was actually in the year I moved to London, the incident that takes place in the film happened in our town. It was a robbery and as a kid I’d kind of vaguely knew the people involved. I wouldn’t have hung around with them, but as the town was so small everyone knew who they were. I guess that was what was most shocking, thinking about how much this town had changed since I was younger, how you know these people purely because of where you live, just geographically. Thinking about all these things, once I left the town I just got some perspective on it and dramatised the friendship a little bit. It is based on friendships I had when I was younger, but not with the specific people that were involved in the robbery, so there’s a lot of myself in the film while also drawing upon those events.

This was a very ambitious project, taking 13 weeks to create. Could you talk us though a little of the process and how the look and finish of the film was developed?

It was a little longer than that, it took up my whole second year of the RCA which was 12 months, but the animation was probably about 13 weeks I think. Colouring it alone took 3-4 months, it was crazy.

The process was pretty traditional. I normally start by working in sketchbooks, just noting down ideas or getting some thoughts on paper to see what jumps out. Like I said I was already thinking about this story before moving to London, so the whole time I was making I’M FINE THANKS it was at the back of mind, just waiting. Working though notebooks, then scripting maybe took 3-4 months followed by development and different design tests, as I knew the film was going to be long. I was trying to figure out how to be really economic about it, so that’s what those early test were about. Once I’d arrived at something that I liked that’s when the script began to take shape, then I started to storyboard, which tends to be very loose, as unless it’s a commercial project I don’t really have to show many people. From there it was casting, which took a while, and gradually I started to animate and brought in a few animators. I put an ad up online and a few people responded which was really helpful. I would prep everything for the animators, I had pretty much all the key frames done as well as the rundown and notes, so we sent it back and forth. It was all done online and over time we would just replace the animatic shots with the animation. Everything was animated and coloured in flash and I worked out a way to do very little composting, just again because I was doing the mammoth project in a year – it took over a year in the end.

You’ve worked for some big names including Cartoon Network, how was it to work with those classic and famous character like Bugs Bunny and the Adventure Time characters?

It was really the perfect brief, which came out of a really short clip I put up online about seven seconds that they saw. They particularly liked how the character broke apart into another pose and I think that’s what got them interested, so they proposed how that would work with the characters from the big CN shows. The funny thing was that I had previously worked on Gumball so it was nice to go back and work with those characters but in a style of my own or with the freedom to move in a different way. They were great to work with, totally hands-off and encouraged me to try new things. 

You were also commission by the NSPCC and YCN studio to create Sally’s Story. Although this is in a similar vein to your previous work, did you find the project difficult?

Not really, I found it really engaging because the NSPCC are often working with children that have gone through these experiences, so it just seemed like a really good project to be involved with. It was challenge not to represent the father in a very monstrous way, I thought that would be more of an obvious route to go down. In the end it seemed stronger to remove him completely and not having him there said a lot more than portraying him in any villainous way.

You were picked up by Studio AKA, how did this occur and what has it been like working with this talented crew?

Whilst I was at the RCA there was a call for internships. I’ve really liked their work ever since I began animation, so I jumped at the opportunity. They picked me, so in the summer between first and second year I spend 3-4 months working at Studio AKA doing everything from composting to pitching on projects, then throughout second year we just stayed in contact and Philip Hunt (creative director) would have a look at early drafts of LEFT and give advice. He was really good to work with, so it seemed quite natural to go there once I’d graduated. They offered me the position so I went for it and worked there pretty much since graduating at the RCA mainly as director. My main job is to pitch for commercial projects when they come and when I’m not pitching I work under their other directors, which can be anything from design or animation to storyboarding or compositing. Most of the directors there are pretty versatile in what they can do, it is a very small team of directors so its great to be able to show your work to them and get feedback from a different place. A lot of them I kind of looked up to the whole way through college so it was quite hard initially to show them stuff, but you get used to it and become friends after a while, it’s an amazing place to work. I recently moved country so now I work with them in the same capacity but it just means I’m not at the studio everyday. I’m pitching here form Ireland but it’s pretty much the same, really.

You are also part of the Late Night Work Club, your piece Post Personal for the Ghost Stories series was a unique way of creating loops and movement within your characters that lead into the surreal storyline. What was your concept for the film?

Yeah, that was a weird one actually! (Laughs) When we started Late Night Work Club we knew we’d be creating these shorts, I had pretty much just finished LEFT which had been a long process and had a big narrative so I just wanted to experiment and try something different. I didn’t plan or storyboard it at all, it was just really coming home in the evening or at the weekend, sitting in front of my computer and drawing and working out, animating, trying different things.

How it would work is I’d create a scene and then start something completely new and that’s why the film is made up of all these little segments. Out of working in that way I guess little trends of narrative grew but it was quite weird as I didn’t know were it was going, so when I finished it was kind of like, “Well, I guess that’s it”, as I didn’t know what I’d set out to achieve. By the time it was complete it was a surprise to me as well. I had also been reading a lot at the time about the internet and its effect on society and empathy and all these things, but that was for another project. I guess it couldn’t help but filter into what I was doing.

When did you make time to work on Post Personal? 

It was really hard, so I’d do it really late at night when I came home from working at Studio AKA. There were a few times I’d work on it at the studio during downtime but mainly I’d work away in a spare room at hime in the evenings, also at weekends. Dave Prosser is also at Studio AKA, we’d sit together on the same floor and he was also involved in LNWC, so in a way it was good as we could encourage each other to keep going.

You were also asked to create an award for the BAAs this year, do you often work in 3D/sculpture or is this a new avenue for you?

Due to spending all day at the studio at a computer, staring at a screen I started to make these little things. I decided to start making these objects out of clay just as break really. So when Jane from the British Animation Awards asked me to make an award for them I thought this would be a good route to go down as I was already enjoying the process of making actual objects. They were all made from wood I had cut and painted, it was really simple but great fun to do.

It was totally DIY; the little video I made for it was shot in the hallway of our old flat, as there were no windows in the hall, so it was the most effective way to make a dark room.

I’M FINE THANKS had a very long and successful festival run, as did LEFT. How did you find festivals and are you planning on visiting many in the coming year? 

I didn’t really send it to many, it got a lot of screenings but I didn’t really track it as much as I did with I’M FINE THANKS. It’s done its festival rounds now, it was in Edinburgh and won a prize here in Cork, had a screening every two week or so. It’s always weird that your films live on, long after you’ve made them. 

Do you have anything else in the works at the moment?

I’ve written a new film, which I’ve been trying to write for the last year. It’s in a similar vein to LEFT – the characters are more mature and grown up and it’s a longer, more ambitious project again. But at the moment I’m constantly re-writing it, every time I read a new version of the script I get more ideas and it feels like another person wrote it! (Laughs)

For more on Eamonn o’Neill’s work you can visit his personal site, Vimeo channel, Facebook page, Tumblr, Twitter and

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