Musical extravaganza Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, features spectacular Irish dancing to a new score by Grammy winner Bill Whelan, along with dancing deer, flying sheep, exploding frogs, raucous hurling, fiery flamenco and lots of fun!
The original Riverdance show has been seen by over 27 million theatre audiences across six continents and by over 300 billion TV audiences worldwide. 25 years since its first production, Riverdance: The Animated Adventure appeals to a whole new generation of audiences experiencing the power of Riverdance for the very first time.
In the first part of this three-part series, we’ll give an introduction to the production from its earliest stages of development. The second feature will look specifically at the challenges involved in recreating the technical intricacy of Irish dance, and the third and final instalment will explore the staging of the show in an animated world.
In 2015, Cinesite Director of Animation Eamonn Butler met for the first time in London with Riverdance stage show co-founder, Moya Doherty. Moya was keen for the show to reach new audiences and to explore the possibility of bringing the production to life as an animated feature film. With the show’s spectacular dancing and fantastic music score, the potential of the idea was immediate for all to see. Once Dave Rosenbaum came on board at Cinesite as Chief Creative Officer, he took over the reins as director on the production and proposed that Eamonn work with him together in this role. With the team in place, they began exploring approaches and ideas.
Dave recalls, “We had to honour a show which had captivated millions. Because our film would be animation for family audiences, you think of all the places you can go and characters you can meet in a movie that you couldn’t meet on stage. And we wanted to celebrate music and dance in new ways, to illustrate Ireland’s history and nature.”
Dave’s earliest experience of Riverdance was in seeing the stage show around 1997 at the Wolf Trap outdoor theatre in Virginia. “I was thunderstruck,” he recalls, “As audiences are all over the world, by the discipline of the dance, the exuberance, expertise and power.”
Born in Dublin, Eamonn’s childhood experiences with Irish dancing formed his first response to the tradition. “Growing up in Ireland, Irish dance was a part of everyone’s experience. But it seemed very rigid, something more for girls, old fashioned. Then the Eurovision break interstitial in 1994 set fire to those old ideas of what Irish dancing was and opened up everybody’s mind and imagination to the power of Irish music and dance.”
Riverdance: The Animated Adventure was a perfect first production for Cinesite’s IP production partner Aniventure, a British content creation company which takes concepts and creative ideas from pitch through to completion. Cinesite, working closely with Aniventure, River Productions and the team behind the original stage show, developed the concept and, in making the film, found an approach which would do justice to the legacy of the original.
Crafting the Story
The story centres around a young boy named Keegan, who works the lighthouse of a little fishing village in Ireland called River’s End. He and his Spanish friend Moya journey into the mythical world of the Megaloceros Giganteus, who teach them to appreciate Riverdance as a celebration of life.
With Dave and Eamonn in place as directors, Dave and his writing partner Tyler Werrin set about writing the script. Their initial source of inspiration was the Riverdance stage show playbill, which provided a framework around which the animated film’s story would be built. Central themes of the show are the celebration of life through dance, and also negotiation with the elemental powers through song and dance. Dave observes, “We literally used the stage show’s DNA, the order in which the songs appear in the show, making those our tent pole dance sequences and weaving our narrative around that.”
The story moves into the animal world, an area where children of all ages strongly identify. “We were boarding ideas with the storyboard artist and designing everything from humans to animals,” recalls Dave. “There’s a legacy we inherited and a story we needed to continue. The Irish people saw great power in song and dance, as both a means of expressing their emotions and negotiating with mysterious elemental powers. Those are big ideas but these themes are still very relevant to audiences today.”
Designs and Initial Approaches
Character Designer Bastien Pourchier introduced the idea of including the Megaloceros Giganteus, a kind of pre-historic giant Irish Elk which died out about 20,000 years ago. Eamonn reminisces, “I remember visiting the Dublin Natural History Museum when I was a kid. We went again during one of the recording sessions and as soon as you walk into the museum you see these massive skeletons of the biggest deer you’ve ever seen with huge antlers, like ten, fifteen feet wide. They’re overwhelmingly big, and there were so many of them all over Europe. It’s incredible to think that these enormous animals were around only about 15,000 BC; that’s not so long.”
In the final film, the Megaloceros Giganteus take on some of the biggest dance numbers, but the film also features other dancing animals including sheep and frogs, in addition to the human characters. One of the main challenges faced by Cinesite’s team was to faithfully represent the technical intricacy of the Irish dance, while transposing it into the style of an animated film. This will be explored in more detail in the next article in this series Animating the dance.