I’m not normally a Halloween horror kind of person — blame me being ridiculously squeamish — but I’ve run across a gem of a spooky cartoon short that I’ve fallen in love with.

Memento Mori is an award-winning animated short from Boulder Media, an Irish animation company that has also been involved with the feature film My Little Pony: A New Generation and the Danger Mouse relaunch.

Set in Victorian Dublin, the story is structured around a letter from Henry Huxley (voiced by Mark Gatiss, actor and co-creator of Sherlock and Dracula), photographer of the dead, who is writing to a potential apprentice. He is explaining how he conducts his profession, taking post-mortem photographs, but on this particular evening, his subject has a message for him.

Memento Mori still image

Memento Mori is about the perceived conflict between science and the spiritual and the arrogance of those who seek refuge in technology over humanity. It’s also properly creepy.

I spoke via email with Creative Director Paul O’Flanagan, director and co-writer (with Laura O’Flanagan) of the short, about what was behind this unusual story.

Johanna Draper Carlson: What inspired Memento Mori?

Paul O’Flanagan: Years ago, I read an article on post-mortem photography. It sat in my head for a while, and bit by bit ideas and images popped into my head. After a while, there was enough there that I decided to hang them on a story structure and went about filling in the blanks!

JDC: It’s such an interesting combination of subject matter and theme, and it goes in a completely unexpected (I thought) direction. How and why did the story develop the way it did?

O’Flanagan: It went in a different direction for me too! My original intent was to make a dirty, gruesome horror with not much story and no subtext. However, when working with my mentor, Rob Cullen, and editors from Screen Ireland (who funded the film), I was encouraged to put a bit more emotion into it. In horror, scares are always complimented by emotion, and vice versa.

Memento Mori title screen

JDC: How did you connect with Mark Gatiss to voice the character? Was he the first choice?

O’Flanagan: Mark was my first choice, as he is so immersed in horror with his shows, documentaries, and audiobook narration. He is also a great actor. To me, he is literally the voice of horror.

When we were writing it, I was listening to a book of E.F. Benson stories that he curated and narrated. I was struck with how perfect he would be for the film. I didn’t fancy my chances of getting him involved in the film, but knew I’d regret it if I at least didn’t try!

I’d like to think that he thought the script was worth his while, but I wonder, did Covid lockdown have something to do with it?! Regardless, he was fantastic to work with, and it wouldn’t be half the film it is without his involvement.

JDC: I noticed you’ve taken it to a number of film festivals. Is that the purpose of a short animated film like this, to gather attention and possibly awards?

O’Flanagan: If I was a freelance artist, then I guess that would be the purpose of making the short. To get your name out there, meet people, talk about future projects and employment.

However, I do have a full-time job as creative director in Boulder Media, so that wasn’t the case for me. For me, making a short film is purely just a bit of artistic expression. The desire to do it is like an itch that needs to be scratched! The story had evolved so much in my head that I needed to get it out of there!

JDC: Is there some way in the future for non-festival attendees to see it?

O’Flanagan: Absolutely. Thanks to our post-pandemic world, a lot of festivals include an online programme as well. I keep up to date with all future festivals and include their websites in the screenings section of the film’s website.

JDC: What does the future hold for you and Boulder Media?

O’Flanagan: We are working on some exciting new shows in Boulder (press releases coming soon!). As for me, I am working on a new horror short with my wife (and co-writer on Memento Mori) as writer.

It’s still early days, and we are letting the ideas simmer away until they are ready. Animation is a long, tricky process, and the making of Memento Mori wasn’t a walk in the park, so we’re in no rush with the next one!

Memento Mori is next showing at the Ojai Film Festival in California in November.