Tomm Moore and Paul Young: making Song Of The Sea

Song Of The Sea's director and producer talk us through the inspiration and process of making their Oscar-nominated feature...

In 2009, gentle fantasy The Secret Of Kells garnered praise from critics, an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and brought the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon to global attention. Co-directed by Tomm Moore with Nora Twomey, it also established the studio’s distinctive style of 2D animation, which fuses hand-drawn techniques with subtle dashes of CG to bring it to life. The result is a film where every scene could have been plucked straight from a beautifully-illustrated picture book.

Last year, Tomm Moore’s latest film, Song Of The Sea, made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to even greater acclaim. Once again, it’s a timeless fantasy – this time about a brother and sister, mythical figures from Irish folktales and their adventures in rural Ireland. It too was nominated for an Oscar.

On the weekend Song Of The Sea had its premiere in Ireland, we caught up with Moore and producer Paul Young to talk about their latest film, the founding of Cartoon Saloon in the late 90s, and their thoughts on the state of animation in general. It proved to a lively, educational discussion, and so lengthy that we’ve opted to split it into two parts.

Here, the director-producer duo talk about storytelling, mythology, using computers to assist with traditional animation, and lots more.

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It was fascinating to see the film again with such a big audience, because the first time I saw it was with one other person or something. 

Tomm Moore: I stayed and watched it, too, because I hadn’t watched it with an Irish audience. Or such a predominantly Irish audience.

Although it’s about Irish myths, it still feels really universal. It’s a reminder that while myths might come from a specific place, they can be understood by everyone if they’re told in the right way.

Paul Young: [To Tomm Moore] You keep coming back to Joseph Campbell. There’s Greek mythology in Marvel. It all comes from the same stories that people tell each other to understand the world, or at least to understand their place in the world. The good ones keep getting retold in different ways. So this is like our retelling of a joke – somebody adds a little bit in the telling, adds a bit of colour.

Song Of The Sea is a mixture of lots of different stuff that maybe people outside Ireland or maybe even within Ireland aren’t that aware of, but adapting it to the needs of this particular story. 

TM: I always come back to Hayao Miyazaki’s films. 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 Neighbour 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.

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That was I was going to ask you about, the whole anima thing. What your film has in common with Miyazaki’s filmmaking is that they see life in everything, even if it’s a rock. Which is quite a Shinto way of looking at things, isn’t it?

TM: Yeah. And I do think there’s something about island mythology that is a bit like that. I don’t know why. 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. 

Unfortunately, modern life separates us a little bit from the environment, and that’s partly what I was thinking about in the film, that those stories connected us, and if you lose the stories or if they become something told as a bit of patter for tourists, then that connection is lost. 

It’s a balance, you know? Because some of it was dangerous superstition as well. People were trapped in superstition. So you want to preserve what was good about it – which is the connection to the environment, I think, a connection to each other and the culture, and at the same time, be able to live in the world as it is now. That’s why the stories need to be retold for a new audience. 

I thought it was an interesting observation that children do view the world in mythological and dreamlike terms. So they turn everything into symbols. I thought that was an exciting idea.

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TM: Sure. Carl Jung and the collective unconscious. The idea that there’s a language to dreams that I think myth taps into, and we have to tap into it again as adults. I think Miyazaki was really good at letting adults into that world again through a child protagonist. I don’t think you’d buy an adult going into that story – it’s a little bit harder to swallow the Hercules, sword-and-sorcery stuff, because it seems impossible that an adult would be that credulous. But for a kid, it just feels like that whole world is accessible to them in a way that as adults would be much harder.

PY: You really see it [in Song Of The Sea] when they go into the holy well and down into the water. There are all the different layers. 

It feels like the more you go on his journey, the deeper into his psyche you’re going.

TM: That’s it. And that’s the very Campbell or Jungian way to look at it. The water’s like his subconscious, and when he gets pulled into the holy well, he’s getting pulled out of the modern layer, and you see that he goes down past all the rosary beads and stuff. There’s all the carvings on the rocks – you can see all the old gods like Chronos on the rocks – he gets pulled right down into… you know, it’s the cave of forgotten dreams, the inner cave where every hero must face their fears. That’s when he has to come face to face with his memories. There are commonalities across all the great hero stories.

