In the Covid era, any in-person festival feels like a novelty. But this year’s edition of Kilkenny Animated was doubly special: not only did its organizers pull off a real-life event against the odds, they took the pandemic as an opportunity to try new ideas.
For this festival, which was held across last weekend in the Irish town of Kilkenny, the organizers held a pair of aces in their hand. First, they could draw on the picturesque locales of Kilkenny, home to the world-famous studio Cartoon Saloon (which co-organizes the event). Second, they were able to organize the program around the studio’s recently completed feature Wolfwalkers, which happens to be set in Kilkenny (albeit in the 17th century).
Multiple free screenings of Wolfwalkers were held in cinemas (and just in time: Ireland’s theaters have since been ordered to close again). The film’s directors, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, were joined by colleagues for two panels: in one, they discussed the film’s six-year journey with assistant director Mark Mullery and art director Maria Pareja, and in the other they talked about voice acting with cast members Eva Whitaker, Niamh Moyles, and John Morton.
Meanwhile, the festival ran ingenious site-specific events outdoors. The organizers brought back the sketching tour of the town, which proved a hit last year: artists who worked on the film led people around places that inspired the visual look of the film. The centerpiece of the festival was a nightly projection of clips from Wolfwalkers onto Kilkenny’s medieval castle — a key location in the film.
The projections, which Cartoon Saloon created in partnership with Algorithm, run on a seven-minute loop nightly between 8 and 10 p.m., and will continue to do so throughout October. They are visible from several city landmarks. “Because of the timings and the broad sightlines available,” says festival co-director Naoise Nunn, “it’s possible for these not to attract large crowds, which could pose a public health risk.”
Mullery, the film’s assistant director, explains how the clips for the projection were chosen: “The edge of the cinema screen is a key aspect of the medium, but in this new context, I wanted more than anything for the edges to disappear completely and for the animated elements to appear unconstrained by the edge of the projection.
“Once that was established, it was really about finding elements from the film that would look stark and ghostly if they were shifted to a high-contrast white light, which makes the edges disappear and compositionally ties to the white light of the illuminated castle behind the parade wall.”
He continues, “The challenge lay in finding material that was both appropriate and complete edge-to-edge, of which there was honestly not that much. The answer was in using the real-world surroundings to matte out elements that would otherwise have a harsh digital projector edge. Where possible I used brickwork battlement patterns to match the wall, as well as silhouettes of trees to match the foliage in the park which is visible behind the high walls.”
Fabian Erlinghäuser and Rory Conway, respectively an animation director and a layout and background artist at Cartoon Saloon, held artistic workshops for children at Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery. Nunn notes that the venue “is due to open its exhibition of original artwork from Wolfwalkers at the end of the month, which will run until January 2021.”
“The Wolfwalkers Walking and Sketching Tours were a great success in previous festivals,” recalls Nunn, “so that was an easy win. It was always going to be a safe option to host walking tours, with Cartoon Saloon artists, of the medieval streets and buildings of the city that inspired the artwork for the film and provided its setting.”
Mullery says that making a film about Kilkenny hasn’t really changed his feelings about the town. “Kilkenny is one of those towns whose medieval identity is immediately apparent the moment you set foot there, from the imposing Castle to the 13th-century cathedral to the little laneways with Tudor windows … The film is an ode to the place which in so many beautiful ways is unchanged since then.”
Has the Kilkenny audience had any unusual reactions to the film? “Aside from recognising landmarks,” says Mullery, “I think there’s a connection made by the people here to the history. I think, for the public, knowing that there’s a community of hundreds of animation professionals living in this fairly small town and purposefully celebrating its history — which is still more or less on display to everyone — should be a source of pride.”