Dead Souls, Crows and Tadpoles: The Extraordinary Visions of John McCloskey

Charting the Derry-based, BAFTA-nominated animator's career, from the very first frame across almost three decades of wondrous works

In 1992 a small item on 29 Bedford Street, BBC Northern Ireland’s arts programme presented by John Kelly, announced the arrival of a prodigious new talent on the local animation scene.

Derry artist John McCloskey had been experimenting with 2D animation techniques since the Nerve Centre had acquired an animation controller (a device for capturing stop-frame images) at the beginning of the 1990s. Encouraged by Dublin animator Steve Woods and using trial and error, John created a 90 second animated sequence featuring Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I and a potato. When this comic encounter was screened on 29 Bedford Street as part of a feature on the Nerve Centre, it caught the attention of BBC producer Michael McGowan.

Michael had the idea of creating a children’s animated series on the life of Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, whose heroic deeds and legendary feats of martial combat have been an endless source of fascination to writers, poets, sculptors and visual artists, including wall muralists on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Could the story be told in an engaging and inclusive way for children of all cultural backgrounds and would John be willing to take a crack at it? Derry author and screenwriter Dave Duggan signed on to write the six five minute scripts, and with Dave’s words brought to life by local actors such as Ian McElhinney and Marie Jones, John and his brother Paul sat down in the kitchen of their home on the Creggan estate to begin an animation marathon.  

The digital revolution had barely begun in 1993-4 and so the series was created using the traditional method made famous by generations of Disney artists. The process involved hand painting images on to transparent cels which were then laid over a painted background – a time consuming process requiring 12 cels to produce a single second of animation. The Cú Chulainn series was created over a punishing nine month production period and broadcast on BBC NI in autumn 1994. The figure of Cú Chulainn would continue to feature in John’s work throughout the 1990s.  

Animation was becoming an important industry in the Republic of Ireland and the Irish Film Board established the Frameworks funding scheme to support the production of personal short films by emerging animators keen to experiment with the medium. With funding from Frameworks, John was able to create his first truly original work of animation and develop his dynamic and fluid personal style. His inspiration was the haunting classical symphony 'Danse Macabre' by Camille Saint-Saen.

Hand-drawn on blue touch paper, Midnight Dance is a supernatural fantasy that transports us to an expressionist landscape of gothic horror and comic grotesquery. The six minute film opens in a ghostly graveyard at midnight where a skeletal fiddle player, in 18th century costume, awakens the dead to join him in a waltz of death.

Midnight Dance takes the viewer on a rollercoster ride through a nocturnal landscape at dizzying speed. Spiralling camera movements race to keep apace with the runaway tempo of the classical score. The fiddle player glides through the air with the graceful movements of a ballet dancer. Swirling leaves transform into dark butterflies. At one point we adopt the perspective of a butterfly hurtling through the air with a wild feeling of defying the laws of gravity.

Midnight Dance won the Animation Award at the 1996 Celtic Film and TV festival and was nominated for a Cartoon d’Or, the European Oscar for animation.

Without financial support from a broadcaster, raising funding for animation can be a daunting challenge. Fortunately in Northern Ireland, cultural organisations such as the Arts Council of NI and the Community Relations Council’s Media Fund were committed to supporting animation, as an artform and a means of exploring cultural identity and diversity. This gave John the opportunity to stretch himself once again with two ambitious projects that responded imaginatively to the changing political climate in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the paramiltary ceasefires.

The King’s Wake revisits the Ulster cycle of celtic myths and legends that John had previously explored in the Cú Chulainn TV series and reworks them into a dark allegory of the Troubles. Set during the celtic harvest festival of Samhain (Halloween) when the dead return to haunt the living for one night, this 30 minute film subverts the mythology of the celtic hero in a similar way to Clint Eastwood’s debunking of the myth of the American West in Unforgiven. The flashback narrative structure and nightmarish imagery were inspired by classic film noirs such as Sunset Boulevard and revisionist graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns.

Scripted by Damien Gorman for an audience demographic of 18-25 year olds, The King’s Wake employs a mixture of 2D and 3D animation combining the creative talents of John McCloskey and Glenn Marshall. The lead role of King Conor McNessa is voiced by Stephen Rea in the sepulchral tones of a character from a Beckett play.

John employs the expressionist visual style that served him so well in Midnight Dance, creating vertiginous camera movements that weave through spiral staircases, underground tombs and labyrinthine spaces, drawing his lead character, the King of Ulster, into a suffocating vortex of guilt, self-loathing and regret. The King’s Wake won the Animation Award at the Celtic TV and Film Festival in 2001. It was broadcast on UTV, BBC (in an Irish language version) and by RTE in a primetime slot at 2pm on Boxing Day 2002.

Flipsides is a six part animated series scripted by comedian Kevin McAleer which looks at the Troubles with a satirical eye. Drawn with a psychedelic colour palette in a bold surrealist style, Flipsides explores the comic absurdity of the struggle over flags, mixed marriages, nocturnal encounters with the British army, the marching season and the two Cú Chulainns, before spiralling into full blown phantasmagoria as a Wizard of Oz-like tornado hits Northern Ireland.

