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Interview: Tomm Moore on "Song of the Sea" and the Oscar Race

Tomm Moore, 38, is enjoying his second Oscar nomination for Animated FeatureOne of the semi-unexpected joys of the birth of the Animated Feature Oscar category in 2001 has been the steady stream of international cartoons that the Oscars have spotlighted. The first truly big surprise was a nomination for a film few had heard of at the time called The Secret of Kells (2009) -- that "what's that?" nomination has become something of a tradition in the category since then. The Oscar nomination for that hypnotic and singularly gorgeous tribute to Irish folklore did a lot to put Cartoon Saloon, an Irish animation studio, on the map.

Cartoon Saloon's co-founder and Kells co-director Tomm Moore has crafted another magical Irish winner in Song of the Sea, an adventure about a boy who discovers his little sister is a "selkie" and holds the key to saving all the faerie folk who are slowly turning to stone (long story!). 

I had the pleasure of speaking to Moore by phone where he was in San Francisco on his Song of the Sea tour and about to meet with Pete Docter (Up). He peppers his conversation with plentiful references to other animation giants (also sharing a story about hanging out with the Big Hero 6 team). It all paints a wonderful picture of a very tight mutual-appreciation niche within Hollywood's larger ecosystem.

We talked Oscars, storytelling, and Cartoon Saloon's next project...

NATHANIEL:  This is your second time nominated for the big show. Does it feel different this time?

TOMM MOORE:  For sure yeah. It’s more fun because we know a little bit more what to expect and am able to enjoy it a bit more rather than just be like “what?”

NATHANIEL: It’s been five years since your last movie.

TOMM: In the meantime I’ve joined the Academy myself and I understand a little bit better how it all works. 

Moore's favorite film of 2014 and the responsibility of kids movies after the jump...

If it’s going to take five years every time, we're not going to get that many movies from you in your lifetime!

[Laughter] Animation directors don’t make that many movies in their career. I actually think I’m doing pretty good at the moment. It’s a long process. You have to really enjoy the process rather than be to focused on the finished results.

NATHANIEL: The reason I complain is that your movies are like fresh air. In America we’re stuck in one specific style and form of animation -- 3D CGI. It’s wonderful to see other aesthetics. 

TOMM MOORE: Awesome movies are getting made here but I guess some of them are getting rushed. Maybe they’re trying to make too many too fast? One of the things about timeless animations over the years — they took so long and were crafted over a long period of time and you can kind of feel it.

You have your own studio, Cartoon Saloon. Do you feel responsibility to keep everyone working?

To a certain extent. We made a rule for ourselves about the movies: we didn’t want to be just feeding the beast — you get stuck in a loop as a business owner so we do try to keep a course in place all the time. A lot of old friends who are working in other studios tend to come back and help when we start a movie.

The movie that we’re working on at the moment, directed by Nora Twomey, is called The Breadwinner based on a little girl in Afghanistan who pretends that she’s a boy so she can provide for her family.  It’s really different for us. We also make our own tv show called Puffin Rock and we’re on our second season of that as well.

Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells have roots in folklore. But since you're an artist do the images come before the stories for you? How does it start? 

Yeah, they definitely come from images we’d like to explore visually. Kells actually came in a round about way. We were looking for a project to showcase Irish art and we looked at the Book of Kells as a high point of visual art in Ireland and we found the story by doing research. 

Song of the Sea came from selkie stories. But I definitely had a lot of strong visual images from the start — not that all of them made it into the movie but it was a tone or a feel or an atmosphere I wanted to create and was pursuing from the start.

With Song of the Sea, you provided the story but you have a screenwriter. So how does the partnership work?

It was fairly organic. When I first started working with Will Collins, I was doing concepts and sketches. He’d work on the draft and we’d have story meetings and storyboardings.

Did you always have that Wizard of Oz device where the people in the little boy’s life are also the characters in the story? Like the Grandma as the Owl witch grandma. And the old fairy as the guy that drives the ferry.

