The latest volume of the animated anthology series Star Wars Visions is available now on Disney+, providing a collection of animated episodes from studios all over the world. Ireland’s own Cartoon Saloon contributed to the new batch released on May the 4th, with studio co-founder Paul Young directing the episode ‘Screecher’s Reach’, an eery and affecting short.
The second episode of Star Wars Visions, Screecher’s Reach features voice acting from Anjelica Huston as the Sith Mother, as well as Eva Whittaker as Daal, Alex Connolly as Baython, Noah Rafferty as Quinn, Molly McCann as Keena, and Niamh Moyles as Ghost.
Other international studios involved with the latest series of shorts are El Guiri (Spain), Punkrobot (Chile), Aardman (United Kingdom), Studio Mir (South Korea) Studio La Cachette (France), 88 Pictures (India), D’art Shtajio in collaboration with Lucasfilm (Japan), and Triggerfish (South Africa). Irish fans will be particularly interested in Young’s contribution though, with a stellar track record that includes producing features such as Wolfwalkers, The Secret of Kells, The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea and Cartoon Saloon’s recent Netflix film, My Father’s Dragon.
Graham Day met with Young to chat about Screecher’s Reach and how the Kilkenny studio’s contribution to the Star Wars saga came together.
Paul congratulations on ‘Screecher’s Reach’. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling to be able to pack so much in less than 13 minutes. What were the challenges when crafting that episode?
Well, as the one review said, which was great when you when you do have a very tight, and was this somebody said, tight and snappy script by Will Collins and Jason Tammemagi. I mean, we pitch them two stories. And this idea that Jason had of doing a twist on the cave of evil, like what if there was somebody in there, like the cave from Empire Strikes Back, but what if it wasn’t just a test of the mind, but somebody was in there or some presence within there already. It was more of a test, a bit of a different type of test. And so that already had a nice twist to it.
So, then we just had to find the story beats enough that we could understand the characters. The first thing we said to ourselves, God, that’s a really good idea. But how we got we really wanted to give us ourselves 13 minutes only. And for assorted reasons, budget reasons, schedule reasons for us to try to limit it to a certain time. I always find limitations are your friend when you’re telling a story.
Like the materials you use for drawing it or are visualising it, you know, and sometimes it’s better just to keep a pen and ink rather than all the colours in the world. You know, there’s a nice freedom that you get from limiting yourself to choose including maybe what the story is. So, in the end, it’s quite a simple story. And we cut out some sequences when we got to storyboarding, realising we were struggling with the 13 minutes, we removed a whole sequence for example, there was a whole village they were going to walk through to give you that kind of ghost story feel like a haunted place. We realised we didn’t really need it story wise, in the end, we can just cut to the cave.
You spoke there on the ghost element of this. I was really pleased with that this is the first horror story within the Star Wars universe. Were you going for that, or did you just want to tell an Irish story, which can usually be tinged with tragedy?
Yeah, I mean, even in Empire Strikes Back, it is spooky when Luke walks into the cave. So, we were playing with that. I’m a big David Lynch fan. And there’s even a shot in it where I remember from Lost Highway where the character sort of walks down this dark corridor, and you sort of stay looking at the corridor for a bit. So, there’s one shot in there, that it’s very much Iin that vain. I do like trying to create a sort of ghost story, kids are going into a ghost story.
So just the way we played it out and way we executed it. Of course, it turned into a horror vibe, which I think is cool. And a lot of people are reacting to it. They find it’s great because it sort of turns it on its head. It starts off with this fun adventure with a few kids, but then turns a little dark. Being a ghost story, it lends itself to feeling a little darker.
You’ve spoken on the inspirations for the various elements of the episode. The workhouse for example. You spoke on it originally being an orphanage or a jail house. What was the kind of process going through that with the team? Figuring out where does it begin and where does it end for these characters?
We knew we had an ending we wanted to get to with the ending coming first. And then it was like what kind of world building are we going to give? So, we just reached back into Irish culture and history which we were encouraged to do by Lucasfilm. They thought, we can be allegorical if we wish, which ours isn’t as much as even some of the episodes are some of them are great, or more allegorical kind of historical reason for the countries where they come from. We lent on a banshee kind of vibe, the ghost story vibe.
Even though it’s not really a ghost story, because it’s not technically a ghost. And then we thought, well, we can make an Irish cast. And when we started going to be great, we can have a whole Irish cast on this apart from Angelica Huston. Then we’ll lean further into that, like why would Daal choose, choose to go with this person who she thought was maybe like a kind of replacement to a mother that might take her away somewhere. It didn’t have to be like a prison or, or a hard place.
