Tomm Moore, Celtic cartoonist with two Oscar nods

‘Other animators always tell me I’m living the dream’, says the Cartoon Saloon co-founder, and who is he to disagree? Two Oscar nods have given him international clout, but the director of ‘Song of the Sea’ intends to stay the Irish indie course

Years ago, Tomm Moore, the Oscar-nominated director of The Secret of Kells, and his young son were holidaying in the west of Ireland when they came upon a beach littered with the corpses of seals. Their landlady later explained that local fishermen were killing the animals out of frustration with falling fishing stocks.

She noted that the fishermen would not have done so years ago, when it was widely believed that seals were the souls of people lost at sea, or selkies.

The incident would provide the inspiration for Song of the Sea, the third feature-length animation to emerge from the Kilkenny animation studio Cartoon Saloon.

The project has been a long time coming for the Newry-born, Kilkenny-raised illustrator, comics artist and film-maker.


“I based the main character on my son, Ben,” says Moore. “He was 10 when I had the idea. He’s 19 now. So he – or his namesake – got to be in both movies. There’s a certain melancholy there. Because he was growing up the entire time I was making the film.

“But animation is like that. You have to go with the process and the day by day. Getting the film out there is just the icing on the cake.”

Today the director, a youthful-looking 38-year-old sporting an impressive set of tattoos, is, appositely enough, at sea. Well, he’s on a boat in a Dublin estuary. But it’s the thought that counts.

“There’s something about animation that seems to attract vegans and people with tattoos,” Moore laughs. “The sandwich shop next door to us has had to bring in vegan options.”

Moore founded Cartoon Saloon with Paul Smith and Nora Twomey in 1999. The production company has enjoyed remarkable success, including two Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, nods that would see the Marble City gang rubbing shoulders with such industry giants as Hayao Miyazaki.

Caution in La-La Land

“It’s wonderful to be there,” he says. “And it’s really good for the film. It helps us get the actors we want. It opens doors with financiers.

“But – and I mean this in the nicest possible way because I met amazing people out there – unless you’re hell-bent on moving to LA and being part of that scene, it’s a little bit of a sidestep. You have to be careful not to get caught up in it.”

Post-Oscar, there were offers, but Moore remains determined to duke it out in the independent sector. "I know enough about the system out there that an offer doesn't mean much," he says. "After The Secret of Kells, a couple of things I was offered were things that fell apart or didn't work out the way they were supposed to. If I had taken them, I would have regretted it.

“I’m pretty certain I want to keep on the independent route. When I talk to other animators they always tell me I’m living the dream.”

Much has been written about Ireland's increasingly successful animation industry in recent years. Last March, An Post issued four stamps to celebrate the success of Animation Ireland, featuring images from Jam Media's Roy, Brown Bag Films' Give Up Yer Aul Sins, Geronimo Productions' Nelly & Nora and, of course, The Secret of Kells.

And they say we’re not a visual culture. “But we are,” says Moore. “It’s just that people think of visual art as hanging in galleries. But if you visit here from a different culture, you’ll see visual patterns and motifs everywhere.”

Ireland's animation revolution can be largely traced back to Don Bluth. In 1979, the Disney animator left the House of Mouse to found an independent animation studio. In 1985, during the production of An American Tail, Bluth moved operations from California to Dublin in order to benefit from the IDA's tax incentives. He later helped set up an animation course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education.

Moore trained at Ballyfermot and recalls a screening of Bluth's 1982 The Secret of NIMH during a soft school day as the moment that made him want to be an animator.

"I suspect I was a couple of years too old for The Secret of NIMH at the time," he says. "I remember there was a bit of teasing: Look! He's watching the cartoon! But I was totally engrossed in it. And I remember my parents getting me out of bed because [Bluth] turned up on The Late Late Show and they knew I was really interested.

“So animation always seemed like something I could do as job. And then Young Irish Film-Makers was set up just down the road. So opportunities to learn and mess about were right there.”

Making myths

It was at Young Irish Film-Makers that the illustrator and budding animator would discover a taste for mythology.

“I have one grandmother that’s still alive but the grandmother that’s gone was very superstitious,” says Moore. “She was very strong Catholic but at the same time believed in fairies and all kinds of mad stuff. She would have told me the Giant’s Causeway story and things like that. Like any spoilt brat in the 1980s, I thought it was all very passe, old people stuff. I was much more interested in comic books.

"It was when I was in Young Irish Film-makers that somebody showed me an interview with Joseph Campbell and Leonard Maltin; it was only when I made that link between comics and Star Wars and mythology that I got interested."

It follows that Moore's beautifully hand-drawn, 2D house style is steeped in cultural history. Where The Secret of Kells took cues from early monastic Ireland, Song of the Sea draws on folklore to tell the story of Ben, a young boy attempting to return to his isolated lighthouse home, with some assistance from wee folk. The story, written by Will Collins, calls on selkie tales in particular.

The fat baby sings

“Will was great,” says Moore. “When Will came in, he honoured my original story and wrote a draft which we called the fat baby because it was just full of details. We loved it.

“But the fat baby had to go on a diet. There were too many ideas. Maybe a little bit too much mythology. So Will helped us pare it all down to what reflected the family story. That made it much more universal. And much less mythology driven.”

Moore is rightly dismissive of the “taste-makers” who like to deem any animation not defined by shouting, flatulent animals as “too dark for kids”. But he does test his material on the road.

“We do think about audience. We do show scenes to groups of kids. But one of the nice things about being independent is that we can choose when to take criticisms on board and when to stick with the plan.”


Song of the Sea

is out now on general release and is reviewed on pages 10-11