Cartoon Saloon received international acclaim with their first big project The Secret of Kells and now, with the release of Song of the Sea and two Oscar nominations under their collective belt, it is clear that the animation company is making waves both at home and abroad. Having chatted with studio heads Tomm Moore and Paul Young earlier this year ahead of their appearance at OFFSET 2015, we this time talked to the animation director on Song of the Sea, Fabian Erlinghäuser, about the production behind the unique film, and the style and work of Cartoon Saloon.
Tell me about your role in making Song of the Sea.
I was animation director on it, and first assistant director as well. Basically, it’s a European production and there isn’t really one big lump of money like at Disney or at Dreamworks where they would just green light something for $100 million. In Europe, we have to actually get interested parties on board to produce a film like Song of the Sea. So we came up with the story and made all the pre-production here; the script, the animatics, the character designs, background designs and art direction. Once we had that, we could get other studios on board to help us.
Tomm Moore, the director, and William Collins, the scriptwriter, spent a lot of time really nailing the script. Then the next stage was to make an animatic out of that, a storyboard form of the script just to visualize it and to get a feel of the overall style and how the film might play out. Although it’s a very rough sort of stage so there’s nothing refined, but it doesn’t matter at that point. The overall production time was about 18 months of actual production time, with different departments running at the same time.
How did you decide on the look of the film?
We looked at Celtic art. For example, we had these carvings on stone, they’re sort of twirl shapes, and they date back thousands of years. We wanted that in our film as well and so a lot of the backgrounds tried to bridge the Celtic art with something modern. We like flat visual styles and influences so, rather than going for a fully rendered 3D visual, we go the opposite way because we like the symbolism.
You could say it’s more like impressionism really, more like an artistic reflection of reality rather than something that has too many details. While watching 3D movies, people may think the more real the better. I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a lot to be said for the interpretation of something. It’s like saying that a photograph is better than a painting, but a photograph or painting can evoke different emotions and that’s sort of what we want to do as well.
Was it difficult splitting the animation between the different studios?
Yes, there were five contrives in total [working on the project] including post-production. There was a lot of coordination involved. We used a page where everyone uploaded their stuff and leave comments, and animators in other countries can pick it up and correct the scene. It’s called Hopsoft, software we use internally. There’s another studio in Luxembourg called Studio 352, and that involved a lot of coordination too because we were working with, not only different animators, but different cultures. To get everyone on the same page and really immerse themselves in the Celtic story sometimes can be difficult. Some people have never seen a hurley, for example, and you have to explain to them what it is.
So it was a very multi cultural production?
Yes and that’s very much the case in animation anyway. In any given day, you could be sitting at a table with seven people from seven different countries. It’s a very international business where you hire people for specific tasks, for example if I need a good character animator, he could be from anywhere, from Italy, France or even Ireland. You don’t hire based on nationality first and foremost.
Do the looks of characters change a lot over time? The little girl, for instance, is the way she looks now different from the original concept?
It depends on each character. For example the little girl, Saoirse, didn’t change that much from the idea that Tomm originally had. The other main character, her brother Ben, was changed dramatically. We worked on him since 2008 and he looks completely different now to how he looked in the beginning.
How was he different?
He was smaller and had a different hair colour and he looked different in the face, but once production starts, you really have to decide on one design. Once decided, you put a lot of work into creating the look of that character. With hand drawn animation, you can’t really twist and turn like a computer generated character. You’re drawing every angle.
You really have to make sure that the design stays on model, which means that all these different artists working on it draws it the same way. With hand drawing, you’re talking about artists who have a desire naturally to put their own spin on things. We want to avoid everyone drawing characters differently. A lot of the time you have to reign that in and have to make sure that the character looks consistent.
Does Cartoon Saloon have a particular style?
We have a specific style we like to go for. There isn’t a name for it; it’s just a very stylistic thing like flat characters and flat backgrounds. We want to maintain that style as a trademark but also evolve that style visually and use different media, computers and an organic process using ink and colours and Photoshop all mixed together, so that can be very alien to people who come on from a studio in Luxembourg, for instance. So we needed to get them thinking along the same lines and aesthetic for that.
You’ve received your second Oscar nomination for Song of the Sea. A few years ago, did you ever think you’d get to this point?
Its great to be recognised like that with the Oscar, but at the same time we’re very aware that it’s hard to beat the big boys. You’re talking about a budget of something that’s 6 million going up against something that cost 160 million, so were aware of that sort of phalanx. It’s very hard to break through, but that’s not our aim; we want to make a good movie, to put something out there that’s distinctly Irish as well, something that stands out. It’s important to stay true to certain cultural things and get a story out there and sort of believe in these projects.
People probably find it refreshing to take a break from bloated 3D animated films.
Yes, in a way it’s really just a bonus to be recognised with the Oscar and things like that, it does open doors and that’s the main thing really. Even if you don’t win it, you’re still out there and being mentioned and that’s a huge plus.
What’s your favourite character from Song of the Sea?
There’s a character called The Great Seanachaí, we call him the hairy man. He’s just a really fun character, made up of literally a bunch of hairs and each hair holds a memory. He is very funny and very distinct for this movie.
Was there computer manipulation used on Song of the Sea?
There was, and on The Secret of Kells too, even though it’s handmade. Character animation is hand drawn but we use computers to help us with some things. It’s important to remember that the computer is just a tool, and it helps you to achieve something. A lot of kids talk to me to ask what program to use to get started in animation, and I say that it’s not the program that does it for you; you really have to lay the groundwork. It’s like somebody asking what keyboard they should get if they want to learn the piano. I’d say learn how to read notes first.
You’re working on a project called The Breadwinner. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah, there’s a book that’s been in the best selling charts for quite some time called The Breadwinner, written by Deborah Ellis, and it’s a pretty hot topic nowadays because it depicts a little girl in Afghanistan who grows up under the Taliban regime, a very authoritarian regime, around the year 2000/2001. It’s all about this girl’s struggle to make a life for herself and her family in this regime in Afghanistan. They’re calling it a cartoon, but it’s more of a serious topic just shown through the medium of animation, and so we’re very excited about it and working a lot on the pre-production on the character designs and background designs, so that should start later this year.
Is there anything else you want to mention?
Tomm made a good point about children. They are probably the most important audience there is for a filmmaker; we’re shaping minds for the future and shaping the minds of the adults of the future so, in a way, we put a lot of importance on that and we want to put out a movie that’s worthwhile. One that makes you cry, makes you laugh and makes you think. A movie that ticks a lot of boxes emotionally because it is the most important audience there is. We want to break that belief that cartoons are just kids fodder.
Song of the Sea is on general release from Friday 10th July.
Words: Mary McFadden