An Interview With Director Tomm Moore

Already seen the full length animated feature Brendan and the Secret of Kells? Being screened at festivals all over the world, that might surely be possible. It took home the Audience Award at this year's Annecy International Animated Film Festival and has been called "a film unlike any other, and not just because it's Irish!". And one must agree, it truly is beautiful display of creativity in animation, as well as in terms of compelling visuals as in articulate storytelling.

Recently an exclusive interview took place with none other than the director of this lovely film: Tomm Moore. Though not everybody will yet have heard of him, when bringing this kind of work makes that very likely to change in no time.

Tomm, you were born in Newry in the north of Ireland and moved to Kilkenny at a very young age to grow up there. That does not sound like the easiest place to start a career as a director of full length animated features. What was it that attracted you to animation?

From a very young age I loved drawing which I think is common to most people working in animation.

As a child I became aware that the Don Bluth studio was in Dublin and that it was actually possible to earn a living as an animator in Ireland! This was exciting and I remember seeing some TV specials on Irish TV in the late eighties about the new studio in Dublin. When I was about 11 or 12, I was really into animation and had played around trying different things with acetate and stuff at home - just trying to figure out how it was done from the scant information I had available.

My cousin brought a whole stack of American superhero comics over from Canada in 1989 around the time the first Batman movie was coming out. Then when I saw those comics I was more interested in going in that direction, comics seemed more exciting and "mature" somehow.

Also I visited the Don Bluth studio with my school friend Ross Stewart (art director on Kells) when I was 14. We both were astounded at how labor intensive the whole process was and more or less quickly realized that Don Bluth had the best job! So we sort of decided we would both prefer comics!

But you still ended up doing animation as well. What happened?

That early fascination for animation never really went away. We were both members of Young Irish Filmmakers in Kilkenny, a great organization that helps young people make their own movies, mainly during the summer holidays. They had equipment we could use, including an Amiga which had some basic animation software on it. We continued to experiment a little bit with animation and filmmaking and also produced our own underground comic there too.

Later, Ross and I both ended up on Ballyfermot Senior College's animation course together. It had been set up by Don Bluth as a training course and we sort of gravitated towards that even if our main interest was still in comics. That was around the time the Don Bluth studio was closing down and moving back to the States. I met Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Barry Reynolds, Jeremy Purcell, Fabian Erlinghauser and other key crew members of Kells there in Ballyfermot. I certainly got back into animation again while there as I was surrounded by students who were passionate about it.

We had very few options in Ireland after we graduated, since all the main American studios that had been based here had moved on, so rather than go abroad to work on video games like a lot of our class mates had, we came back down to Kilkenny and started Cartoon Saloon in the premises of Young Irish Filmmakers.

So in your early years, how did things like animation, art and culture influence your later decisions about this art form?

As I was saying, my main influence growing up was comic books and illustration, I was a fan of animation - all the classic Disney stuff, but I had almost no exposure to the amazing things from Japan and Europe that were happening in comics and animation until I went to college. I guess I was lucky as well that in Young Irish Filmmakers we would be exposed to more unusual films and I got to meet other young people with similar interests.

It was when I went to Ballyfermot Senior College in Dublin that I discovered the wider world of "artistic" animation and started to become more focused and excited about what could be done with animation as a medium.

Mostly, I have always loved all forms of drawing and design.

A lot of our choices in Cartoon Saloon have been in contrast to the prevailing 3d digital stuff that has been growing in popularity since we started the company almost ten years ago. We have always been looking more at illustrators and designers for influence than at other animation. I think I have been influenced a lot by the other artists who have worked here in the studio over the years, we have been lucky enough to have had some really talented people work with us and they have all brought new influences.

And for Brendan and the Secret of Kells?

Since I had been developing Kells in one form or another, on and off since the company was formed, I have been very influenced by the references we built up for that film. It was important for me to reference the art history of time, I felt there was something unique in so-called "Celtic" art that could be translated into 2d animation.

