THE STORY OF ANIMAGIC, A cross-border North/South of Ireland Film Project

As I came off the stage, an assistant from the Film Council noted that I might not want to use the word “Republic” when speaking of Ireland. “Republic” was a flashpoint because many folks up North saw “Republic” as a claim to the entire island North and South. Some people viewed this as a political tinderbox and a possible killing offense.

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               The genesis of ANIMAGIC stems from a December 1993 invite to speak at the CINEMAGIC CHILDREN’S FILM FESTIVAL in Belfast and Londonderry (Derry). The first meeting with Ena McHugh, the director of CINEMAGIC and the Northern Ireland Film Council (NIFC) was at the Irish Film Center (IFC) in Temple Bar. Temple Bar, formerly a rough and tumble area near Hay Penny Bridge, was now an up and coming cultural center in Dublin. Ena was referred to me from the folks of the Dublin Film Festival and Dublin Junior Film Festival. 

                Early in the year, I had convinced the legendary Warner Brothers animated film director, Chuck Jones to attend the Dublin Film Festival by way of the Cardiff Animation Festival where he received a Lifetime achievement award. Amazingly, even though Chuck constantly quoted Bernard Shaw, and James Joyce, he had never been in Ireland. His visit was wildly successful, thus the reference to NIFC and Ena.

Ena invited us up to appear at the CINEMAGIC Festivals in Belfast and at an offshoot venue in Derry. I would present work from our Classical Animation program at the European School of Animation. I also agreed to do a few workshops with children from both cities.

The easiest way to travel up North to Belfast was the train from Connelly station in Dublin. In 1993, the trains between the cities varied immensely in tone and atmosphere. A southern Irish train did offer non smoking cars but that meant the front end of the carriage was non-smoking and the back end of the car was smoking – no door separated the two areas. We found if we upgraded to first class a truly non-smoking car was available. The Northern Irish trains afforded a full service restaurant on their dining cars with white tablecloths and brewed tea.

We arrived at about 8:00 p.m. at night. The train slowed as it approached the Belfast station. Outside the window we could see eight or nine British troops in full battle gear on a patrol of the station. Ena met us at the station and we hopped a cab to our hotel.

The next afternoon I was scheduled to speak about the Classical Animation program at an auditorium in the Festival venue. I spoke of the skill and training of the students and faculty in the Republic of Ireland and how proud we were of the program’s progress. I noticed most of the audience was polite and unresponsive. As I came off the stage, an assistant from the Film Council noted that I might not want to use the word “Republic” when speaking of Ireland. “Republic” was a flashpoint because many folks up North saw “Republic” as a claim to the entire island North and South. Some people viewed this as a political tinderbox and a possible killing offense. It took me about five seconds to transition to the terms the North or the South of Ireland. Terms I very handily employ today.

 The workshops with the children were enlightening. The children did not ask many animation questions but rather asked many questions about Dublin and the residents of the South. The most common question asked, especially in Derry was, ”What are you doing here?” We had a great time at the Festival and enjoyed the films and the filmmakers.

 At nights we would roam the city to catch a glimpse of the downtown areas. On several occasions, we saw armored vehicles pursuing automobiles. RUC (Royal Ulster Constabiltory) stations were armed outposts complete with machine nests, sandbagged walls and concertina barbed wire. After a couple of days, we could tell whether our taxi drivers were Protestant or Catholic by the routes they drove. Catholic taxi cab drivers felt saver cutting through their own neighborhoods and vice versa.

 When we arrived back in Dublin, we had as many questions about the North as about the South. The distance between Dublin and Belfast was just over a hundred miles – but talking to the Irish you would think the distance was the same as travel to the moon and back. Adults in their 50’s had never travelled outside their respective countries. Most adults were completely ignorant of the other’s cities

 As we spoke with Ena about our adventure at the festival, we realized here was an opportunity. Even though the adults had not experienced each other’s cities, they still had very strong opinions about each other. The questions we received came not from adults but from the children. After much thought, we came up with a plan. What if kids from the North and kids from the South made a film, a film about their cultural  heritage. 

