Song Of The Sea: how an animated treat was made

We look at how director Tomm Moore created the Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea, and how the Irish landscape inspired it...

Walking along Ventry beach in south west island, it’s easy to see how a filmmaker might be inspired by the spectacular landscape: the rolling hills and craggy rocks, the overwhelming air of tranquillity. But the inspiration for animator Tomm Moore’s new film, the Oscar-nominated Song Of The Sea, was inspired by a less than tranquil experience.

About a decade ago, Moore was staying on holiday in the nearby town of Dingle, and visited Ventry beach with his 10-year-old son. To their horror, they found the beach littered with the bodies of dead grey seals. Reports at the time suggested that local fishermen, who blamed the seals for dwindling fish stocks, were responsible for the cull.

“I was talking to a local lady, and we were disturbed by the fact that we were seeing these seals being killed on the beach,” Moore recalls. “The old lady we were renting the cottage from was saying that it wasn’t something that wouldn’t have happened years ago.”

A local tour guide, who knew all about the folklore connected to the region, agreed. “The guide was saying that there are stories connected to every aspect of the landscape,” Moore said. “She was saying the seals would have been respected – they would have been seen as the Selkies, containing the souls of the dead – the people who were lost at sea.”

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Like a slowly-developing photograph, the idea for a new story began to form in Moore’s mind. He thought about local folktales, the myths and legends that were once passed down  from parent to child – the stories that bonded people to their environment, and that were in danger of vanishing from Ireland’s culture.

“I realised that these were stories that we were losing – that connection to the landscape, that folklore, was dying out,” says Moore. “I was hoping to make a film that reinvigorated the folklore for kids of my son’s generation, and I thought an animated film would be an ambitious vehicle to do that with.”

Ireland’s animation heritage

Moore’s first feature film was similarly steeped in Irish history and legend. Released in 2009, The Secret Of Kells was a colourful, disarmingly tender fantasy based around the Book of Kells, an illuminated medieval manuscript now kept at the Trinity College Library in Dublin. Nominated for an Oscar, The Secret Of Kells brought Moore and his studio Cartoon Saloon to global attention.

Suddenly, this little animation house based in Kilkenny was being mentioned in the same breath as Pixar and Disney – a considerable achievement, given that The Secret Of Kells distinctive 2D animation was created on a budget of around $7m. To put that in perspective, Pete Docter’s Up, which actually won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2010, was made for $175m.

Cartoon Saloon’s success provided a boost to Ireland’s small yet vibrant animation scene, which stretches back to the 1970s. Jimmy Murakami, the veteran animator who directed The Snowman and When The Wind Blows, set up two studios in Ireland: Quateru Films in 1971 and Murakami-Wolf Films in 1989 – the latter produced the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series.  Former Disney animator Don Bluth set up a studio in Dublin in 1979, where such films as The Secret Of NIMH and An American Tail were created.

That an entire animation industry had sprung up in Ireland was an inspiration to Moore, who’d grown up in Ireland with a passion for drawing, film and animation. But after studying animation at Ballyfermot College in Dublin, Moore found that the studios around him were gradually disappearing; Bluth’s studio had gone bankrupt in 1995 following a series of commercial failures, while Murakami Wolf Films had vanished by the end of the decade.

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“There was the idea, I suppose, amongst everyone, that you could work at Don Bluth, or you could go over to Paris and work for Disney,” Moore tells us. “During the four years I was at college, those studios were actually petering out, finishing up. Basically, by the time I called up Disney Studios in Paris, it was just about finished – it wasn’t hiring anymore. They were finishing on Tarzan. Don Bluth’s studio had gone back to America to Phoenix.”

The founding of Cartoon Saloon

Faced with the choice of relocating to the US to find work or setting up his own studio, Moore opted for the latter, founding Cartoon Saloon with fellow animator Paul Young in 1999. The studio quickly built up an impressive body of commercial work and short films. From Darkness, a 2002 short film directed by Nora Twomey, is an early example of Cartoon Saloon’s distinctive fusion of traditional and digital animation techniques.

That hybrid approach defined the look of The Secret Of Kells and is pushed further still in Song Of The Sea. Beginning with line drawings on paper and watercolour backgrounds, Song Of The Seas animation is embellished further with computer graphics – an approach which, if anything, makes the movie look even more like a moving painting. Whereas in the past animators were largely restricted to painting each frame on transparent cels and layering them over a hand-painted background, Moore’s team of animators had no limit over the number of layers they could put in each frame or the kinds of detail they could put into them.

“Traditional animation – I love the look of it, and I try to keep that because I think it has a timelessness, but it was limited to the technology of the day,” Moore explains. “You could only have so many cels before they start to cancel each other out and get really dark. It had to look like flat colours on a painted background. Whereas now, we’re able to use almost any technique – we can animate a charcoal line.”

“We were able to make the clouds, the watercolour layers, actually move,” adds Paul Young, the film’s producer. “That would have been incredibly difficult to do [without a computer]. You couldn’t put watercolour on a cel.”

“Yeah, we were able to paint on successive layers of watercolour paper,” Moore agrees. “It almost didn’t look like much in itself, but when you put them all together on the computer, they came together like a pop-up book kind of effect.”

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The result is a movie that positively shimmers with colour and detail; its geometric, often dreamlike quality chiming with the story itself – a gentle, funny and sometimes moving fantasy about a family dealing with the loss of a loved one. Like its animation, Song Of The Sea is a seamless union of the traditional and the modern, interweaving Irish myths about faeries, giants and sea creatures with a gentle drama set in the present day. (“The first draft tried to use the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grieving as a structure, but it was way too feckin’ heavy,” Moore reveals.)

