By Nathan Meltz and Shira Dentz
You know that you’re not watching a traditional kid’s movie when animated Jack Kirby-like Viking storm troopers murder an animated village of medieval Irish peasants. And, when a giant owl witch turns an entire race into stone to relieve the grieving of her mountain-sized son, you know that if you are watching a kid’s movie, it’s a really weird one.
These are the types of narratives that unfold in the animated films of Irish animator/director Tomm Moore. In Song of the Sea, nominated for the 2014 Academy Award Best Animated Feature, the last of a magical race of shape-shifting “selkies” of Irish Folklore face off against a Celtic Goddess. In The Secret of Kells, the art of illuminated manuscripts plays front and center in a narrative combining magic, faith, and war. Moore says his movies are “family movies,” but we’ll just say they are some of the finest works of animation produced in recent years. While the field of mainstream animation is mostly composed of wise-cracking and pop culture referencing computer-generated-imagery (CGI) creations, Moore sets his works apart by telling stories based on folklore and mythology, rendered in lovingly hand drawn 2-D animation. His individual and nonconformist vision puts him in a unique subset of animation inhabited by auteurs like Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and American Bill Plympton.
Moore’s narrative chops extend past just animation. Besides founding the animation studio Cartoon Saloon in 1998 in Kilkenny, Ireland, Moore has drawn and published several comic volumes including comics based on his Secret of Kells.
We spoke to Moore about from where he draws his narratives, why he uses the visual vocabulary he does, and why good art is like good cooking.
NM: Why did you choose The Book of Kells as a source for an animated film?
TM: At the time we were developing The Secret of Kells we were hoping to create a style that was both unique to Irish animation and appropriate for 2-D handdrawn animation. The trend then, as is now, was towards 3-D CGI, and we wanted to find a way to distinguish what is only possible in handdrawn 2-D animation. As we looked toward Irish art we felt so much of the Celtic imagery around us could be traced to The Book of Kells, so that became the starting point for the visual look, and the stories and history surrounding it became the focus of the screenplay development.
NM: Why are you drawn to folklore and mythology as subject matter for the stories you tell?
TM: I believe there is a strong underpinning in folklore that connects us to the past generations who retold these stories orally, and that the old stories contain links to our culture, to the past, and to universal truths.
SD: Why were you focused on Irish animation in the first place, bringing you to Celtic imagery, and then to The Book of Kells?
TM: Well, it sprang from wanting to do something we felt hadn’t been done by anyone else yet, something inspired by our own heritage and culture, in the way some Eastern European films and the work of Hayao Miyazaki offer insights into their respective cultures.
SD: How did you decide on your approach to converting/translating The Book of Kells to an animated film?
TM: We researched the history and legends around the book, and that led to various drafts that changed quite a lot over the development period. For The Secret of Kells, I feel that the primary inspiration was the urge to translate the artwork into an animated form. And since we were a group of young people struggling to independently create something so ambitious, the story was almost self-reflective, in that it is about artists working against the odds under difficult circumstances. I think a lot of us on the crew identified with Brendan’s struggles.
SD: What is your literary background like?
TM: My education was primarily in practical skill training to become a hand-drawn animator. I don’t have a literary background as such, but enjoy reading history and mythology.
SD: The Secret of Kells is uncommonly beautiful, as is its source, the illuminated manuscript, and the attempt at conversion/translation into a medium like animation could certainly have failed. What were some of the challenges you faced, and how did you resolve them?
TM: Thank you. We faced challenges of budget and time, of course, but we also faced the difficulty of asking a crew that had to all work together to follow a style that seemed so different to what they were used to. We relied on the core team who had evolved the style to help the new artists and the animators in the co-production studios to get ‘on style’.
Preparation was really the key. We made over 200 “scene illustrations” at the beginning of the production to show everyone what the final film should look like; that way we had something to point towards all through the production. I’m pleased that the final screenshots are almost identical to these scene illustrations.
SD: While The Secret of Kells is related to a larger culture, Song of the Sea is not overtly so. How did you get the idea for this script?
TM; The idea for Song of the Sea goes back about ten years … it began when I was on holiday with my son, in the west of Ireland. We were sketching on the beach and saw dead seals’ bodies everywhere; it was pretty horrible. When we asked why there were so many dead seals on the beach, our landlady said local fisherman were killing them out of frustration with falling fishery stocks. She said it wouldn’t have happened years ago, when there was a belief system that deemed seals sacred because they were the souls of people lost at sea, or actual selkies. That started me thinking that folklore and superstitions serve functions beyond entertainment, or quaint stories for tourists. They bind people to the landscape, and that is being lost.
NM: In both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, your narrative revolves around children who navigate worlds filled with danger, violence, and complex moralities. How does choosing a child protagonist help to tell the story you want to tell?
TM: In both cases we wanted to make a family film primarily aimed at children, but with enough depth to appeal to adults as well. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child allows us to play with the space between imagination and reality where children often naturally dwell.
NM: Song of the Sea contains long passages fueled by literal song. What is the role of music in your work? And, on a related note, what is the role of poetry in your work?
TM: Music and poetry are an inspiration. The poem Pangur Ban inspired the cat in the Secret of Kells, for example, but more broadly the works of Yeats inspired the themes and melancholy in Song of the Sea. The poem The Stolen Child is used in the film’s opening, and the supernatural characters refer to the protagonist as ‘human child,’ as the fairy narrator of that poem does.
Music is the underpinning of Song of the Sea; whereas in developing The Secret of Kells we had to look back 1000 years to find the high point of Irish visual art, music has continued to be a vital part of Irish culture and society to this day. The work of Bruno Coulais and Kila was instrumental in shaping the tone and atmosphere of the film. It was a great collaboration that I hope to continue in my next films.
