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Sketching Success: Brown Bag Films go to the Oscars

Sinead Gillett
Trinity College Dublin

Creative Commons 4.0 by Sinead Gillett. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

The first decade of the new Millennium witnessed a number of noteworthy accomplishments for the Irish audiovisual industry.  The greatest success of all however has undoubtedly been the considerable growth experienced by the Irish animation sector.  Powered by indigenous companies, built from the bottom up by talented and innovative practitioners, the animation sector in Ireland has established an international reputation for quality content production and is now the largest provider of full-time and permanent employment in the Irish film and television independent sector.  Over the past decade or so these companies have proved their worth on the world animation stage; accruing substantial international sales and distribution, as well as critical acclaim and recognition.  The latest achievements of the Irish animation sector come with the recent Academy Award nominations for two home produced films, Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells (Moore 2009) in the Animated Feature category and Brown Bag Films’ Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Phelan 2008) in the Short Animation category, as well as the nomination of Irish animator Richie Baneham in the Visual Effects category for his work on Avatar (Cameron 2009).

For Dublin-based Brown Bag Films the 2010 awards mark their second Oscar campaign.  The company was first nominated in 2002 for Give Up Yer Aul Sins (Gaffney 2001), also in the Short Animation category, which  —  in a double coup for Ireland  —  they shared with Irish animator RuairíRobinson and his film Fifty Percent Grey (2001).  With two prestigious Oscar nominations along with a host of awards from international festivals, Brown Bag Films has established itself as a producer of world-class animation.  From humble beginnings to Hollywood status, this essay takes a look at the acclaimed animation studio and the films that have brought it into focus.

Up until the mid 1980s the animation sector in Ireland developed at a relatively similar rate to that of other Western European countries; inextricably linked with the arrival of television, the sector slowly built momentum, with the national broadcaster commissioning small-scale projects from indigenous talent, while the advertising industry provided business to commercial studios.  In 1985, the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), recognising that animation was a labour intensive growth industry, implemented a campaign of industrialisation by invitation aimed at enticing large US studios to Ireland.  An attractive package of incentives, consisting of employment grants and a low rate of corporation tax (10%), was targeted at companies looking to relocate outside America.  Aided by Ireland’s low wage cost and English speaking status, the impact of this package was immediate, resulting in the arrival of three major studios  —  Sullivan Bluth, Emerald City and Murakami Wolf.  The largest of the three, the Sullivan Bluth Studio, was the first animation company to rival Disney on any grand scale.

granny-o-grimm

A boom in animation production ensued, with employment peaking at 530 people in 1990.   In order to meet the demand for skilled labour, animation courses were established at third-level institutions:  Assisted by the Sullivan Bluth Studios, the animation department at the Senior College Ballyfermot produced classically-trained graduates, while  the programme at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) focused more on artistic experimentation.   What had constituted a small cottage industry in 1985 had, within  a relatively short period, transformed into a thriving sector.

However the boom did not last.  A number of factors, including financial difficulties experienced by the American companies and Ireland’s diminishing competitiveness in the face of the new international division of cultural labour, combined to effectuate the decline of the sector.  By the mid-1990s Murakami-Wolf had been substantially downsized and both Sullivan Bluth and Emerald City had closed their doors.

It is during the demise of the American studios and the dark days that followed, when the industry lay in ruin, that the history of Brown Bag begins.  The company was established by Ballyfermot students Cathal Gaffney and Darragh O’Connell in 1994 in order to produce a short television series for RTÉ.  They had a difficult time locating start-up finance for their venture, such was the poor reputation of animation inIreland at the time.  When the project was completed the partners were unable to find work in Ireland and spent a number of years competing with Asia for service contracts, before taking on some small-scale advertising commissions as the dot-com boom began to take off.

Up until this point Brown Bag Films was operating with very low turnover and very much under the radar of public awareness. This was soon to change when a short film they made under the Frameworks scheme struck a chord with the popular imagination, impressing both audiences and critics alike.

Give Up Yer Aul Sins (2002) takes the form of a story within a story.  Mary, a young schoolgirl in 1960s Dublin, is chosen to recite the tale of John the Baptist to a visiting television crew.  In a thick inner-city accent peppered with colloquial language, she delivers a colourful version of the bible story.  Her narration, which constitutes the majority of the film’s soundtrack, is in fact a real-life recording that was taped during the 1960s at the Rutland Street primary school in Dublin.  Having heard the compelling take on the Saint’s life played on RTÉ radio, Gaffney was inspired to create a visual package for it.  The evocative recording lies at the heart of the film’s success; its somewhat intangible quality infusing it with a rawness no actor could imitate.  The child’s provincial turn of phrase and imaginative interpretation of the story content combine to a comic effect enjoyed by a wide audience.  For many, pleasure in consuming the film can also be attributed to a sense of nostalgia for more innocent times and an Ireland and “Irishness” that are in many ways fading into distant memory.

