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'The Secret of Kells' - What is this Remarkable Animated Feature?

Karl Cohen talks with director Tomm Moore, exploring both the historical and thematic origins of the film.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

The Academy Award nomination for The Secret of Kells hints at the film’s brilliance.  That recognition came as a major surprise as the film was only seen by a handful of people in LA & NY when it qualified for a possible Oscar nomination.  It did not open nationally until this March, but thanks to a grassroots campaign by people who have seen it, and I’m one of them, word is spreading that the film is quite extraordinary.

The Secret of Kells is a wonderful film experience.  It has a unique look that might be called Irish or Celtic modern, and a compelling well-told story that is as charming as it is exciting.  Moreover the story seems quite real as opposed to the elaborate tall tales Hollywood invents.

As for the look, imagine the flat abstractions of nature found in Celtic manuscripts and jewelry coming alive on the screen.  The film has a design that sets it apart from art from other parts of the world.  It is as distinctive looking as Persian miniatures or traditional Japanese block prints.  The look is rich and varied including intricate backgrounds that are sometimes quite stunning.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

Not only is the film’s bold look pleasing to the eyes, the captivating story will warm your heart.  I certainly believed in the innocent boy’s quest to find the right berries in the dark forest.  They are needed to create a magnificent color that will allow a great artist to complete a sacred manuscript.  It is easy to believe this book is necessary for the preservation of the Celtic culture and that it has to be finished and protected from the invading hordes of barbarians from the north.  What happens in the forest is the beginning of a fantastic experience.

The film’s simple plot and premise is based on facts; such illuminated medieval manuscripts do exist including the “Book of Kells” (Dublin, Trinity College Library, ca. 800 AD) and the hordes that are sacking villages in the film may be the Vikings that invaded Ireland.  This plot also seems very real; most people know that people in the Holly Lands once made great efforts to preserve their culture and beliefs from invaders. The rediscovered Dead Sea Scrolls are an example of this.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

The story may be fiction, but in your minds you care and emphasize with those who are living a simple peaceful life.  Their innocence is a far cry from the complex worlds and plots that Hollywood creates in films like Princess and the Frog, Shrek or Monsters Vs Aliens.While the Hollywood features are often delightful entertainment, you probably leave feeling the film was a lot of fun, and rarely think about any greater meaning or message.  On the other hand while you may leave Kells with a sense of joy, you may also leave feeling the movie gives you a realistic experience of what life was like in the Middle Ages and with a belief in the goodness of the peasants and monks who lived a simple agrarian life in their rural walled village. 

Part of the success of Kells is its use of universal themes.  Preserving culture is important, but the film is careful not to spell out specifics that might limit its audience.  Although you probably know more or less what kind of book is being created, I don’t believe there are mentions of a specific religion or what the book’s text is.  Also, the warriors are not from a specific place and are faceless, abstract images representing evil.  They become symbols of all destroyers of what is good. 

Another interesting deviation from a Hollywood blockbuster is the director’s use of economy of images in the battle scenes.  Unlike a Star Wars battle there are no wide-angle shots showing hundreds of helmeted warriors slaughtering peasants.  By using simple symbolic shapes, close-ups, fast cuts, split screen shots and an effective sound design, the feeling of fighting and destruction is just as real as what George Lucas can create on a grand scale.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

In art school instructors sometimes talk about less is more.  That becomes part of this film’s charm; that so much can be created with the films distinctive economical style.  The results were a rich, totally satisfying film experience for me.

An Interview with The Secret of Kells director Tomm Mooore

Karl Cohen: What inspired the film’s style and story? 

Tomm Moore: The film began development back in 1999.  Some friends in college and I were inspired by Richard Williams unfinished masterpiece “The Thief and the Cobbler” and the Disney movie Mulan, which took indigenous traditional art as the starting point for a beautiful style of 2D animation.  I felt that something similar could be done with Irish art, especially the beautiful tradition of Celtic knotwork that is so popular today.  The idea was to look at “The Book of Kells” and medieval art in general and to try and translate that into a style that would suit 2D animation.  Something uniquely Irish, but drawing on the traditions of American and Japanese animation.

I guess the story surrounding “The Book of Kells” made perfect sense as a hook, and I began to look at the legends and history surrounding it.  We knew there was a movie in there, even if it seemed unlikely at first glance.

The main stylistic influences outside of medieval art that we referenced were Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samarai Jack, which uses so many international filmic and art influences so well, Miyazaki’s gentle early work like Totoro, Michel Ocelots 2D work and of course The Thief and the Cobbler, and Hungarian folktale films from Kecskemet film studio.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

KC: Do people in Ireland grow up knowing much about or seeing examples of ancient Celtic art? 