When the company was founded we began to attend the "Cartoon Movie" conference in Potsdam every year and we were introduced to a whole world of amazing European animation that we had been barely aware of. It's a sad fact that the distribution of non-American mainstream animation is very limited in English speaking countries. But we quickly caught up! We found a lot of our ambitions for 2d animation matched the interesting work being done in Europe at the time.

So, for me, the development of the film went hand in hand with my own development as an artist and director, everything I learnt was fed back into the film and I formed a kind of ad-hoc theory about what animation could do that I felt wasn't always being utilized.

Brendan and the Secret of Kells shows several inspirations. Its prime one logically is the original Book of Kells, one of the most famous and finest manuscripts in world history which contains lavishly illustrated and ornamented transcriptions of the four Gospels. Can you tell us something about your actual vision for creating Brendan and the Secret of Kells?

Well, the project had a long gestation, and changed a lot from its original plotline and basis. Originally we had developed it as a more "adult" film but as the development continued with our co-producers it naturally evolved to be more focused on Brendan, the main child protagonist. At this point it became more of a classic "heroes journey" type structure and storyline and more focused for a family audience.

But all along it was my ambition to tell a story about the importance of Art even in difficult times, and to try and create a unique style of animation. It felt like a responsibility to be creating the first Irish animated feature and I really wanted it to look different from everything else and to be unique and true to its heritage. My biggest fear was to have something "twee" or stereotypically "Oirish". The Book of Kells was a lot to live up to, and I knew the film had to be very powerful visually to do justice to the subject matter.

Talking about powerful visuals, your film contains some very nicely structured shots leading the eye in a very artistic manner, including a beautiful match cut and a large scale Viking attack that is very moody and impressive. What made you do things in this way?

In 2003, I attended a course in Dublin run by Screen Training Ireland, where Bruce Block lectured about visual structure in Film. I realized animation could go further than most live action films in putting those principles into practice. It kind of pulled all the ideas I had been gathering together and gave them structure.

I got the idea of juxtaposing the very flat (pre-Renaissance perspective) style which is very rich and ornate with another style, a darker look with a limited palette and true perspective with lots of angles. In this way we tried to make some simple subliminal rules for the audience: flat + lots of color = safe, whereas 3d + limited palette = danger.

In addition to this we wanted to show the thin line between reality and imagination for people living at that time, that legends and stories were naturally part of their world so we had to develop a third style to show Brendan's dreams, his drawings and to show this "vision" of his evolving and getting stronger as he grows as an artist.

A lot of the visual symbols are taken from Irish or Celtic myths and legends but are not unique just to Celtic legends, they appear in many ancient stories and cultures. I hope that the universal nature of these symbols adds to the accessibility of the story.

Well, in my opinion you definitely succeeded. How about the lovely match cuts?

The match cuts came mostly in the story boarding stage, as a way to merge the world of Brendan's art and imagination with the "real world" of the rest of the film.

I also wanted to use some of the rules of comic books, illustrations and even medieval paintings to lead the eye in a way that is not usually done in "classical" movies scene set ups, this way we could add boarders to the screen to help show mood or create atmosphere and to change the shape of the space that the characters had to act within. The triptych compositions became a recurring way to show time passing and to compress the time within the story.

Hopefully most of this works at a slightly subliminal level, though I think audiences are more graphically literate today than ever before.

I think animation gives a certain artistic license that allows us to say more with the images on screen and to use symbols and language of icons and illustration to communicate as well the conventional tool kit of live action film making. I think a lot of the exciting visual language and storytelling techniques that are happening in comics and illustration (such as in the work of Chris Ware) can find their way into animation and be accepted there much more naturally than in live action.

Next to its simplicity, flatness and pattern use that reminded me of the works of Michel Ocelot, Brendan and the Secret of Kells made me sense a subtle hint of Miyazaki (for example Aisling and her forest reminded me of Princess Mononoke). In what way do you seek inspiration in the contemporary work of others? Are there any directors (animation and live action) who directly influenced your film?

