This week, I spoke with animator Éabha Bortolozzo. Éabha’s film Her Song, which she co-wrote, co-directed and co-animated with her animation partner Jack Kirwan, has just won an IFTA for best animated short, AND been long-listed for an Academy Award!
What inspired you to pursue animation as a career?
“I think I always loved art and loved drawing, and that was probably my biggest strength in school… I also loved English and telling stories so combining the two. And there was an industry there, so I knew I could get a job (laughs). I watched a documentary about Dreamworks in school and I remember being like Oh my god, animation is a job? That’s amazing!”
How do you find living and working in Ireland as an animator? Is there enough funding/support there, in your opinion?
“Yeah, I think the path I’ve gone is kind of unusual. The route I’ve gone is funding and short films, and it’s been great. The support is great and my experience has been brilliant so far, but it is hard. It’s competitive to get into those jobs. Whereas I haven’t worked in the studio system, and there are so many in Ireland. There’s a lot of employment there. Ireland is really booming at the moment with animation.”
That’s interesting. It sounds like there’s a lot more freedom in the path you’ve chosen, but more uncertainty as well.
“Yeah, it’s exactly that actually. The Frameworks grant is great. That’s the one we made Her Song with. After that we were applying for a few things; a lot of grants that weren’t specifically for animation, so maybe we didn’t really meet the criteria. We didn’t get any of them so… yeah, it’s hard to know where to go after the next grant. But you know, different opportunities will present themselves to you, and you can’t predict the future.”
Speaking of Her Song: what inspired you and Jack to come up with the idea for the film?
“It all started off with the Banshee actually. We loved her as a character. The mother and baby homes were everywhere in the press in the years leading up to it. We wondered “what would the Banshee think of all this?” The idea of the Banshee as a witness to this terrible part of Irish history. Especially her coming from a pagan, old Ireland before the Catholic church. So then we put a big Pinterest board together and worked from there.”
You and Jack have been working together since college; how do you find working as part of a creative duo?
“Great, it’s so much fun. It’s way better than I could ever do by myself. You make decisions when writing, and you can get tunnel vision or be overly-critical of your own work and say it to the other person and they might tell you it’s a really good idea. And vice-versa, you might have an idea you think is unreal and they can tell you it doesn’t work. It’s good to have someone there to help guide the decision-making, and it’s a lot of fun as well. It kind of feels like college has just been extended in some way. You always expect the teacher to separate you.”
And it worked out well that you guys understand each other and have the same vision.
“I’m so grateful that we’re always on the same page creatively and have a lot of respect for one another. If someone has a very strong opinion or idea of something, we respect that. We very rarely get into actual arguments about anything.”
The style that you guys have developed is really cool too – what are your influences?
“My own influences are varied. You know you have the stuff from your childhood, like Disney films and fantasy – Lord of the Rings in particular. And then there’s darker animation. I loved Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplet’s of Belleville and Luis Cook’s The Pearce Sisters. Plus shorts like Late Afternoon by Louise Bagnall and The Breadwinner by Nora Twomey. There some really brilliant Irish women in the scene at the moment.
“Jack and I found our style in college. We both liked the hand-drawn look. Something kind of expressive; looser than more traditional styles. Not overly clean or overly perfect.”
How hands-on are you and Jack with the process? How much freedom does the funding you are given allow?
“We like to be involved in every aspect. Getting involved in the budget, figuring out how to break it up and manage all of that.
“In regards to casting, for example: you give your dream cast, and the film board has to approve it but then they say “go for it”. Jack is definitely much better at casting than I am, so he came up with that. Our dream cast was Brenda Fricker and Nicola Coughlan and they said “yeah good luck. See if you can get them.” and they both ended up loving the script and coming on board.”
Would you consider doing a feature film?
“That would mean involving more people in the production. It sounds amazing, but I don’t know how people do features. We would have to work with people and look for help and guidance. Right now, a lot of the time it feels like we’re making things up as we go along, there’s definitely some imposter syndrome.”
And the most important question: do you feel like you can accomplish anything now that you have an IFTA?
“Oh, yeah. I feel unreal.”
You actually sound different.
“Yeah, I feel more confident.”
Kind of glam like?
“Oh so glam.”
What was the whole experience like?
“It was really cool. Really fun. Weird doing it online. They announced it and we just weren’t expecting it at all, and then they’re like “Okay, congratulations” and hang up the Zoom, and then you’re just sitting there in your room.”
I’m going to cheat and ask you what other questions have you been asked in interviews? In case I’ve missed anything.
“I think we’ve hit all the main ones, but I would like to add that the music was/is very important in Her Song: shout-out to the musicians – Matilda O’Mahony and Rachel O’Grady (Rachel also did the music for our grad film, so it was great to work with her again). They created that haunting and memorable melody. It really helped to set the tone of the film.”
Did you find it helped working with friends to score Her Song?
“Working with people we know really does help. Music usually comes at the end, but because we knew them and wanted to work with them, they were so great. Tipping away at ideas as the film developed. Because of this, the music is so deeply linked to the animation. You can tell that it wasn’t added in on top; they feed each other. This elevated the film hugely.”
And, finally: What is next for you and Jack?
“Well, at the moment we’re doing a residency. It’s with the OFFline Film Festival for six months in Birr in Offaly. We’ve been given a fully equipped studio and accommodation, and we’re using the time to work on a passion project about sea swimming, inspired by lockdown in Dublin. Hopefully we’ll have it finished by October.
“After that, we’ll move straight on to our next film. We’ve been awarded another set of funding with Frameworks and Screen Ireland for that, so we’ll start in November.”
Okay, no. This is definitely the last question, I promise. Have you got any advice for young animators and filmmakers in general?
“My big piece of advice is that networking is invaluable. I hated it at the beginning. It can seem really daunting to begin with, but it’s worth it. Go to festivals, talk to people, don’t be afraid to call in favours. Any bit of networking I’ve ever done has stood to me.”