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In Conversation with Tomm Moore (part 2)

Continuing our interview with Song Of The Sea director Tomm Moore. In this second part we went into detail on the film a little more, and although there aren't any big spoilers, if you want to avoid any plot details at all you might want to wait until you've seen the film. Read part 1 here

AFA: The characters behave in quite unique ways, and rather than make big theatrical gestures like many animated movies, a lot is done with subtle gestures like darts of the eyes or things like that. Could he just talk a little about how that acting style developed at the studio and throughout production?

TM:When I was younger I really wanted to be an animator and I hero worshipped the big American animators. It was Nora who pointed out that there's an American acting style that you see in a lot of the animated features.[Whereas] In Miyazaki films it's much more understated, and it's much less in-your-face. The animators aren't all show-boating. I wouldn't say that the American animation is over animated but it's a different style- it makes me think of you know the TV show Friends or something like that? Everything's emoted and they use their hands a lot.

Everything's Up to Eleven..

Yeah, if you go into Frozen, it's great fun but it's all like [American accent] “HELLO!” “WHATEVER!”.. and everything’s really animated I suppose. Whereas that's just not the way that people in this part of the world behave. We tried to tone down and make it more subtle. That was really one of the most interesting things about directing the animators. Fabian Erlinghauser, he's an old friend of mine since college, but he was the assistant director in charge of the animation and that was the big thing that we had to keep... I think a lot of animators usually get patted on the back for anything that looks like Glenn Keane did it or something. So you had to tell them no, you don't get any extra points for doing big broad animation! That's why people really enjoyed it whenever they got to characters like Macha or The Seanachai, because then they could really have fun and do a really broad character. And do it with more contrast because not everybody was acting with the same mannerisms.

The opening of the film is a bit of an emotional gut-punch with the night of Saoirse's  birth. I'm not sure if you got a chance to see other animated films of 2014 (your fellow nominees for example), but it seems to be a bit of a trend.

Yeah! I was so surprised, I remember seeing Big Hero 6, right after our premiere of Song Of The Sea in Los Angeles. I literally ran up the road to the El Capitan theatre to see Big Hero 6! There's definitely a trend in that, and then we have How To Train Your Dragon 2. Maybe it's Up? I sort of blame Up, because In 2009, Secret Of Kells was playing in the festivals, I went to see Up and thought "this is the winning team". Because if you can start the movie out and people are already so engaged, people are already crying at the end of that opening sequence and I always thought that was just amazing, that an animated film can have that impact on audiences of all ages . I think that upped the game, upped the bar for animated feature directors. So maybe that's where it came from, I don't know?

Do you think there’s something about animation as a medium that lends itself to such emotional storytelling in children’s film?

Yeah, it's stuff that might be intolerably painful or mawkish in live-action. I always thought that with Grave Of The Fireflies the Takahata film, that if that was in live-action it would be unbearable. There's something about the animation being both kind of heightened emotionally but also giving you enough sense of distance that you can bear it.

The film deals with some very honest and complex emotions. For example, at the start of the movie, Ben seems to blame Saoirse for taking their mother away, and Conor quite blatantly shows more affection for Saoirse than Ben. Did you ever find trouble pitching these elements at the start?

No, with the way we make these films, I'm really lucky it's a kind of coalition of... we looked at other funding methods but it would've meant ceding a lot of control to executive producers and whatever, and the way we make these films I kind of have the final say. So I'm really lucky that way, it's all just co-producers so most of the time.. no, 100% of the time, all the partners were totally on board with that vision that we were going for. And that's why we make them like that, for smaller budgets, with small teams scattered around Europe. It's a way to not to have to appeal to the broadest [audience]. I have so much respect for the guys who do those big movies, I don't want to knock them in any way. They're responsible for hundreds of million dollars of shareholder's money, they have to make really broad, wide appeal films, and they just can't take the same risks that a small film can.

I also think in Continental Europe people are more open to animation..

Right from the start whenever I talked to partners nobody tried to get on board who wanted to change it, because everyone that we got involved with, we'd either worked with before, whether it was on Secret Of Kells or another project, so we all shared the same taste. And I told them that Totoro and Into The West, the Irish film, were touchstones, so once they knew that was what I was heading for they knew the kind of film I was trying to make.

