Interview: Tomm Moore

Tomm Moore Song of the sea

Tomm Moore is an animation filmmaker, illustrator and comics artist. He is a co-founder of the Cartoon Saloon, animation studio in Kilkenny, Ireland. His first two feature films, The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and won many prizes at various international animated film festivals. Tomm’s hand-drawn stories are some of the finest works of animation we know: uncommonly beautiful, enriched by a poetic vision of life, fuelled by folklore, fairy-tales and myths. Far beyond just entertainment these films are connecting us viewers to our culture, ancestors, and universal truths.

Tomm, how did you become a storyteller?

I feel that the storytelling part of my career is something that came kind of late. Even though it was always part of it. When I was a kid I was a member of Young Irish Filmmakers, in Kilkenny. But I was always more interested by the technical and artistic side. I always wanted to make imagery. At the same time I was always immersed in stories and books and comics. I became really interested in folklore and fairy tales. When I started to really work on the movies, I realised that more than the animation it was the story that interested me. So it’s been an evolution from being more interested in the technical and the drawing part to the story part. It’s been a journey of nearly 20 years, to start thinking of myself as a storyteller.

How are stories born?
Song of the Sea

I work with screenwriters, we write the story together. But I try to hold the root of the story all the way through. I’m really interested by folklore, mythology and fairy tales. I’m not an academic about it, I’m interested in that structure, how stories change and people retell them, and hopefully keep a certain truth that’s relevant to each generation. Each storyteller tells the story differently, each generation retells the stories differently for their generation. For me there’s something important about that passing it on. You don’t own the story, you just kind of take it from where you heard it, retell it, and then the person you tell it to will tell it again. The true line in the middle of it has a kind of life of its own. The interesting thing about, for example, Joseph Campbell’s work, is that folklore and stories, and the root and rhythm of the stories, is in everything. As a teenager I was a big fan of comic books and I realised there was a lot of parallel, there was a Hero’s journey, that monomyth, in the comic books. So it is interesting to me how folklore has a certain sense about it, a certain air of “authentic-ness”, and on the other hand that root of the stories carries through even to the popular culture. When we were working on the “Secret of Kells” we read the book The Writer’s Journey, which was based on Joseph Campbell’s work. And even now I am reading a book by Richard Tarnas, called The Passion of the Western Mind - it has an endorsement by Joseph Campbell on the cover, which is why I picked it up. And he’s talking about the whole journey of the western thought in the context of Joseph Campbell’s “arc”.

Where did the idea for the “Song and the Sea” come from?
Song of the Sea

This story has almost become my personal myth. My son was about 9 or 10, we were in the west of Ireland and we were sketching on the beach. It was in Dingle, a small town in south west of Ireland. And there was a dead seal on the beach. And then we saw there were plenty of dead seals on the beach. It was kind of disturbing. My son really loved animals, he loved nature and documentaries about nature. We talked to the woman that we were renting the cottage from, and she said it was because fishermen had been frustrated that the fish stocks were falling, and they were blaming the seals for eating the fish. I was pretty disturbed by that. We were in this beautiful place, it’s a part of the country which is like in the “Lord of the Rings”, this beautiful mystical area. Yet the harsh reality of economics and human behaviour was right in our face. And we started talking about the old stories and that it wouldn’t have happened years ago. She said that years ago there was a belief that seals could be souls of people who’d been lost in the sea. They could be selkies - people transformed from seals. It reminded me of all those stories and made me think about how you go to these little towns in the west coast of Ireland, and the worry is that it’s all just being packaged like Disneyland for tourists, and you go to a bookshop and there are fairy tales about selkies, but they are not in the people. And I know we can’t go back to our superstitious past. But if we could remind people how those stories and songs connected people to the landscape, maybe we could light a spark again in the next generation and that would stop them from feeling that animals were just like a commodity to be controlled or harvested. So that was the big inspiration and I started thinking of making a story about all that.