TM: It’s everywhere here, almost to the point where I suspect people do not appreciate it.  Before the Euro we had “Book of Kells” designs on our coins, our bank notes.  Every Irish Pub has Celtic knotwork on its walls, and the tattoos are everywhere! Irish crafts people often incorporate knotwork and symbols from our manuscript tradition into their work as well.  I remember a French artist, who came to work on the film, taking a photo of a manhole cover that had some Gaelic writing on it which was spelled in a “Book of Kells” style font.  He was amazed how it was everywhere, and yet we hardly notice it.

KC: Is early Irish history and art taught in Irish schools? It is rarely part of our education in the US except in college.


When I was in school the stories of the Celtic and pre-Celtic people formed a big part of our fairytale tradition.  We heard about them all the time.  Eddie Lenihan, a fantastic storyteller, had a series on TV where he told "ten minute tales."  In school we learnt about Pangur Ban, the cat in our film.  Pangur was a cat that lived with an Irish monk who wrote a poem in tribute to Pangur on the side of one of the manuscripts he was transcribing.

Irish visual art took a back seat to music and storytelling, but I feel it seeps out in the Irish pubs and in the illustrations of Irish illustrators and craftspeople that are influenced by it.  Hopefully our film will give an accessible way into this tradition to those who are interested.  It’s cheaper than a degree in art history!

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

KC: Am I correct that the story seems to have been designed for universal appeal?  It appears the designers were careful not to identify with a specific religious group, nor is any specific meaning given to the stone circle in the forest, nor to the magic underground world.  Is the underground world part of Irish folklore?  

TM: I worked with Fabrice Ziolkowski, a French-American screenwriter, who helped sculpt the story we wanted to tell, to make sure it was not esoteric and only comprehensible to an Irish audience.  It was important for our French producer Didier Brunner that we make a universal story.  I felt that the hero’s journey structure, which Joseph Campbell showed was central to all faiths and legends, was an appropriate way to give a universal appeal to our blend of history and legend.

We do use the Celtic cross in the film; in fact the layout of Kells is based on it.  I believe the Celtic cross shows the merging of Pagan worship of the Sun God Lugh and the new Christian faith.  The circle that holds the arms of the cross can be seen as the overlaying of the old gods on the new faith.

The underground world is shown in a megalithic tomb, many of which are still in Ireland.  Some are believed older than the pyramids.  On the winter solstice, the pre-Celtic people who built them designed them so the sun would light up the internal chamber.  This showed the defeat of the darkness, the winter and the beginning of spring and better weather and hope for the harvest with the new light.”

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

I believe the St.Patrick legend of him banishing the serpents may have come from the legend of him defeating Crom Cruach and destroying its idols.  We used Crom Cruach, a fairly obscure pagan deity, to show Brendan’s fears.  His journey to Crom’s lair symbolizes his journey into his own soul, his own imagination, to conquer his fears and retrieve the eye, the new vision he needed to become a master artist, illuminator.

I always thought the term ‘illumination’ used by medieval artists to describe their calligraphic art was very symbolic.

The stone circle where Brendan meets Aisling is another common sight in the Irish landscape.  Often called fairy forts, they are probably the remains of a pre-Christian religion.  In folklore it’s often said that they are entrances to the fairy world.  It seemed an appropriate place for Brendan to encounter Aisling.  The stone he meets her at in the center of the fairy ring is the Turoe stone.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

We felt at the time the story was set in there was a blurring of faiths and beliefs and that to tell it subjectively through the eyes of a young boy growing up in that world required giving equal weight to all the beliefs he might have been exposed to.  The truth at the heart of both the Christian and other faiths is the same I believe, so we tried to show that.

KC: The story works so well, but did it take lots of revisions to create the script and storyboards?


I'm glad you asked that.  It’s certainly the hardest part of any film and the area I feel I learnt the most from in this production.  Indeed, we had several drafts of the script before we began working with Fabrice.  He helped us shape it into the story we settled on, focusing on Brendan and his story as an anchor to all our research and ideas.

Nora Twomey and I did a very rough pass at the storyboards and made an animatic about nine months before pre-production began.  Then we visited Fabrice in Paris for a few weeks.  We went over our thoughts and revisions based on those boards, and we did a lot of editing and finalizing of the script at that stage.  Then, when we began work on the full production boards, we worked with Remi Chaye and the editor Fabianne Giro to refine the story further.  Even after all that I ended up trimming almost ten minutes of colored animation at the end of production with Fabienne Giro.  We worked for several weeks in Paris on the editing.  It was a slightly painful but an enlightening experience for me.  After nearly 4 years of production I had to step back and look at the whole story again with fresh eyes and try to find a rhythm and pace with just the animation we had.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

KC: I think readers would like to know something of the film's production history.  Was it hard to organize this production?

TM: We started developing the film in 1999, when I was in my final year at Ballyfermot College.  We made a trailer and a first draft script (2001). We had to put it on the back burner while we worked on commercials and other "bread and butter" type work to keep the studio alive.  At that time the studio was housed in the Young Irish Filmmakers building in Kilkenny.