Interesting that you said Totoro was a touchstone, because I was wondering if it was the case. It feels a lot like it in the way that the spirit world is just beneath the surface of mundane life

Yeah! That was the thing that I felt that that my grandparents lived in a world that was like that. My grandmother lived her life fully believing all that kind of stuff about fairies alongside a strong Catholic belief, alongside being a practical down-to-earth woman living on a farm (laughs). I think that was something that was nice to dive back into, and to look at that.

How do you feel about being compared to Miyazaki?

It's nice isn't it? It's such an honour to be compared it all. I think it's a bit premature, it's only two films in, and I've got plenty of opportunities to fuck it up! (laughs)

I think there's definite similarities though...

Yeah there's an influence, More than on Secret Of Kells, on Song Of The Sea Miyazaki was a massive influence. I discovered his films pretty late, I didn’t grow up on them or anything, I had to go to college to really discover them. So I would love if that type of filmmaking became more popular in the Anglosphere. So, I'm definitely influenced by him in a major way- even Granny's car is a Citroen 2CV and that was convenient because it looked a bit like an owl, because it's the car Miyazaki famously drives and puts in most of his films, so there's lots of little nods of the hat.

The Bit with the Wind Dogs was particularly..

Yeah, it was one of the most debated sequences, because it just felt right, but it probably would have made more sense with Macha, being the Owl Witch, to have her Owls carry them back but it just felt right, like we needed an ET on the bike, or Catbus type of moment there. That's how the story evolved. Some of it was just concept art that we drew and I'd go to Will and say “this has to be in film!”. I watched a Documentary about how Miyazki writes his films and it's really similar, he has a clothesline of visual images he knows he's gonna have, and then he storyboards towards those. So it's a much more animationy way of writing I think.

Obviously another connection is that it's hand-drawn animation. Has this always been your preferred medium or do you have ambitions to one day try stop-motion or CG?

Yeah, we try everything and it's just that the final look is more timeless. I moved from paper to TV Paint on Song Of the Sea- a little bit reluctantly, I was one of the last people to move over to TV Paint. But once I moved over I was a convert, 'cause I could still do the type of full-animation I love and I didn’t have scanning to do! I still paint the backgrounds on paper but you do a lot of work on Photoshop afterwards. That hand-drawn look I think it suits the type of stories we're telling, and it kind of sets the studio's work apart. It probably limits our commercial appeal a bit, I think a lot of people go to CG-animated movies because there's so many good ones from people like Pixar, that you're able to make a lesser one and people will still trust it because it looks a bit like Pixar. Whereas I suppose our stuff, it's both good and bad that it sets it apart. But for me that hand-drawn looks is so timeless, and I see the old Toy Stories and I love them as stories and films, but they.. age. The software has improved so much, and it's hard to imagine that it will improve much more, but as long as they're chasing that realistic look, they'll always keep dating, last year’s or two or three years ago's films. Hand-drawn animation doesn't date, I mean you watch Bambi now and it still looks as fresh and unique as in 1940s.

And Song Of The Sea was your second Oscar Nomination. How did it feel to be recognised again?

I remember that the days the Nominations were going to come out I couldn't handle it because everyone was expecting it, whereas nobody expected if for Secret of Kells. Which was maybe a bit nicer because it was just a total surprise that came out of nowhere. Whereas this time people were waiting to see if we would make the list. But I didn't think we had a chance, so I just had to hide away. So I had to head off to Castle Park here in town and have a sandwich, because I thought it just wouldn't happen. I thought we'd have to make two or three more films before we'd get a nod again. Especially with Lego Movie and Book Of Life and so many great movies, I just didn't think there was any space for us. So I was really shocked, really delighted. It was a massive endorsement again from the members of the branch. I'm actually in The Academy after Secret Of Kells was nominated so I'm a little bit more in the inside, I understand how it all works. And it hasn't dampened my enthusiasm at all because what it's shown me is that nomination is really a win, because the Branch are all animators, or directors or people involved in animation that vote for the nomination. So it's really your peers, its the best of the best in the industry in the Sates that are nominating you. So it means a lot.

