When “The Secret of Kells” was announced as an Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature the collective response from pundits, film buffs and just about everyone else was, “Huh?”
Now they’re finding out. In the wake of its terrific opening, hauling in $39,826 at the IFC Center to post the highest per screen average of any film last weekend, viewers have begun to discover director Tomm Moore’s beautiful hand drawn work. It’s a compelling blend of impressionistic and cubist sensibilities that depicts a young boy’s coming of age amid the terror and upheaval of Dark Ages Ireland. amNewYork spoke with the filmmaker.
In the age of photo-realistic animation from Pixar and the like, where do you see yourself and your company Cartoon Saloon?
I guess we’re on the outside knocking on the door, looking to come in, but what I’m happy about is I look at the other nominees in our category this year [and] there’s two stop-motion movies and we’re one of two hand-drawn movies, so I’m hoping … things have come around again. Hopefully, we’re part of a resurgence of traditional techniques, but only time will tell.
What is it about the 9th century that lent the period to the imaginative, abstract approach you’ve taken in the film?
For us when we were looking [at material], I wanted to make something that was Irish and looked a bit different than what [had been] coming out of America or Japan, the main powerhouses of animation. We said, “Our culture was really rich at that time, we have a lot of mythology from that time and the history lent itself to a dramatic story with the Vikings and everything.” I think the 9th century was a pretty subjective time; people’s imaginations were crossing over into reality. They didn’t know about the world beyond the edge of their village, so I think it makes sense to do an animation in that period.
What styles did you draw on to come up with the film’s distinct look?
The time period that we set the film in was pre-Renaissance, so the artwork that we were looking at was pre-Renaissance. We were looking at, besides the manuscripts and the tapestries you see in the forest [in the film] … things like wood blocks and wood cuts for the Vikings, to show them being a little bit more primitive. … More magical stuff [we made curvier], more like the calligraphy we were looking at. It was just a question of looking at the art styles from that period and trying to adapt it to animation.
The film is animated and ostensibly for kids, but it’s genuinely scary. What’s the key to finding that balance?
I think a lot of people when they think they’re doing stuff for kids, they put on the kids gloves a bit too much. The movies that inspired me to be an animator, like “Bambi,” they deal with heavy themes in terms of a serious threat. I just felt the story we were telling wasn’t a “Care Bears” movie, you know? It was real history. The Vikings really were a danger at the time. But aside from that, we were dealing with this kind of mythic structure and the real fairy tales and the real myths that we were looking at have that element of danger to them, and I think that’s important, even in kids’ stories.