SD: While Song of the Sea is an animated film, for many people I know it’s emotionally intense—at least several adults I know were profoundly moved, and wept at some point during the film. The movie’s narrative is symbolic—perhaps like poetry is—and despite its being a film (for kids?) it achieves this “bittersweet twist,” for lack of a better term—the impact is layered, pre-verbal, and draws from many different streams of emotions, it’s so complex. The fact that the film revolves around characters who are children can bring to the surface, for adults, memories and feelings from the past, and that could explain part of this film’s power. One could say that all movies of this type can do this, but the realities and characters in this one are more “real” than the realities and characters that are often encountered in similar movies. There isn’t the usual nostalgia/sentimentality/idealization. Those who have lived a “lived life” can, maybe, most deeply appreciate the story.
SD: Is there anything autobiographical about Song of the Sea?
TM: There are so many strands to developing a film like this, and certainly both myself and Will Collins, the screenwriter, poured a lot of our own childhoods and experiences into it. It’s filled with personal references to my own family, as well; my nephew voices the young version of Ben, who is based on my son, who is also named Ben. The relationship he has with his sister is very much based on my own relationship with my younger sister, and the mother is named after my own mother too; there are just so many layers to it. It’s a very personal story in many ways, and I hope that since we were so specific and authentic and didn’t try to pander to the audience or be overtly commercial in our thinking, that this film has an emotional resonance for other people, too.
NM: Your work is profoundly 2-D at times: a celebration of flatness. Besides the obvious visual homage to Celtic manuscripts, I see glimpses of Japanese Ukiyo, Christian iconography, and early East European animation. Can you talk about what inspires your unique visual aesthetic?
TM: The influences are pretty broad, to be honest: mid-20th century cartoons and illustration; the animated films of Studio Ghibli, Richard Williams and Genndy Tartakovsky are obvious animation inspirations. Adrien Mergieau, the art director, is influenced by modern art painters such as Klee and Kandinsky. We have also been inspired by the landscapes of Paul Henry and, of course, eastern European animation from Hungary, Czech and Russia.
NM: Your animations contain a multitude of textures and surfaces, from paper surfaces to wood grains to dry brush textures to watercolor bleeding. Why does your visual vocabulary contain so many artifacts of handmade/analog art making? Can you talk about what this adds to your creative process?
TM: I am interested not only in the timeless look of hand-drawn work, but also the language of line, paint and so on in helping to tell a story more expressively. There is a subconscious understanding when we look at organic textures and images made with traditional media, something like the automatic appreciation we have for hand-crafted goods or home-made food! I continue to be excited by the potential to combine natural media with modern digital techniques to create new variations on old motifs, and ways to express the images needed to tell compelling stories.
NM: Song of the Sea was nominated for an Oscar in the category of best-animated feature this past year. It was a pretty diverse race, ranging from mainstream industry 3-D animation like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6 to more unconventional independent studio work like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and your own Song of the Sea. What does this say about the current state of animation? And how do you feel about the level of support your animation gets in terms of audience and funding?
TM: The awards are important, in that they bring attention and focus to films with smaller budgets and limited distribution, and hopefully help lead new audiences to the work.
I feel animation is in good health creatively, with many amazing films and shorts and features being produced all over the world—for example The Boy and the World from Brazil, The Prophet by Kahil Gibran, the films of Folimage, and the new feature, The Red Turtle, from Michael duDok duWit. The work of the US studio Laika is all really exciting too.
But finding an audience and a sustainable business model in the face of the marketing might and popularity of the mainstream computer-generated features is always a challenge. Thankfully, those computer-generated features continue to be well crafted and have increasingly artful stories…I feel the two branches are converging…if only we can show the audience that there are riches beyond the shiny computer-generated look they employ.
NM: Are there works of folklore or mythology that you would like to base future animations on? If so, what are they, and why?
TM; Currently we are developing a film based on the legends of Wolfwalkers or The Wolves of Ossory, people who were cursed by St. Patrick when they would not convert, and became wolves when they slept. We are setting it during the Cromwellian era when Ireland was supposedly being “tamed” by the English—by clearing forests and killing the wolves, for example. The narrative is a way to explore the conflict in human nature between wildness and civilization.
NM: What kind of animation would you would like to see that no one is making right now?
TM: I’m excited by all the areas currently being explored, and I think there’s potential for more experimentation in mainstream feature,s and I’m heartened to see films like The Little Prince and Peanuts trying different looks in bigger budget films.
SD: Well, we’re excited at the prospect of experiencing your next film, which we’re sure will be equally enigmatic; thank you for taking the time to give us a glimpse behind these works of art.
Shira Dentz is the author of black seeds on a white dish (Shearsman), and door of thin skins (CavanKerry), and two chapbooks, Leaf Weather(Shearsman), and Flounders, forthcoming from Essay Press. Her writing has appeared widely including in The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, New American Writing, jubilat, Lana Turner, and Western Humanities Review, and featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, NPR, OmniVerse, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poem and Cecil Hemley Memorial Awards, Electronic Poetry Review’s Discovery Award, and Painted Bride Quarterly’s Poetry Prize. She teaches creative writing at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and has been Drunken Boat’s Reviews Editor since 2011. More about her writing can be found at shiradentz.com.
Nathan Meltz is an artist and Lecturer in the Department of the Arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He is the founder and curator of the East Coast Screenprint Biennial, and his art has shown internationally, at venues including the International Print Center New York, the Miami Fountain Art Fair, the Athens International Film Festival, the Trois-Rivières International Printmaking Biennial, Canada, the Museum of Modern Art in Rio De Janiero, Brazil, and more. His work has been featured in the publications Paper PoliticsSociological Images, Printeresting Mid America Print Council Journal.