Secret of Kells

Whereas “The Secret of Kells”, for example, came from a much more artschool point of view. We were really passionate about hand-drawn animation. We were looking at the history and stories around the Celtic art. We wanted to do an animation that was Irish and hand drawn. Before we even had the story we knew that’s what we wanted to do. We found the story in legends and history around the creation of the Book of Kells. As I said, I wasn’t always starting as a storyteller. I found my way to being a storyteller through doing artistic experiments.

What are challenges you meet on the way of making films?

The biggest challenge is the business side of it. Whether we like it or not, the water we’re swimming in is a business, it is an industry. And that’s another balance we have to play with. We are however very free, there are very few compromises. But running a business, paying salaries, trying to put finances together - it’s like a house of cards that you’re putting together and you’re always afraid that it could just fall down. That’s the stress that’s behind it all. There isn’t just one big investor who gives all the money - there’s plenty of little delicate relationships I have to nurture and keep going. Especially with partners and co-producers. The human aspect of it is the greatest challenge and the greatest pleasure. Because if you do this with people that you are happy to work with, even if it all falls down, at least the time you spent with them is well done. Even if the final product is compromised beyond recognition, at least the time you spent on it you did some positive work together.

Secret of Kells

For me making an animated independent feature film is challenging, as I feel there is an obligation to talk about something that’s deeper than just very surface. Those type of stories appeal to me. Like, one of my favourite movies is Rocky, and that’s really a beautiful example of that story, of somebody going right up to the edge and facing something that they’ve really tried to avoid. I think, whenever a movie, or any piece of art, can provide that parallel with a journey that a lot of us go through in so many aspects of our life, with the things that we’re trying to avoid and that we have to face, people would watch that movie and apply to their lives. You’re in the world of symbol and metaphor and allegory. I think animation is really powerful for that, because when you watch a live action movie, there’s something specific about the actor playing the part. But when you are in the animation, there is a certain abstraction to the characters that allows you to engage on another level with them.  

What motivates you to do the work you do?

I had a kind of a crisis when I was young. My sister was really engaged in human rights work, and she spent a lot of time working in human rights. I felt that what she was doing was important and what I was doing was kind of superficial and selfish. I knew that I wanted to work on things which would bring something positive into the culture, and not just doing some junk. That motivated me, as I do this work I love to do every day, and I surround myself with people I really enjoy working with. There are three stories to every movie - there is the story of the movie that you want to tell, there’s the story of how the movie got made, and then there’s the story of what happens to the movie afterwards. And actually the most important story for me is the one of how it got made, because that’s how I spend my day. I might spend 3 or 4 years every day working on the movie. And if that is a really unpleasant experience, what happened before and after doesn’t matter. Because this is how I spend 4 years of my life. And that’s why I choose to continue to make in the style I want to work in, rather than thinking: hm, CGI is more commercially successful. I kind of like to spend my day doing something that I feel is a positive thing, for me or for everyone working on it.

I think that I’m really spoiled, and I can’t comment on that, because I know that what I get to do is so special, I’m so lucky. There’s plenty of times when it’s stressful and times when we worry about money and that it’s all gonna collapse, and we’re going to go bankrupt. But we’re all really passionate about what we do, and I suppose that there are people who do their jobs because they care about their family and maybe they’re not passionate about their job. And so I don’t want to dismiss this work, this is important too. But yeah, that would be nice if we all could do what we love. That would be a utopian world.

How do you keep the motivation up in day to day life?

I learned it the hard way. It’s just not worth it if people around you are unhappy, if people just want to josh for power - it’s just not gonna work, as it’s such a long journey we make together. And even when the film is finished, you have to stand together and present the film etc. I think the main motivation is the relationships with the people that you work with. If you enjoy those and if those are enriching then it kind of continues.

The other thing that has been big for me is that the young people that come into the studio a lot. I am heading towards 40 now, but the average age of the studio stays late 20s-30. And it’s great because those people have the energy I had when I started out, they really want to prove themselves. I can see myself after the next movie or two stopping directing and trying to create an environment where those people can make their movies. And that’s very motivating. It feels like a very natural, Joseph Campbell type of arc to a career too. When after you have learnt a lot, you pass it on to the next one.