In 2002, in recognition of his innovative work in animation, John McCloskey was awarded a three year fellowship by NESTA. The fellowship afforded John the time to learn to use the latest 3D animation software and experiment with 3D modelling techniques. John received training in 3D animation at the University of Seattle before writing and animating his first 3D short, Loocy Moon, which was financially supported by the NI Film and TV Commission (now Northern Ireland Screen).

Loocy Moon is the first of three consecutive short films by John McCloskey that portray the innocence and traumatic experiences of a child. Like Midnight Dance, the film is a dialogue-free visual symphony and a fine example of John’s visual storytelling approach to conveying the emotions of a young child who can’t resist the attractions of a frozen pond.

The story takes place on a moonlight night in the depths of winter. The falling snow, snow-covered streets, the cresent moon, the friendly snowman and the glowing reflection in the frozen pond all communicate a sense of warmth, wonder and magic. Stylized compositions, expressive camera movements, extreme high and low camera angles, POV shots, low key lighting and an evocative musical score, composed by Belfast musician Brian Irvine, are employed to suffuse this enchanting atmosphere with ominous warnings of dangers to come. The final whirlwind ballet on the frozen pond as Loocy throws caution to the wind, is an exhilarating escape into childhood fantasy that would continue to fascinate John for years to come.

If mastering the techniques of 3D animation opened up new aesthetic horizons for John, it was clear from his next project that 2D animation is where his talent and imagination truly take flight. Supported once again by the Irish Film Board’s Frameworks funding programme, in 2006 John began visually exploring the theme of childhood fears and composing a lyrical musical soundtrack evoking a world of childhood wonder.

Drawn in a minimalist, monochrome style, The Crumblegiant explores the inner life of a young girl who has invented an imaginary friend to protect her from the trials and tribulations of life. The comforting voice of Bernard Hill as the narrator guides us through Emily’s fantasy life as she confronts her deepest fears, metaphorically represented by sinister black crows that stalk Emily like dark clouds in a stormy sky.

The visual motif of change and transformation that John first experimented with in Midnight Dance is conveyed here through subtler tones and textures. John uses free flowing movement and striking visual transitions to create a dream-like atmosphere – leaves scattered by the wind, transforming into Emily who leaps through the landscape with the freedom of a bird; buds which turn into crows that swoop through the sky to attack Emily; clouds which form into the face of the Crumblegiant. The Crumblegiant was nominated for a BAFTA in 2008.

John’s own childhood was the inspiration for his next project, his third animated short supported by Frameworks. Guns, Bees and Tadpoles follows the predicament of a young boy trapped indoors as a gun battle rages on the Creggan estate in Derry in the 1970s. John’s anarchic visual style and inventive use of Scorsese-like freeze-frames to stop time at key moments in the story brilliantly captures the chaos and multiple calamities of an extraordinary childhood experience that for many people became a normal part of life during the Troubles.

John’s most recent project is a perfect match with his comic sensibility, love of visual satire and his longstanding interest in bringing Irish stories to the screen. Published in 1941, Flann O’Brien’s comic novel An Béal Bocht belongs to the genre of satire which from the earliest times, according to literary scholar Jane Farnon, has maintained a very significant and feared position in Gaelic literature.

In his novel, Jane Farnon explains, Flann O’Brien 'satirises the Gaelic writers, the Gaelic folklorists, the Literary Revival and the romanticised image of the peasant…the idyllic, pastoral, contented Gael which the Literary Revival had cultivated. He utilises all the tricks of the satirist; irony, word-play, inversion, paradox, the ridiculous, burlesque, exaggeration, parody, invective, and mockery.' The project was brought to John in 2011 by Tom Collins of De Facto Films and started out as a graphic novel which was nominated for Irish Language Book of the Year in 2014.

The 35 minute animated adaptation, completed in 2017, features John’s exuberant style at full throttle, capturing the scarborous humour, comic iconoclasm and rampant surrealism of Flann O’Brien in the novel’s most famous scenes. In 2018 John was awarded the Celtic Media Festival Award for Animation for the third time for An Béal Bocht.

Twenty-six years after his first animated foray into Elizabethan England, John McCloskey continues to create inspirational work at the Nerve Centre with his producer, Pearse Moore. With the recent launch of the Northern Ireland Screen Foundation Academy for Animation, John will have the opportunity to share his experience with a new generation of aspiring animators keen to take our industry to new creative heights.

To find out more about the Northern Ireland Screen Foundation Academy for Animation, click here.

Discover more of John McCloskey's works at http://www.johnmccloskey.ie. Some will be featured as part of the Northern Ireland Animation Retrospective, screening at 5pm on November 24 at the Nerve Centre, Derry, the Alley Theatre, Strabane on November 28 at 7.30pm and Odyssey Cinemas, Belfast at 7.30pm on November 29. Part of Anim18, a year long celebration of creative talent in animation that is taking place across the UK. Read more information on what's taking place in Northern Ireland.

As part of this year's Foyle Film Festival, several of John's animated shorts will be screened on Sunday, November 25 at 10am in the Nerve Centre under the theme of War and Conflict. Tickets are £3 plus booking fee. Click here to book.