We went to Cartoon Movie in Berlin and met Didier Brunner who was producing The Triplets of Belleville.   He offered to help us produce the film and he introduced us to Viviane Van Fleteren in Belgium.  Together we managed to raise the six million Euro budget needed to make the film.  We finally had most of the finance in place by October 2005 and I was able to focus full time on the film between then and August 2008.

The work had to be split between the three countries because of how we raised the money through various European grants, the Irish film board, etc. The main designs, backgrounds, boards and about 20 minutes of rough animation were made in our studio Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

Walking the Dog studio in Belgium did about 20 minutes of 2D and a lot of the 3D animation and compositing.  Digital Graphics did ink and paint, compositing and some 3D.  Blue Spirit in Angouleme, France did additional backgrounds and Flash animation (for background characters only) as well as a majority of the compositing.  We did 40 minutes of 2D animation in the legendary Kecskemet film studios in Hungary, where the Hungarian folktales that had inspired me to try for a folk-art style had been made.  We also had Lightstar Studios in Brazil handle our clean up and inbetweens from the Irish and Belgian studios.  The editing and sound design was done in Paris in Piste Rouge and the music was written by Bruno Coulais in Paris, but arranged and recorded by Kila in Ireland.

It was an epic adventure to co-ordinate between all those studios and I owe a lot to our great production team and supervisors for keeping it together.  The challenges of streamlining the work from the various studios were sometimes daunting.  We had a great asset management solution in Hobsoft, which was developed by two Danish guys to manage European co-productions.  I also enjoyed engaging with so many new cultures.

Overall I'm very glad we managed to keep a consistent look to the whole film despite how spread out the work had to be.

KC: Can you tell us something about your production company and your future projects? 

TM: Cartoon Saloon is the company I own together with Nora Twomey, Paul Young and Ross Murray.  We are based in Kilkenny in Ireland and specialize in design, 2D animation and illustration work.  We made the TV show Skunk Fu with director Aidan Harte during the production of Kells and at one point had a staff of 75 artists in house.

We have won awards for our previous short films, From Darkness and Cuilin Dualach, both directed by Nora Twomey.  We have also worked on a variety of commercials and illustration jobs over the years.

Right now we have a staff of around 15 artists creating backgrounds for a French-Irish-Australian co-production.  With the attention Kells is receiving worldwide, we are focused on our new projects.  My next film is called The Song of the Sea and Nora is developing a live-action - animation blend horror movie based on the Bluebeard fairytale.  We also have a preschool show in development called Puffins Rock as well as several other ideas in the mix.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

We are very proud to have produced Old Fangs recently, a short film by Adrien Merigeau who will art direct my next feature.  Adrien is a talented young director who was a background artist on Kells. Old Fangs had its debut in Sundance this year and I hope it will find its way into many festivals over the course of 2010.

KC: Most people from abroad say it is difficult to get distribution in the US. Was that the case with Kells?

TM: It was very difficult.  We hoped for distribution much sooner in the US and the UK.  Even though we had won many awards including audience awards at Edinburgh and Annecy, it was very hard to find distributors brave enough to take the film on.  Thankfully we have landed in good hands with GKIDS in the US who seem to have a taste for our type of film.  We are proud to be on the same label as Azur and Asmar, Sita Sings the Blues and Mia and the Migou.

I am excited that American audiences will have a chance to discover our film this year.  I think Gkids are championing a new way of marketing and distributing smaller independent films.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon / GKIDS.

Comments from GKIDS, the film’s US Distributor

Dave Jesteadt, Director of Distribution for GKIDS, the film’s US distributor, told me, “We could not be more thrilled at how The Secret of Kells has been building grassroots support and intense enthusiasm among those who have seen it, particularly in the animation community.  The fans have really embraced the film, and the Oscar nomination is certainly a result of this hard work and community spirit, which shows a viable alternative to the huge budgets spent on typical award campaigns.  The nomination also ensures that a much wider audience will get to see the film, which is really all we ever hoped for.”

“As a company, GKIDS has worked tirelessly to create a business model that can promote artist-driven animated films like Kells, where production budgets are modest enough that individuality and creativity can flourish without having to worry about what formula will be most appealing for product tie-ins, sequels, and Super Bowl ads. 2009 was an amazing year for artistic animated features, and I'm optimistic that the new marketplace, with its emphasis on all CGI and all 3D, will actually spur demand for more beautiful 2D, hand-drawn features.”

Secret of Kells was directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey and voice actors include Brendan Gleeson, Christen Mooney, Mick Laffy, Michael McGrath and Evan McGuire.

Karl Cohen is president of ASIFA-SF and teaches animation history at SF State University. He is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, as well as hundreds of articles about animation, many published by AWN.