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Handcrafting Magic: Dir. Tomm Moore on His Blissfully Beautiful Film ‘Song of the Sea’

Handcrafting Magic: Dir. Tomm Moore on His Blissfully Beautiful Film 'Song of the Sea'

Handcrafted animated magic. That’s the best way to describe Tomm Moore’s latest film “Song of the Sea,”
which premiered at TIFF earlier
this year and went on to screen AFI Fest this past November. In this
astonishingly beautiful new film Tomm Moore revisits Irish folklore
through the eyes
of two young siblings, Ben and Saoirse. At the center of the story
are the Selkies, mythical creatures that are human above ground and
seals under water.

Reimagining these ancient stories for a new audience was a
challenge that Moore was more than happy to face. Like with his Academy
Award-nominated feature
The Secret of Kells,”
this film is also filled with personal touches and with a heartwarming
atmosphere that translates into the gorgeous visuals. It’s a
rare treat to see a film that has been so delicately crafted in
every aspect.

Above all, Tomm Moore is a fan of animation that loves the medium
and his fellow creators dearly. Proof of this is his sincere excitement
over a “selfie”
he was able to take with animation legends John Lasseter and Hayao
Miyazaki last month at the Governors Awards. Miyazaki in particular has
made a great
impact in the way Tomm Moore approaches his work. Inspired by his
family and his cultural background, Moore has managed to create two
films that are
indelibly his own, and which set him apart from the financially
driven crowd.

Distributed by GKIDS, “Song of the Sea” recently
received 7 Annie Awards nominations including Best Feature Film, Best
Director, and Best
Musical Score. The film also ranks high in several of the major film
publications among the 20 animated features in the race for a Best
Animated Feature
Oscar nomination

I had the pleasure to sit down with Tomm Moore recently in Los
Angeles to talk about his latest animated masterpiece, life after the
Oscar nomination, and
Cartoon Saloon’s next project. This was undoubtedly one of the most
delightful chats this writer has had in recent memory.

READ MORE: “Song of the Sea” TIFF Review


Carlos Aguilar: When you were looking at Irish folklore for this
film, how did you decide what stories or elements would work with the
film you wanted
to make, especially since you wanted to tale a story aimed at
children?

Tomm Moore:
When we first started looking at doing something with the Selkies,
we noticed that in a lot of the stories the kids would often be a big
part of them. The
mother would disappear back into the sea, and sometimes they’d be a
passage at the end of the story where the kids would go down to the sea
and see a seal.
They’d always wondered if that was their mother as a seal. That’s
why I started thinking about the Selkies stories from the kids’ point of
view.

We had lots of different folktales we were looking at. I was really
passionate about using several different ones, but the script was
getting too bloated
and it was too much content. We decided to cut down to just the
folklore that we could use to strengthen the family story. We had a lot
of folklore, there
was almost too much to pick from and as there always is with Irish
folklore. There are so many versions of every story because every
storyteller tells the
story differently. We took a license and we said, “What folklore do
we have in this draft that really strengthens what’s happening with the
family?”

We came to the idea that the witch could be just an exaggerated
version of the Granny, and then the shanachie was going to be a version
of the kids’
grandfather but it became too complicated, so we decided against it.
It was all about simplifying and boiling it down to make kind of a
espresso of
folklore so that we could have something really strong that would
work internationally as well [Laughs].

Aguilar: Where did you find the folk story or stories that served as framework for “Song of the Sea”?

Tomm Moore:
Everywhere. A lot of these stories I heard while growing up and others I read in a book called The People of Sea, lent to me by my friend Ross Stewart. He was the Art Director in “The Secret of Kells.” I went on a trip to the coast of Ireland when I had started working on the “The Secret of
Kells
,” and I’ saw these seals that had been killed by the sea.
Then, when I was talking to the woman that we had rented the cottage
from, she said that
the fishermen had been killing the seals and blaming them for the
drop in fish stocks. She said, “That wouldn’t have happened years ago
because people had
these beliefs that seals could be Selkies and that they contained
the souls of people lost at sea.”