Ena McHugh, being adept with organizing and budgets applied for grants from the Arts Education Fund in the European Community. We would include four schools from each country.  Two teachers from each school would supervise their students. The co-sponsors of the project were the Northern Ireland Film Council and the Classical Animation Program of the European Animation of Animation located in the South at Senior College Ballyfermot.

Months later, a peace was announced between the North and the South of Ireland. The very same day, we received word the funding had come through and the project was a “go”!

 The Departments of Education North and its counter part in the South selected the schools to participate. The North selected the high schools with the best art programs. Two schools would be from the Catholic area and two schools would be from the Protestant area. In the South, the selection process differed; the four schools which needed a financial boost would receive the grants. All the schools were Catholic because Protestant high schools did not exist.

We structured the project to take advantage of the production studios and camera facilities at Senior College Ballyfermot. We would kick-off ANIMAGIC with a one week intensive for all the students in the Belfast area and end the project months later with another week intensive in the Dublin area.

We had 16 students from the North and 16 students from the South. From the beginning, we intended to draw out the animation – that meant 12 drawings or so for every second on the screen. If every student drew 30 seconds of animation it would yield a 6 minute film.

My wife, Tricia, agreed to be the production manager for the project. She would assist me and keep track of production and liaise with the teachers from the various schools.

 Our first meeting with the schools was with the participants up

 North. We wanted to meet the students and teachers, explain the scope of the project and offer an initial animation lesson. The students were excited, a couple of teachers voiced their reservations about “drawn” animation instead of computer animation and whether it could keep the students energized and engaged. Past experience had revealed the drawn animation had kept the participants engaged and the longer process of learning intricate computer software would eat up time and limit the students creativity.

                 The next meeting was with the schools down South. We replicated all the activities we had done up North.

 A week later all 32 teenagers met in the North for a one week project/ animation residence. One of the first things we did was board buses; we traveled to the Protestant area to read the murals about the “troubles”. Our initial reaction was one of jubilant tourists. We all piled off the buses and stood in front of the murals shaking hands and snapping photographs. After a few moments, we noticed the automobiles passing by had slowed to a crawl. We paused our celebration and read the murals which had anti-Catholic slogans such as “Catholics Out! “ and “The UFF will not rest while one Catholic remains alive”.

 Suddenly, the students from the South of Ireland stopped their celebration and talk. They noticed their Irish accents were much different and stood out from the local dialect. One by one, they sought refuge back on the buses. Uneasy about the slowing autos, we all returned to the buses and departed for our residence.

 That night after dinner, I presented a short lecture about character design. As a follow-up activity – everyone designed a character and then painted their designs on t-shirts.

 When the students had gone to bed, we met with the teachers to work out the logistics of the project. The format for the week was to have a daily class on animation fundamentals for roughly half a day and to tour the Belfast area and devote a fair amount of time to discussion of the “troubles”.

 One important aspect of the project for the residential week was to have a moderator; someone to lead discussions and urge participation from the students. Several suggestions were made for members of the clergy, teachers, and even politicians. No one could agree on a moderator – someone who would be unbiased. Finally, I (a living in the South, Protestant, animator from the United States) volunteered to be the moderator. I was compromise candidate to many of the teachers – and it demonstrated progressive thought.

 Being a moderator was easy. The students had been together for two days – barriers were coming down and they wanted to discuss the “troubles”. The first comments were direct quotes from their parents; the ideologies were very hard line and to the point. As the students discussed the issues they realized the people they discussed were not across some country line or ideological barrier; they sat right next to them. The hard heartedness quickly dissipated into a real desire to solve the “troubles”. After dinner, a core group of students kept the discussion going until after 2:00 a.m. in the morning.

 So as the week progressed, animation workshops and the discussions continued.  Students began to form their ideas; the theme of the film was to be based on their cultural heritage. The topics we discussed were the violence, the history, the current culture, the mythology and the traditions.

 From a story structure standpoint we would utilize a relay format. Everyone would create storyboards ( a sort of visual comic book/script) for their segment and provide a copy of their last drawing to the next student. The next student would metamorphose a visual transition from the last drawing of the previous student’s work to the first drawing of their work.

 In two weeks, we would meet back in the North to review the storyboards and develop a flow for the film.

                                                            (TO BE CONTINUED)

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