Boulder Media is one of Ireland’s largest and most successful animation studios. Which says a lot because we have quite a few world-class studios here. Robert Cullen and his team have been knocking it out of the park for years and that park is global: currently they are producing the high profile Danger Mouse reboot for BBC, Wander of Yonder for Disney and work with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Awards aren’t always the best indicator of greatness but if you are going to win some then an Emmy and a few BAFTAs are pretty good to have in your collection.
As a young teenager I went on a private tour of the Sullivan Bluth studio in Dublin. I was interested in an animation career (well comics was my interest really but animation was a potential job) but knew very little about the process (pre-internet days!). I met the head animators and it all looked so exciting until they brought me to the cell-painting department where suddenly the reality hit in that that’s where I would probably be sitting. What excited you initially about animation and more importantly what keeps you interested now?
Like I mentioned the actual process always fascinated me and there appeared to be no limitations of what could be achieved (apart from budget, time and talent!!). What keeps me interested to this day is the buzz you get when you’re working with a team of people who all want to produce something that they are proud of. Danger Mouse is a great example of that. I’ve never worked on a project before where everyone involved approached it with such passion and focus because they genuinely loved the show: from the sound technician to the actors, to our props designer. Also no one day is the same: you’re constantly making judgment calls and problem solving, but are also getting the opportunity to tell great stories with the help of super-talented folk.
As we’re from the same generation, I’m guessing we share a lot of the same cultural touchstones so what resonated with you growing up and inspired you to take a creative path?
As a kid I pretty much immersed myself in comic books. Starting with ‘The Eagle’ in the very early 80’s and then soon became a die-hard fan of 2000 AD. I would spend most of my time creating my own comics and basically ripping off British artists like Steve Dillon and Simon Bisley.
A snap -shot of my teenage years would be reading and re-reading The Dark Knight Returns, listening to R.E.M and watching Aliens for the umpteenth time, (I was a real catch!). I adored shows like Thundercats and Dungeons and Dragons and was always intrigued by the animation process…just how did they get the cartoons to match the dialogue!? But it was seeing Akira when it first came out that really blew my mind. Here was something that married all the different genres and mediums I was obsessed with. This coincided with Ballyfermot College setting up its first Animation course, so for me it seemed the like the obvious route to take after I finished my Leaving Cert.
Following Ballyfermot, can you describe your creative professional route to your current position?
After graduating from College I got a short-term visa and worked briefly in L.A as a concept designer for a games company. I then worked as a Character Designer in a number of studios in Dublin in the mid 90’s. However these studios soon closed down, so I spent about 2 years freelancing, taking on any work I could get my hands on, whether it was storyboarding, character design or animating. Then in about 1997 I was introduced to a software programme called FLASH. This was predominately used for building websites but had some very interesting animation capabilities. I was asked to design and create animations for an on-line interactive dating game. Through the course of producing the game I realised you could get some really nice results, and I decided to create my own animated e-cards, which at the time were starting to become very popular. In 2000 I met my then business partner who had a connection with an e-card company in the U.S . They saw what I was doing and offered us a contract to supply them with as many cards as I could create. I couldn’t handle all the work so as a result we started Boulder Media and hired an animator, Paul O’Flanagan, to share the work load. Paul is still with us to this day, and is currently directing one of our next big action series! We grew to a team of about 6 and spent the first 4 years scraping by on whatever work we could find until we were asked to do a test for Cartoon Network’s ‘Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends’ which, to our amazement, we landed. We instantly grew to a staff of 30 and went through a baptism of fire. Long story short, Foster’s got a great reaction from the viewers and helped establish Boulder as an animation studio that could handle long form animated series. I was an Animation Director on all of our shows and directed a few pilots and shorts over the years, but Danger Mouse is the first TV series that I have solely directed.
What is the process involved in securing the commission to produce a series like The Amazing World Of Gumball? Is it done on a pitch basis? Are you selected? It has a very distinctive visual style mixing 2D/3D animation with drawn and photographic backgrounds. How did that evolve? Can you take us through your studio process?