I remember being so impressed when I was a teenager with The Empire Strikes Back, with all the stuff I didn’t notice as a kid. I loved Star Wars, had all the figures, played the games, but didn’t have any concept that there was another layer to it. I remember going to a talk about The Power Of Myth, and they showed the sequence where Luke [Skywalker] goes into the cave. What’s in there? What’s he taking with him? All that stuff. I remember as a teenager going, “Wowww!” [Laughs]

All that structure is just naturally there in fairy tales. I love it, and I think it’s really important to draw on that when you tell stories for kids. 

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On the practical side of things, what was it like to deal with this production, because I saw in the credits that five countries were involved in animating it.

PY: There are five co-producers. It’s very normal in European filmmaking – maybe not in live-action – especially in a small country like Ireland. We could never raise all the budget from Ireland, and there are independent producers all around Europe who can take advantage of the Irish Film Board here, or the BFI and places like that. Or in France and Denmark, we had funding there – we pre-sold the film for distribution there. So we try to get pre-sales, take advantage of tax shelters. We piece it all together.

The Danish co-producers were ex-Cartoon Saloon animators and workers, and they set up a studio in Denmark with the ambition of co-producing a feature. And there were people we met in France who got involved with the post-production, so that was 10 percent of the budget. They paid for Bruno Coulais and the music, the sound and mixing. In Belgium they did compositing, and in Luxembourg they did background painting, layouts and some animation. So we would bring the supervisors over for painting trips, to paint the landscapes and just to bond people together. Some of them would stay in our studio for maybe a week or two.

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. 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. 

TM: We were travelling around a lot. We had two assistant directors. Stuart [Shankly] was helping out with the layout and Fabian [Erlinghauser] with the animation. So I was able to travel between the different studios and keep it working together. 

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I wanted to pick up on something you said in the Q&A last night, which was about using computers for 2D animation. You said that without computers, you probably couldn’t have done this film on the budget you had. 

TM: You know, I think 2D animation’s been freed up by computers. 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. 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.

PY: We were able to make the clouds, the watercolour layers, actually move. That would have been incredibly difficult to do [without a computer]. You couldn’t put watercolour on a cel. 

TM: Yeah, we were able to paint on successive layers of watercolour paper. 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. 

You can get incredible texture in animation now. Princess Kaguya springs to mind has an incredible sense of texture, a tactile quality.

TM: They used computers to put it all together, but they still animate on paper. I’m kind of curious about that. I love Princess Kaguya. What I liked about Princess Kaguya was that they really used the language of line. We did that a little bit in our film, but not as much as they did and I’d love to do it more. I loved that when Kaguya’s stressed, the lines become stressed, and when she’s calm, the line’s calm. The way the drawings are done has an expressiveness to it as well. 

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Whereas we were trying to making a virtue of the 2D-ness, you know? We were playing with the fact that it was a drawing, we respected that it was all flattened out. We wanted to make a virtue of the fact that it was picture book-like.

In Princess Kaguya, they were using drawing as another visual language, another layer of storytelling. I’d love to tap into that a bit more.

PY: When she’s running from that party…

That whole scene is just stunning. 

TM: We had two styles in our film. We had a very watercolour, washy style, which is very loose and what you might call a subjective space – you’re not actually in a definite place, it’s just kind of watercolour-y. We used that to suggest memories, dreams, stories. We applied the watercolour texture to the characters in the computer so we could take some of the textures from the background and apply them to the characters. 

Then, when we’re in the real world, there’s more of a richness filled out to the edges. The characters are flatter. 

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What was your process for coming up with some of the visual ideas in here? Because there are so many different points those could come in – they might appear at the early sketching stage, or the storyboarding stage. My favourite bit, I think, in terms of your filmmaking, was where you have the exterior shot of kids playing at Halloween, then you cut to the interior shot of a budgie just staring down the lens. 