TOMM: The orinal story outline wasn’t as — we came to but we had it in an early draft and if we realized if we made it parallel to their world it gave us a unique way to hold the story up. The storyteller, the ferry guy, was originally the grandfather but the main problem with the story was it always seemed a bit long so we had to strip it down and focus on the family and the emotional arc. 

Well the movie is beautiful. It's so exciting to watch. My favorite is the Owl Witch - I have this thing at The Film Experience where I honor best villains of the year and I had to include her. It was such a fresh way to approach a real emotional problem -- though it's a kid's story that's a very adult concept, the refusal to deal with emotions that you need to work through. 

Thanks very much. I remember movies like E.T.  The Neverending Story, and Goonies -- some of those movies from the 80s when I was a kid -- watching them again when I got older there’s another level. They’re truly  family films - the kids can watch but there’s a level for adults. Classic Disney is like that, too. Bambi. They weren’t just candy for kids to keep them quiet.

Have you seen all your Oscar competitors for Best Animated Feature?

Oh yeah! Amazing stuff. I was actually very surprised to be in the lineup this year. I didn’t think there was any space for us and I thought if a GKids movie was going to get nominated it was going to be Kaguya. I think that's my favorite movie of the year. I was pleasantly surprised.

Moore with the directors of Big Hero 6. They've become fast friendsI was looking for you in that Oscar luncheon photo but I couldn't find you! Who'd you get to meet?

TOMM: I look at that photo and I think of how predominantly white and male is. Anyway…

 I was chatting to Laura Poitras the director of the amazing Citizen Four. I also got to meet Michael Keaton which was a kick because as a kid I saw him as Batman of course and Birdman is phenomenal. I got to talk to Richard Linklater a little bit. It was fun. It’s always a kick. The first time I was nominated I made a lot of friends in Pixar and Disney. This time it’s a little different. It’s great to hang out with the guys from The Boxtrolls and Big Hero 6. I’ve known Dean DeBlois [How to Train Your Dragon 2] for a long time. It was great to see him nominated, too. He was a big supporter of The Secret of Kells.

But the real honor was to shake hands and spend a little time with Isao Takahata. I thought Kaguya was a masterpiece.  

Princess Kaguya is not for children at all in a way. Would you do something more adult? 

I think family movies are important. I still think kids movies are more challenging and a bigger responsibility than making movies where you let yourself off the hook. I like trying to remember an audience. Your movie might be one of the first movies they’ve ever seen and that’s a big responsibility.

Good answer! [Laughter] Obviously Song of the Sea uses traditional animation but the luminosity has to come from a computer right? 

It’s really a hybrid. We couldn’t make these without computers. We manage to make them with a pretty small crew and a small budget for this type of film. We try and use the best of both words. We hand draw all the backgrounds and character animation but the computer adds texture and we can do a drawing of a car and break it up in the computer and it’s kind of like a painting that’s moving.  It’s a hybrid approach. 

Well it's beautiful and even better it doesn’t look like anybody else's movies. Laika and Cartoon Saloon are my favorite animation studios for this very reason at the moment.

Laika are amazing, yeah.

Would you ever try another form of animation like stop motion or are you strictly a line guy? 

I have tried other things but I'm mainly interested in what you can do with hand-drawn animation and I’m interested in drawing. It’s one of those amazing things  —  The more you specialize, the more it opens up. The Princess Kaguya really made me inspired to see hand-drawn go in a whole new direction. I’d like to explore some of what Takahata did in that where he let the line be extra expressive. There’s an expressiveness in the way he draws the character. It's not just what they’re doing or how they move but how the lines become rougher or calmer depending on how the character is feeling.  

There's just so much you can do in animation. I’m happy to explore. 

interview index 
more animated films 
more on Song of the Sea 

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Reader Comments (4)

Thank you. Nice piece to read.

February 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Can't wait to see it.

February 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Nat, I believe he's directly below Eddie Redmayne in the luncheon photo, two rows lower.

February 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I loved this, and I love this movie! Thank you!!

February 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

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