An Interview with – Tomm Moore
Tomm Moore is an Irish illustrator, director and is the co-founder of Cartoon Saloon. His first feature film, The Secret Life of Kells, was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature Film in 2010. The follow up, The Song of the Sea, is currently in production. He spoke to Film Ireland about making an animated feature and coordinating an international co-production.
How do you communicate your vision?
In animation there are some set conventions that can be helpful in communicating what you want – I’ve sort of adapted myself to this method over the years!
Standard practice is to make a ‘graphic pitch bible’ right at the beginning of the financing stage; this usually includes a story synopsis and illustrations of characters and locales to give an impression to funders of the project’s look and feel. It’s the template for the movie in many ways and the starting point for the visuals. We can use it as a reference once a project goes into pre-production.
For short films this usually forms the backbone of the application to whatever funding body is relevant and doesn’t usually undergo many changes if funding is secured. For features such The Secret of Kells (which went through a lot of changes as it was developed over the years) we made several different ‘pitch bibles’ with the designs evolving and changing as needed.
This document, together with maybe a pitch trailer or animation tests and some director’s notes, is what I use to try to communicate my vision for a project prior to production. Plus probably a load of enthusiastic babbling to anyone interested in listening!
How do you approach development, rehearsals, production, post-production, storyboards, script, actors etc.?
In animation, especially large productions split over various countries, the problem can be similar to the kid’s game Telephone: you might say something into someone’s ear at the start of the line and the version you hear from the last person is laughably unrecognisable! My approach to directing has been to try to minimise this problem as far as possible and try to have stylistic consistency from start to finish, despite the fact that we are obliged to share the work between so many countries.
For The Secret of Kells, which was my first feature, I used a few tricks I had learned doing commercials, such as working with the art director and main background artists to create scene illustrations right at the start. These were intended to look like final screenshots, but they were done right at the beginning of the production. This allowed me to have a blueprint that, in addition to the storyboard, I could point to during the four years of production. It showed how a finished frame should look for each scene and was very helpful in communicating the specific style we wanted. Also, I worked closely with the character designer to turn the concept designs into final model sheets. This is fairly standard in animation but I found we needed very detailed and extensive sheets as the work had to be split between France, Belgium, Brazil and Hungary.
For the voices and music my co-director, Nora Twomey, made a rough recording of all the principle voices and cut together a rough version of the music track based on the previous work of the composer Bruno Coulais and Kila. This was added to the animatic (a moving version of the storyboard) and gave us the timing and a very rough cut of the whole movie.
The voices were quite easy really as the actors were very talented and once they understood what was needed they often gave us a few takes and we could select the best one later. We showed them the concept art, scene illustrations and character designs and that gave them some frame of reference. For the kids it was helpful for them to hear the temporary recording we had done but with the adults we felt it would be too didactic and we worked to their interpretation of the voices rather than vice versa.
For the postproduction, I again leaned heavily on the pre-production and development artwork as a guideline, but remained balanced by allowing the artists the freedom to bring something of their own to it. The sound design and editing were quite free compared to the visuals. In the editing stage I found myself rethinking a lot of earlier choices and finding more efficient ways to say the same thing. This is quite unusual in animation and a bit stressful as up until then I had considered most of what we were working on as destined for the screen. To cut so much hard work and money (!) was painful, but I think we got a better movie for it.
On my new project The Song of the Sea I consider the music so important that I have started to source tracks already, just to inspire the writing and the visual development. It’s helped me communicate a certain feeling that’s important for this project.
What makes an Irish director different creatively from other directors?
I think we have the advantage and disadvantage of a small country. I feel I have had great opportunity to direct my own work by starting out in the boom years with the BSÉ/IFB and other funding sources available! But to make films here you have to be a sort of producer/manager/director hybrid and that influences and tempers your ambitions and ideas, I find.
Is an audience in your mind when you are at work?
That’s something I am wrestling with more and more. The Book of Kells began as a very different project and we reworked it several times to try and cross over from an arthouse-type film to a more mainstream audience. For future films I think my challenge will be to stay true to my own ideas at the same time as trying to reach a broad audience. The time, expense and effort involved in animation demands it!
What or who has helped you the most in realising your vision as a Director?
The support structure of my friends and colleagues in Cartoon Saloon as well as the great grounding I got from being a member of Young Irish Film Makers as a teenager.
This interview first appeared in Issue 129 of Film Ireland Magazine.