Interview with Tomm Moore, nominated for SONG OF THE SEA
What is SONG OF THE SEA about and what was the initial motivation / idea?
SONG OF THE SEA is an animated feature, telling the story of the last Seal Child’s journey home.
After their mother’s disappearance, Ben and Saoirse are sent to live with granny in the city.
When they resolve to return to their home by the sea, their journey becomes a race against time as they are drawn into a world Ben knows only from his mother’s folktales. But this is no bedtime story; these fairy folk have been in our world far too long. It soon becomes clear to Ben that Saoirse is the key to their survival.
Near the beginning of production on my first feature film, THE SECRET OF KELLS, I went on a holiday to the west coast of Ireland with my wife and son Ben who was ten years old at the time. We were sketching on the beach near the town of Dingle where we had rented a cottage when we came across a disturbing sight. There were the decaying corpses of seals on the beach. We asked the lady we were renting the cottage from about it and she explained that the local fishermen had taken to killing the seals out of frustration with the falling fish stocks. It is of course crazy that they blame the seals when human over-fishing is what’s really to blame.
She said that this would never have happened years ago as there used to be a widespread belief in the supernatural and that seals were seen as mystical creatures that were bad luck to harm. Many fishermen in those days believed the seals could contain the souls of people lost at sea or could even be Selkies; people who can transform from seals into humans. I had heard stories about Selkies when I was younger and I started to remember them as the holiday continued.
I was talking about all this to Ross Stewart, the art director on THE SECRET OF KELLS, when I got home. He lent me a book called “The People of the Sea”, a collection of old stories from Ireland and Scotland about the Seal people.
I started thinking about how we are losing so much more than just stories when we lose our folklore, a respect for both the balance of nature and the old traditions was being lost too. So I started to think about when these old beliefs began to die out. I imagined it may have been when I was as young as my son was then, ten years old. I began to dream up the story from that point, weaving together the various influences and ideas from that trip to the west coast and my nostalgia for the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Can you explain how you came up with the style and look of your film and the kind of animation you used?
It all began with concept drawings, designs and visual ideas. Then we worked on the script alongside those drawings. The art director Adrien Merigeau then got involved, designing the world and helping to set the style. Once we had the main locations somewhat figured out we began the hundreds of drawings to create a story-reel. This is a very rough, mostly black and white version of the film, with temporary voices, sound effects and music. It’s a good time to test out the sequences we are unsure of, to re-write and to edit it to the right length. At this stage we can make big changes quite cheaply so it’s a very important process for the story and pacing. It’s at this stage that we record the voices and try to settle on the length of each sequence.
Then when we have more or less settled the story in this rough form and have a version of the film that we can show audiences, even if it’s very rough, we begin the layout stage where all the backgrounds are drawn more precisely and the characters poses are figured out in more detail based on the model-sheets drawn by the character model-sheet artists.
This step serves as a guide for the animators, some of whom focus on the characters, others focus on the effects such as the sea, water and fire. A separate team assists this team, cleaning up and finalising the rough drawings.
The animation for SONG OF THE SEA was carried out by teams in Ireland, Denmark and Luxembourg.
Meanwhile the background department are turning the rough layout drawings into beautiful and atmospheric paintings using watercolours, pencils and computer software like Photoshop. Near the end of this process the composer and musician start to work with our rough cut to create the main themes and songs.
At the compositing stage all the backgrounds are combined with the animators’ drawings which are coloured and any remaining computer effects are added. In SONG OF THE SEA we had two very distinct styles; one based more on a dream-like watercolour approach and the other more based on a rather stylised version of the “real world”, this meant extra work for the compositing team in Belgium: Digital Graphics. Then composer Bruno Coulais recorded the orchestra, the singers and traditional musicians from Kila and we edited the soundtrack to the coloured images.
The sound design team in France had been busy creating all the sound effects, with one of the sound designers even joining me for a trip to Dingle in the west of Ireland to record some sounds there.
The French team took care of the sound design, the effects, the mix, the final colour grading and post-production.
Finally we processed the work of all these talented contributors into the final digital and 35mm print versions of the film at the lab.
Who do you consider your influences – artists, animators, directors?
I’m inspired by many different sources, from the animated films of Studio Ghibli by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and the Hungarian folktales from Kecskemét Film Studio in Hungary. Certainly NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was an influence, both for myself and also for Bruno Coulais, especially the river boat sequence.
I was interested in making a film like the ones I remembered growing up that were adventurous and funny yet had a tinge of sadness to them, a depth that only repeat viewings as an adult could reveal. I thought about films such as INTO THE WEST, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, E.T., THE GOONIES, THE WIZARD OF OZ and cartoons such as MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, SPIRITED AWAY and THE JUNGLE BOOK when I was evolving the story.
An ongoing influence for me has been the Japanese animated film THE LITTLE PRINCE AND THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON. I think THE DARK CRYSTAL and THE NEVERENDING STORY made a big impression on me and subtly found their way into my influences without me even realising it as many people have mentioned them after seeing the film.
It is the second time you are nominated for an animation feature after THE SECRET OF KELLS in 2009. What are some of the things you learned in directing KELLS that helped you with SONG OF THE SEA?
I started to develop SONG OF THE SEA during production of THE SECRET OF KELLS and had already begun the script and even animating the concept trailer before THE SECRET OF KELLS was released. We had a lot of interest after the success of THE SECRET OF KELLS from the US and European partners but in the end we decided to go ahead with the European co-production team we had been assembling before all the publicity from the Oscars® kicked off.
This was to continue some artistic relationships we already had established and to remain independent from bigger studios and financiers who might have tried to change the film too much. The main benefit we found was that THE SECRET OF KELLS opened up an audience for our work and our style internationally, so hope that now many people are excited to see our follow up film. Also we met many friends who worked in the bigger studios in the US who offered to help and advise us on the story and other aspects of the production for free, which was a huge help to me as a filmmaker to improve my skills.
You are part of the independent animation studio Cartoon Saloon – what are the advantages of such a network?
It’s a way to have stability as a director, I can work with my colleagues on their projects when I'm not working on my own, and I constantly learn from the other artists here. It’s kind of like a family atmosphere that is really great for creativity - I think I would find moving from production company to production company for each film stressful.
What do you think is unique about European animation compared to films from Japan or the USA?
I think European independent animation has a unique point of view stemming from our long history of visual arts and story telling that is very special to these countries. Our folklore and our visual sensibilities set us apart.
Is there a revival of traditional 2D animation?
I think 2D animation is finding its own place in the many ranges of methods and media available to animation directors today. It’s the right choice for many stories but thankfully not the only choice. I love to see creative work in all types of animation, 2D, CGI, stop motion, paper cut-out, whatever! 2D has a long history as the dominant form, now it is taking its place alongside stop-motion and other traditional methods in the tool box available to us.