“Art and culture protect us in difficult times”
by Fabien Lemercier
- Interview in Paris with the Irish director of The Secret of Kells, who also initiated production on the project through his co-owned company, Cartoon Saloon
Cineuropa: Where did you get the idea for The Secret of Kells [+see also:
interview: Didier Brunner
interview: Tomm Moore
interview: Viviane Vanfleteren
Tomm Moore: It goes back to 1999, in my university days. A friend and I came up with the idea of making an animated adaptation of Irish Celtic and medieval art. We immediately turned our attention to the Book of Kells. We wanted to see how far we could go in transforming it into something unique, in a style completely different from other international animated films.
In 2001, we presented a pilot project at Cartoon Movies and Didier Brunner – of French company Les Armateurs – liked it. We worked on the screenplay until 2003 to make the story more universal and more closely targeted at young audiences. The character of Brendan became more central and we introduced more magic elements inspired by Irish legends, such as those involving fairy Aisling and Crom Cruach. But we always wanted to maintain a certain balance – which wasn’t easy – by including more adult themes.
At the heart of the story is the survival of art against barbarism.
It’s unfortunate, but people don’t protect the treasures of their culture, which is in the process of declining. The idea that art and culture protect us in difficult times is very important for me. And the fact that the story looks at creative acts in difficult circumstances made it easy for us to draw parallels with the act of trying to make this film. The characters’ stories and the enthusiasm of launching into something new by adapting medieval art kept me focused during all the years I spent trying to get production off the ground.
What were your guiding principles in terms of the graphics?
Once the screenplay was written, we made a storyboard, which subsequently changed a great deal with the visual development. Our original idea was to use all the possibilities of medieval art with a sort of perspective that could be described as 2-and-a-half D.
We also tried to reproduce as faithfully as possible the colours from the Book of Kells. Essentially, everything is very flat-tinted and it’s only when danger is present that it turns red, black and white, in a very expressionist style with, for example, large shadows. This creates a strong contrast with the medieval art aspect and it reinforces the idea of situations so dangerous that nobody is able to see colours any more.
You developed the graphics along the way in order to distance it from the Disney style.
Yes, that’s true. At the outset, we were particularly interested in the background and, as we worked on this aspect, we were influenced by painting. The animators and I had begun to approach the characters in a more traditional way. But the producers encouraged us to take things as far as we could with the characters as well.
And that’s what we did, entirely in 2D and by developing the medieval art aspect as much as possible. It was a real challenge portraying the characters in a very stylised way because, in animated films, they don’t act but depend entirely on an emotional response.
What is your opinion on the 2D versus 3D debate?
When I worked solely as an animator, I had the impression that 2D was in the process of disappearing. But as a director and producer, I realised that 2D was perfectly suited to this project. 2D animation isn’t dead; it’s similar to stop motion (image-by-image volume animation) and craft animation, and more interesting films could be made in 2D. It’s a decision to be made, a real choice, but 2D animation offers more possibilities than before.
Which European animated films influenced your work?
We drew our inspiration from films like Belleville Rendez-Vous [+see also:
film profile] and Kirikou, which were made in Europe and proved that we could do something different compared to the Studios system. And Michel Ocelot gave us some advice. For we had to do the best we could on a rather limited budget and in the end we made a very beautiful film.