TM: [Laughs]

The music’s playing on the crackly radio. It says so much about the generation gap between the kids and the grandmother without a single word being spoken. It’s wonderful.

TM: Oh thanks. It’s an iterative process, right? So, there’s a certain amount of stuff that gets done at the concept stage – where ideas come up in the words as you write the script. And then you have the storyboarding stage, and that’s where the editing comes in. Working closely with the editor, so that as soon as the boards are drawn, the editor then starts turning it into a film. Even if it’s just a sketch, a series of sketches, you’re already dealing with cuts and timing and stuff like that. You’re even doing rough sound design and rough voices.

That’s the great thing about animation – you can make and remake films several times. So some of those ideas just filter in. Some of them, as I say, are from very early on in the script, while some of them you hit upon when you see it up there as a film even in rough form. You start to play with the concepts there. Playing a lot with match cuts, playing with the shape language and the compositions to stitch the film together.

PY: But the budgie just comes from the observation of your own granny. Like, you’re thinking, “What was my granny’s house like?” 

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TM: The budgie in the cage has a symbolism, too, because the kids are trapped inside with boring old granny listening to the radio, and everyone else is outside playing. 

PY: Being tucked up in bed too early really hits with my own memories of being that age. 

TM: It’s still bright out. What the hell?!

That thing about not using towels because they’re only for guests. That’s such a granny-ish thing to say.

TM: Yes! [Laughs] 

Going back to when you started Cartoon Saloon, how important was it to start your own place rather than work for other studios – maybe in America, for example.

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TM: It was a hard choice. I think at the start we thought we’d do it for a while and then get a real job, that kind of thing. Because we’d just finished college, I had the idea to make The Secret Of Kells, we had another fella, Aidan Harte, who ended up directing Skunk Fu, the TV series. We just thought we’d do this for a bit, there weren’t really any other studios in Ireland, so it was either that or emigrate. We thought we’d do this for a bit and then go and maybe get a real job. Sixteen years later, it’s turned into our real job.

PY: We had no idea how you actually get a film made or financed. We were really diving in at the deep end and going to Cannes, and that’s the best education you can get, between the hours of 10 at night and two in the morning. Even if we hadn’t managed to make any meetings. Like, in the early days, we didn’t know who to talk to, but you start to find out very quickly how these things were put together. Cartoon Movie was a big thing that we went to, where we pitched our idea for The Secret Of Kells to distributors. It was literally on the bus from the airport to the event that I met Didier Brunner, who at the time was in production on The Triplets Of Belleville.

So we had nice chance meetings, then continuing to meet them so they know you’re still around. Somebody said to me early on that you have to meet someone seven times before they start to remember you. Because animation does take a long time as well, so they want to know that you’re not suddenly going to not be there anymore, and that you’re a solid business. It was a mixture of all that, which is why it took a bit of time to finance the first one. We did commercials and stuff, and managed to keep going. It was just a matter of showing up at these events and pitching ideas. 

I read somewhere that Don Bluth was quite an inspiration for you both in your earlier days. His company was in Ireland, wasn’t it?

PY: He’s one of the reasons why there is an animation industry in Ireland. 

TM: Jimmy Murakami and Don Bluth put their studios here rather than in America. They were both American animators who, for different reasons, brought their studios here. Jimmy married an Irish woman, that’s why he ended up here, and Don Bluth was tapping into tax incentives and things.

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The fact that the studio was there in Dublin made it something I imagined I could do. Then they set up the college at Ballyfermot. I remember starting with the idea in my mind that I would only learn how to draw, then go to Edinburgh to study illustration and be a comic book artist. Because I’d visited Don Bluth’s studio, and I was in love with animation until I went. Then I thought, “God, it’s very hard work!” [Laughs]

So I ran away and thought, “I’ll do comics.” But then I got the bug again when I went to Ballyfermot. So I really got into animation. 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. 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. 

But if it wasn’t for Don Bluth’s studio and Jimmy’s studio turning out American cartoons in Ireland, I don’t think there’d be an Irish animation industry. 

Tomm Moore and Paul Young, thank you very much.

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