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10 images that show why Song of the Sea is the year's most beautiful animated film

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.


Hand-drawn animation increasingly seems like a dying artform — at least in the US. Here, studios like Pixar and Dreamworks make their films using computer-generated animation. And even if some of these films are among the best animated films of all time, there's something sad about the loss of the handmade beauty and intimacy of the best two-dimensional animation.

Fortunately for fans of these films, they're still being made in other corners of the world, and a studio named GKIDS (which stands for Guerrilla Kids International Distribution Syndicate) has been importing them to American shores and finding success on the arthouse circuit, as well as at the Oscars. The studio has quietly made inroads on the Best Animated Feature category, getting six nominations in less than a decade.

Two of those nominations have arrived this year, for The Tale of Princess Kaguya and the absolutely gorgeous Song of the Sea. The second film from Irish director Tomm Moore, Song of the Sea follows a brother and sister who've lost their mother, as they (and their father) attempt to come to terms with their grief.

The story blends with bits and pieces of Celtic mythology — as did Moore's last film The Secret of Kells — particularly the legend of the selkie, a mythical being that typically takes the form of a seal but can appear as a human for a time. The legend, however, almost always ends tragically, with the selkie leaving behind human life (and those he or she has come to love) to return to the sea and the life of a seal.

It would be one thing for me to try to convince you to see this film (which is now available on DVD and for digital download) by writing a standard review. But that wouldn't do an adequate job of conveying the film's emotional resonance or considerable charms.

So, instead, let's take a look at some of the movie's most beautiful images, both to celebrate the film's incredible style and to remember how gorgeous hand-drawn animation can be.

Let's start with landscapes.

Moore and his animation team created the backgrounds for the film by painting with watercolors, and it gives the movie a loose, flowing feel that contributes to its dreamlike atmosphere. Any one of these frames could easily be pulled out of the film and hung on the wall, and the movie's painterly aesthetic contributes greatly to its feeling of melancholy.

But this is also a movie that makes tremendous use of light.

Here, we see a late-night sojourn beneath the waves, some seals joining a young girl who's just learned of her selkie heritage. Notice how she glows, just a little bit, so we're always aware of where she is.

And here are tendrils of light spreading through the late evening. One of the major themes of the film is the return of mystery and magic to a world that is rapidly modernizing. (The film is set in 1987, right on the cusp of the boom that would push Ireland firmly into the world economy.) Examine the backdrops of any of these countryside scenes, and you'll spot evidence of modernization straight against the old ways, an old country. In this, you can just glimpse the outline of a city peeking over the far hills.

But this is also a deeply human story.

Song of the Sea is built around the intense sibling rivalry between 9-year-old Ben and 6-year-old Saoirse, who does not speak. Ben has to learn to treat his sister not as an inconvenience, but as someone he deeply loves. And Saoirse has to learn to embrace the potential she's always had inside of her.

Notice, above, how Ben is forced to follow Saoirse on her journey. It's not something he wants to do, but it's his duty. It's what you do for family.

And when Saoirse leads Ben deep into the Irish wilds, the animators place a family of badgers in the corner of the screen, to remind us of the burdens and bliss of familial loyalty.

Ben and Saoirse live with their emotionally distant father (voiced by the great Brendan Gleeson), and though he's very much a supporting character in their story, Gleeson does fantastic work as a man who slowly realizes how his inability to process his grief over the death of his wife is hurting his children. Song of the Sea hinges on ideas of emotions bubbling forth, melting hearts that have turned to stone, and Gleeson's work is crucial to that.

Also notice, above, the masterful technical work in creating a stormy sea (reflecting the inner states of the characters), as well as the adorable dog Cú, who's an adorable lunk of a sheepdog.

But the presence of Ben and Saoirse's mother, established only in the opening sequence, with Ben's last memories of her alive, is potent enough to drive the whole film, to make viewers realize why this little family is so lost without her.

That image — the blackness that takes up much of the screen is meant to signify Ben's eyelids slowly closing as he falls asleep — hangs over the rest of the film. Ben has clung to these memories, for obvious reasons, and the story forces him to re-confront them.

