When Lucasfilm first approached acclaimed 2D Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon to be part of the global expansion for “Volume 2” of the Emmy-nominated “Star Wars: Visions” anthology (currently streaming on Disney+), little did they realize that CEO and co-founder Paul Young was already thinking about directing his first film — and sci-fi at that.
All Young needed was a little encouragement from his Cartoon Saloon co-founders and Oscar-nominated directors Tomm Moore (“Wolfwalkers,” “Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells”) and Nora Twomey (“The Breadwinner”) to say yes. The result is the 13-minute “Screecher’s Reach.” A comfortable fit for Cartoon Saloon, the short draws on its familiar folktale sensibility and hand-drawn prowess with a surprisingly dark and subversive twist.
It’s about a young girl named Daal (Eva Whitaker) who seeks adventure beyond the bleakness of her rural workhouse existence by exploring the titular haunted cave with her friends, where she encounters the legendary shrieking ghost. The frightening, hallucinatory experience was inspired by the famous scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” where Luke confronts the vision of Darth Vader in the cave on Dagobah.
“As a first-time director, I couldn’t have been luckier because I had people that worked on ‘Wolfwalkers’ and ‘Song of the Sea’ and ‘The Breadwinner,'” Young told IndieWire. “It was like a play on ‘Empire,’ where Luke faces his fears and what would happen if there was something actually in there and of a different type of test. And we used the Banshee sort of story of Ireland, like a screaming ghost [symbolic of] an important death in the family, and then it was interesting to bring in Irish actors [including Anjelica Huston] and Irish voices and Irish history.”
Young, who’s always been a “Star Wars” fan, identified with Daal’s longing for exploration (he left his small town to study art in Northern Ireland). He was also intrigued with the idea of utilizing the moody Irish landscape of Kerry for his short. This looked cool for a transitional Speeder scene set against an immense starscape. They even sounded like tractors to evoke Irish farm machinery. Young additionally took advantage of the famous arc-shaped cliffs of Skellig Michael, which is where Luke’s monastic retreat, Ach-To, was shot in “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.” Historical influence came from the country’s workhouses, which were associated with famine and oppression. “The workhouse has a terrible history, so our characters were like in an orphanage that’s almost like a prison,” he added. “It’s the only option to work there, they have no real choice.”
For animation, Young (who’s an illustrator) embraced a thickened brush line technique reminiscent of British cartoonist Ralph Steadman. “I love the way you can break down the script into all the various visual things you can use, like parallel lines, color, pacing, and rhythm in the shapes of the lines,” he said. “And so a director can take an audience on a visual roller coaster and they might not even know it. And, with 2D animation, you don’t have to stick to a character model. You can play and get more expressionistic.”
While there’s an ethereal beauty to the exteriors, inside the cave the animators get bold with different visions of the ghost through striking bursts of red and black. Reminiscent of “Wolfwalkers,” these dream-like images eventually become associated with The Force. “We went back to paper,” Young said, “but we can bring it into compositing using digital tools and move between frames for that raw feel. We changed the line as we go, and it gets wavier and shakier. I always think the limitations of pencil, ink, and time are your friend.”