originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/626339...
It’s Thursday! Animation Night day!
Today we’re going to focus on a pretty special studio - Cartoon Saloon of Ireland, who are known for beautifully composed Irish mythological stories and arty dramas…
The studio was founded by former classmates Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Nora Twomey in 1999. In their first few years, they directed a couple of short films, From Darkness and Backwards Boy. But they first got everyone’s attention in 2009 with their feature film The Secret of Kells.
A collaboration with French and Belgian studios such as Les Armateurs, the film took inspiration from a beautiful 9th-century illuminated manuscript called the Book of Kells. The book, one of the loveliest surviving illuminated works, is named for the Irish abbey where it may have been written, and where it was kept for many centuries. It’s in this Abbey of Kells where our story is set.
In the period after the Book of Kells was written, Vikings would frequently sail from Scandinavia to raid Ireland, and the abbeys - where a great deal of wealth was concentrated - were a particularly juicy target. The Abbey of Kells was attacked repeatedly throughout the 10th century. The Book of Kells itself was stolen despite the best efforts of the monks, but returned without its cover a couple of months later.
The Secret of Kells, directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, imagines a fictional story of how the book was written, placing the Christian world of the abbey in tension with the world of Irish mythology outside it. It focuses on a young boy Brendan in training to be a monk at the Abbey, and a fairy called Aisling with whom he strikes up an unlikely friendship. In the film’s telling, the book’s illumination depends on a magnifying lens stolen from the Irish god Crom Cruach, whose worship was historically suppressed by early Christians. But it’s also the first few years of Viking attack, and the monks live in fear for when the invaders will come for them.
Because they’re using Flash, they can make all the movements butter-smooth with computer inbetweening, but they do some really sweet elegant character animation and some absolutely splendid scene composition (inspired by the book itself) and music which really creates something special. You can definitely see the influence of Richard Williams through The Thief and the Cobbler, though thankfully dropping that film’s shallow Orientalism.
The Secret of Kells was a big international hit, so Cartoon Saloon got to make many more films, short and long. Their next full-length film, Song of the Sea (2014), is even more directly inspired by Irish mythology. Directed again by Tomm Moore, it’s the story of a selkie, Saoirse, and her brother Ben, whose mother disappeared when they were young, leaving them with their father, a lighthouse-keeper, and grandmother, who casts Saoirse’s selkie coat away when she takes the kids to the city.
Saoirse falls ill without her coat, and soon she and Ben find themselves embroiled in a complicated situation involving fairies who are unable to return to Tír na nÓg, and the mythological figure Manannán mac Lir, who has been turned to stone by his mother Macha, now determined to strip the world of emotions. So it’s time for things to get really mythological…
And honestly, just look at these gifs… it seems like they’ve outdone themselves on the animation front too. I didn’t get the chance to see this film when it came out, so I’m really excited to show it now. Like with Kells, this film is a big international collaboration supported by animation studios from across Europe. They have a real knack for lush, intricate backgrounds full of little spirals, and simple but extremely appealing character designs with great motion which is making my animator brain go ‘ooooooooooooooooooooooooh…….’
With their third film, Nora Twomey went in a totally different direction: where their previous films had been all about mythology, their next one goes for realistic drama, adapted from a book by Canadian author Deborah Ellis. Set in Kabul during the years before the 2001 American invasion, it centres on a girl called Parvana, whose father (an injured veteran of the Soviet-Afghan war) is arrested by the Taliban. Since the Taliban heavily restrict women going outside without an accompanying male relative, Parvana starts to dress as a boy to support the family. She struggles to save up enough of a bribe to visit her father in prison. But history is unfolding, and the US invasion is about to begin…
I admit I have a few concerns about this film. Deborah Ellis wrote her novels not from any personal familiarity with life in Afghanistan in the 90s, but from interviews with people in a refugee camp in Pakistan, inevitably filtered through her own interpretation. Without trying to exonerate the Taliban, who are obviously as fashy as they come, this premise seems to fit rather neatly into jingoist Western conceptions of Muslims as universally violent, irrational misogynists. I can’t say if it has the same eye for complexity and humanity as a film like Persepolis - at worst it risks verging into misery porn. Even so, I would like to watch it, just with a critical eye…
On an animation level, this film looks really beautiful though, with a lot of smooth, subtle movement and gorgeous background painting. I hope the story it’s telling is worth the evident effort they’ve put in.
Cartoon Saloon are presently working on two more feature films. Tomm Moore is directing The Wolfwalkers, a kind of fantasised account of Cromwell’s genocidal occupation of Ireland through the lens of transforming wolf people. Nora Twomey meanwhile is working on an adaptation of the children’s book My Father’s Dragon, about a kid running away to an island of strange creatures in order to rescue a dragon.
In the meantime, they’ve also released various short films, such as Late Afternoon (2018), a 9-minute film directed by Louise Bagnall, about an old woman with dementia reminiscing on her life.
My plan for the schedule is to sandwich The Breadwinner between the other two films, so it will go like:
- Secret of Kells
- The Breadwinner
- Late Afternoon (short film)
- Song of the Sea
I’m really excited and hope to see you there, because these are some really beautiful films and there’s nobody really doing anything else in this style!
time: 7pm UK time (about 5 hours from posting)