The conflict of the movie, such as it is, hinges on the kids' grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan), who believes her son has abdicated his responsibility to her grandchildren. She, then, drags them to the city to raise them herself. Moore creates a city that simultaneously stands out as far more drab than the coastal community where Ben and Saoirse have grown up and filters its images through a gauzy haze of nostalgia.

Check out this interpretation of Halloween night. It's enough to want to go trick or treating yourself.

At first, the character design seems so simple as to preclude real feeling. Even Moore admits that many of the characters have simple, geometric designs, like Charlie Brown's. But that simplicity is deceptive. These characters can be imbued with incredible depth of feeling.

The weeping of the mythical giant, Mac Lir, is provided by Gleeson (who crushes it), but even without his voice work, you could feel the raw pain, just from the quality of the art. Our myths and legends are often filled with the deepest, most difficult emotions we feel, because they allow us to confront some of the hardest things about being human. Song of the Sea continues in that tradition.

It's a beautiful movie, with a beautiful story and beautifully handled characters. What else do I have to do to convince you to see it?

All images courtesy of GKIDS.

When the nominees for Best Animated Feature are read at the Oscars in February, we won't just hear the names of big Hollywood films like Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Alongside them will be the name of a tiny Irish film, made with animations drawn by hand rather than a computer. Most viewers probably won't have heard of it. It's called Song of the Sea, and you should seek it out right now.

The director of Song of the Sea is Tomm Moore. He now has a two-for-two record at the Oscars — his debut feature, The Secret of Kells was also nominated for the Animated Feature prize.

Song of the Sea, however, is a deeper, more mature work than Kells, building upon that film's embrace of Irish folklore to tell a moving story of two children who've lost their mother and struggle to deal with an emotionally distant father and a grandmother who thinks they should be raised away from the coastal village they call home. Interwoven with this story is the Celtic legend of the selkie, a being who normally appears to be a seal, but takes on human form for a time, before being called back to the sea.

I talked to Moore recently about the inspirations for Song of the Sea, the appeal of Irish folklore, and why it was so fun to animate the film's dog.

Emily St. James: What was the image or idea that started the ball rolling to make this movie?

Tomm Moore: It came from a holiday in the west of Ireland here, where it was discovered that some of the folklore was being lost. People were killing seals, and we talked to a local about why the seals were being killed. And she said, "It's sad, but people years ago wouldn't have done that. They wouldn't have blamed the seals for the fish stock falling. They would have believed that seals could be selkies, or they could transform into people."

I was interested in that. The folklore had a way of keeping a certain balance and a certain respect for the environment and nature. It just started me thinking. That was about seven years ago. That was the very, very start of it, where I started to think about how could we modernize the folklore for a modern audience, retell it so it didn't seem like something from long ago and actually seemed relevant for modern kids.

Emily St. James: The selkie legend seems to be an inherently tragic story. What appealed to you about that specific myth?

Tomm Moore: I felt it was an allegory about loss. Something about loss or holding on too tight sometimes. And missing out. The fisherman [the kids' father] would try and keep the coat, and not let her go, and things like that. It just felt to me that it was all about stuff that coastal communities would have come across a lot, where they would lose someone at sea, and these were fairy tales or allegories to help people deal with that.

That's sort of something that felt pretty close to home in my own life. People, especially children, still need a way to think around loss and all that.

Emily St. James: Do you often construct stories around those emotional arcs?

Tomm Moore: From the very start, I wanted to make a family movie but that stayed true to what I considered to be the core of the selkie stories. We wanted it to be fun. We wanted it to be magical and entertaining for children, but have enough depth that adults could watch it. Something like those movies like E.T. or The NeverEnding Story. Those are the movies I grew up on in the '80s.

This was unique that way. Secret of Kells, for me, started off more about an interest in making an animated feature, based on Irish art. We kind of found the story as we did the research, whereas this sprang more from the fairy tales.

Emily St. James: Had you seen the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, which also deals with selkies?

Tomm Moore: Yeah, I knew The Secret of Roan Inish, and just selkie stories in general. I was conscious that it had been done. What we wanted to do different here was, first of all, it's set in relatively modern times. It's set in 1987. But also, we wanted to really, really focus on the kids and really focus on the story of the kids dealing with losing their mother and making that the story.

