Tomm Moore follows up his Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells with another hand-drawn Irish folktale from Cartoon Saloon: Song of the Sea (opening this autumn through Gkids), and we have the first interview and teaser trailer. It’s about the Selkies, mythological creatures that are part seal, part human, and it’s set in 1987, a transitional period for both Ireland and its youthful protagonists.
So tell me about your interest in the Selkies and how you’ve made an animated movie about them.
I had heard plenty of Selkie stories growing up and had seen The Secret of Roan Inish but had not really thought about doing anything with those legends until I spent some time with my family in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland several years ago during the pre-production of The Secret of Kells.My son was 10 at the time and while sketching on the beach together he noticed something rather disturbing — a dead seal floating on the surf.
We asked the woman we rented our holiday cottage from about it and she said that young fishermen in the locality had taken to killing seals, blaming them for the drop in fish stocks — which is of course crazy, as it’s human over fishing that’s killing the industry.
She said years ago that no fisherman would dare harm a seal as there was a widespread believe in Selkies — people who could transform from seal to human form and also a belief that seals could contain the souls of those lost at sea. I began to think about how the old stories served us well in protecting what is truly valuable and important and how by losing these stories we are losing a lot more than just folklore.
When I got back to the studio I was talking about all this to my friend Ross Stewart, who was art director on The Secret of Kells. He lent me a book called The People of the Sea, which was full of stories of Selkies from Ireland and Scotland. Since there was no place in Secret of Kells to properly explore this mythology and these themes, I began to dream up a story about a Selkie and the way we lost so much of our folk wisdom to the modern world.
What’s it about and why did you set it in 1987?
It’s the story of Saoirse, the last Selkie child, and her brother Ben. When their mother disappears they are sent away to live with their grandmother in the city. But on Halloween night they decide to sneak away to get back home to their lighthouse by the sea. On their journey they encounter the forgotten creatures of a fading folklore, and discover that Saoirses song is the key to their survival; however, Saoirse cannot sing or even speak without her Selkie coat, which their father has taken from her for fear of losing her like their mother before her. So it becomes a sort of race against time to reunite her with her coat and save the fairyfolk.
I set it in 1987 because I was 10-years-old then and it’s the time I imagine it as being the transition time in Ireland when the old ways were fading just before the coming of “the Celtic tiger” and all that.
I’ve read you make comparisons to Into the West, My Neighbor Totoro, The Jungle Book, Y.B. Yeats, and modern-day Seanachai.
Well, it’s just a blend of all those influences and more — I loved the themes and adventure in Into the West and wanted to capture some of the whimsy and the insight into Japanese culture at a very specific time and place in Totoro. Jungle Book was a childhood favorite and I wanted to make a film with music that children could really enjoy and sing along with on repeat viewings. Yeats had a very romantic and melancholy sense of the fading of the old beliefs in Ireland that I was also inspired by. Finally, I had always admired Eddie Lenihan, who continued the tradition of the Seanachai or storyteller — he used to be on TV when I was a kid telling stories he had collected from old people and he continues to keep the tradition alive to this day. He even saved a fairy tree from a modern motorway in recent years.
What’s the process been like?
Working together with Adrien Merigeau, the art director, we evolved a new style that of course grew out of The Secret of Kells and the general sensibilities in Cartoon Saloon. Adrien was one of the lead background artists on The Secret of Kells and also made a short film with us in Cartoon Saloon, Old Fangs. He worked with me from before we even had a final script helping to create the atmosphere, and the look of the film while I worked on the script with Will Collins and the earliest storyboards. I think it’s an appropriate mash-up of traditional media like pencil and watercolor and modern computer techniques.
For the characters, I worked mostly alone at first, basing them on many of my family members (in particular the main character Ben was based on my own son, also called Ben). Then Marie Thorhauge helped to pull all my sketches together into a final line up and helped to shape the final look of the characters. We were later joined by Sandra Anderson, Sean McCarron, and Rosa Ballester Cabo, who helped with model sheets and additional character designs.
For the characters, we tried to soften up the geometry from The Secret of Kells and think in a slightly more three dimensional way to allow for more soft and fluid animation and we also developed a secondary style in the film, which is more soft and “watercolory” for certain scenes, using a rough pencil line and a torn paper edge. I think since we worked again with so many animators who knew our style and since we were going for a more organic and full approach to the animation that it went a lot smoother than Kells with less of a ramp up time for the animators. Fabian Erlinghauser, who was animation supervisor on Kells, was again in charge of animation and posing and he helped the newcomers to the “Saloon style” get up to speed quickly.
Tell me more about the animation.
The animation was done primarily in Tv Paint with some vehicles and effects done in Anime Studio pro and Blender. We made the posing here in Kilkenny with a small team of some new friends and many old friends from The Secret of Kells and other Saloon productions, then the animation was split between here in Cartoon Saloon, Noerlum in Denmark, and Studio 352 in Luxembourg. Both Noerlum and Studio 352 had excellent teams of animators and assistant animators, many of whom we had worked with before in the Saloon or whose work we had long admired. It was a pleasure to work with those teams.We even managed a couple of research trips to the west coast with some of the supervisors early in production.
We also found Tv Paint allowed for us to go faster to a first pose test and use some shortcuts at clean up and inbetween stage to allow us to have fuller animation with even higher quotas than on Kells. I know it wasn’t always easy for the teams but I feel we have achieved a very warm and full style of animation this time with lots of personality and fluidity even on our limited budget and short schedule.
Everything was pulled together by Digital Graphics in Belgium, who handled ink and paint, compositing, and digital effects, just as they did for many key sequences on The Secret of Kells. Again, it was a pleasure to work with old friends, and Serge Ume and his team had been involved since the very earliest development days; they were the ones who comped the trailer we made in 2009.
What about the music?
The music is a really important part of this film and we got to work again with Bruno Coulais and Kila as well as the singer Lisa Hannigan. Everyone already knew each other which helped a lot and Bruno and Kila were involved from even before we started storyboarding. It was an amazing ongoing collaborative process throughout the production and in the end the score combines traditional Irish music with an orchestral score.
Talk about your great ensemble cast: David Rawle, Brendan Gleeson, and Fionnula Flanagan.
I was delighted to be able to work with my first choice for the characters in every instance. David Rawle is the talented lead actor in the TV series MooneBoy, which we create the animation for and he really has a huge role in that his character is in almost every scene. Luckily, he is a very talented young man.
Brendan Gleeson and Fionnula Flanagan also signed on early and we were able to develop their characters with them in mind, both brought an amazing wealth of experience and professionalism to the parts. Brendan had played Abbot Cellach in The Secret of Kells and we were delighted he was willing to play the children’s father Conor in the film. Both he and Fionnula brought a lot of depth and insight to their roles that caused us to tweak some elements of their characters before going to animation.
Lisa Hannigan is more well known as a singer but she also played a speaking role in the film. I was also lucky to get to work with some of my favorite comedy actors — Jon Kenny and Pat Short who were very well known in Ireland as a comedy duo but who have since gone on to more dramatic roles in feature films. We also had Liam Hourigan, another great actor who played a few parts in The Secret of Kells. Lucy O’ Connell, a little girl from Kilkenny, played Saoirse. In keeping with the family feeling of the film, my 5-year-old nephew, Kevin, played an important role as well.
We really worked hard to make this film a family film with a special appeal to young audiences, testing it with children at every stage of development. I have been reassured after each screening that we are going in the right direction and I look forward to sharing the completed film with audiences later this year. Hopefully with the teaser trailer we can start to build some online buzz this summer as we build up to the premiere in the autumn.