Interview: Tomm Moore and Paul Young: Storytelling and Tradition

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 29, 2014.

Paul Young and Tomm Moore founded the animation studio Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1999. Since its inception the studio has produced a wide variety of projects including shorts, series, and films. The beautiful work done at the studio, along with an Academy Award nomination, has brought them to international attention since the release of their first feature length film The Secret of Kells. Paul and Tomm took some time while at San Diego Comic-Con to speak with Comics Bulletin reporter Chase Magnett about founding the studio, creating The Secret of Kells, and future projects.Tomm and Paul

Chase Magnett: I want to start by getting a sense of where you both come from and what made you want to get into animation before founding Cartoon Saloon together. Could you give me a snapshot of what compelled you to become animators?

Paul Young: Sure. I’m just slightly older. I went to college. I wanted to do illustration first. I studied illustration art and design in Belfast, then traveled a bit and did caricatures and things like that on the street. It was difficult enough to get illustration work, so I found out about Ballyfermot College, where Tomm went to study animation as well, and thought at least I can have a day job drawing. I had a big interest in film and drawing, so this seemed to be a good combination. That is why I got into it and went to Ballyfermot College and met Tomm there.

Tomm Moore: I went to Ballyfermot because when I was younger, I had been in Young Irish Filmmakers in Kilkenny. Myself and my friend – who is the art director on Secret of Kells – went to visit the Don Bluth studio in Dublin. We were turned off of animation by visiting there because it seemed like such an industrial process. We said let’s go to college and get really good at drawing, but let’s do comics because we are in control of our own stories if we do comics. We were really big comic fans at the time and still are.

Then we were at Ballyfermot and got the bug again. We got really inspired by Richard Williams. It was a VHS tape of a documentary about Richard Williams who is an animator in London. He had done the animation for Roger Rabbit. He had been making his own movie for twenty-five years, alongside doing commercials and stuff. As a naïve twenty-three year old, that was very inspiring to me. I thought that was making animation more like an art form, so I was really inspired to do something like that. When we set up the company, Paul and I were just doing bits and pieces of work from our bedrooms. We had this idea that we could make our own movies on the backburner while doing that kind of work. That was the naïve first business plan that we put together to together to make Cartoon Saloon.

Cartoo Saloon Logo

Magnett: Speaking of the first business plan, when you decided to establish Cartoon Saloon, what was your goal? What was the burning heart of the company?

Moore: Just to make the Secret of Kells at the time. It was something that was in our hearts and developed with me. We are both from Kilkenny. We were both in Young Irish Filmmakers. Ross Stewart, who is the art director, had also been in Young Irish Filmmakers. So Young Irish Filmmakers gave us some space. It was like an old orphanage; it was really grim, an old orphanage in Kilkenny. We dragged some of our friends from Dublin down. They all got onboard for the idea and we reckoned that we could make e-cards half the week and make the movie the other half the week and have a movie in a year. It was the year 2000 so it was the first Internet boom and we were making e-cards. It was a bit naïve. We learned as we went along.

Young: We discovered how it works gradually as we went along. We got advice to go to MipCom and pitch the film in Berlin as a foreign cultural movie. We met French producer Didier Brunner on the bus and went to his panel. Slowly, just by going into these places, we learned how you get money.

Moore: How you put a project like that together. In Europe it is only co-productions, so we started to find co-production partners in Europe that would help us.

Magnett: It was a Franco-Belgian-Irish production, correct?

Young: Yeah.

Magnett: It took you about ten years all together to create Secret of Kells and now you are turning around four years later with Song of the Sea coming out later this year.

Moore: Yeah, but it feels like longer because of when we started. I had the idea for Song of the Sea during Secret of Kells. It was about seven years ago. We thought that we could hit the ground running and have Song of the Sea go into production right after Secret of Kells. We took a long time trying to find the right funding model, because we thought we could do it differently. We ended up going back to plan A and just doing it as a European co-production. We took our time and tried to get the script really right and the storyboards right. We only went into full production, animation and all, about eighteen months ago. We are just about finished now. It takes a long time to gather the finances, gather the partners, and really get the story right.

The big thing for me with Song of the Sea was I really wanted to make sure it worked for kids. We made animatics and showed them to kids and had test screenings and changed it all the way through the financing. We were still storyboarding in Kells while we were animating. In Song of the Sea we spent a long time getting the storyboard right and getting the story right and making sure it worked. Then we started into the artwork. We just had an eighteen-month period of that hardcore making all the backgrounds.