From sketches to finished animation

Song Of The Seas setting is drawn from the Dingle Peninsula landscape which first inspired Moore over a decade ago – the rolling hills, the dramatic, craggy rocks jutting out of the sea. It’s a location that has attracted several filmmakers in the past; director David Lean filmed Ryan’s Daughter in the area, and even build an entire village (actor Robert Mitchum famously said of the production, “Working with Lean is like constructing the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks”). Ron Howard shot parts of his 1992 romance Far And Away in and around the Dingle Peninsula.

Early in Song Of The Sea‘s production, Moore took his team of artists on research expedition around the area to give them a flavour of the area’s unique scenery, which then fed back into the artwork they produced: a fantastical, child’s-eye perspective of south-west Ireland, where rocks come to life, faeries live beneath roundabouts and the roiling seas teem with enchanted creatures.

Song Of The Seas sense of wonderment recalls the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and Moore openly professes his affection for such movies as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro – both in terms of their use of local folklore and the universality of their characters and stories.

“I always come back to Hayao Miyazaki’s films,” Moore says. “You didn’t need to know about Japanese mythology to access them, it just gave it a flavour. You could feel that there was a whole belief system behind it that they were tapping into. The more you knew about it, the more the film opened up to you – Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro.

“There’s a layer of depth to it, because he was drawing from his own culture. And being quite creative with it; the Totoros were completely invented, but they felt like something from that animist way of looking at the world… I don’t know if it’s something to do with small countries, but every part becomes sacred, there’s a name for every field, there’s a story for every corner of the field. That kind of stuff. Ancient island cultures seem to build up this sort of natural animist way of looking at things, because we’re living so closely in relationship to the environment.”

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There’s a lyrical simplicity to Song Of The Seas execution that runs counter to approach taken by most mainstream animators. But the process of bringing the movie to life was anything but straightforward; in fact, it required the coordination of studios in five different countries: a chunk of the animation was created in Denmark. Animation, backgrounds and layouts were produced in Luxembourg. Those elements were composited in Belgium, while post-production, sound and music was completed in France.

Overseeing the film’s making meant a considerable amount of travelling for Moore, but once again, technology meant that he could also oversee the production via the web.

“With the appliance of modern technology and the internet – we used Skype, we had a system for tracking the production and the assets – Tomm could look at them from wherever he was,” Young tells us. “Nothing could move on without his approval. It was a piece of software we used on The Secret Of Kells as well, which keeps everybody linked to the same animatic, or the same reel, as it were. It sounds very unwieldy, but we were kind of used to it.”

This pan-European approach to production has allowed Cartoon Saloon to make films on a scale that it couldn’t have hoped to afford on its own. Indeed, Moore believes that Song Of The Sea couldn’t have been made on such a tight budget without computer technology.

“As much as possible, we wanted to keep that hand-drawn, organic feel,” Moore says, “but there’s no way we could have made the film in the time and the budget we had if we didn’t have this hybrid approach with computers.”

Release, acclaim, and the future of 2D animation

Since it made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014, Song Of The Sea has garnered a wealth of accolades – including a second nomination for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. This immediately placed it in the company of such films as Disney’s Big Hero 6, DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2 and Studio Ghibli’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. While the $165m Big Hero 6 ultimately won, the Oscar nomination once again gives recognition to a small studio thousands of miles away from Hollywood itself.

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“With the nomination, I met a lot of people like Pete Docter and Henry Selick, and it really felt like the industry saying, ‘Oh no, this is great. It’s great to see something independent. Keep going. Let’s see more,'” Moore says. “That’s what it felt like. It felt like the industry itself, or our peers in animation, endorsing what we were doing. And that was massive.”

The nomination also brings some much-needed publicity to a film that lacks the multi-million-dollar marketing budget of the industry’s big hitters.

“We’re not looking for that big breakout opening box-office weekend, because we can’t,” Young says. “We’re not going to open on 2,500 screens across the United States, it’s like 15 states, and then 50 screens somewhere else.”

But Cartoon Saloon’s indie status also allows it to continue making 2D animation; like Studio Ghibli in Japan and Aardman in the UK, it champions the kinds of traditional techniques that have widely been replaced by the mainstream. But far from being a dwindling artform, Moore believes that hand-drawn animation can still thrive in the 21st century.

“The mainstream has definitely gone CGI,” Moore tells us. “It’s not going to change back, and wishing it won’t make it so. And I don’t wish it anymore. I’ve realised that it’s been a liberation for traditional animation, to be marginalised, as it were… All the potential that traditional animation always had is back in the hands of artists rather than corporations. People don’t have Disney to look to now to copy, so now they have to reinvent themselves. When photography came in, painters had to reinvent themselves. They invented expressionism, impressionism and cubism and everything else.”

Irish premiere

In March 2015, Song Of The Sea had its Irish premiere at the Dingle International Film Festival, located just a short drive from the beach where the seeds of its story were first planted a decade ago.

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Unsurprisingly, the response from the moviegoers packed into the town’s intimate cinema was little short of rapturous; younger members of the audience giggled at the sight of the grumpy faeries lurking beneath the roundabout. They gasped when the fearsome villainess Macha reared up, flanked by her army of owls.

With Song Of The Sea, Moore has managed to transform an unexpected and disturbing memory into lighter-than-air fantasy – one that is both universal and deeply personal, both modern and as timeless as the landscape which inspired it.