Animation maker

My career: Screenwriter and director Sian Ní Mhuirí

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Still. I also wanted to be Indiana Jones (impractical) and/or the president, but writing was always the main ambition. As a child, I wrote short novels and poetry that was terribly mundane, even by grade school standards. I have improved considerably, according to my mother.

In college, I studied… theater. I did the practical theater diploma backstage at one of those drama schools in London. To say I was beside myself is an understatement, but being 18 in London was a real journey – I enjoyed it immensely.

My most formative work experience has been… co-runs a theater company called Super Paua with collaborators Mark Ball, Heather Rose and Mitzi D’Alton. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was sad to walk away from it when I transitioned from acting to screenwriting.

My first real job was… as a waitress in a wine bar in Gorey. I never had a nine to five, but I had more part-time and seasonal jobs than hot meals; waitress, nanny, tour guide, animator, stage manager, sound operator, usher, courier, attendant at the tourist office, chaperone, theater teacher, manager of a residence center, and once I was paid for be the official face of rejection for the public star wars hearing. I had to individually announce to 3,000 auditionees that they had been expelled after the first round.

Aunt Ben, photo by Kyle Cheldon Barnett

The most valuable thing I learned early in my career was… be honest, be strict and do what is right, not what is easy. A reputation for integrity is hard to build and easy to break with a few misguided decisions. Also, be reliable and include everybody in the drink/coffee round, not just the most powerful people in the room!

A common misconception about what I do is that… that I participate in the animation of the cartoons on which I work. I have no input after the script step. Usually I sign my episodes and it takes another two years for them to hit the screen.

My primary job responsibility is to…solve story problems and work with a tight brief. When you write episodes for a TV show, it’s your job to sound like yourself, while representing the creator’s vision and tone. It also involves taking notes and critiquing with grace and good humor. The producer doesn’t like your joke on page five? Don’t die on this hill. If you’re funny enough, you’ll have ten more jokes in the bag, and one of them will stick.

Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from?
Carol Walsh, one of Ireland’s best and funniest screenwriters, was an invaluable mentor in my transition into animation. Cathy Devis is my high school drama teacher and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. Lately she’s been trying to get me to swim in the sea – her only failure as a mentor. I’m too weak for the Irish Sea.

The biggest risk I’ve taken in my career so far is… leave the world of theatre. I focused on an 18-30 theatrical career, then pivoted during the pandemic. Switching to screenwriting was the best professional decision I have ever made, but the learning curve was steep and I also carry a certain sadness… thinking about what could have been if I had maintained the cap.

Aunt Ben, photo by Kyle Cheldon Barnett

I wake up at… 7am when I’m in a good routine, 9 or 10 when I lose the run on my own. I often lose control of myself.

The first thing I do every morning is… read in bed. I read English first, and Irish too, if I’m in the mood to improve. Clearly, I don’t have children.

My morning routine is… ccoffee, reading, wordle, nerdle, quordle and a bowl of oats overnight.

I can’t go to work without… it looks so basic, but coffee. And sweet snacks. If I weren’t afraid of diabetes, I would eat dessert with every meal. I mean, wouldn’t we all? I always get excited in the sweet aisle of the supermarket and always have a well-stocked candy drawer.

I go to work in… going down the stairs in a dressing gown. The benefits of self-employment.

On an average workday, I… writing before lunch, then my creative brain shuts down until evening. I think most human brains can’t have new, original thoughts for more than four hours a day. So once I’ve done a good chunk of the targeted writing, I edit my work, take meetings, answer emails, watch cartoons (research!), or do races.

I’m taking a lunch break at… around 1pm and I usually eat handfuls of ingredients that look nothing like a meal. It’s not uncommon to see me swallow an apple, a piece of cheese, a handful of nuts, a box of mackerel, white chocolate buttons and half a zucchini. At dinnertime I tend to have a more meal-like meal, but I’m not an avid cook and I eat for nourishment not for fun during the day.

The most useful professional tool I use on a daily basis is… The printer. I can’t edit my handwriting on a screen, so I print my work, put it on the floor, and roam about it like a crackpot. I also burn post-its like nobody’s business. I use them to set up the structure of the stories and reorganize the action.

I save time by… do my best in pajamas. Sometimes around 2 p.m. I decide to dress up, but outerwear isn’t a requirement for cartooning.

Tales from the depths at the Festival of Curiosity 2016

I rarely go through my working day without… loss of concentration. Procrastination is necessary, leisure is a human right. I try not to blame myself for “wasting time” – I exercise my brain a lot, and it’s okay to be nice to her when she gets nervous.

The best part of my day is… hanging out with my buddies when work is done. I love my job, but I do it to have a good life…and a good life is full of good people.

The hardest part of my day is… the first 20 minutes on the computer. You know that overwhelming existential fear you feel when you start a new creative task? Like you can fail horribly because you’re just a stupid, miserable little worm? He never leaves. You just learn to expertly ignore it and know that the feeling only lasts about 20 minutes if you apply yourself and attack the task at hand. But the beginning of writing always feels a bit like death.

I know it’s been a good day though… I feel excited about the future and proud of something I’ve created.

I usually end my day at… 11 p.m. or 12 p.m. I’m working on falling asleep earlier, but the night is very magical.

I quit work in… reading, swimming, bathing or hanging out with friends.

Before going to bed, I… check out the subreddit Aam i the asshole?, aa way to calm myself down before sleeping. It may suggest that I am, in fact, one myself.

Sian Ní Mhuirí, Niamh Beirne, Lorcan Strain and Osaro Azams

I often prepare tomorrow by… obsessively making to-do lists. I agreed never to tick all the items. But it’s the writing of the list, the self-soothing of it, that helps me feel like the workweek is in my control.

After a long week of work, I de-stress by… out-out. A lot of my friends work in live events, so there’s usually a good club night or show that I can go to on the weekends. I go swimming or to the gym, and I consciously recharge myself. I try to spend at least one day a week alone, at my own pace and in relative silence.

The accomplishment I am most proud of is… stop drinking. Life has its ups and downs, but I’m a very happy person. I appreciate it bejaysus among many, many things. And I am convinced that my recent professional successes and generally improved mood are the direct result of my decision four years ago to get sober. It has changed every aspect of my life for the better, and I often forget to congratulate myself on having a hard time doing it.

If you want to get started in my profession, I advise you to… value your own voice. Your job as a writer is to hone your perspective and humor, and deliver it to the world. So work hard to find out who you are, how you speak, and what stories interest you. And then – it sounds so basic – WRITE. Don’t talk about writing, don’t dream of Oscars, just fight overwhelming existential fear by putting pen to paper.

I just finished working on… Royals next door, a hilarious animated family sitcom for RTÉ Kids about a royal family reduced to an ordinary household. The last episodes have just started to be broadcast on RTÉ2. I also wrote all the episodes for by Stella royal vlog, which is a spin-off newspaper series exclusively on YouTube. It’s from the perspective of the 13-year-old main character, Princess Stella, as she tries to come to terms with her new identity and adjust to big changes. Right now I’m working on one more piece – probably the last one for many years. This is a bilingual tale based on an old bardic tale called The Sons of Tuireann. It’s going to be an absolute stonker, a real action-packed, action-packed story. Follow me on Instagram (@sian_ni_mhuiri) for more details in the coming year!