When I came back I talked to Ross Stewart and he loaned me the book I
mentioned, which was a collection of stories from the 1920s. The author
had gone
around Ireland and England collecting all the different beliefs
about seals. I was reading those and I was also reading some of Lady
Gregory’s works. From
the time of Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats there was a big movement to
try and capture the stories that had been just passed down in the oral
tradition. But
honestly, most folklore is only alive if you hear it, if it’s told,
because if it’s written down it becomes kind of a gospel. If it’s
written people think,
“That’s it! That’s the right version! Don’t’ change it.” Folklore is
always changing and evolving for new audiences. That’s how you keep it
alive.


Aguilar: While “The Secret of Kells” is a gorgeous film in its
own right, it seems like “Song of the Sea” had an even more ethereal and
fluid look to
it, almost like watercolors.

Tomm Moore:
A big part of that is Adrien Merigeau, who was the main background artist in “The Secret of Kells.” When I was developing “ Song of the Sea
and working on conceptual stuff, we really tried to blend our styles.
His natural style seemed very full of little
idiosyncratic design motifs. We started looking at the rocks and
carvings that I wanted to include, and we could see similarities between
his work and
those Pictish carving, so he started to incorporate that into it.

We started working really early, before we even had a script. We
were working on evolving this style, and we were hoping it would be a
bit more atmospheric
than in “The Secret of Kells,” we wanted some of that damped atmosphere that you get in Ireland. Adrien is great with watercolors, and I
had been playing a lot with watercolor as well. We felt it was the right approach. “The Secret of Kells” had a stained glass look, and we
wanted “Song of the Sea” to feel more like watercolors, more like a mystical fairytale.


Aguilar: What sort of visual reference did you and your team have to create the beautiful patterns and details in the film?

Tomm Moore:
It came from a lot of carving and rocks, and the mad sacred geometry
in the way they are arranged. It’s amazing stuff. It’s all Celtic and
Pre-Celtic from
the Picts. The word “picture” comes from the Picts, they were an
Irish tribe that used tattoo themselves with the images in all this
carvings. When the
Romans first found them, they realized they were called the Picts.
The word comes from the name the Romans used to refer to the drawings
the Picts had all
over themselves.

Aguilar: Tell me about your approach in terms of
character development. In this films character seem more delicate,
perhaps more personal.

Tomm Moore:
I based most of the characters on my family. Ben is based on my son.
He was 10 when I started working to work on it, now he is 19 now. Time
just flies when
you are making animation [Laughs]. Cu was based on a dog we had.
When Ben was younger we had a dog named Cu. My mother’s name is Bronagh,
and she looked a
lot like the character in the film. My characters are certainly very
personal.

These films are so hard to get made or even get off the ground, then
put the finance together, get the story right, that if you pack the
film full of
people that you love you can live with it longer. There is always a
bit of nostalgia. My nephew does Ben’s voice, as you can see it’s a real
family story.
I knew the characters needed to be softer so I looked at films like “My Neighbor Totoro” and other Japanese animation. The characters in “ The Secret of Kells” are quite geometric, and for this one I wanted to get something a bit softer and fuller.


Aguilar: Was the relationship between Saoirse and Ben also inspired by your personal experience?

Tomm Moore:
Yes, the same with Brendan and Ashley in “The Secret of Kells,”
both relationships are based on my relationship with my sister. I have
three sisters, but there was a certain sibling rivalry between me
and my next older sister. For sure that was influential in both films.

Aguilar: I love all the details that you have hidden
throughout the film: the animals in the background, the cameo on the
bus, or even inanimate
objects with a particular shape. Every frame is full of
beautiful small touches

Tomm Moore:
We spent a long time on that. We wanted to pack everything in there.
Adrien’s point of view made the backgrounds look almost like
illustrations. We set up
each shot like an illustration that would work in a book as well,
but ultimately we needed to have continuity. We did a lot of color
scripting. All the
details are little encouragements for people to watch the movie more
than once. [Laughs]

Aguilar: Where you concern about translating Irish folklore into a story that could work for a global audience?

Tomm Moore:
I think there is universality to the films. With “Song of the Sea
this was very deliberate because I knew that we had gone the
independent route, we didn’t go with a big studio. We made it for 5.5
million EUR, that’s very small compared to other films. “ The Book of Life”, which was the next “low-budget” animated film at The Hollywood Reporter roundtable that I was in, was $50 million.