And also the sibling rivalry between the boy and girl, as we developed the story and showed it to audiences, that seemed to be something that kids really latched onto. I really liked that that was a theme that was even more universal than loss, that idea of coming to terms with your sibling. The kids really related to that a lot. So that was something we really played up.

Emily St. James: There aren't a ton of kids' stories where sibling rivalry is the focus. It's usually in the background. Were there stories you particularly looked to for that aspect?

Tomm Moore: That really came from my own experience. I had three younger sisters, but the next oldest sister was super jealous since the day she was born that she wasn't the oldest, and we constantly had that sort of [relationship]. I even tied her up like Ben tied [Saoirse] up. Whenever I had to take care of her, I'd just tie her on the skiffing rope, and put a bicycle helmet on her head to keep her from having fun. Things like that.

Emily St. James: Did you do a lot of research into fisherman's communities? What was your process like in learning about that world?

Tomm Moore: A lot of this was stuff that I knew and was interested in. A lot of it was stuff we were researching for Secret of Kells and didn't have a place for. I read a book called People of the Sea, which was a collection of stories from Scottish and Irish coastal areas, where they had the belief in seal people and stuff.

And then we talked to Eddie Lenihan, who's a storyteller here in Ireland, an amazing storyteller. He had this huge bank of cassette tapes that he's made recordings of people telling stories, and his whole attitude to the stories is that they're not gospel. They're not set in stone. You can keep retelling and reinventing them and mixing them up and doing your own versions of them. So that, we felt, gave us a license to be inspired by those stories but come up with our own one.

Emily St. James: Why are the folklore, legends, and myths of Ireland a theme you keep coming back to? What interests you about that?

Tomm Moore: There's stuff in there that's interesting, but it's also unique. You don't see it represented all that often. It's not that well-known like a Grimm's Fairy Tales or anything like that. It's fun to dive into stuff and imagine it for an audience that might not be familiar with it and wouldn't have seen it before. For me, there's always a kind of core to all of those stories that they're human stories. There's such a rich wealth to draw from.

Emily St. James: There's a really heavy influence of Studio Ghibli, the famous Japanese animation studio and home of Hayao Miyazaki, in your films.

Tomm Moore: I was about to mention that, yeah. I was just thinking that after your last question!

I remember being in college and seeing Japanese stuff, Eastern European stuff, Richard Williams was trying to make something with Persian art. I thought it would be interesting. I really liked in Spirited Away or in Totoro, where you get the feeling of Japanese culture, but it's just a flavor. You can watch the story and not know anything about Japanese culture, but it gives it a richness, and the story deepens the more you learn about Japanese culture. I felt really inspired by that.

Especially for this film, My Neighbor Totoro was a big influence. Miyazaki said that he set that in the '50s in memories of his own childhood. And that was something I tried to do myself in Song of the Sea.

Emily St. James: What were some other things you found helpful about setting this movie in the '80s?

Tomm Moore: It was fun. Granny can't call Ben's mobile phone to check where he is. She has to get in the car and go out and try and find him.

For me, that era is vague enough that people could watch it and think it's today, I suppose. But for me, that was the time that was just before this stuff really got lost and wasn't really a part of our culture at all anymore. It's just before the Celtic Tiger [an economic boom extending until the 2007 financial crisis] here in Ireland. It just felt like an appropriate time. Other than that, for me, really, it was a nostalgia trip, and it felt like I was fossilizing into this movie memories I had. It helped me to keep working on it for so long.

Emily St. James: What are some other animated films that have been highly influential on you that maybe we wouldn't necessarily think of?

Tomm Moore: The Thief and the Cobbler, that unfinished film by Richard Williams. He spent 25 years trying to make it. Just in terms of his approach to the artistry of animation and story-wise. It's not even filmmaking per se, but more just his approach to animation and hand-drawn animation.

I was always inspired by Genndy Tartakovsky's stuff, like he did for Samurai Jack and things like that, where with a very limited budget he was able to do very dramatic stuff, just by playing up the virtues of 2-D animation, making something really cinematic. That was always very inspiring to me.

