When she was a young girl growing up in Cork, drawing wasn’t seen as a skill you could possibly make a living from. But Nora Twomey forged her own path and has not only made a career of drawing, she has reached the pinnacle of her profession.
Last year, film industry bible Variety named her as one of the top 10 animators to watch and in a couple of weeks time, she will be attending the Academy Awards as a nominee director for Best Animated Feature.
She told the Evening Echo that drawing was a passion from her earliest days as a pupil in St Brigid’s National School in Midleton.
“I think all children love drawing and then I think around the ages of nine and ten a lot of children give it up, they stop drawing as a means of communication,” she said.
“But before that, children definitely use it as a means to process the world around them and then for some people they continue on because either it is a form of meditation for people or a form of processing, or they enjoy it.
"I just continued on. I always had a pencil and was doodling all the way through school really.”
But despite her enjoyment, making a career of it wasn’t seen as a realistic avenue.
“In the 70s and 80s, it wasn't really seen as a career. There was one thing you could go into, which was Art. You could become a fine artist and paint and you knew you were in for a long struggle.
“I remember going into secondary school you had a choice between home economics and art and a lot of people, especially girls, chose home economics because that was the sensible thing to do. I think in a lot of boys schools it wasn't even an option if you wanted to do it. In general creative arts weren’t really thought of it that kind of way.”
Ms Twomey left school early and it was her first job in Midleton that sowed the first seeds of aspiration, showing her that it was possible to build a life around creating things.
“I left school when I was 15 and got a job when I was 16 with a woman called Judy Cuddihy in Midleton, who used to make these reproduction porcelain dolls,” she said.
“To me that was great encouragement. I would set out to work in the workshop in the morning and we would make things with our hands that would exist by the evening.
“That was a great confidence booster and gave me some kind of an inkling as to what my hands could do.”
From there she went on to work in a factory for a number of years, putting money by to be able to afford to go to college. She then resumed her art education in Cork city.
“I earned enough to go back into college, so I went to Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa in Cork. There I got to learn about ceramics, textiles, fabric design, fine art and drawing and all of these different disciplines.”
The course was aimed at providing a foundation for a number of different careers and several of her classmates were talking about animation.
“The college helped us prepare portfolios for any discipline we wanted to go into,” Ms Twomey said. “While I was there I met some peers in college who wanted to go into animation. They were talking about Ballyfermot and Dun Laoghaire being two great colleges so that is how I got to college in Ballyfermot.”
Although the courses existed, the animation scene in Ireland was a small scene, with no hint of the explosion of success and employment that was to come.
“There wasn’t a huge industry in Ireland when I started out, Sullivan Bluth Studios were in Dublin but they pulled out the year I graduated from college. There were some studios, Brown Bag was set up - but they were all quite small, less than 20 people in each.
“We didn't see anything like the explosion in animation we see in Ireland now, where it employs several thousand people and you have shows for Disney being created in Ireland and these feature films that we are making for Cartoon Saloon.
“There was no grand plan, just a lot of people who liked drawing.”
For a woman without a plan, Ms Twomey has gone on to considerable success. With collaborators Paul Young and Tomm Moore she founded Cartoon Saloon in the late 1990s.
The Kilkenny-based studio has had both critical and commercial success, producing two Oscar-nominated films, The Book of Kells and Star of the Sea, before their latest success, The Breadwinner.
Ms Twomey was co-director of The Secret Of Kells and Head of Story on Song Of The Sea but The Breadwinner is her first work as sole director. It is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Canadian author Deborah Ellis and is a labour of love for the Cork director.
The story features Parvana, a 12-year-old girl who gives up everything to provide for her family and reunite with her father in Kabul, Afghanistan just as the Taliban regime began to fall.
It has been garlanded with awards since its release, with plaudits including Best Animation at the LA Film Critics Association Awards and the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards and the Grand Prize at the Animation Is Film Festival.
On March 4, it is up against giant productions like Pixar’s Coco for Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards. Ms Twomey said the nomination is a great ‘vote of confidence’ in their film.
“Any kind of award recognition for a film like The Breadwinner helps it get notice that it otherwise would not have gotten,” she said.
“With an independent film you don’t have a huge publicity budget so recognition like this is fantastic. An Academy Award is the highest you can go so to have a film like The Breadwinner standing shoulder to shoulder with bigger, more commercial releases is really fantastic.
“It was made for less than 10 millions dollars, a film like Coco would be made for at least $150 million and the same would have been spent on marketing. So for us to be mentioned in the same sentence is extraordinary to me.”
Having Angelina Jolie, who is executive producer of The Breadwinner, on board definitely helps raise the profile.
“It really helped shine a light on The Breadwinner that would not have been there otherwise. She helped pull the film out of the obscure indie field and into everyday conversation.
"She is a very experienced filmmaker and storyteller herself, she is an actor, writer and director. To be able to have someone like that on board as an executive producer and help guide the film was fantastic.”
She is now preparing for the madness of the night itself. Rubbing shoulders with stars may be a far cry from her day-to-day life in Ireland but Ms Twomey said she and her family will enjoy the excitement of it all.
“I have two boys and they are excited but it is all a bit strange for them,” she said. “When we make a rough animatic, which is like the rough storyboard of the film, they watched it with me. Sometimes I read the scripts and they have been in and around the studio quite a bit so they are very aware of the process of film-making. They have been involved in the film all the way through.
“I have family in Midleton and Cobh and Macroom and a few other places and they will all be watching. It is a long day, starts around 3pm, until 10 or 11pm.
“But it is a great show. You are watching an amazing event with beautiful sets and everyone in their grandeur so it is something to witness alright, it is an exciting night!”