For me that freedom meant that I could be more personal and more
true to our culture. At the same time you want people to be able to
enjoy it. There are
certain jokes in there that only Irish people will get, but for the
most part I wanted to take the approach in which somebody from anywhere
in the world
could watch it and enjoy it. I like that about “Totoro.” You get a glimpse of Japanese culture but at the same time anybody, anywhere,
could watch “Totoro” and enjoy it even if they don’t know anything about Japanese culture.

Aguilar: The film seems to take place in a not-so-distant past where 3D glasses and Walkmans where an awesome novelty.

Tomm Moore:
I was thinking it was like 1987, that’s when I was 10 years old. I
was nostalgic for that time and I decided to add those little touches.
[Laughs]

Aguilar: Music is such an important element in “Song of the
Sea.” Tell me about developing the score with the musicians and other
talent.

Tomm Moore:
With “The Secret of Kells” Bruno Coulais and Kila
did a great job but they work for a quite short neat the end of the
film. This time,
because the music was so important for the whole film, we asked them
to get involved really early on. Bruno and Kila started working on the
music for the
film while we were still writing the story. It was really great, we
would have little sessions in Ireland where they’ll get together and
work. The first
thing we had to work on was the song. We needed to get that right
and find a singer. We were lucky to find Lisa Hannigan, who could act
and sing. That was
the first challenge for this movie, working on the music at the same
time as the visuals.

Aguilar: With the advent of 3D animation, is it difficult to find the right people to work on more detailed-oriented 2D films?

Tomm Moore:
There is a little team, like in stop-motion. It’s a little team of people that we’ve put together who had worked on “The Secret of Kells,”

and some new people. I think it’s about finding people who are
really passionate about 2-D animation and want to work at a different
level on it. We are
lucky in Europe, there seems to be a lot of 2D animation happening.
There is still expertise and different studios are still making it.

Aguilar: Where things easier this second time around?

Tomm Moore: “The Secret of Kells
” was tough because it was the first one and we were trying to
figure stuff out. This time there were stressful moments but we were a
little bit more
battle-hardened, like the old team getting back together for one
more war [Laughs]

Aguilar: What do you love about 2D animation that 3D can’t provide? What would you say makes the medium particularly special?

Tomm Moore:
I think there is a language to drawing that’s special, just like with Ghibli’s latest, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” Even if you try
to fake the look of a drawing by doing something like “Paperman”, is not quiet the same as feeling that somebody really drew it. Also, I
think that if you watch a movie like “My Neighbor Totoro” and then you watch “Ponyo,” you wouldn’t know that they’ve been
made 20 years apart. But if you watch the original “Toy Story” and then “Toy Story 3,” you can really see a big
difference, you can see a big change in technology. 2-D has a certain timelessness.

Aguilar: You’ve mentioned Miyazaki’s work has been an
inspiration to you, what other animators or artists have influenced your
work?

Tomm Moore:
Richard Williams, who was for years trying to make “The Thief and the Cobbler.”
He was never able to finish it properly and then it got
taken off of him. It’s a sad story, but he was always such an
inspiration to me. When I was in college I saw a documentary about him
and you could see he
really had this great passion. He fully believed that animation
could be art and it didn’t have to been as just something commercial. He
spent over 25 year
working on that film, that’s more of an art piece than anything
else.

Also Genndy Tartakovsky, who is now doing CG stuff like “Hotel Transylvania,” but also worked on shows like “Samurai Jack
” and other greats tuff on TV. Then of course all the Eastern
European animated film, specially the Hungarian folktales. There is also
the Russian animator
Yuri Norshteyn, he is really amazing. He ‘s made some beautiful
short films, but he has also been working on this feature film for like
20 years. It’s
going to be beautiful if he ever finishes it. I suppose I get
inspiration from all over the place.


Aguilar: For you what’s the main difference between animated and
live actions films in terms of the creative process and the effect they
have on
audiences?

Tomm Moore:
Animation and live action are blending. I was recently talking to a
friend of mine who is an editor, he used to work in live-action and now
he works in
animation. He used the analogy that editing in live action is like
carving away a piece of marble but the shape is basically already there.
With animation
is more like clay because you keep building, changing, and adding
things.

