The director of Oscar®-nominated 'The Secret of Kells' discusses his beautiful new film about a boy, his magical little sister and their journey back to their home by the sea.
There’s nothing quite like the beauty of hand-drawn animation. And Tomm Moore’s new hand-drawn animated feature Song of the Sea is quite the beauty. But don’t be fooled by everyone’s focus, including my own, on the film’s stunning visuals; Song of the Sea is the complete package – a gentle, compelling story told with uniquely stylized imagery and a perfectly matched score. When industry veterans drunkenly bemoan the lost days of 2D, this is the type film they toast and bare their souls about.
I recently spoke with director Tomm Moore about his new movie. Much like his previous film, Oscar®-nominated The Secret of Kells, Tomm’s keen artistic vision and storytelling sensibilities have coalesced into a thoroughly charming animated film. This time, he and the film’s producers have cobbled together an ensemble cast of European co-production partners spread across five different countries. We spoke at length the film’s five year production, how compelling mythology always resonates with audiences and how he reimagined the mythological Selkies of ancient Irish folklore for a new generation of moviegoers.
Dan Sarto: Your new film is not just lovely to look at but mesmerizing to watch. As a storyteller, what draws you towards mythical creatures and culturally specific fables? What is the allure of these types of stories and why do they seem to translate so well into to animation?
Tomm Moore: It goes back to the gods of Greek mythology. There is a commonality to all mythology. Joseph Campbell talked about that a lot – that there’s a common mono-myth underpinning a lot of storytelling. Even today, with George Lucas and Star Wars for example, the modern hero’s journey, it’s all mythology. For me, all the super heroes I grew up liking are definitely related to mythology that I initially rejected as a kid because it seemed old fashioned and hokey.
At the same time, as I grew older, I started to understand more about mythology, mainly through the writings of some comic book artists that I liked, people like Alan Moore. I learned that the older mythology was really the root of all this new work. Due to the universal truths in a lot of old myths, they have resonated through all the ages. That’s why they persist. The same stories get told over and over in different ways. You can go back to the past, like Takahata [the film’s director Isao Takahata] did with The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which is really interesting. It’s also really interesting to update those stories for modern audiences. There’s something at their core that always resonates. If you can find that core, it’s going to appeal to a lot of people.
DS: Is it riskier as an independent animated feature film director to tell more subtle and gentle myth-based stories than the more action-adventure stories most big studio directors tell these days?
TM: Yah, it is. But the reason I make these types of films is that I want to take those types of risks as an alternative to making films where every 10 seconds you need another gag. Even though it’s riskier, it’s worth it for me to make a film like Song of the Sea. It’s more challenging, that’s for sure. You’re working on a shoestring budget. But because of that, you can afford to take those types of risks. A lot of my friends who work at the big studios and get to play on the big playgrounds at places like Pixar and DreamWorks are jealous of the risks we get to take. So we owe it to ourselves to make films that are really different as often as we can.
DS: Do you look to filmmakers like Miyazaki for inspiration, for example, as a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take his time to setup his characters and story arcs?
TM: Absolutely. When we were writing our movie, Will [Collins] and I even talked about films from the 1980s that you don’t normally think of, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or The Goonies, films that took their time to tell a story. They were really fun. But they were one-offs. They weren’t prequels or sequels or parts of franchises. They were just adventures with a bit of melancholy to them. There was a film called Into the West that we’d forgotten about, an Irish kid’s movie made in the late 1980s. Jim Sheridan wrote it. That was a point of reference for us as well. It made a big impact on us. It touched on some folklore and though a fun movie, it had a melancholy tinge to it.
When we looked at films like My Neighbor Totoro, we looked at the fact Miyazaki slowed things down, but was still charming. He took time to look around and focus on a raindrop, or a leaf, as much as the “action” going on in a scene. He was really inspiring. Animating is quite meditative and it’s nice to reflect that quality in a film – that pace, that tone or quietness.
We’re constantly being assaulted by noisy, faster, brighter and more exciting imagery. It’s almost like we have a sneaky advantage by offering something that’s an antidote to that.
DS: To me, the imagery in your film is as equally stunning as any imagery in the recent slate of big CG animated features.
TM: Well we’re hoping to play clever in that way. We don’t need a bazillion-computer renderfarm to create something eye-popping. We can work with simple materials hopefully to create something just as rich. We try to use the visual advantage you get with hand-drawn animation.
DS: Tell me a bit about the genesis of the story.
TM: We were already fairly immersed in Irish mythology and history because we were just getting started on The Secret of Kells. I was on vacation with my family and while walking on a beach, we saw some seals that had been killed. It made me think about how mythology and folklore links people to the environment and to the culture around them in a way that was being lost. That became something I wanted to explore in Song of the Sea. That belief system didn’t have to get fossilized into tourist shop trinkets, but could be reimagined and retold in a way that links us to the world around us.
Kids relate to animals very well. My son, as he grew up, he enjoyed The Nature Channel every bit as much as Cartoon Network. He watched both equally. Kids feel a real kinship to the environment and the natural world. We seem to reject that and let go of it. When you look at mythology, it all deals with transforming into animals, becoming more immersed in the environment. That always interested me about mythology, how it links humans and animals and shows how they can easily live together.
DS: So the idea for this film came while you were making The Secret of Kells?
TM: Yah. Someone told me it was a good idea to start working on your next film while you’re making your current film because…
DS: …while you’re killing yourself on this film, start killing yourself on the next one too?...
TM: …Yah, start thinking of ideas because at least you have something to work with rather than suddenly being finished with a film and then saying, “Ah, well, what should the next film be?”
