We’d arrived a bit late for the screening, and as we settled down to the human jungle sounds enveloping the Décavision in Annecy, we waited with some anticipation in the darkened cinema for The Secret of Kells to start. We’d seen the posters, read the blurb – what was in store for us?
We needn’t have worried. The film follows a young boy, Brendan, on a tale of discovery and adventure as he visits an enchanted forest and meets the fairy Aisling. But as the Viking hordes close in, the future of the book of Kells is in jeopardy, and it falls to Brendan to save it. With stunning, unique visuals, the film works for children and adults alike; a charming, atmospheric, and moving journey through medieval Ireland.
Brother Aidan, The Secret of Kells
We caught up with the director Tomm Moore, co-founder of Cartoon Saloon and a man of many talents. Sipping orange juice on the sunny terrace of a café at the back of the Bonlieu, we discussed production, secret forgotten languages, and the drawing he’d just been given by Bill Plympton.
Tomm: I’m going to be audacious and do a drawing for Bill Plympton. [he draws in long, fluid strokes, as the conversation continues]
Q: How did The Secret of Kells come about?
T: Well I had the first idea for it when I was in college 10 years ago. We set up Cartoon Saloon and we had the idea we were going to make this feature, which was quite different, back then.
Q: The Books of Kells is real, so how much of the story is true?
T: Pangur Ban was a real character. That cat really existed. It was a poem we learnt about in school in old Gaelic. Brother Aidan says that poem in the end credits. Pangur Ban means whiter than white in Gaelic. Abbot Cellach really existed but that’s about all we know.
When we met our co-producer Didier Brunner (he was just finishing Belleville Rendez-Vous) we had a different story but something like the art direction that we have now. Until then the main character was Brother Aidan. Didier said he liked the project but felt we should make it more universal. So we focused on Brendan. We worked with Fabrice Ziolkowski on the screenplay. Aisling came in late and ended up being everyone’s favourite character.
We called the main character after my son, Brendan. D’you know Ogham writing? [He doodles an example, short strokes cutting across a straight line] Brendan the character’s hair says Ben, which is what we call my son for short. So all the animators had to write Ben over and over. Now he’s really tall and he has long hair and he’s a surly teenager. I’m taking him round the festivals.
Aisling and Brendan, The Secret of Kells
My honest feeling is the film takes off when Aisling comes into it. When she turns the cat into the mist cat. Aisling’s song is my favourite sequence.
Q: Tell us more about the Music…
T: That was probably the most successful part of the co-production. Bruno Coulais was the composer and Kila is an Irish band we’d wanted to work with. Bruno wrote the music, he worked on it for a long time and then he came over to Ireland and Kila performed it. It happened in about 3 or 4 days. Some bits we left for Kila to do their own thing. We had an Irish band, Irish musicians and a French composer. So it was a nice collaboration.
Q: The film looks really beautiful, what was the idea behind it?
T: It was based around Irish medieval art, the illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells. We looked at things in that world. We wanted to make something really distinct. Because it’s an independent film you might as well do something really different. It’s all like medieval art, really decorative, lots of details. And just the movement to lead the eye and the colour rather than usual theatrical staging. When there’s danger we pull out the colour and throw in some perspective and angles. When the Viking attack it’s more like fascist art, all red and black.
All of the main characters are hand drawn and scanned in. The Vikings and the pagan snake god, Crom Cruich, are CG. Most of the backgrounds are hand painted in Photoshop.
In the Forest we were able to free up. So we did all the triptychs. It is mainly hand painted in our studio in Kilkenny. It had to have a special sound as well. We had French sound designers so we had to make sure that the animal and birds sounded Irish.
Q: What do French birds sounds like?
T: Le tweet, le tweet?
Q: How was it working across different countries?
T: That was hard, really hard. We were making a film across 5 countries with 200 people. The first stage was the way we always work. We did all the pre-production, 20 minutes of animation in the studio, all the storyboards, most of the backgrounds. The second part of the production was working with all the other studios and showing them how to work in our style, and that was a challenge but we did it.
Q: What would you like people to take from the film?
T: What was important to me was to be more authentic to the Irish legends. An awful lot have been done in cheesy ways. But if people get caught up in the emotion of it I’m happy.
A lot of people in Ireland didn’t know what the Book of Kells was, which is crazy because it’s our national treasure. People have tattoos of Celtic art but they don’t realise where it’s come from.
I don’t want to be telling people what to think but if they do understand that art is important, even in difficult times… These types of things are worth preserving.
Q: You’ve directed commercials, worked on TV series, illustrated children’s books… What would your dream job be?
T: I’d like the get the balance right between comics and animation. I really like comics but it’s hard to make a living doing them. I’d love to keep making feature films. I really do think if I won the lotto, I’d keep making features. It’s hard though.
Q: Do you have UK distribution lined up?
T: There’s no distribution in the UK yet. Disney distributed it in Ireland and Gebeka in France. We got in the US distribution and Canadian distribution after Cannes. It will be a limited release early in 2010.
Q: What’s your next project?
T: The Song of the Sea. It’s set in modern times. I’ve already started a blog about it.
It’s about a little Selkie girl, half human half seal, she’s the last one. She’s trying to get back to the sea. It’s the end of the time of the fairies. All the folklore creatures are corrupted by the modern world. They don’t want to go back but her song is what is going to bring them back to their own world and let the stories be stories. Kind of a sad story, but in a nice way.
The Song of the Sea
Q: Any words of wisdom for young animators?
T: It depends on their ambition. If they’re not too concerned about making a living I think they should go for it. [Laughs] You can live on beans on toast. Perseverance, keep at it. keep making your own stuff. Now you can really make a presence for yourself online. You can make your film and have people see it.
And with that we thanked Tomm and left him putting the finishing touches to that drawing for Bill Plympton.
The next day, The Secret of Kells won the audience award for feature film at Annecy. And we wish it the best of luck in the UK. Catch its UK premiere tonight on the 20th of June, or on Monday the 22nd of June at the Edinburgh International Film Festival - it really is a great film.
Have you seen The Secret of Kells? Tell us what you thought in the comments!