I think animation is freer and I think that’s why live action filmmakers
like Spielberg or Cameron are using animation more in their films. “
Avatar” or “Gravity” are basically
animate films because they have so much CG animation in them. But I
think hand-drawn
animation can be something really special. If the character design
is quite simple it has the ability to allow people to easily relate to
the characters in
a special manner. A cartoon character isn’t a specific person. It
isn’t Tom Cruise or George Clooney playing the part, it’s a character
that could be you.
It’s easier for you to get drawn into it in a special way.

Aguilar: Would you ever work on a 3D animated film?

Tomm Moore:
I wouldn’t say no, but I’d have to find a way to adapt to it and I
don’t think I’d be interested in doing something like Pixar’s shiny,
perfect surfaces in
3D. To be honest with you, they do it so well and they spend so much
money on it, that unless you are doing it in Pixar there is no point
trying to match
it. It’ll just come out looking cheap, so you would have to find a
clever way to dot it. I like drawing. I like to spend the day drawing,
the process is
important for me. Drawing is a just a pleasure and it’s nice to keep
it going. I think we stand out a little bit from the crowd by being 2D.
There is less
and less of it that now we have like a badge or a brand that stands
out by being 2D.

Aguilar: “Song of the Sea” has received overwhelmingly
positive reviews and a great reception by audiences. I’m sure this must
be very rewarding and
encouraging.

Tomm Moore:
The more god reviews we get the more confidence we get, and the more
proud we are when we stand beside the film. The only problem is the
pressure, this was
like making a difficult second album and now we have to make sure
that the third film, and the next are good. But that’s a good problem to
have [Laughs]

Aguilar: What are you and Cartoon Saloon working on next?

Tomm Moore:
The next project that Cartoon Saloon is doing is going to be directed by Nora Twomey, who was the co-director in “The Secret of Kells,”
and it’s based on a book called The Breadwinner by Deborah
Ellis. It’s about a little girl in Afghanistan who has to pretend to be a
boy so she
can provide for her family. Her father is a storyteller. There is
going to be two different visual styles in it. The storytelling world
will use a
decorative style based on Afghan art and then there will be a
different style for the real world. It’s definitely challenging. I’m
also writing another
movie at the moment, it’ll be my third Irish-themed movie.

Aguilar: Seems like you are making a real brand or niche for yourself with Irish animated stories

Tomm Moore:
Yes, at least for myself, but I think Nora is going to make something very special and different.

Aguilar: How did the Oscar nomination for “The Secret of Kells” change things? Did it change things at all?

Tomm Moore:
It did, maybe not in the way that we had immediately expected. It
wasn’t like we suddenly had access to millions and millions or anything
like that,
because we weren’t willing to become part of the studio system and
make a movie that would work in that system. They spend so much money on
those films
that if you get involved in that system you don’t know if your film
will ever get made because it’s such a risk to make them. You could
develop something
for years and it might never get made. And if they do make it has to
be very accessible and it has to be a certain type of product. When
they make them
well they are beautiful, I was blown away by “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

But for me, the freedom that you have to give up by trying to get
into that system wasn’t worth it. The Oscar nomination might have opened
doors to do
something like that, but instead we decided to go back to Ireland
and stay pretty small. What the nomination did instead was giving us a
professional
armor. It gave us a certain credibility and people took us more
seriously after that. It also opened doors in terms of actors. We could
now get voices that
we really wanted. It helped with raising the finance, even though we
ended up with a very small budget, less even that in “ The Secret of Kells.”

After the economic crash there was less money to put together, but
the money that was out there we were able to attract because of the
Oscar nomination.
Besides, I got to join the Academy, I got to meet Miyazaki the other
night, and there are so many benefits that just go on and on [Laughs].


Aguilar: I think “Song of the Sea” is absolutely marvelous, but
for those who haven’t had the chance to see, why should they flock to
see it?

Tomm Moore:
I think it’s offering something different. I think what we tried to do –
and I hope we’ve been successful at – is make a movie that is something
like “ Totoro,” something like “E.T.” or “Goonies.” We wanted to make something like those movies from the 80s
that weren’t a sequel or a prequel. They were just a complete new adventure in themselves. “Song of the Sea” has a kind of melancholy that
most animated films seem not having much of anymore. I hope it offers something special.

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