Young: It seems like ten years for both almost. In the development parts you are kind of doing all the jobs, doing all the things, and that is sort of percolating in the background. Then when you raise all the finance and you finally get the finances together, then you have to go. That’s like an eighteen month or two-year schedule.

Magnett: So with the lessons learned from Secret of Kells and having a full film released and completed, it is still a very lengthy and arduous process.

Young: Yeah. All this stuff you presume you know how to do, you discover that it’s different every time and that each movie is a prototype. There are a lot of similarities. They are very spiritually linked. There is a lot of the same art influence and a lot of the same story influence and a lot of the same artists worked on both of them. It was a bit easier that way. We all knew each other. At the same time, every movie is a prototype so it is a whole fresh challenge. Stuff that I didn’t expect to be challenging, that I thought I knew exactly how to do was more challenging. Other stuff went easier.

Secret of Kells 1

Magnett: Speaking of the art influence, Secret of Kells is a very distinctive film. I remember when I was first put on to it, at the end I said it was like nothing I had ever seen in animation. In fact it reminded me a lot of comics, which is my background. There is a very art-oriented style to it. Every frame feels like you could put it on a wall and it could be an individual piece of art. What do you think your biggest influence was when creating that style?

Moore: Ross Stewart was the art director and we had been friends since we were kids. We were both comics fans. Then it was the medieval art itself, like the actuall Book of Kells. We looked way beyond medieval art, all the way through the whole decorative tradition, and tried to bring that in. There is the Vienna secession painters, Gustav Klimt and Alphonse Mucha and people like that. Then Irish artists like Louis le Brocquy and animators like Richard Williams and Genndy Tartakovsky who did Samurai Jack, all that. Then Eastern European cartoons, like Hungarian folk tales. We worked with a studio on Secret of Kells in Kecskemet in Hungary that had been doing these Hungarian folk tales with Hungarian folk art. We needed to find a way to do something that could only be done in 2D. CG (computer graphics) was more and more ascendant. We wanted to keep hand drawn animation light, so we tried to look at stuff that was from the illustration tradition in books and comics. That’s how we evolved to start.

Young: And we actually do some prints from that as well on our shop.

Moore: Yeah, people have said that so much that we said we would sell prints.

Young: So from our store online…

Moore: Go to www.cartoon.ie

Young: No, it is http://www.thesecretofthekellsstore.com

Moore: Oh, The Secret of the Kells.

Young: And we sell books and prints

Magnett: I’ll make sure to pick up those because they are incredible.

Young: We do actually sell them framed and we ship them. That’s our first foray into licensing.

Magnett: I’m excited to look through the book. It seems like in The Secret of Kells, the story is about passing on art, that art is something where you take what people teach you and you make new things with that knowledge. You are talking about traditions of art going back all the way to the original Book of Kells, seeking influence and creating new things now. Do you see parallels there?

Moore: Yeah. I think what kind of kept us going was that whole idea of those artists in the scriptorium a thousand years ago, that we had something in common in with them. There is something meditative about the process. Especially in The Secret of Kells,where we were animating on paper. It was with paper and pencil so we had that real sense of carrying on a tradition.

Young: People hunched over desks. There are all locked away in the attic at the moment though, the drawing desks. We still draw, but most animators are…

Moore: It’s just tablets.

Young: It is just tablets now.

Moore: We still draw every frame in 2D, but with Kells it was paper and pencil all the way.

Magnett: How was the transition from paper and pencil to a digital focus changed your process?

Moore: It is a little bit more organic now. We have more chance to change things, fix things, make the animation better. Other than that, not much.

Young: It is pretty gradual because some people still draw on paper.

Moore: Secret of Kells we did a couple of sequences in Flash, like the dream sequences. We started to move a little bit into digital, drawing directly onto the screen. Most of it was done on paper. Then when we did the trailer for Song of the Sea, some of the interns in the studio would never animate on paper; they only animated with TVPaint. I didn’t really see the difference.

Young: And TVPaint is a very nice animation friendly kind of program.

Moore: Yeah, very organic.

Young: For animators who use it, it is really like drawing with a pencil for them.

Moore: It is very similar.

Young: You don’t have to ship boxes of paper from Brazil to Hungary like we had to do in Secret of the Kells, physically ship them. Then have them be lost or have some sequences be slightly worse than the others and have to then fix them digitally anyways.

Moore: It streamlined the process. Do you have time for a story, a short story?

Magnett: Absolutely.

