Tomm Moore Talks 'Secret of the Kells'

It’s a neat trick for a small Irish studio to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and go head to head with Pixar, Disney, Henry Selick and Wes Anderson, not to mention beat out Hayao Miyazaki for a slot. It’s even more impressive when it’s the first time you’ve directed anything longer than a few commercials or TV segments. But that’s what Tomm Moore has done with Secret of the Kells - and on a budget that’s probably less than what any of the other films spent promoting themselves.

It’s a neat trick for a small Irish studio to snag an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and go head to head with Pixar (Up), Disney (The Princess and the Frog), Henry Selick (Coraline) and Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox) – not to mention beat out Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo for a slot.

It’s even more impressive when it’s the first time you’ve directed anything longer than a few commercials or TV segments. But that’s what Tomm Moore of Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon has done with Secret of the Kells – and on a budget that’s probably less than any of the above films spent promoting themselves.

Tomm was in town during the last weekend in February to introduce his film at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, where we managed to chat a bit…

Joe Strike: How does it feel being nominated for an Oscar against the likes of Disney and Pixar?

Tomm Moore: I feel like Rocky – I’m going up against some tough competition. Getting a nomination for my first feature? I’m really, really grateful, but I don’t expect anything more than that. It definitely moved us up a notch – I hope more people are looking at our film now. [The film premiered last summer as part of NYICFF’s ongoing weekend screenings, with a wide release currently targeted for March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day.]

I started working on Kells in 1999 with my partner Aidan Harte while we were in college together [in the animation program at Dublin's Ballyfermot College]. Aidan went on to produce a children’s TV series, Skunk Fu! That was his baby, Kells is film mine. We ended up going into production around same time. We were on two floors of the studio, each working on our own project. Sometimes we shared artists, but essentially we were two separate studios.

They used Flash, while we were hand drawn. Sometimes their Flash animators would come downstairs to look at what were doing and say ‘oh, I’d love to be drawing again.’

JS: The look of film is amazingly rich – it’s eye-filling, yet simple at the same time.

TM:

We were inspired by [Richard Williams’] The Thief and the Cobbler – not so much for its animation but how they used Persian art, how they translated it into animation. Also Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack and the way he created a cinematic look on a TV budget. We were making feature length movie on a budget of six million Euros [about $8,200,000]. We weren’t going to be able to do full animation; how do we use stylized animation to tell our story? My heroes have always been people like Michel Ocelot [director of Kirikou, and Azur and Asmar] – how beautiful his films looked on their budget.

JS: There was sort of a stained glass look to the art.

TM:

Definitely – but the look also came from the Book of Kells itself, medieval art, triptychs and all those iconic medieval manuscripts. We started getting a feeling for that pre-renaissance art that used perspective. We thought that was perfect for 2D animation – it shows the stuff you can do with hand-drawn animation that’s really special.

JS: There was also a circle motif that kept appearing.

TM:

We were trying to make a film in the language of dreams, symbolism. The circle is very important in Celtic art, everything related to it. We had this theme of the eye, Brendan [the film’s young protagonist] looking for his artistic eye. We had the Eye of Crom [the eye of a monstrous, legendary snake of Irish myth that Brendan must acquire to create the Book] and that brought that circle in all the way through the movie.

The other interesting thing about the circle in Celtic art – it represents the link to the sun god Lug, the original king of the pantheon of Celtic gods who was kind of supplanted by Christianity. When you look at Celtic iron cross, there’s a circle in its center.

JS: In one shot the camera is looking straight down into a circular room, but the characters are shown in an upright perspective.

TM:

We borrowed that directly from medieval art in a very modernist way. Back then if a character was important they made him bigger; if they wanted to show him clearer they flattened him out, even if that wasn’t the angle on the background. We tried to take some of that into composition.

JS: That’s why Abbot Cellach, the leader of the community looks ten or twelve feet tall compared to everyone else. I was very impressed by your direction – your compositions and camera angles, the quick cuts that ‘read’ even in a handful of frames.

TM:

I worked with great editor, Fabienne Alvarez-Giro, who comes from live action. I had an 86 minute movie when we started and ended up with 75 minutes; she just trimmed and tightened the whole thing. I originally felt that the style was so challenging we needed to take our time. What she really taught me was how to bring that kind of filmic language to it even though we were working in such a stylized way, just trust that the audience could take it.

JS: You were using production design to compensate for a tight budget.

TM:

Some of our traditional animators were frustrated with the style and found it a bit challenging, but our younger ones were interested in playing with it and trying to find a way to do sophisticated animation within the limits of our budget.

JS: One reason the film won an Oscar nomination versus better-known films was a ‘stealth’ campaign within the animation community.

TM: I was really happy to discover that they showed it at a couple of the big studios where some of their 3D animators had started in 2D. They thought it was very cool to take the two-dimensional look of medieval art and use it for 2D animation – they were really impressed with that.

JS: I’m curious about the mythology and history behind the story. You mentioned there really is a Book of Kells.

TM:

If you see someone with Celtic tattoos or an intricate artwork design in an Irish pub, all that stuff comes from the Book of Kells. It was made in 800 A.D. – a lot of our story comes from the actual history. Our starting point was that the Book was taken from [the island of] Miona because of the Viking raids, and brought to the center of Ireland, to Kells for protection. There really was an Abbot Cellach and there really was a cat named Pangur Ban – one of the monks wrote a poem about his cat Pangur Ban.

JS: The legendary part was about Aisling, the forest spirit?

TM: Aisling was a representation of the matriarchal world that existed in Ireland prior to Christianity. It was a tradition around the time of William Butler Yeats to write poems in which a young woman would appear to the poet and talk about ancient Ireland. We thought it would be fun to take that character, that’s usually a Lord of the Rings-type beautiful young woman and make her a little girl and imagine how she would relate better to a young boy. We made her sort of a pesky little sister rather than a somber character.

JS: It was a very interesting choice to take the protagonist who’s a child through most of the film and take him to maturity by its end; that’s something an American animated feature would never consider.

TM:

It was challenging and something we talked about. We had to make sure his adult look wasn’t too alienating [compared to him as a child]. It was more true to kind of mythology we were referencing, mythology of the King Arthur era, where you usually have that boy to man journey instead of trying to have a happy ending like The Jungle Book where he stays a little boy.

JS: Is the Book of Kells a Christian bible, or is it a collection of Irish folklore?

TM:

It’s the Four Gospels transcribed, but it’s so embroidered with imagery from Pagan times, from all sorts of ancient stories and legends – that’s what makes it so interesting; all the artwork and designs are from more ancient stories. It’s on display at Trinity College in Dublin where they turn a page every day.

[The movie concludes with the tiny elements of the Book’s more dazzling pages set into hypnotic motion.] JS: Is the art in the book really that microscopically detailed?

TM:

That’s one of the things they don’t understand about book – how were they able, in 800 A.D. with the technology as it was at the time, to do such detailed work. The Book itself is very small, about the size of an A4 page [slightly larger than a standard U.S. sheet of paper] but with its microscopic detail, they can blow it up 10 times [without it losing clarity.] We thought that mesmerizing quality in the artwork had a commonality with hand drawn animation. There’s something really meditative those monks’ work at that time that translates a little bit to animation.