How do you nurture your creativity?

I’m surrounded by artists that I’m always a little bit intimidated, impressed and inspired by. And so my own work grows in reflection with theirs. Sometimes I get a little bit depressed and think I should just stop, they are also talented and I should just provide an environment for them to work in. But then I get depressed when I stop, so I have to keep working. I feel that an artistic journey provides a lot of opportunities for growth, just the actual artwork, writing or anything.

Last year I spent a lot of time doing walking meditation and just hiking in the west of Ireland, which was very invigorating.  It is important to pause and step back. The idea for the “Song and the Sea” came from a trip to the west of Ireland about 10 years ago. That trip inspired so much and sustained both the TV show “Puffin Rock” and “Song and the Sea”.

Being connected to the wider world of what everyone else is doing in the animation is really inspiring too. It’s one of the positives of the Internet, where you can constantly see what others are doing, whereas when I was younger you had to go to a festival. You come back and your head would be on fire, and you wouldn’t remember everything but you got an impression that there was so much amazing stuff. And now you can tap in very often, especially student work. Very often students are doing the most innovating and exciting things, at least in animation. And that keeps me on my toes.

In your films you are dealing quite a lot with wildness vs discipline, nature vs civilization. How do you approach these subjects?

I’m interested in the balance of these influences. People can be overly romantic about the idea of nature, and think that everything about the city is cold and oppressive, by comparison. But actually what is needed is a balance. We are working on a new film now, so in the office at the moment we have on the one side of the wall all about organic and wildness, including the negative part of that - uncontrolled, unruly and dangerous, and on the other side of the wall - order and civilization. We are trying to find a way between our two main characters, to show that they represent the two different sides and that one is too much on the one side and the other too much on the other side.We are trying to show that we need to find a balance. I think it’s also something I’m working through in myself and I’m having a healthy skepticism about both sides. I think too often people get too romantic about oh, nature - everything is perfect. It’s a challenge in everything - how we live our lives, and the choices we make, but also where we live and how. I think everyone feels now a little bit out of balance, everyone’s a bit conscious, a bit nervous. At least my generation, we’re conscious, we think we don’t have a utopian view of the future, we’re a bit afraid of the future. So everyone wants iPhones and the comfort, but on the other side we want the opposite. And this is where the marketing starts to come in, and tells us it’s ok to buy this stuff because it’s “green” and healthy. I think this is the tension we have in my generation. And a lot of people think about it and discuss it a lot.

There is a lot of symbolism in your films, how do you find the metaphors?

Both in Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, there is definitely a kind of connection with water and the idea of subconscious, submerging, going into another state of understanding. Ben in Song of the Sea really symbolises a modern kid, he’s very much me as a kid, he’s much more engaged in the popular culture. Whereas his sister Saoirse seems to be more of that other fairy world with the language of symbols. So Ben has to be dragged into that world, and have that world explained to him. So he’s perfect avatar for the average audience watching it, because we’re all like that, we’re not naturally in that world, like Saoirse.

Do stories change in the process of you working on them?

Yes. In the new movie we are working on now we just flipped the main character from being a boy to being a girl. It made so much sense suddenly that the main character was a girl. I resisted for a little while, because in my head for a long time it had been a boy. And it’s weird because in some ways not much has changed with the story, but for that character everything changed - in the time period we set it in the stakes were so much higher if she was a girl. The whole story came alive again for me. It felt fresh. It’s amazing how stories can morph and change. In this story we were also very interested in this period in Irish history, during the Cromwellian era, where there was a strong influence from England. At that time they wanted to “tame” the country, and said they would kill all the wolves to tame it. We thought it was a really powerful period to explore. And it’s so symbolic, it’s almost like what we do in ourselves. We talk about the wolf inside, and a wolf is such a powerful symbol of inner spiritual strength. So the idea of killing the wolf in order to tame seems brutal. It was a powerful starting point for us.

What role does myth play in our lives?