It depends, for some of the shows we’ve worked on, we would’ve tendered for them. This would involve doing an animation test, providing budget breakdowns, schedule etc., and hoping for the best. However for Gumball we were fortunate enough that Cartoon Network knew us from our work on Foster’s and other shows, so there was no tender process. It was a straightforward proposition, which we jumped at. The art direction and overall look of the show was pretty much established by the time we were approached. The creator Ben Boquelet had a very clear idea as to how he wanted the show to look, which was a huge challenge because it involved 2D and 3D animation, live action backgrounds and photoshop backgrounds. We learnt a huge amount from our time on Gumball – for example we had never done any 3D work previously – so we had to set up a small CG deptartment. We also pushed what we could achieve in compositing, which played a massive part in making all the different media and styles sit together and feel like they belonged in the same environment.
Your recent reboot of Danger Mouse for CBBC has been very successful. It’s always a big risk taking a much-loved character; did you feel extra pressure than say if it was a new character and can describe some insights on the creative journey for such a high profile project?
‘Don’t screw it up!’ is the first thing that came to mind when we won the tender. The original DM series is remembered with great fondness, especially by people of a certain age, of which I’m one. I grew up with the show, and adored it for its silliness and anarchic qualities. The challenge was to appeal to the existing fan base, but to also attract a new generation of viewers. The first thing I decided was to keep the character designs as close as possible to the original. They’re iconic designs, so we didn’t feel the need to stylise them or make them feel more contemporary. We made some design tweaks here and there so we could push the acting, and gave it all a fresh coat of paint. For the overall look of the show we wanted to really push the production values, creating beautifully rendered locations and kick-ass action scenes. Of course it’s the writing that makes or breaks a show like this. Our head writer, Ben Ward (Horrible Histories, MI High) is a lifelong fan of DM and I think he judged it perfectly. We retained the DNA of the original, but brought it bang up to date with a host of new villain, a shed load of gadgets played out the adventures on a bigger scale. It also helps that we were blessed with an amazing cast, Alexander Armstrong, Stephen Fry, John Oliver, Richard Ayeowade, Kevin Eldon to name a view. Hopefully the fans are happy because it was genuinely made by fans.
It feels like Irish animation companies are currently dominating the TV schedules with top shows on Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and BBC. For a country that essentially had no animation industry 20 years ago, it’s a phenomenal story and has been very exciting to watch. In your view how did it happen and what are the challenges to ensure you and your colleagues can continue to grow to meet these ever increasing demands as well as matching and surpassing the high standards you are setting?
You’re right, the growth of the industry in Ireland is quite remarkable and shows no sign of slowing down. I think there’s a few factors that have played a big part. Obviously Section 481 ( Ireland’s Film and TV tax credit) plays an essential role in attracting overseas companies to work with Irish studios. There’s a lot to be said for the ‘Build it and they will come.’ principle. There’s not a huge number of studios that can handle long format TV series, so I think once you’ve proven that you have the capacity to take on these larger projects, the infrastructure’s in place and can still a deliver a great creative, you do find that Broadcasters and Producers will come back to you again and again. Most of animation studios were set up roughly around the same time, about 16 years ago ( Brown Bag even earlier) and have steadily expanded over that period but each company was offering and focusing something different from the other. This meant that as a whole, Ireland was producing and selling it’s own IP to broadcasters, offering 2D and 3D animation services for long format TV series, specialising in either Pre-school or the 7-11 market, producing feature films and award winning shorts. So I think it’s the diversity and scope that has enabled the industry to thrive. Having said all that it’s quality of the visuals and storytelling that are key. As much as it’s a cliché we have always been a nation of story tellers and animation is just another form of that. To ensure the continued success of the industry in Ireland I think we need to ensure we have a constant and high quality talent pool covering as many of the skills that the industry requires, support the setting up of new companies and encourage our future entrepreneurs. Of course funding is always an issue especially from our State Broadcaster.
Is it important to support and encourage your creative teams to keep experimenting and testing themselves? Do you have time yourself to produce non-commercial work?
An average TV season can take over 18 months to complete and it’s very easy to fall out of the habit of drawing for yourself and for pleasure. Over the years Boulder has produced a number of shorts between service projects just so we can our stretch creative muscle and experiment with techniques. Boulder also has an art blog where we have a monthly theme, the winner of which wins a little prize which is a lot fun. We also hold life drawing classes in the evenings. I wrote and directed a 10 mins short a few years back called ‘Fresh Cut Grass’ which has been a long time ambition of mine, plus directing Danger Mouse pretty much scratches my creative own itch!