Moore: We had boxes and boxes of paper – so many pages of paper – from The Secret of Kells all piled up in front of the server room in the studio. The server room was this air-conditioned room where the brains were, all the computers. Over Christmas a few years ago we had a flood in the studio. We really panicked, like all the company’s history is stored in the server. We run downstairs to see if it had been damaged by the flood, but the paper – all the animation paper – had soaked up all the water just outside. It was dry from literally just a few inches outside the server room door because all the animation paper. All the animation paper is buckled. The paper sacrificed itself.

Young: These were pages of paper of Kell stuff that got wet. They’re not that bad.

Moore: No, they’re a little crinkled and all, but they soaked up all the water.

Young: It saved the next film.

Magnett: I feel like there is sort of a parable there. There is a moral to that story.

Moore: Yeah, I’m not sure. I am going to refine it.

Secret of Kells 2

Magnett: Another kind of transition I am interested in is that before you started moving into production on Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells was slowly being released country by country. You received a great amount of acclaim for it. You can go to your homepage now and you see all these awards listed on it. Did that change how you were working or your ability to do certain types of work or to accomplish certain things?

Young: No, I don’t think it really changed the way we worked.

Moore: We lost about a year thinking about other ways to finance it. We dilly-dallied.

Young: We got wooed a lot in Hollywood.

Moore: Maybe we should do it in stereoscopic treaty and CG. In the end we just went back to plan A, those same sort of sequences as Secret of Kells.

Young: Kilkenny, where we are based, is so far removed from the entertainment industry in general. That was great. That was a period of time we got to travel and Tomm got to go around. I even met Sean Connery in Edinburgh and got an award from him. Those things were great. It was like a little public escape and then we went back to the Kilkenny to start the next thing. You don’t get too sucked into the awards and what you might have done if you were surrounded by that all the time.

We thought maybe we would get financed a bit quicker than we did. We thought, “This is great. We got nominated for an Oscar. People will be throwing money at us for the next thing.” But really, we realized that comes with its own kind of cons as well. You wind up taking a long time listening to all the people talking. We just went back to what we did, the way we financed Secret of Kells and went back to European partners. It was a bit of a distraction, but obviously brilliant for us as a studio to get our name out.

Moore: It really helped us get known, especially in America. The film could have just disappeared in such a huge market, especially in America, but the Oscar nomination really raised the profile of it. The whole year prior to that did, winning the awards, that kind of lead up to the Oscar nomination. It was great. It is really hard to make an independent movie. It’s really hard to get people to come out and give it a chance. The award gives you a kind of professional armor where kind people go, “Oh yeah, they are justified.”

Magnett: I want to talk about Song of the Sea a little bit too. Secret of the Kells was obviously influenced by Irish history and Irish art. I think that visual influence is still very potent in Song of the Sea. What would you describe as the heart of Song of the Sea, the essence of the movie?

Moore: It was the storytelling tradition. The original idea came when I was on holiday in the west of Ireland and we saw seals that had been killed on the beach. My son was ten at the time. The woman that we were renting the cottage from said that would never have happened years ago, that people believed that seals were sometimes they were selkies. Selkies were people that could transform from seals into humans. There was something that I felt was being lost, not just in the stories, but in the belief system, in the folklore, in a way of looking at the world that was being lost with the stories dying out. That was really the inspiration at the start. Those old stories need to be preserved and passed on because you lose a lot more than just a superstition or a story; there is a whole way of looking at the world that is being forgotten. That was the seed, the core of the idea. And then seals and selkies… There was a load of stuff that I’d been researching for Secret of Kells that didn’t fit into Secret of Kells. That is when the new story started to take off.

Secret of Kells 3

Magnett: Is there anything else that you are looking at working on right now?

Young: There is. We are working on a thing called The Breadwinner, developing a film based on a book by a Canadian writer, Deborah Ellis.

Moore: The screenplay is by Anita Doron. And it is going to be directed by Nora [Twomey], who was my co-director on The Secret of Kells.

Young: It is based in Southern Afghanistan and is about a little girl who has to dress as a boy to go out and earn money for her family after her father gets thrown in prison. It has to do a lot with the Tailiban rule in Kabul and Afghanistan.

Moore: It is great story-telling as well. The little girl’s dad was a storyteller and he could read. So people were paying were paying him to read in the marketplace. When he goes into prison, she takes his place. The movie has a fairly grim reality on one hand because it is Afghanistan under the Taliban. On the other hand, there is a whole other side in the movie, that when she tells the story we see all this rich Afghan culture, history, and art. It is going to be really exciting to work on.

Young: It is also good for her, because when she actually gets to dress like a boy and cut her hair. Because she is only around ten or eleven, she gets to experience the world as a boy. This whole world opens up to her.

