Part Two: Animating Riverdance

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 this second part of a three-art series, we’ll look at the specific challenges involved in capturing the technicality and spirit of dance in the film. The third and final instalment will explore the staging of the show in an animated world.



Irish dance is at the heart of Riverdance, although other styles of dance feature in the show. When discussions began about adapting the show into an animated film, keeping the dance faithful to the original was one of the key considerations.

Dave Rosenbaum, who directed Riverdance: The Animated Adventure alongside Eamonn Butler, observes, “Animating dancing is really hard. That’s why you don’t see it often in films. You see alot of twirling but you don’t actually see many skilled dance moves. You will in this film.”

Director Eamonn Butler recalls his experience of seeing the show on stage, “It’s spectacular and there’s huge scope when you first see it in person. It’s very impressive to see 30-40 dancers, perfectly in sync, doing something technically incredibly complex. It’s very uplifting.”

Motion Capture

How to do the legacy of the show justice was an important consideration for everyone at Cinesite. One of the first challenges the team faced was how to capture the technicality and intricacy of the dance and to determine the best way that movement might be transposed onto animated characters. Cinesite called upon Padraic Moyles, former lead dancer and Dance Captain with Riverdance, along with Irish dancer Jason O’Neill & international dancer Rocio Montoya.

In order to be faithful to Padraic’s choreography and the dancers’ incredible craft and skill, it was decided early on in the development phase of production to accurately capture the dance using motion capture. This process involves covering the dancers with tracking markers and having them perform within a special studio, surrounded by cameras which translate their movement data onto three-dimensional models inside the computer.

The virtuosity of the dancers, who have spent a lifetime perfecting their craft, was incredible and everyone at the motion capture sessions was in awe. Anyone who has seen the super-fast, percussive foot movements of the dancers will appreciate the scale of the challenge the animation team faced. The motion capture data of the various dances was recorded at almost two hundred frames per second, which allowed the team to capture movement detail which the human eye can’t even see. This footage was extremely useful as a baseline and reference for the animators, who were safe in the knowledge that the complex choreography had been captured accurately at the very outset of the animation process.

Key Frame Animation

Animation Supervisor Adrien Liv explains, “The motion capture gave us an essential baseline but there was much more to it than simply transposing that movement onto our animated characters; ultimately, all of the dance was key frame animated. The style of movement from the motion capture was a faithful representation of the actual dance, but movement in animated films doesn’t work the same way. An animated character has more exaggerated motion and their movement characteristics are different to a real human.”

First, we removed all the “noise”, tiny human movements which are distracting to the performance. Then we exaggerated poses for the camera moves, shifting profiles etc. When the dancers jump they also have more air time than in real dance, sometimes dropping a little quicker. We had to create a new, less linear rhythm to add dynamism for a film audience.”

Riverdance: The Animated Adventure doesn’t just feature people dancing, there are frogs, sheep and even Megaloceros Giganteus, 15ft tall pre-historic Irish elks. Since 99% of Irish dancing is in the performers’ feet and deer don’t have knees, it was particularly challenging to transpose this movement.

Eamonn Butler, who has a thirty-year career in animation, suggested that since the dance required ankle flexibility, an extra joint could be added when rigging the creatures. This made the pivoting movement, where tapping alternates between heel and toe, possible to perform in a more human way and ultimately, this brought believability to the dance sequences featuring the deer.

The Power of the Stomp!

Whilst working on the production, Cinesite’s crew was invited to watch a 25th anniversary stage show performance of Riverdance in Montreal and this experience led to another important observation, which was that the motion capture didn’t completely capture the sense of spectacle or the power and energy of the actual dance; what the team referred to as “the power of the stomp”. After seeing the show, they went back to their sequences and made the stomp hit even harder!

Riverdance: The Animated Adventure brings the magic of Riverdance to life for a whole new generation of younger audiences. Using the original playbill of the stage show, many of the original dances are recreated or adjusted to work within the context of the story of the animated film. For example, “Reel Around the Sun,” which was previously performed by a male lead moves to a female lead. The film features flamenco dance in “Andalucia”, and we also have the “Russian Dervish,” “The Countess Kathleen”, “Heartland” and of course the famous “Riverdance” theme, all set to both the original Grammy Award-winning music by Bill Whelan and new music he has composed especially for the animated production.

Dancer and choreographer Padraic Moyles helped adjust the choreography during the motion capture shoot to fit the narrative context of the sequences the dances were part of in the film.

Dance Magic

In one magical sequence, Keegan watches on from the riverbank in amazement as Moya appears to dance across the surface of the water, flicking water from the tips of her toes. The river is bathed in the golden light of a late evening and it’s the first time we see magic in the film, so it is a very important sequence. Of course, in the original stage show, this dance is performed in front of an audience and on a stage, but Moya is dancing just for Keegan and she’s skipping lightly over the surface of a lake.

Eamonn explains, “We showed Padraic the animated sequence, and then he readjusted his choreography, accentuating it with certain kicks and flicks which kick up the water; he completely understood straight away and adjusted the choreography with the dancers, right there and then. It was amazing. That’s the dancing that made it into the film.”

The final instalment in this series, Staging Riverdance, will look more at how, outside the confines of a theatrical setting, the dance was staged, with production design, camera, lighting and layout decisions. Click here to read on.