There’s a scene in “The Secret of Kells,” when an eighth-century Irish monk is rummaging through his papers and throwing them in the air, which sums up the sheer international complexity of the project.
It was animated by a Polish artist working in a Hungarian studio, then cleaned up by a Mongolian who could only communicate with Irish director Tomm Moore via a translator from Transylvania.
“The Secret of Kells,” co-directed by Moore and Nora Twomey, was made across five countries — Ireland, France, Belgium, Hungary and Brazil — and funded by a patchwork of co-production coin.
“I call it Franken-finance, pulling the pieces from different parts from Europe,” says producer Paul Young.
Yet in its artistic heart, the movie is wholly Irish. The Book of Kells, a lavishly illuminated bible dating from A.D. 800, is perhaps Ireland’s greatest national treasure. The movie it inspired is the fruit of a decade’s work by Cartoon Saloon, the company set up by Young, Moore and Twomey when they left Dublin’s Ballyfermot College in the late 1990s.
“We did the scriptwriting and the development here,” explains Young, “the key animation and the pre-production design, and we decided very early on to try and make it look as unique as possible.
“If you use CGI, you can’t compete with the Hollywood majors on their big budgets to create the look they do, so we went for a flat tapestry, simplified to look like a medieval image, inspired by the Book of Kells. It breaks a lot of animation rules, even moving away from the traditional Disney 2-D style.”
Ireland first emerged on the global animation map when former Disney animator Don Bluth set up his studio Sullivan Bluth there in the mid-’80s. The company closed in 1995 but sowed seeds (including helping to found the animation course at Ballyfermot) that are still bearing fruit today.
Dublin is the base for a handful of animation companies, such as Brown Bag, Jam, Monster and Kavaleer, that specialize in TV and commercials. Out west in Galway, Magma pumps out high-volume TV series and worked with Danish partner A Film on the features “The Ugly Duckling and Me” and “Niko.”
Cartoon Saloon, based in the sleepy southern town of Kilkenny, is the company most dedicated to developing and producing its own feature films.
Moore’s next project, “Song of the Sea,” is another family adventure drawing on Irish folklore. Twomey is developing “Bluebeard,” an adult horror project based on the classic story of a murdered wife. She will use live actors within an animated world — “like ‘300’ or ‘Sin City,’ but the environment will be like a Romantic painting by Caspar David Friedrich,” says Young.