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Carol Freeman and Pádraig Fagan have spent the past few minutes apologising for the mess in their cluttered production studio in A4 Sounds off Dorset Street.
They gather up loose bits of paper and stuff them into drawers. “Don’t show people how we live,” says Freeman, as she laughs.
Sketches of scenes from different works are tacked to the wall to the right of the door. Cables from laptops, monitors and cameras are draped around the room. The head of a character from An Gadhar Dubh sits on purple card, missing a black eyebrow.
This is where Paper Panther Productions, made up of Freeman, Fagan, and Eimhin McNamara, piece together their painstaking stop-gap animations – from enchanting short films, to adverts.
“It can be quite difficult for smaller companies,” says Freeman. Larger companies often have more equipment, staff, and studio space to pull together big projects.
But the team behind Paper Panther have still managing to make a space and name for themselves. “We kind of took one little step at a time and it snowballed slowly from there,” says Freeman.
The trio met at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), and then started to give workshops in animation and stop-motion techniques to students all around the country, says Freeman.
“That time we spent doing workshops was really a trial run because we got used to doing things like sand animation, [and] pixilation, which is where you animate people,” says Fagan.
To get funding to make films themselves, they set up as a production company, he says.
Frameworks, Screen Ireland’s funding stream for short animated films, requires teams to have a producer. So the team decided they needed to become a production company.
Paper Panther has punched above its weight. Represented by Whirligig, the gang have been picking up plenty of advertising work, and have also released two gong-winning short films.
Last weekend, Paper Panther’s second film The Bird and the Whale, won “Best Animation” and “Best Design & Art Direction” at the Irish Animation Awards in Dingle.
It’s a recognition of their artistic vision and the non-digital, hand-made animation techniques they use in this dark, cramped studio in the north inner-city.
Keeping the Lights On
“People say that you can’t make anything commercial with these techniques but you can,”says Freeman.
It can be tough though. Each shot is labour-intensive – so the time, and so the costs, that go into it can make it more expensive than what digital studios produce.
Most studios are digital studios, says Freeman. So they can produce work quickly and more cost-efficiently.
That said, there’s been no shortage of work coming in for the Paper Panther.
Last year, the team directed a one-minute stop-motion segment for Disjointed, a Netflix original comedy series.
Dulux paints asked them to create an advertisement based on rural Irish family life. They’ve worked alongside Kilkenny-based animators Cartoon Saloon for TG4’s Cúl an Tí, a documentary series based on legendary Irish poems, songs, and stories.
“It keeps things ticking over but it is more expensive to make stuff and people can be put off by that,” says Freeman. “There’s no ‘animate’ button. That can be a thing you need to explain to people.”
In the corner of the room, there’s a set-up for recording stop-motion animation.
A rectangular iron frame sits on a desk with an DSLR camera placed above a glass surface. Lights are clamped diagonally either side of the camera, shining at the surface.
Fagan puts some sand on the first glass layer and, using a paintbrush, makes patterns with the sand, visible on the monitor that sits in front.
“There’s an awful lot to play with in stop motion,” says Fagan.
Stop-motion, for the uninitiated, is when filmmakers move objects by hand between each individual frame.
An Gadhar Dubh is Paper Panther’s first full-length film project. Funded by Screen Ireland’s Frameworks programme and RTÉ, it’s an Irish-language stop-motion horror film, written and directed by Fagan.
Each of the characters and the backgrounds is built from layered cardboard cuttings.
Fagan takes out a sheet from one of the drawers in the studio containing approximately thirty different jaw variations. This is just for one character, says Fagan, pointing at an old man who features heavily in the film.
According to their website, there were 440 jaw variations used altogether.
Only small tweaks are made with post-production techniques: removing fingerprints, masking wires, that type of thing.
Fagan sticks on a video of An Gadhar Dubh, pointing out other techniques used: smears of vaseline on the glass to make eerie mist in the countryside, plastic bags for cloudy skies, tinfoil for the flickering lights.
You couldn’t have two more diverse films in terms of animation techniques, says Freeman, than An Gadhar Dubh and her own film, The Bird and the Whale.
Made by painting on glass and wiping it clean after every frame, The Bird and the Whale took 4,500 camera shots and four painters.
“You go into a Zen place where your brain starts floating around,” says Freeman. “You look up and it’s dark outside.”