Moore: It’s a different perspective.

Young: She has a lot of fun, in fact. It is quite a difficult story. There are over a million of the books sold worldwide and it’s on a lot of reading lists in North American, Canada, and around Europe, and in Ireland as well, recommended reading for children on different cultures. It’s fairly recent history. It is still happening and it is still there. It will come back again. The film ends with the American invasion of Afghanistan.

Moore: So that’s the next one.

Young: We are a Canadian-Irish whole production so far. The film came to us from producers in Toronto. They just showed us the book and we thought this would be a nice story to get up in the morning and do. It gives you a kind of feeling when you are doing a story like this because it is quite important. I thought it was going to be a really difficult thing to finance because it’s not like a madcap caper comedy for kids with a lot of fart jokes. That is for sure. It is surprising how many people really want to put money into a film like this. That can be quite a magical story of importance that you can tell. It is an important history lesson and it shows the fight of women in certain parts of the world.

Magnett: There is a definite change or growth in scope with that too. Your previous two films (Song of the Sea and Secret of Kells) very much focused on Irish folklore. Here as a storyteller, you’re shifting to a different country and different region of the world.

Young: The artwork will reflect that too because Afghanistan is really an amazing place culturally. If you look at Afghanistan in the 60’s, women wore mini-skirts; it was very cosmopolitan. Now it has changed. Afghanistan has always been invaded; it has always been occupied. It is really unfortunate.

Moore: It is a challenge.I didn’t take it on to direct it. Nora took it on because as a woman, she was interested in women’s rights and that story. For me, it was not a natural fit. My next movie is going to be set in Ireland again because it just feels more at home and I am comfortable with that. I still wasn’t finished with that subject manner, the folklore and stuff.

Young: Tomm has another one coming up, too.

Moore: That’s not until after Breadwinners.

Young: It is a while off yet.

Magnett: You got a lot of plans for the future though.

Young: You need to. There was a big mistake we made after Secret of Kells. We also made a television series, Skunk Fu. Both of them got financed at that same time. That was on Cartoon Network here in North America, actually. By the end of both- we started both at the same time, we finished both at the same time – we were in a black hole. All of the sudden we sort of fell off a cliff.

Moore: We had nothing. We didn’t have Song of the Sea ready to start.

Young: So the lesson is that we try to keep developing and grow some new talent.

Moore: New directors and stuff in the studio.

Young: We are pitching a new TV series with a new animator.

Moore: When we set up the studio, we consciously didn’t want to call it the Paul Young and Tomm Moore studio, because we knew we wanted it to have more people. Nora is also a founder of the studio. A year later she came in and we wanted it to have a generic name, like Cartoon Saloon, so that we could have lots of people’s style and voice in it. There is my movies and stuff I want to do, but other people can do completely different movies.

Young: We still continue to do lots of shorts. There is a short that is still doing the rounds called the Ledge Edge of Phil by Paul O’Muiris. Then there is a short that we just premiered in Galway called Somewhere Down the Line. These are all great new directors, so we are just trying to do shorts every one or two years to discover new talent.

Magnett: You’ve seen incredible growth, and just talking to you now about everything that is coming out and your plans for the future, compared to fourteen, fifteen years ago when you first founded Cartoon Saloon. What it is like being able to look back and see how far you’ve come, to receive the acclaim you have and to have new talent coming in under your wing?

Young: I felt over the last year we were only getting there. I think two years we wouldn’t be reflecting like that at all. We were just struggling to get going and we were just keeping our heads above water. We have a chance to reflect a bit now and to put into place more strategic thinking. We have a new managing director we’ve finally brought in, that we wanted to do for years, but it never felt like the right time. We never felt we really could even afford a qualified managing director. Now we are able to do that. He has experience. He comes from a complete business background. He also was a producer in Sullivan Bluth.

Moore: It is gratifying for me to go into the studio in the morning and know now that Song of the Sea is finished, I don’t have a whole team waiting for me to tell them what to do. There are other people running other projects. It is really, really nice for me.

Young: There is another TV series going on, which is going great.

Moore: Puffin Rock.

Young: Chris O’Dowd is doing the animation for, and it is going to come on Nickelodeon in the UK in the new year on Irish television. They want to do more episodes, which is really good because now that Song of Sea is finished yet, there is still a series going on. That whole team is working brilliantly. So it feels like there is a bit of a nice studio momentum.

Moore: The family there has grown. There’s a family atmosphere.

Magnett: Thank you both very much.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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