I guess you must have caught some of the controversy about Animation at the Oscars..

With The Lego Movie?

The Academy as a whole not really understanding..

Oh, that stuff, I think that's where it happens, once it goes beyond our branch.. the Academy is a huge amount of actors and make-up artists and technicians and stuff like that. And the way it works it it's not a jury of your peers after that it's a bit of a popularity contest, because you're talking to such a diverse [crowd]. Yeah, I was really heartened, because I really didn't think we had a chance to win it, but as we got closer to the night I felt we were in the running, because Richard Linklater was there and he said “I Love your film”, Morgan Spurlock, people from really diverse branches saying that they were going to vote for us, and that they really loved it, and even people like Pete Docter from Pixar were saying you guys have a real shot at it because it's really one of the best ones in the running. So I felt heartened, so maybe those grouchy old.. I don't know who they were, maybe they were more of an anomaly than the typical members.

And Then coming up you've got 'The Prophet', which looks beautiful. How did you come to be involved with that?

That was a funny one because I signed up for that and I though we'd have finished it before we started Song of the Sea, but as usual everything got delayed and I ended up making at the same time. As Song Of The Sea. So it was tough, because I was getting up really early in the morning to do a few hours on that and then spent the rest of the day on Song. And I co-directed it with Ross Stewart, who was the art director on Kells and he's co-directing my next feature with me now, so that was a little trial run for that. It was nice.. it was one of those teams you couldn't say no to. Roger Allers was directing it, and people like Bill Plympton and Joan Gratz and people were involved and you're like “I have to be involved with that, I can't say no to that!” So we made it happen..

Both with your involvement with that and Nora Twoemy's Breadwinner are half a world away from what you've done before..so are you trying to branch out?

The Prophet came to me. I think it was Roger, or maybe Salma [Hayek]? I think it was Roger, saw Kells and suggested me for that, but it was nice to be in a different realm. And with Breadwinner, I think it's gonna be really fantastic, it's pretty deep in production now, and it's pretty exciting to see it all come together.

Can you give us any hints of anything you might be working on next?

I'll tell you what I tell everyone, that's just the basic premise because I'm still doing concept designs and storyboards so we don't have the whole film figured out. But basically it's called Wolf Walkers. It's set during the English Civil War in the mid 1600s but Oliver Cromwell decided he was going to symbolically tame Ireland by killing all the Wolves. So he sent all these hunters over, and if they killed a certain amount of wolves they got a bit of land. So the main protagonist is this little boy from England who comes over with his Dad, and he arrives actually near where I live in Killkenny. And he runs up against that around here wolves weren't seen as baddies, they were actually seen as people. The belief was that wolves were people that St Patrick had put a curse on when they wouldn't convert from paganism. So a lot of people believed that wolves.. especially around the Killkenny area.. were people. So that's the kind of premise! I won't tell you any more than that..

It's interesting, it sounds a lot like a lot of Japanese mythology about wolves..

It's still that transformation thing, one thing flows from the other. The Selkie stories really made me tap into all the mythology around transformation.. There's werewolves but this is something different, the stories around here were that when people fell asleep, they almost could kind of live as an animal in their sleep. And it's really interesting to me. And Native American mythology too, it's all really similar. It's interesting stuff to dive into.. but who know what I'll end up when it's finally released but that’s where it's at now.

Well it sounds very exciting! Finally, do you have any advice to anybody who reading who wants to go into animation themselves?

I suppose it depends.. if you want to be an animator it's just about drawing. The software changes all the time, but if your drawing and your skills are strong enough, that'll carry you through any change in software. The other think is just persistence, just showing up, meeting people. I think the tendency in a lot of young people- and I was the same- was to stay in your bedroom and draw and not really meet other people, but joining YIF was the making of me, because I learnt how to collaborate. And I learnt that's a big part of animation. So teaming it up with other people is very important for anyone thinking of getting into the business because that's what it's all about, it's the art of teamwork as much as anything else.

Thanks to Tomm, all at Cartoon Saloon and StudioCanal for setting this up. Song Of The Sea is in UK and Irish cinemas now, don't miss it! Additional questions by Dan Hamman.