Animator Tomm Moore lives the dream with a 'Song' in his heart

Irish animator Tomm Moore is 'living the dream' as his new film, 'Song of the Sea,' opens in Los Angeles

"Do you want to see the greatest selfie ever?" Tomm Moore extended his arm, covered in Celtic tattoos, to share a photograph of him and his producer with two of the most celebrated figures in contemporary animation, Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and Disney's John Lasseter.

"I don't smoke, but I borrowed a cigarette just to smoke with Miyazaki. What a night."

Moore was in Los Angeles in November for the AFI premiere of his new animated film, "Song of the Sea," and he had snapped the picture two days earlier at the Governors Awards. The cozy embrace from the animation world's artistic elite represented a major step from where the Kilkenny, Ireland-based animator began, making electronic greeting cards and living on beans and toast to fund his first feature, "The Secret of Kells."


Animated show: An article on animator Tomm Moore in the Jan. 9 Calendar section stated that Moore's company Cartoon Saloon produces the Disney Channel show "Doc McStuffins." Cartoon Saloon does not produce that show; it produces "Moone Boy," which airs on PBS.

Set in an abbey in medieval Ireland, Moore's fantasy embodied the opposite of every modern trend in animation when it was released in 2009: It was quiet instead of loud, hand-drawn instead of computer-generated and culturally specific instead of broadly conceived. Embraced by critics and animators and marketed with savvy by niche distributor GKIDS, "The Secret of Kells" earned a surprise Oscar nomination, lending Cartoon Saloon, the animation company Moore had co-founded while a student at Ballyfermot College in Dublin, a newfound cachet.

Moore, 38, has taken that increased animation-world stature and made the more ambitious "Song of the Sea," which opens in Los Angeles on Friday; although not a sequel, it is at least thematically a wistful, maritime companion to "The Secret of Kells."

Shot for roughly $6.4 million — practically the sketchpad budget for $100-million-plus American studio animated films — the movie has received even heartier praise from critics than its predecessor and is a strong contender for an animated feature Oscar nomination.

Like his first film, "Song of the Sea" springs from the rich source material of Irish history and folklore, taking its inspiration from the Selkies, mythological creatures who live as seals in the sea but become humans on land and serve as an allegory for loss. The story follows a child named Ben and his little sister, Saoirse, whose mysterious mother has died, leaving their father, voiced by Brendan Gleeson, lost in grief.

Set in 1987, a time when Moore was growing up in Kilkenny after his family moved from Northern Ireland, the film captures an era before the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger transformed Ireland from one of the poorest countries in Western Europe to one of the wealthiest — at least for a while. With the newfound prosperity, Moore said, Irish stories became more of a curio for tourists than a vibrant part of daily living.

"We've become more consciously part of the Anglosphere, part of the English-speaking world," Moore said. "But what kind of a society do we want to have? There is something important in the folklore, in the stories that links people to their environment and where they're from that's worth remembering. You lose a lot more than just stories when you lose folklore."

Moore is a soft-spoken but vivid storyteller — over coffee in the lobby of his Glendale hotel, he shared an anecdote about bumping into Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh at a urinal at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, which evolved into a philosophical digression about remaining present. Slightly built, with glasses, he speaks in a brogue that gives the word "film" two syllables and talks longingly of getting back to Kilkenny to his wife, a ceramicist, and 18-year-old son.

The son of an engineer, Moore grew up interested in anything but Irish culture — he devoured American and Japanese cartoons, Steven Spielberg movies, 8-bit video games.

"Kids' movies in the '80s, like 'E.T.' and 'Goonies,' they had a melancholy to them, another layer that today's kids' movies just skirt past or use in a cynical way to set up a kick-ass superhero," Moore said.

At a time when Moore was washing the family car so his father would buy him acetate on which to make his own animation cells, American animator Don Bluth was establishing Sullivan Bluth studio in Dublin. That studio employed Irish artists on projects like the 1988 film "The Land Before Time" and "All Dogs Go to Heaven."

The studio closed in the 1990s, and Bluth returned to the U.S., but not before Sullivan Bluth financed the animation program at Ballyfermot that Moore attended and helped plant a seed of animation as a viable career for an Irishman.

Moore graduated a few years after Lasseter's "Toy Story" had turned the animation industry upside-down, with Pixar's computer animation quickly becoming the new norm.

"I wanted to be a hand-drawn animator or a comic book artist, but when 'Toy Story' came out, I was like, 'OK this changes everything,'" Moore said. "I felt that, since CG came in, 2-D had to redefine itself, like when photography came in and painting had to redefine itself. It had to use the language of drawing, to be expressive."

He also wanted to show Ireland the way Miyazaki had shown Japan in films like his 1988 fantasy "My Neighbor Totoro." "I liked the gentle way it was set in Japanese culture, but it wasn't like, 'This is Japanese culture! Look at this!'"

He founded Cartoon Saloon in 1999 and, together with Ballyfermot classmates Paul Young and Nora Twomey, who co-directed "Secret of Kells," has guided it to top status in Ireland's burgeoning animation industry. In addition to their features, Cartoon Saloon works on TV series like the popular Disney Channel show "Doc McStuffins," commercials and illustrations. Depending on its workload, the studio employs from 40 to 70 people at a time and is currently considering adding small satellite offices in L.A. and Paris.

After "Secret of Kells" earned its Oscar nomination, Moore found securing financing for the "Song of the Sea" slightly easier — it's assembled from the Irish film board, broadcasting rights and French and Danish co-producers.

"When we spoke to American producers, I realized, when you get all your money from one source, John Lasseter or Jeffrey Katzenberg, it's sort of their movie you're directing," Moore said. "In Europe, everyone brings a little piece, and they can say their part, but you're really in an auteur position by default. You have to listen to their concerns, but at the end of the day as a director-producer, I'm in a powerful position."

Cartoon Saloon's next film will be about a little girl in Afghanistan and will be directed by Twomey; then Moore will tackle another Irish folklore tale, set during the time when Oliver Cromwell was ridding Ireland of wolves.

"When I came out to California in 2008, I met the guys working at Pixar, and I said, 'You guys are living the dream,'" Moore recalled. "And they said, 'No, you're living the dream. You're making your own movie.'"

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