As Mary recounts the tale, the on-screen action cuts between the first story  —  Mary in the classroom  —  and the second, that of John the Baptist.  The sepia tone of the 2D animation, along with the hand added blips, the refocusing of the camera and deliberate appearance of a boom mike in frame as Mary narrates, combine to present the piece as archival footage.  Together with the attention to detail evident in the opening images of 1960s Dublin, this documentary style reflects a deep respect on the part of Gaffney for the original recording.  Indeed every aspect of the animation, from the lip-synching of Mary as she struggles to articulate the story, to the simple bible characters, whose actions closely mirror Mary’s word, serve to frame and compliment the source material rather than overshadow it.

Following the Oscar nomination for Give Up Yer Aul Sins Brown Bag was commissioned by RTÉ to produce a seven part television series based on the 1960s recordings.  In the same style as the original short, each episode depicts a child telling a bible story to ‘the men from the television’.  Proving itself to be a commercial as well as a critical success, the series later became a best-selling DVD.  With a heightened profile, both domestically and internationally, Brown Bag Films was able to take a stronger foothold in the animation industry and began to slowly but steadily expanded its operation.

In between a busy production slate (split across a commercials unit and a television unit), Brown Bag has made a further three short films under the Frameworks scheme; The Boy who had no story (Hickey 2004), Ding Dong Denny’s History of Ireland (Gaffney 2006) and Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (Phelan 2008).  While the first two films were successful in their own right, it is the latest offering from Brown Bag that has once again catapulted the company into the public eye, earning them their second prestigious Oscar nomination in the eight years.

Granny O’Grimm is the creation of Irish comedienne Kathleen O’Rourke.  Having seen the “Granny” skit performed on stage, director Nicky Phelan knew that the vibrant character would transfer well into the animated form.  With both O’Rourke and Brown Bag on board he was able to realise his vision.

It is difficult to miss the parallels between Brown Bag’s Oscar nominated shorts.  Like Give Up Yer Aul Sins, Granny O’Grimm takes the form of a story within a story, this time starring Granny as the embedded heterodiagetic narrator.  Under the guise of the “bedtime story” she delivers a dark version of Sleeping Beauty that unwittingly terrifies her granddaughter.  Similarly to Give Up Yer Aul Sins, the humour in the piece derives from the narrator’s interpretation of the story.  In this case, Granny, bitter about her old age and the thoughtlessness of younger generations, empathises with the bad fairy, negotiating the narrative of the fairy-tale to facilitate her own emotional release. Her cathartic rants are flavoured with a distinctly Irish accent and colloquial turn of phrase, further adding to the film’s comedic appeal.

Ding Dong Denny’s History of Ireland also plays within this formula.  In this instance a working-class Dublin man gives his version of the history of Ireland to a bewildered American tourist who has mistakenly wandered into a pub.   The narrative hook of all three texts is not the story being told,  rather the story of the story being told; each film hinging on the interpretation and delivery of the story by its embedded narrator.   These films have clearly taken inspiration from the Irish seanchaí tradition, each one celebrating the art of story-telling and the fact that there is more than one way to spin a yarn.

While not quite inverting the traditional hierarchy of audio and visual in motion film, the equal status that sound and image occupy in these three texts certainly turns it on its side.  In what is often a highbred relationship, the animation in these films serves to punctuate and embellish the verbal narration, “bringing to life” both the story teller and the stories they tell.  The best execution of this to date is found in Brown Bag’s most recent offering.

The animation style employed in Granny O’Grimm shifts as the visual action moves between two narrative levels.  At the first level, we are presented with a 3D construction of the bedroom scene.  Granny looms over the frightened child as she delivers her macabre tale.  The clever use of light and shade combines with the performative gesticulation of Granny and the cadence of her speech to create tension in the film.  The use of light and shade, together with subtle changes in countenance and close attention to detail in the mise-en-scène (including an intricate pattern on the wall paper and a picture of the Sacred Heart), also works to create a realist aesthetic for the frame story.   The realm of the fairy-tale itself is represented in colourful 2D animation.  Its traditional cartoon style contrasting strongly with the animation of the bedroom scene, creating a clear divide between the world of fairy-tale and what is presented as the “real” world of Granny.

In many ways Granny is real.  Certainly she occupies a space outside the diegesis of the text itself.  Directly addressing the public from her website and various social-networking pages, Granny is carving a name for herself as a national “treasure”  —  an animated equivalent to Dustin the Turkey.

It is apparent that Brown Bag has hit on a successful formula; creatively marrying strong verbal story-telling with both stylish and sophisticated animation.  Taking their inspiration from one of the most celebrated traditions of Irish culture, their films are as pleasing  —  or at least as entertaining  —  to the ear as they are to the eye.

While their creativity in film-making has obviously earned them critical acclaim, it is worth noting that Gaffney and O’Connells’ creativity in business is equally at the heart of Brown Bag’s success.  It is surely no coincidence that both Oscar nominated shorts are so easily transferrable into television series; the “story within a story” formula clearly holding both commercial and critical value for the company.

In the case of Give Up Yer Aul Sins, more 1960s recordings were available to provide content for the series.  For Granny O’Grimm the catalogue is far larger; with a wealth of fairy-tales for Granny to twist, this is one old lady who will undoubtedly earn her keep.  Perhaps, with the success of the forthcoming series and the continuation of her celebrity status, “Brand Granny” may even break into that coveted ancillary market all producers of animation thrive to reach  —  the lucrative domain of merchandising.