Generally, I think it's important to not just look at other animation or films for influence and look at other forms of art work as a source of inspiration. For example, Ross Stewart is primarily a white gallery artist exhibiting his semi abstract paintings inspired by the Irish landscape. For me, it was important that he was able to bring some of that influence to the art direction, as that contributed to what made the film's look so unique.

But of course I am inspired by other animation artists such as Michel Ocelot, who was even kind enough to give me plenty of advice in the early years of our development. He had a lot of experience from making Kirikou and having to work with multiple countries. He was very adamant that we stay away from a conventional "Disney" look and find something unique in our own culture to flavor the style.

Certainly, the spirit and atmosphere of Miyazaki was an influence, and his use of symbols and the way he layers the reality of the world with the subjective reality of the characters. I think the critical success of Spirited Away really opened the door for more interesting use of animation as a storytelling medium with its own set of rules.

I have also been impressed and inspired by the work of Genndy Tartakovsky, who really makes such cinematic pieces on TV animation budgets and schedules. Some of the episodes of Samurai Jack and Clone Wars are amazing lessons in economy and stylish use of visual language to tell the story.

Any others?

I always loved the old stylish cartoons from America in the 1950s and we were lucky enough to work with Tod Polson on the color styling, he had trained with Maurice Noble who was a Background Artist on everything from Bambi to Chuck Jones shorts.

Another major influence was Richard Williams unfinished masterpiece The Thief and The Cobbler which I had seen a rough work print of in college.

I love the Eastern European animation that uses their indigenous Folkart as a visual style, the series "Hungarian Folktales" by the Kecskemet Animation Film Studio was an inspiration and it was great to be able to work with that studio for a large part of the 2d animation as well.

In terms of live action, maybe the formal compositions of Wes Anderson found there way in here and there as I am a big fan of his work and for a short time, Adrien Merigeau and Lily Bernard (the background supervisors) and I had a little Wes Anderson appreciation society going in Kilkenny!

Also we looked at the old German Expressionist films, especially for the sequences such as the Viking attack on Kells. Mainly this was for how the backgrounds would become subjective according to the characters emotions, or how shadows would show what the characters are imagining or a heightened version of how they were feeling in a scene.

The screen writer, Fabrice Ziolkowski had pointed us in the direction of Ivan the Terrible when he saw our concept art, and he also gave me a copy of the illustrated script of the film much later when the film was completed. I was amazed how similar the approach was to this live action film from the early days of cinema to how we approach animation, especially when I saw the drawings Eisenstein had done to prepare each scene. It was appropriate that Fabrice had named the Russian brother in our film "Sergei"!

Kirikou producer Didier Brunner (also responsible for producing masterpieces like Princes et Princesses and Les Triplettes de Belleville), also worked as a producer for Brendan and the Secret of Kells. In what ways did he contribute to this movie?

Didier Brunner saw our pitch in Cartoon Movie and immediately decided to become involved, he was in the middle of producing Les Triplettes de Belleville and had already had a great success with Kirikou. He really encouraged us to go for something very different visually and encouraged us to experiment and find our own voice for the movie. His experience meant a great deal to other partners getting involved and he was instrumental in the project getting off the ground.

He also brought Viviane Van Fletern on board as well Walking the Dog, both of whom he had worked with on Les Triplettes. He was keen to make sure our story was universal and suitable for a younger audience and introduced us to Fabrice Ziolkowski, who wrote the screenplay, and to Bruno Coulais who became the composer, working closely with the Irish band Kila. Didier also brought a French editor on board, Fabienne Giro, who had many years of experience in live action; I found these collaborations with more experienced artists to be some of the most beneficial aspects of the co-production.

The soundtrack for Brendan and the Secret of Kells, which is looovely by the way, was composed by Bruno Coulais, who also did Coraline and was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Les Choristes. Next to that you had Irish trad band Kíla working on it as well. Tell us about the score for the film. How did you, as Kells' director, pick the music and collaborate with them?