Don Bluth's movies when I was a kid. Don Bluth's studio is here in Ireland, so seeing things like Secret of N.I.M.H., American Tail, Land Before Time, when I was a kid, that was very inspiring.

In animation terms, you always look at Pixar and what they're doing. I remember going to see Up when I was in Croatia in 2009. And it was in the Zagreb Film Festival, and everybody was crying, even though it was subtitled. That was super inspiring that an animated film, stylized cartoon animation, could have that effect on people.

Emily St. James: What is it about 2-D animation that appeals you? Here in the States, it's fallen out of favor, which is too bad.

Tomm Moore: 2-D for me just has a timelessness. It doesn't age the same way that CG does. If you look at My Neighbor Totoro and you look at Ponyo, you can watch them one after the other, and you wouldn't know that they'd been made 20 years apart. That's what I like about 2-D.

I also just like drawing. I feel like drawing and painting has a language that's different than CG. CG is a really awesome medium, for sure, and amazing for filmmaking. I saw Big Hero 6 yesterday, and it's amazing. And CG's a really obvious choice for a movie about robots and that kind of thing. But I do think that 2-D has an organic feel to it that makes sense for certain stories.

Emily St. James: I wanted to talk a little bit about the color palette, which is very different from Kells. It's very autumnal, obviously, from when the film is set, but it's also much more subdued, and the sources of light, like Saoirse's coat, are really pronounced. How did you develop the look of the film?

Tomm Moore: Myself and Adrien Merigeau, who was the art director, while working together on Secret of Kells had been working on some concepts from Song of the Sea right from the start. Early on, I started almost to decompress and get away from the screen. I was just painting with watercolors. I was asking Adrien for tips, because he could paint really, really well. He has amazing control of light. So the both of us did a lot of research trips to the west of Ireland, up to Donegal and Sligo and places like that and looking at what was there.

One of the things I was really interested in was all the rock carvings, all the old sacred geometry, and all this old megalithic carvings and rocks. Adrien's from France. He didn't grow up in Ireland. So he saw it as a kind of modern art. He compared it to Klee or Kandinsky or people like that. We ended up mashing his style and my style together, and we came up with a really strong look that I feel like was an evolution from Secret of Kells, but incorporating more ancient stuff, like Pictish stuff, and more modern stuff like Adrien was bringing into it.

There was an Irish landscape painter as well, Paul Henry. He was from the turn of the century, same time period as Yeats, the poet, who was a real inspiration on the story. That whole Celtic revival period. And Paul Henry did these beautiful paintings that used aerial perspective. So rather than true perspective, he used the way that the particles in the air between objects would create a haze, and particularly in a damp climate like Ireland, you get that effect. We really felt that with watercolors, you could get that feeling of that kind of dampness that we have here in Ireland.

It feels a bit mysterious. It feels a bit magical. It feels a bit like you're not sure. It has a dreamlike feeling.

Emily St. James: Obviously, in animation, you have to draw characters over and over and over. Were there any characters you didn't get tired of drawing, and were there any where you felt like you couldn't do it one more time?

Tomm Moore: Not for me. I wonder if some of the animators did. I had it easy. I got to design them originally, and then I was in charge of drawing over them and making sure they were always on model. I only animated a few scenes myself.

I enjoyed them all. The main characters are really super simple, which can be tricky, and it's kind of more fun to draw a character like Macha or the Seanachaí, because it's so much more detailed. You can cheat and play a lot more with characters like that. But with the simple characters, they just have to be exactly right, or else they're wrong. They're like Charlie Brown. If you put them in the wrong place, it's not them anymore. So they're a bit tricky that way.

We kind of designed the movie, also, to be fun to animate. Secret of Kells, we had the forest, but other than that, everything took place in the monastery, which is a bit more limiting with a very geometric style. With this, totally inspired by Miyazaki, we came up with loads of characters and creatures that we thought we'd have fun drawing.

I think Cú was everybody's favorite because he's just such an organic shape. You can have a lot of fun animating Cú.

Emily St. James: What were some other things you took on that were more ambitious than what you'd done in Secret of Kells?

