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