For the music we were very lucky in that the collaboration between Kila and Bruno worked so well. When we were editing the first animatic Nora Twomey, my co-director selected scratch music with me from Bruno's past work and Kilas, as well as few tracks here and there from other sources. But we found for certain sequences we needed the music to properly storyboard and animate to. So Bruno made some keyboard samples for the goose chase and the wolf attack for example. Then we recorded young Christen Mooney singing "Aisling's Song" so the animators in Walking the Dog could animate to it directly.

After that I think Bruno was mainly busy working on Coraline until we met again after the final images were composited. I went to his studio in Paris with Didier Brunner and Bruno played us his ideas for the score and we discussed about what was needed. Then he sent tracks by email for a few weeks so Nora and I could comment on them.

Then we had a few days in Sligo with Bruno who worked with his team and Kila who arranged and contributed to the music live. They also added some ideas at this stage. We decided to use one of Kila's original tracks that been used on the scratch version and they rearranged that specifically for the film. Also they recorded a version of the ancient "Pangur Ban" poem in Gaelic with Mick lally, the voice of Brother Aidan, speaking it.

It was a very collaborative and enjoyable process and definitely a lot easier for me than the visuals!!

Now let's try to go a bit deeper, perhaps it's a bit too vague though... For some one's primary goal as an artist is all about finding answers, for others it is about stimulating the audience. What is yours?

This is a hard question! I hope I understand it correctly... Are you speaking about personal artistic goals versus thinking about keeping a broad audience engaged?

Yes.

I think in the beginning the project was less focused on the audience and more about a personal story, but as we developed the project we worked very hard to make a film that would appeal to a young audience but still have enough depth to be a film worth repeated viewings. Stimulating the audience is important, keeping them engaged but ultimately the big blockbuster films do that very well and I think smaller independent films have a chance to offer something more than just a thrill ride!

Fully agreed! Coming back at my earlier question in which I mentioned stimulating the audience, what is your proudest achievement so far artistically?

I think I am happy that so many audience members of all ages have reacted so positively to the film, I always enjoy the Q+A sessions we do at festivals and hearing their interpretations and questions. I think my favorite scene is when Aisling sings to Pangur Ban and turns her into a "mist cat", I think the scene is the one many people talk about and remember after the film is over. It was composited in the studio of Digital Graphics in Liege and I feel they added something very subtle and magical in the lighting and fx on the mist, that coupled with the animation and music really seems to leave an impression on audiences.

Director Michel Ocelot once told me, "I have a hundred messages all the time. I think if you have nothing to say your story won't be interesting. Even with a lot of fantasy and little joyful things, you have to have something to say behind it." Now the thing is that viewers - and I include myself here - usually only possess a limited ability to comprehend a film and tend to overlook many important clues in it. Can you think of an important clue or deeper meaning that people sadly might miss when watching Brendan and the Secret of Kells, but which is still much worth noting?

I hope that most audience members will get the important messages in the film. Overall it's about Art being important even in difficult times and the importance of preserving Art and Culture. Mostly, I feel audiences get a sense of that. There are probably lots of little things that are important to me and my collaborators that may not be appreciated by the audience on first viewing but I hope they are felt on some level.

So about how you work, are there any techniques you prefer? What aspects are the most important for you, what difficulties may an animator face when working on a Tomm Moore film?

This is another hard question! I suppose I like to prepare very thoroughly and keep tight control on the design and composition elements, to be sure nothing is watered down from the concept stage to final image on screen. For example we made over 200 Scene Illustrations at the beginning of the film that would represent how a finished screen shot should look. These showed the background, the character and any effects that would be used, it was a kind of blue print for the whole film as it went thru' the various departments and studios all over the world. We also made very tight model sheets and character poses for each scene.

