Image: Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, 2020.

Since its creation in 1999, Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon has consistently stood out within the animation landscape, praised for its stories based on Irish folklore and showcasing a ‘painterly hand-drawn aesthetic’ (Rooney 2002). The studio’s first feature film, The Secret of Kells (Moore and Twomey 2009), was released at the end of what Sam Summers terms the ‘computer-animated feature’s formative decade’ (2020: 1). This article examines Cartoon Saloon’s self-representation in relation to contemporary animation aesthetics and techniques. Drawing on various paratexts, this article analyses how the studio relies on the appeals of hand-made aesthetics and discourses surrounding analogue technology and practices in order to foreground a distinctive studio identity.

While American studios such as Pixar have played a pivotal role in crystallising the aesthetic conventions of computer animation, combining cartoonish and caricatured characterisation with ‘high-quality, intricately shaded, photorealistic imagery’ (Furniss 2016: 375), smaller independent studios have emphasised their avoidance of such techniques and associated aesthetics. Birgitta Hosea observes the prevalence of the ‘myth of the handmade’ within this context, which ‘resists mechanical perfection and stands in opposition to the use of CGI technology,’ while engaging with ‘nostalgic notions of individuality’ (2019: 34; 36). Cartoon Saloon similarly relies on the myth of the handmade and distances its output from computer animation by foregrounding its image as auteur-led. This perspective is exemplified by the Afterword to The Art of Wolfwalkers written by co-director Tomm Moore (Cartoon Saloon’s co-founder). Although the former describes the animation process as collaborative, he insists on the directors’ ‘vision’: ‘What I am happiest to see […] is that the vision Ross[Stewart, co-director]and I had at the beginning is still there, right up until the final image […] that is thanks to in no small part to the crew of artists, production staff and producers who believed in what Ross and I were trying to create’ (Moore 2020: 220). Hosea argues that the handmade ‘evokes a conceptualization of art as an expression of individual consciousness rather than something produced by non-human technology or the merging of identities within a team’ (2019: 34). This idea is reiterated in relation to merchandising: the film frames themselves are transformed into unique art pieces that can be purchased on the studio’s website. A promotional video presenting the process of printing and framing draws on the same rhetoric of the ‘handmade’ (‘Quality prints made with love here in Kilkenny’), foregrounding the meticulous work of craftspeople through notable close-ups of their hands, and concluding with Tomm Moore’s hand signing the final print, consolidating his role as auteur.[i]

Cartoon Saloon’s discursive emphasis on craftsmanship and the handmade is in dialogue with the narrative of the films. Numerous authors, such as Liam Burke, have pointed out the parallel between form and content, notably singling out Tomm Moore as a central creative force: ‘unsurprisingly, as a traditional animator in a digital world, Moore gravitates towards stories of artists trying to keep ritual alive’ (2016: 290). His first feature, The Secret of Kells, is set in medieval Ireland and features characters learning the art of illumination while striving to preserve the precious Book of Kells.[ii] Other entries of what the studio labels as its ‘Irish trilogy’ similarly draw on national folklore and Celtic mythology, portraying magical creatures such as Selkies in Song of the Sea (Moore 2014) and ‘wolf people’ in Wolfwalkers (2020). Describing his approach for Song of the Sea, Moore explained that it felt ‘important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture’ (quoted in Barton 2019: 78). Such statements on the preservation of folklore could be applied to the studio’s perpetuation of traditional animation techniques and a hand-drawn aesthetic in the age of digital animation: what Burke describes as a ‘flat 2D style’ and characters’ ‘disarming graphic simplicity’ (2016: 290).

Cartoon Saloon’s construction and framing of its output, highlighting its stylistic and cultural uniqueness, is crystallised in materials featuring the physical studio, such as the ‘behind-the-scenes’ promotional video for Wolfwalkers, available on Cartoon Saloon’s website.[iii] This video positions Wolfwalkers as organically linked to Kilkenny (South-East of Ireland). The promotional film regularly alternates between shots of the town, its architecture, historical landmarks and natural environment, and corresponding concept art, sketches, paintings and rough animation, giving the impression that the city is brought to life. Kilkenny also appears as an extension of the studio: the animators are shown walking out of Cartoon Saloon for a field trip, experiencing Kilkenny’s historic buildings, castles and streets first hand. A sense of proximity is maintained throughout: inside the studio, the film showcases either individuals working on their own, or a small team of a dozen animators working in an open space. Such a representation of the studio, echoing the promotional video for art prints, reinforces Cartoon Saloon’s association with craft and artisanal traditions. The ‘hand of the artist’ is particularly foregrounded throughout the film, conveying a sense of authenticity and continuity between different techniques – sketching, painting – smoothly mediating the gradual transition from analogue to digital tools throughout the production process.

Cartoon Saloon crafts a distinctive studio identity by an emphasis on artisanal labour practices and local processes, national culture and folklore, drawing on the myth of the handmade and the construction of the animation auteur. Such discursive strategies are vital within an increasingly competitive market. As Ruth Barton points out, Cartoon Saloon and Irish animated films more generally are bound by ‘their negotiation with the dominant industry, both forming part of it, yet insisting on remaining visually distinctive, and their struggle to create national content under conditions that overwhelmingly favour a globalised product’ (2019: 80).

As explored throughout the various blog articles for the “Animation Studios in Europe” theme, most European studios face similar challenges, relying on multiple strategies to stand out within and reinvent the contemporary animation landscape.


[i] See the promotional video available at <> (accessed 12 April 2024).

[ii] The Book of Kells is a significant Irish artefact still on display at Trinity College in Dublin.

[iii] See the promotional video available at <> (accessed 12 April 2024)

Works cited

Barton, Ruth (2019), Irish Cinema in the Twenty-first Century, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Burke, Liam (2016), ‘Swan Song: Lamenting Ireland’s Traditional Past in Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore 2014)’, Estudios Irlandeses, 11, 288–691.

Hosea, Birgitta (2019), ‘Made by Hand’, in Caroline Ruddell and Paul Ward (eds), The Crafty Animator: Handmade, Craft-based Animation and Cultural Value, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 17–43.

Furniss, Maureen (2016), A New History of Animation, New York: Thames & Hudson.

Moore, Tomm, and Ross Stewart (2020), ‘Afterword’, in Charles Solomon, The Art of Wolfwalkers, New York: Abrams, p. 220.

Rooney, David (2022), ‘“My Father’s Dragon” Review: Classic Children’s Book Gets a Sweet Retelling’, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 October, <> (accessed 17 April 2024).

Summers, Sam (2020), DreamWorks Animation: Intertextuality and Aesthetics in Shrek and Beyond, Cham: Palgrave MacMillan.

Dr. Eve Benhamou is a Teaching Fellow in Film at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (France). Prior to this, she taught at UWE’s School of Animation, Swansea University and the University of Bristol (UK). Her research focuses on contemporary anglophone animation. She published her first monograph in 2022, Contemporary Disney Animation: Genre, Gender and Hollywood (Edinburgh University Press), and is contributing chapters to Feminine/Masculine: On Gender in English-language Cinema and Television (Artois Presses Université, 2024), The Oxford Handbook of the Disney Musical (forthcoming) and The Routledge Companion to Animation Studies (forthcoming).