Tomm Moore and Paul Young: Song Of The Sea and the future of animation

The director and producer of the fabulous Song Of The Sea talk to us about Aardman, Studio Ghibli, Pixar and the future of animation...

What began as a great discussion about the inspiration, design and production of the superb Song Of The Sea gradually, over the course of a half-hour interview, morphed into a more general chat about 2D animation. And given that Oscar-nominated director Tomm Moore and producer Paul Young have been involved in making animated films (both short and feature-length), TV shows and commercials for well over a decade, they’re the perfect people to talk to about the industry’s gradual move to 3D CGI, and where that leaves traditional animation techniques like hand-painted cels and stop-motion.

So taking in such films as Shaun The Sheep, Studio Ghibli’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, Up, Antz, Chicken Run and more, here’s what the pair had to say about the future of animation.

So how do you both see the industry at the moment? Because in some ways it’s really exciting, because we have your film, and we have Shaun The Sheep, which is a really bold piece of animation…

Tomm Moore: Shaun The Sheep is real claymation. A lot of people do fantastic stuff with these replacement heads, but it’s almost somewhere between CG and stop-motion. Whereas Shaun The Sheep is pure, old-school models on a set, you know?

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Paul Young: You know it’s small. They’re making a virtue of the materials they’re using. 

TM: It’s really Aardman as well, and there’s such a character to that.

PY: And the nice thing about hand-drawn animation and stuff like that is that, you watch it as a kid and think, “I could do that. I could make a model like that, like Shaun The Sheep.” So many times we’ve heard from parents, after they’ve gone to see Song Of The Sea or The Secret Of Kells, that the kids go home and they start to draw. That’s a slight difference to CGI, where the barrier to entry is a bit higher. “Where do I start?”

When you watch a 2D film, you think, “I can actually draw Saoirse.” 

TM: With traditional animation in the UK, between the stop-motion of Aardman and hand-drawn animation, I think there’s something in the culture here that people are very much make-do and mend. They like to make things. 

It’s that garden shed mentality, isn’t it?

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TM: Yes! The shed mentality, yes. [Laughs] Having a train set in your shed, or doing a bit of painting on a Sunday. It is, isn’t it? 

So are you positive about the way things are with animation? Because on the flip side, we’re also at the end of an era as well. Takahata looks like he might be retiring, Miyazaki’s retired.

PY: But they’re doing two more films. Studio Ghibli isn’t shutting down – there’s one coming out that a friend of mine’s translating. 

Was that When Marnie Was There?

TM: Yeah, that’s the one.

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PY: Yeah. Takahata and Miyazaki, yes, they’re retiring. But there’s a whole generation there that you’d hope would want to keep Ghibli going. 

TM: I get the feeling as well that it’s not over in the sense that people aren’t doing it, but it has changed. I definitely think that 2D animation is in the space that stop-motion animation is in. It’s a specialist technique, and it’s used for certain stories. The mainstream has definitely gone CGI. 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. Because it frees us up to experiment and do stuff that you wouldn’t be able to do in the mainstream. Let CGI take the blockbusters, and then hope that traditional animation will be free. Some of the stuff we would have only seen in short films is starting to be seen in feature films, some of the experimentation. All the potential that traditional animation always had is back in the hands of artists rather than corporations. 

I’m delighted. 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.

CGI is here now, so there’s no point in doing Disney-style animation. You have to find another way to do traditional animation. 

I like that you’re not even trying to trace some kind of four-quadrant thing, where you have to have a couple of jokes in there for the teenagers, maybe one for the dads, you know?

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TM: Yeah, let them do it. We’re much freer for it. People often say to me, “Would you like to do CGI?” I think, if I wanted to do CGI on that level… there’s a place for artistic CGI as well, I think there’s a lot of interesting things that CGI can do. But if I wanted to do a shiny movie about cars, I think I’d rather go and work for Pixar than try and do it myself. Do you know what I mean? I think the place for independent animation is to offer something else. And anyway, we don’t have the money to do it. It would just look like a cheap knock-off if we tried to do it.

PY: And there’s a lot of interesting short films being made using CGI. David O’Reilly, another Irish animator, he’s done some amazing things. He did Please Say Something, which won the Golden Bear in Berlin. I think the person before him was John Lasseter with his short [Luxo Jr, 1987). That was the last animation to win the Golden Bear.

There’s lots of stuff there. I was looking at an old business plan we had from years ago, and I feel quite good after Song Of The Sea’s come out. Because I remember at the start we said, “We’re going to ambitious, we’re going to make original, evergreen stuff. It has to look different.” And although over the 16 years we’ve had to fall away because we’ve had to do service work and we lost that inspiration a little bit, but the stuff we’ve made, I feel, is trying to be evergreen.

We’re not looking for that big breakout opening box-office weekend, because we can’t. 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. It’s always 50 over a long, slow period. So it’s a long tail. When people start to see our films on the shelf – whether it’s on VOD or a physical, DVD shelf – they’ll start to see a brand that is Cartoon Saloon’s. 

They’ll know us for a certain quality, a level of authenticity, I think. 

TM: The thing about hand-drawn and traditional animation is, there is a timelessness to it. You see the software improving over successive sequels – Toy Story or Madagascar, you know, but The Iron Giant still holds up. Totoro still holds up beside Ponyo. Bambi can sit side by side with anything. 

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I think, like you’ve both said, it’s that magical thing of seeing a still drawing come to life. You find it exciting when you’re a child, and it stays with you.

