In the lead-up to tomorrow’s UK release of Cartoon Saloon‘s much-anticipated second feature Song of the Sea, we at Skwigly relished the opportunity to hear about the unique circumstances of the film’s production from in-house producer Paul Young. Paul, whose background as a cartoonist and illustrator remains a part of his working life to this day, met fellow Cartoon Saloon co-founders Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey while studying in Ballyfermot before making the move to Kilkenny where the studio is presently based. Since the early days of development for their first feature Rebel (later known as The Secret of Kells), Paul’s role as a studio ‘ambassador’ has proved vital in the financing and success of their best-known work.
Is there a daily breakdown of what your current role at Cartoon Saloon entails?
It’s always very different. For example I was in Annecy recently pitching two new TV series, so that’s kind of my main role, to get our next projects off the ground. Thankfully Gerry (Shirren, Marketing Director) looks after most of the financial side of the business now, and so I’m kind of focused on the new developments and less and less on the day-to-day production management side of things, which I was never as strong at, the budgetary and scheduling aspect of things. So on something like Puffin Rock, now it’s in its second season I’m rarely involved – in the first series I was involved in some voiceover sessions and scripts because, on the development part of it I would spend a lot of time with the creative director. We’ve got a lot going on too, with a new feature film and a second series of Puffin Rock, we’re doing a pilot for somebody at the moment as well as three or four new developments, so I’m in some way involved in all of those things.
So mucking in a bit more with the production side itself, then?
Not so much with things already in production, because we have great production managers and a director on each of those. I would be more involved in the early parts, trying to find money, pitching and developing. For Song of the Sea, for example, I would be at one meeting every week maybe but generally speaking staying out of the production management of that film but only get involved when I was need, because there were quite a lot of co-producers involved. And then there’s the fun part, I spent a lot of time with Will Collins (writer) and Tomm when the script was being developed, I was basically a fresh pair of ears.
So what other main involvements did you have with Song of the Sea once production on it had begun proper?
Mainly the financing and putting the co-producers together. And then on that weekly basis attending the production management meetings, so I might be needed to solve a problem between studios, almost on a political level sometimes. Then I would just review the animatics with Tomm and Nora and be up there for voice recording. Now it’s the promotion and marketing – as a producer you never really leave the film. It’s just about to be launched in the UK and Ireland so discussions of the press and marketing with the distributor are still ongoing.
You mention the gathering together of the various co-producers, of which there’s quite a long list. Is that common for a production like this?
It’s probably about two too many, but it’s hard in the financing because you have to wait for everybody to reach the point where they can apply for their money. We were worried about it at the start but it worked out very well with all the studios, because we’d known everybody involved from previous projects. But it is a lot, and I think we’d try and do less next time around. I think two producers – or three, tops – would be great, just because splitting up a lot of work over so many different territories can be tricky. But it worked well the studio’s we did work with – Denmark did about twenty minutes of animation and raised the money to do so, Luxembourg did a lot of backgrounds and some layout work, and then France was easy enough because they were purely sound, post-production and they paid for the composer. Then Digital Graphics in Belgium did the compositing effects, we’d worked with them before, on Secret of Kells. So that was all great, and in production it worked well. It meant a lot of traveling for me and Tomm during production, and we had a very good production management system that Tomm could tap into wherever he was, so it worked out.
So with Secret of Kells as your point of reference for a feature production, how did the two experiences compare? Was it a little easier the second time around?
Definitely, yeah, with Secret of Kells we were shipping actual paper around the world, we did some cleanup in Brazil and Hungary, so it was hand-drawn animation shipped around which we didn’t have to do this time around using TVPaint. Also Tomm had learned a lot and in the case of Digital Graphics we trusted our colleagues and co-producers there, we knew whatever look we’d come up with could be achieved with the help of those guys. And for the Danish crew who did a lot of the animation, they were kind of a known-unknown as it were, because we hadn;’t actually worked with them as a company but they were ex-animators from the Saloon here, so we knew those guys had similar cultural values as we did, and that was great. With Studio 352 we hadn’t worked with Stephan (Roelants, co-producer) before but that worked out great as well, and we’d worked with the Superprod guys so we knew that would be an easy experience. Starting off with co-producers on Secret of Kells was a tricky one because we hadn’t worked with them before, so there was a lot more discussion at the start to figure out how we would all work together.
Certainly the end results for both of the films is very consistent.
And that’s a real tribute to the pre-production of the films. We would prepare so much, do scene illustrations which is a real key thing. We would make about, I think on this occasion, nearly 200 scene illustrations that were done in the development phase, which were the backgrounds and the animation level and the effects level, everything that you might want the film to finally look like figured out, so wherever the film was being made there was kind of a benchmark for every scene, every sequence.
Having experienced both television production and feature film production do you have any preference toward one or the other?
I think with feature film production there’s a lot more time just working on one script and making something look very whole. That’s enjoyable, it has its pressures as well because there’s definitely a time limit once you get started and with our budget which is a lot less than bigger studio films, once we have an animatic locked we can’t really change it, that’s the film we’re making. And TV series are similar in a way, on Puffin Rock for example there’s a big ramp-up period when you’re getting all those assets built, that’s a real challenge too. But I’m not sure if I have a preference. There’s something lovely about doing a TV series when people start to get to know the characters really well, and the more you do it – we’re into our second batch of episodes – and the team who’ve been handling things on Puffin Rock have just been amazing at running the whole show, and the director Maurice is just great. We’ve just seemed to have the right people in the right places. The feature film is like a brand new story each time, which is really exciting, Tomm’s working on the next one now with Ross Stewart, I’m just seeing all the concept designs for it and that’s lovely as well, just spending so much time figuring out what the whole world of the film looks like.
So they are quite different beasts, but I guess in here there’s not much of a distinction – Puffin Rock looks pretty cool compared to a lot of other preschool series, we really push it just like the movies with the lovely backgrounds, we treat both with the same level of ambition, creatively and visually. Once you’ve done all the assets it’s just that one is a bit more like clockwork because you have so much experience doing so many episodes.