However, we did think an Irish workhouse is where people had no choice. There’s a place here in Kilkenny, which there was a workhouse here, which has a terrible history, really. So, we leaned into that, which helped us with the world building. So, we created a kind of Star Wars version of a workhouse, and that was our starting point. I really wanted to begin to get straight into the story just introduced the characters like Daal who just wants to get the hell out of there. And it’s kind of like, I’m just going to do it now. I’m just going to do the thing, she kind of allows the adventure to be like we’re all going off to see a ghost. And she doesn’t kind of challenge that adventure idea. She has a secret that she’s doing this for more of a reason.
It’s funny as you start working on the story, Jason and Will did a fantastic job, the characters sort of reveal themselves to you, and then they tell you what’s going to happen next. I started to understand Daal because of course, you want to get out there. People when they’re young, and they want to get away to university or something, they want to leave the small town that they’re from, they’ll, you know, not want to gloat if other friends didn’t get to leave. That’s how I kind of understand Daal.
Speaking on some of the characters. What was it like crafting the Screecher?
Well, the basic thing was, we just decided it’s not actually a ghost. It’s really an old lady in there. And our thought was, how did she get in there? We don’t necessarily need to answer that question, but there was an old person in there with a lightsaber. So, we talked about the Banshee. Also, I’m big into Ralph Steadman and kind of pen and ink work and illustration. I used to do quite a bit of illustration, in the past, pen and ink kind of illustration.
So, I wanted it to feel like a brush ink and we use kind of ink on paper to make the Screecher’s cave seem very expressive. So, we really want to like sort of shock visually with like expressive lines. That’s what is so great about 2D animation, you can kind of do that you can just make marks on paper. The animation for the ghost was done on paper or animated on digitally with a digital pen and screen, and then printed and painted on top of the paper with frame by frame with ink, and then our great compositing team put that all together. I suppose we tried to do that in the saloon a bit.
We used the medium that no other medium can do. You know, it’s not like photography, it’s not really CGI, it’s drawing so use marks on paper to tell your story visually, you know. I think good films have good cinematography and colour direction, that will be subliminally taking you on a kind of roller coaster ride.
You spoke there on the animation work that your team did. Was it a happy accident that happened with this picture? Or was it something that you were looking for something that helped it stand out?
It comes back to Ralph Steadman for me because he is a cartoonist who uses quite violent ink lines when he was angry, and you could feel it coming off the page. So, it was a little bit like that. I want to just use the medium use it ink to splatter it out like blowing on the page. We’ve done it before for stuff in here where we use watercolour and ink like that. It was very much intentional.
Almu Redondo is the art director. She was fantastic. She helped develop a style. It was even another part of it, where we were using ink and letting it spread across the paper with water. And there’s some of that in the compositing. So behind her, there’s ink on water on paper that’s spreading across the screen, kind of like an invading dark force, you know, she’s almost projecting dark energy. It’s almost like you can feel the ink and the ink is like in the air, like dark forces in the air.
What was the process scoring the episode? It’s very ethereal. It’s got personality and atmosphere. What was it like making sure that it complemented the story of the art style that you went with?
It’s Leo Pearson, who lives out in Thomastown, he was just great. He set up a theme for Daal with a few notes on the piano to create this beautiful theme for her which kind of goes across the episode. Also, we thought because it’s got to do with a banshee, and sort of a ghost we wanted to bring in this kind of voice. And, and so we brought in this gorgeous voice and it’s from Síofra Ní Chasaide. She came in and did this lovely vocal performance, so I love the music.
May 4th has come. Have you seen or heard reactions from audiences about your episode?
I was happy scrolling last night to the reaction. Not doom scrolling. No, I was happy scrolling. The reaction has been fantastic. Really great. offer all the shots. I think the series itself. The season itself has got some brilliant reactions. One, I really liked was a quote from a journalist saying something like; ‘Screecher’s Reach’ is some of the best 13 minutes of Star Wars. Maybe it’s slightly overblown, but I’ll take it.
I mean, like you pack so much into those 13 minutes. That’s just so emotional, visceral and it’s beautiful.
It’s great for the crew. We just had a screening there at lunchtime for everybody. And I got a bit emotional talking to all the crew because they really make me look good. They’re also good at what they do, you know?