TM: You definitely relate to the characters in a different way. You map yourself into them more, because they’re so simple. They’re little symbols that become an avatar that you can see the world through. The closer you go to realism, the more they become somebody else. 

Pixar have been amazing with their human character design. They were going in the direction where they were getting creepily real, then they did The Incredibles, and they started to use the language of 2D animation. They simplified their characters and made them cartoon characters. They went away from that very creepy, very real thing.

That glassy-eyed look.

TM: Yeah, and all that weird mo-cap stuff. It’s interesting to see that even CG animation is retreating to some of the language of 2D to make their characters relatable. I thought that was very interesting.

Up was a gorgeous film. Everyone cried. But he had a square for a head! [Laughs] You know what I mean? It was very cartoony. Before that there was a weird, backwards mentality that was kind of like, “The more realistic the characters are, the more people will care for them.” But that was backwards. The more realistic they became, the more they seemed like zombies. We felt dislocated from them. You really cared about characters that were more exaggerated and cartoony. 

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It’s important to feel the hand of the artist at work, isn’t it?

TM: That’s a great way of putting it. I remembering hearing – this is kind of a third-hand story – but I knew some of the guys who’d worked at Aardman, and they were saying they’d done a CG test during Chicken Run, and they’d even put thumb prints on the models. They showed it to [Nick Park] and he said, “But I want to actually do it. It’s not the look of the thumb prints artificially put on, it’s the fact that I spent the time playing with the puppet to make it do what it does.”

That’s something you can’t fake. It just comes through. The little imperfections come through. The hand of the artist.

PY: Shaun The Sheep’s so great because I think the digital team was about five people. So everything’s built. You can see the weave on the blankets.

TM: What’s wonderful is that stop-motion has improved with computers. You can shoot stuff, you can block it out, you can redo it, you can do stop-motion with your phone. Technology is the friend of traditional animation. It doesn’t have to replace it. It can help you do it.

See, for a while I naively thought, like a lot of people I suppose, that computers were the enemy. 

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TM: Yeah, oh yeah. I remember I went to see Antz, and I was like, “This is definitely the end of stop-motion.” I had this funny idea in my head about stop-motion, because it was 3D, that it would be replaced, and that 2D was something different. That people would always appreciate it, but not at all.

It wasn’t really about that. It was about the gee-whiz-bang of Hollywood, and every time there’s a new thing that takes off, people are like, “Gee whiz”, you know? 

It was just like airbrush art, where artists went, “Oh, it’s so cheesy”, but the general populace went, “Wow, it’s so real, it looks like a photograph!” [Laughs]

PY: Isn’t it interesting to think that the tools of CGI are now becoming available to kids? I was thinking of David’s stuff. The way CGI animation is starting to look so cartoony and lovely now, you can imagine kids going much earlier into making CGI stuff as well. And then the next thing will be your virtual reality movie, where you’ve got a headset. Kids won’t be able to do that so easily. Or maybe they will! 

TM: Yeah, sure. We’re not threatened by any of that, but there is something about, as you said, the hand of the artist or craft. People can buy stuff that’s turned out by machine, digitally printed, or they can buy a handmade piece of pottery. People appreciate the piece of pottery on a different level than they appreciate the perfection of a 3D-printed pot.  

So you’ve had two Oscar wins – I’m sorry, I should say, two Oscar nominations…

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TM: We’re two-Oscar losers! [Laughs]

But two Oscar nominations is an incredible achievement. Two for two is amazing. So how has that made a difference for your future plans?

PY: I think it’s given us more confidence again. Sometimes it’s great to be recognised. Certainly for our other sides of the business, we also do TV series, and so it just gets you in the door. Back in the day, when I used to count up the red badges from the people I’d met at markets, the people who bought stuff, I was going, “God, I need to talk to that person over there.” Now it’s like, Cartoon Saloon is known in the industry, so when I go out to sell, people have expectations of a certain level of quality, which is great. That’s not really the nomination that did that, it’s the hard work from Tomm and the crew that make everything look so good. 

But certainly, the Oscar nomination’s the best marketing you can get.

TM: For me, it was a stamp of approval from my peers. Because the nomination comes from the animation branch, so those are other animators. I think after The Secret Of Kells I was a bit deflated, because I’d spent my 20s trying to get it made, and we were proud of it. But I wondered, “Is now the time to go and get a real job?” That was really going on. I talked to Paul about it a lot. I was kind of curious about what it might be like to work in the bigger studios. 

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.” 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. Even since then, I’ve made friends with all the nominees, and they’re all really great guys. Animation’s a lovely community in that way. I got a note from Pete Docter and Henry Selick, after the Oscars this year, saying how much they appreciated Song Of The Sea, so I just think, for me anyway, joining the Academy and becoming part of the animation branch has felt like I’ve been welcomed into the wider circle of animation directors. It’s given me the encouragement to keep going.

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PY: Animation’s like that. It is wonderful. When you talk to people coming from the live-action side of the business, they’re so overwhelmed by the camaraderie. Because there are no movie stars in animation. There are no movie star directors, either, because it’s very collaborative. It’s such a collaborative medium. 

Fewer egos?

PY: Well, everyone has problems with their own ego, you know…

TM: Did you see how he nodded his head towards me when he said that? [Laughs]

PY: I didn’t! I’m saying everyone has an ego! [Laughs] It’s just lovely and collaborative.

Tomm Moore and Paul Young, thank you very much.

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