The language of myth can be really powerful. I know some psychologists and philosophers do think about the Hero’s Journey and all the metaphors from mythology being present to one’s own inner journey. It’s almost like you need to go through cycles, to die and be re-born again into yourself at different times in your life as you go through different transitions. And if you don’t have that ritual, well we don’t have it anymore, we don’t have initiatory rituals for young people going out into the world. Depression can happen in young people, teenagers, because they just don’t have that sense of structure, that kind of mythic structure that is missing from our society. So they get lost in superficial trappings of that age and they don’t have the deeper understanding of the transition period. Our culture talks a lot about the transition from childhood to adulthood, that’s a really interesting topic and it’s explored a lot, but at every stage in life there is a transition. Even now I’m coming into middle age, and it’s another transition it’s almost like another puberty, and you need to do some inner work to accept and to move on into the next step of your life. Otherwise you become one of those people who are stuck trying to be a teenager in their forties.

How to introduce this structure back into our lives?

We are so terrified, and rightly so, of organized religion, so each person needs to find their own way. And I like the idea of community, people coming together, to support each other. I think there is a role for popular culture, for storytelling, to help us explore things and work through things. That’s why I get frustrated when popular culture just takes superficial tropes and idioms and visuals from folklore and uses it for very empty sensationalist entertainment, when a lot of that stuff can be a really powerful way to help people at different times in their lives to get over to the next stage. There seem to be a real hunger for it in the culture.

In my life I’ve had an arc away from believing in things, being prejudiced against religions, alternative medicine, and things like that - I arced away from it and became quite sceptical, and then found a new way to relate to them again, to realize they can be understood in a different way, not literally. I might not have a literal belief in a religion I grew up with, but I might understand it in a new way through the language of Joseph Campbell and through the language of myth.

The problem with religion is that the stories and even the language within religion have a lot of parallels to the mythology that might speak to us, but it’s associated with the power and the whole structure. So we end up throwing away the baby with the bathwater if we are not careful. A lot of people, including myself, get drawn to Daoism and Buddhism, because they seemed safer than Western religions, because they were not connected to power structures. But maybe if I would grow up in that culture I would have see them as organized religions to reject. In the end I think the root or the tree trunk in the center of belief or understanding is the same.

Do you also have your own personal rituals?  

I’m constantly searching and recreating these at every stage. I’m interested in meditation. When I was making “The Secret of Kells” I really valued that moment between sleep and waking. That was the time when I could visualize very clearly the complete sequence. And I didn’t realize I was doing something. That’s getting close to a kind of shamanic journey, where you allow yourself to go into an imagined space and really explore it, to discover things non-deliberately.

I grew up in a very catholic country and I do see the point of a lot of the steps that are built into it, but at different points in my life I rebelled against them or embraced them or tried to find a Buddhist equivalent and then realized it was just an equivalent. Each of us we need to find and create our own meaning. Though I do think that it’s also good to connect to the ancestors, to the wisdom that goes way back into history. Sometimes when I find those really old places, like holy wells, for example, that were sacred for the pagans even before the christians, I feel connecting to something older. That’s powerful. Nowadays it’s so easy to get lost in our phones and internet, and what I call a “Me-Magazine”, where it’s the stuff you can browse through that has been selected by algorithms especially for you, it’s just what you want to see, and you could easily fool yourself into believing that the world is just what the internet offers to you. So you have to break away from that and expose yourself to something that might surprise you.  

Your first associations....

Fairy-tale: The children of Lir

Animal: dog

Saying or proverb: aithnionn ciarog , ciarog eile ( one beetle recognises another)

Season: autumn

Plant: oak trees

Movie: Rocky

Smell: coffee

Book: Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware

Song: impossible to pick one!

Feeling: sleepy satisfaction

Poem: The stolen child by William Butler Yeats

Painting: anything by Klimt

Person: Liselott Olofsson (my wife)

Color: blue

Object: iPhone

Food: bread and hummus

Human quality: kindness

Place for travel: anywhere new

Secret: shhhhhh


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