Furthermore, I tried to be sure all the acting in the storyboard was clearly communicated in key poses of the characters before the scene left the studio. I think this was a little frustrating for some of the animators as they had to work with these poses in their animation. It is much less "free" way to work than a lot of animators are used to, but I felt it was necessary for the style and to have control over so many studios. I think the flat design was tricky for a lot of animators too, but usually once it "clicked" with them it went very well. I think the fact that I was a little bit neurotic about the designs and compositions was the most difficult thing for the animators! If I can work with the same crew again on the new film maybe I will be a bit more chilled out as we all know each other now!

Now having much enjoyed Brendan and the Secret of Kells, I am glad that you mention "... working with the same crew again on the new film". It is called Song of the Sea and we already brought a lovely teaser of it back in March. Not much has yet been told about it though. What is it about?

Song of the Sea is a feature for a slightly younger audience than Kells. We called it a "melancholy, musical, modern fairytale" when we pitched it at Cartoon Movie this year. It's about the last Silkie child in Ireland a little girl called Saoirse. Silkies are seals who can take human form. In our story they are they are the gate keepers of the entrance to the fairy world and by singing the Song of the Sea the Silkie queen opens the space between our world and theirs.

It's the story of Saoirse and her brother Ben who live on a lighthouse on the most westerly peninsula of Ireland. Their mother Bronagh has disappeared at sea and their father Conor has become somewhat removed and cold towards Ben as a result of this. He send both the children away to live with their Grandparents in the city, where he believes Saoirse will be safe from the siren call of the sea, and Ben who is about ten years old is charged with looking after her. But the fairy folk find them and Saoirse is drawn back to the sea, and Ben is drawn into the fairy world.

So what are your wishes for this project? Is there anything in particular you want to achieve with this project? Things you really want to explore...

Basically, it's a story about coming to terms with loss and about the fading old beliefs and how they can be saved if they are transformed and not forgotten. I am working with a talented young Irish screenwriter called William Collins who was recommended to us by the Irish Film Board.

For me, this film is less about the visual style and more about the story, the characters those themes. Because it's about loss all the folktale characters represent a different type of emotional "stuckness" that the human family is experiencing because of the loss of the mother, who was also the Silkie queen. This emotional parallel is also a reflection of our general sense of loss as a culture of the old beliefs and stories from our day to day lives, which is something I think we all feel on a slightly subliminal level as we are faced with making our way in the modern, homogeneous global culture.

Style wise it looks similar to what you have done with Brendan and the Secret of Kells, so it seems this will be your signature visual approach...

I think when we made that promotional teaser it was just that the Kells style was still very much in my hands. I designed the characters and made the storyboard and compositions while finishing Kells, I am happy to keep working in this style but want to go further and try something unique for this story, after all Kells style was developed as a response to mediaeval and Celtic art and while some of the influence from Celtic design is appropriate for the subject matter of Song, its not so important a reference this time as it was on Kells.

Adrien Merigeau is the art director this time, he was one of the background supervisors on Kells and we have a lot of ideas about how to push the style somewhere new. Adrien's personal style is really beautiful, sketchy, 2d and painterly. I hope he can merge that with my sensibilities and that we will find something poetic to suit this story.

We are hoping to achieve a picture book quality and maybe even explore the possibilities in those new fangled stereo glasses.

BTW - watch out for Adrien's first short Old Fangs which we produced in Cartoon Saloon at festivals soon.

Finally, when is it planned to be released?

Well, that's all to do with the financing, we hope to work with the same co-producers as on Kells, but they may not be able to find as much funding as they did for Kells so I think we will be looking either to the US or to Canada or maybe other European countries for a fourth co-producer. Being optimistic I would love if the budget was in place by the end of next year and that we could begin production then, but sadly nothing is certain in the world of indie filmmaking. I would hope it could be in cinemas before 2012.

Brendan and The Secret of Kells is a film that is highly recommended, so be sure to check to check out if it screening at a cinema nearby. Also, for your home cinema DVD and Blu-ray treatments have already been released at a few countries like France, Ireland and Belgium and more releases are on the way, so be sure to keep an eye on that as well.

This interview has been cross-published at GhibliWorld.com.

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