Tomm Moore: Certainly the effects. In 2-D animation, everything that isn't a character is an effect. That can be really challenging. Animating the sea, that's pretty crazy. And doing it in 2-D is also pretty crazy. And doing it on a low budget is completely mad! The sea and all the magic and stuff, that was really challenging.

We tried to use a texture on the characters. We used software that had been developed for Ernest and Celestine, the French movie, and our Belgian co-producers had developed a way to take some of the textures from the background and apply it to the characters, so the hand-drawn characters had a watercolor texture applied to them, which integrated them into the background a bit better. And we have some scenes which are really, really watercolor style, like Ben's memories or his stories.

On the music side, it was way bigger. On Secret of Kells, Bruno Coulais wrote the music, and Kila played it, and that was pretty much it. Whereas here, we had Kila. We had Lisa Hannigan singing all through the soundtrack. We had a full orchestra that we recorded in Bulgaria. It was on a much bigger scale. The music was something that we worked on right from the start of production, all the way through, so it could be integrated into the filmmaking process, rather than writing a score to a nearly completed movie and then recording it quickly so it's done. This was something that was being worked out right from the start, while we were working on the script. So the music was much more ambitious this time.

Emily St. James: What was the most difficult sequence to animate, on a technical level?

Tomm Moore: The stormy sea sequence at the end, just to figure out how to do it. And once we did it, it was still a lot of work to do, because it was like 14 hand-drawn waves, and then we applied hand-painted textures to those. And then we had to make the whole sea out of those waves and apply them to a really simple geometry. So that was a hybrid scene between old school, hand-drawn animation and trying to use the computer really cleverly. Once we had that figured out, it was hard work, but it was relatively easy.

One of the more challenging creative things was figuring out how to make the Seanachaí's hair integrate with the backgrounds, so we could have that texture on him. That was another real tricky one that we ended up letting the hand-drawn animators do whatever they wanted and then afterward had to be very careful in tracking the texture to follow the hand-drawn animation.

Those two are probably the most technically challenging, and they caused a lot of late nights and gnashing of teeth trying to figure out how we were going to do it on a budget. It's always on a budget! You always have to design your way out of it. I'm getting to the point where I like it, because it's almost made us have a style that's very unique. We always have to find a stylish way to design our way out of not having enough money to do it the way you would if you were Pixar or something.

Emily St. James: What is it that particularly makes children's stories so suitable for confronting loss and grief?

Tomm Moore: I don't know. I guess it's the allegorical nature of it. You're not confronting it directly. You're using metaphor and magic and visuals and ideas that are almost poetic ways of talking about something that's quite painful. You're sugarcoating it, in the sense that you're not full-on, front-on confronting it.

I also think it's stuff that fairy tales were invented for. It's stuff that prepares kids for adulthood. I think fairy tales weren't always just for kids, but I think they're particularly potent whenever they deal with stuff that kids need to know.

Emily St. James: What do you have lined up next?

Tomm Moore: The studio is busy with Nora Twomey's new feature, called The Breadwinner. It's a co-production with Canada, and it's about a little girl in Afghanistan who has to dress up as a boy, so that she can provide for her family. It's set in 2001. She's a storyteller, so we've kind of got two styles. There's almost ancient Persian art or ancient Afghan art when she tells her stories, and then there's the real world, the everyday world. That's an interesting project that's going ahead now.

I'm in the middle of writing the next film I'll do. It's based on Irish folklore. It's called Wolf Walkers, and it's about the time during the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell decided to get rid of all the wolves out of Ireland, to symbolically tame Ireland. And at the same time, there's these legends about people that when they were asleep, they could become wolves. So it's kind of a story based on all that stuff. I have a pretty good first draft now, and we're going to go ahead and try to get that developed this year.

Emily St. James: You're nominated for an Oscar for this, and when the name of your movie is read there, it will be the first time many Americans have even heard of it. When people hear the name of your movie, what would be your sell to them, if they got curious because of that?

Tomm Moore: That's tough! Let's see. Maybe it's just to open yourself up to a gentler, modern fairy tale, to see something that's more organic and handmade and full of heart and not so much of a commercial endeavor.

All images courtesy of GKIDS.


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