DS: Song of the Sea isn’t a sequel to The Story of Kells but it follows a bit in its mythological footsteps.
TM: It’s sort of a spiritual follow-up. It’s in the same headspace. It came from the same place in terms of inspiration.
DS: From the time you said, “OK, here’s the next film we’re going to make,” how long did it take to produce? From finishing the script, to boarding, production and final post?
TM: The whole process took around five years. While we were making The Secret of Kells, I got the story and characters roughly figured out. Adrien [Merigeau], the art director [on Song of the Sea] had been one of the background artists on Kells, and he and I had been doing some concept art towards the end of production. We had some time to do artwork once the film was being composited. We did a trailer back in 2009 for Song of the Sea, a conceptual trailer used to start pitching investors. But we didn’t have a script at that point. So we spent almost three years putting our financing together, working on getting the script right, doing some concept art and storyboards. We even started talking to the musicians, Bruno [Coulais] and Kila, about what the music would be. It was pretty organic during that period.
Around October, 2010, the financing kicked in and we began working fulltime on the film. We spent 10 months on an animatic, doing some rewriting, which always happens during that phase. Then we went from being a tiny team to working with all our co-producers. That was 18-20 months of production, which finished up in July of this year.
DS: How did you handle working with all these different film funds and partners?
TM: It was the classic European co-production. We’re quite used to it. Basically, we’re the lead studio. We did all the main design work and about 20 minutes of animation. We posed out the whole film and did the editing. Different co-producers did different parts. Animation work was done in Denmark [Noerlum] and in Luxembourg [Melusine Productions]. The sound design with Bruno was done in France [Superprod]. The compositing and ink and paint were done in Belgium [The Big Farm]. The way we made this work was that all the supervisors from the co-producing studios would spend a couple months with us in Ireland before going back to lead their own teams. This way, they had a good idea what we were expecting. I also spent a lot of time traveling between the studios during the production.
DS: You must have been jetting all over the place during that time.
TM: Oh yah. I was constantly on the move. But I had two assistant directors helping me. Fabian Erlinghauser looked after the animation and Stuart Shankly took care of the layout. That allowed me to keep a bit more focus on the overall production. I even got to animate a bit myself. But at the end, myself and Adrien basically lived in Belgium for six months. I was going back and forth between Belgium and Paris working on the sound design. That’s kind of the normal way we make films in Europe these days. I kind of enjoy it. I like working with all the different artists and studios. Many are old friends from The Secret of Kells. Even though it’s so crazy and we’re so spread out, it almost feels like one big team because we always like to work together.
Our co-production partners, they all heavily invested emotionally in this film as well as financially. It wasn’t just another gig to pay the bills. They took ownership in their work and the film overall. Everyone wanted to do a good job on this film, all the way down to assistant animators and all the way up to studio owners. I always joked we were a coalition of the willing.
DS: The film looks absolutely stunning. The characters designs, the background designs, the environments, everything is so stylized yet everything fits together so seamlessly. There were so many interesting little details. Like textures on rocks or the swirling patterns on the tree bark. They didn’t overwhelm the scenes, but they stood out. What drove the design aesthetics and decision-making on this film?
TM: A lot of that came from Adrien. When I first started working on the film, I wanted to keep it very simple, almost like the page of a sketch book. Previously, I had stopped using watercolors for the most part in favor of Photoshop. But I got back into painting and felt it was so nice to have a complete image on one page rather than having something assembled in layers in Photoshop. But Adrien had been coming up with his own ideas. He’s a much better painter than I am. He’s much better with light for example. We mashed our styles together and came up with this technique where we’d draw the lines on paper, paint the watercolor on another page and put everything together in the computer. Ultimately, we ended up often designing and creating elements like rocks on their own page and compositing them together into one image. So it was a hybrid of hand-drawn techniques and Photoshop.
The patterns you see on rocks for example, a lot of those designs are based on sacred geometry carved on ancient rocks in Scotland and Ireland. You’ll see it on really old Pictish stones. We went on some research trips to get ideas. What really impressed Adrien was the fact he felt it looked like modern art. He felt they looked like Klee and Kandinsky. It was a really interesting reference point. So we incorporate some of that into the designs as well.
DS: The music and sound design fit the story and visual narrative so well. It also never overwhelms and always seems to fit the mood perfectly. It felt so balanced. How do you work with musicians and composers on a project like this? How do you direct the process?
TM: To be honest, I’m not really musical. I started working early on with Bruno. I knew the music was going to be really important on this film. We had early sessions with Bruno and Kila where they would be coming up with themes and ideas at the same time we were storyboarding. So, the music, the visuals and the writing all started playing off each other from the very beginning. Bruno recorded various musicians separately and composited them together, much like we work with backgrounds. I was always blown away by his final compositions, these layered musical score mixes. I could never have anticipated how those turned out. I would talk to him about music using visual art language. He would then interpret that into music in a way I could never have even imagined. It was a true collaborative effort I enjoyed immensely. The music sessions were always fun.
One great thing he did was use Lisa Hannigan’s voice all through the score, not just on songs. He recorded her voice like any other instrument that he layered in. It gave a presence to the mother character throughout the whole movie that I hadn’t anticipated. It brought a real richness to the film.
DS: Looking back, what was the biggest production challenge?
TM: For me, the biggest challenge was animating the sea. Water. Stupidly, I didn’t anticipate how difficult that was going to be. We ended up using a clever technique where we combined some hand-drawn animation with a CG sea where we replicated the hand-drawn all across the screen. We were able to make a stormy sea out of 16 different hand-drawn waves. But before we figured out that technique, it was pretty hairy. I wasn’t sure if we were going to pull it off.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.