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Hand drawn boy: Tomm Moore on taking on Hollywood's giants

Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon is once again in the running for award season glory. Co-founder Tomm Moore tells Dónal Lynch about being a comic-obsessed 'oddball' as a kid and how he handled being a teenage dad

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Tomm Moore, founder of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tomm Moore, founder of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tomm Moore is concerned about the urgency of climate change, and the future that faces his granddaughter. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tomm Moore is concerned about the urgency of climate change, and the future that faces his granddaughter. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Liselott Olofsson,Tomm Moore, Yvonne Roth, Paul Young and guests at the Annual Academy Awards in 2018

Liselott Olofsson,Tomm Moore, Yvonne Roth, Paul Young and guests at the Annual Academy Awards in 2018

A still from 'Wolfwalkers'

A still from 'Wolfwalkers'

Pinocchio

Pinocchio

David Bowie as Jared the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

David Bowie as Jared the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

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Tomm Moore, founder of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When the Golden Globes go virtual on March 1, Cartoon Saloon will once again be a hand-drawn David to the CGI Goliath of a major studio. Wolfwalkers, an animated jewel of a feature by the Irish studio, is one of the contenders, but the favourite is Soul, Pixar's latest box office behemoth.

When the Oscar nominations are announced later next month, the same battle lines will be drawn. In a sense it's déjà vu for the Kilkenny-based company. Both times when Cartoon Saloon has been nominated for an Oscar, either Pixar or its parent company, Disney, has walked away with the award, so it's understandable that Wolfwalkers' co-director Tomm Moore says, "I'm not counting chickens. I am glad we've gone from being a complete outsider to being a definite contender, but I think it's going to be a difficult year [to win] because Soul is an incredible movie. With the buzz, there is a chance, but it's not my first rodeo."

In the best sense, that much is clear from Wolfwalkers, which is another leap forward from Cartoon Saloon's previous films. The final piece of a loose folkloric trilogy (the others being Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) tells the story of a young English girl, Robyn, who is an outsider in a 17th-century Irish town. She arrives to the town with her father, a hunter, who is tasked by the locals to eliminate the native wolf population, but Robyn finds things are not all that straightforward after befriending a local girl in forbidden lands that lie outside the town's walls. The angular austerity of the town - rendered in sharp, woodcut-like lines - and the sensuous swirls of the forest beyond the walls - even on the small screen (its cinema run was curtailed due to the pandemic but it's now available on Apple TV+), mean it's a visual banquet.

Moore and Wolfwalkers co-director Ross Stewart drew on Irish myth for the story but its themes feel current. Moore says he's not surprised that some people have read LGBT narratives into the metaphor of transformation within the film.

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Tomm Moore is concerned about the urgency of climate change, and the future that faces his granddaughter. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tomm Moore is concerned about the urgency of climate change, and the future that faces his granddaughter. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Tomm Moore is concerned about the urgency of climate change, and the future that faces his granddaughter. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"One of our editors early on said, 'you know this is a coming out movie, it's going to mean a lot to a lot of people' and I said, 'oh yeah, I can see that.' I think these kinds of metaphors and analogies are why mythology lasts as long as it does. A few hundred years ago, just being an artist might have been enough to make someone an outsider, now it's other things. There's something magical about that transition time, going from being a child to an adult, a moving from accepting everything that society and your parents have told you, to finding your own identity. A lot of mythology deals with that period, when we are on the cusp of life."

Moore himself comes across like a man still in touch with the whimsy and fun of childhood. He paints his nails with his granddaughter Mara (today they're Emo black) and shines with relatable nerdish enthusiasm when discussing the comics and movies from his own salad years.

Like his young protagonist in Wolfwalkers, he was something of an outsider growing up. His family had moved to Kilkenny from the North of Ireland and as a comic-obsessed "oddball" in a hurling-mad school - St Kieran's - he was bound to stand out. Morrissey was the soundtrack to his teenage years and comics were a passion. "It was the era of Tim Burton's Batman. My cousin came over from Canada with all the American comics, which I loved, and I copied [artist] Jim Fitzpatrick."

He had known Stewart since childhood but they became friends at St Kieran's. They had both been the best artists in their respective national schools and so there was a draw-off to see who could do the best Batman. Stewart won and Moore smilingly says that he was "always trying to be as good an artist as Ross Stewart".

Initially both felt that comics would be a better form of self-expression than animation, which depended on an industrial production process, but both were involved in Young Irish Filmmakers, and there were, at least, real jobs in animation.

Lured by tax incentives, the American studio, Sullivan Bluth, had come to Dublin and Don Bluth himself had been involved in the setting up of an animation course at Ballyfermot Senior College.

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Liselott Olofsson,Tomm Moore, Yvonne Roth, Paul Young and guests at the Annual Academy Awards in 2018

Liselott Olofsson,Tomm Moore, Yvonne Roth, Paul Young and guests at the Annual Academy Awards in 2018

Liselott Olofsson,Tomm Moore, Yvonne Roth, Paul Young and guests at the Annual Academy Awards in 2018

After a good Leaving Cert, Moore forsook a place in Art History and English at Trinity College and threw himself into the "no frills" atmosphere of the PLC at Ballyfermot. "I had a friend who was a gay lad from South Africa and I remember he was a bit disillusioned when he saw the whole thing. He was like, where's the college community and where's the gay club? Unfortunately, we missed those things. It was very much a tech college but I quickly realised it was a good place for animation."

He had met his future wife, Liselott in Young Irish Filmmakers. In 1995, while both were still in their teens, and he was attending Ballyfermot, they found out she was pregnant with their son, Ben, now 25.

"The first person we told was Mike Kelly, who ran Young Irish Filmmakers, as he was the adult in our lives we felt we could talk to and he immediately helped us and made sure we didn't feel overwhelmed by it all. When we told our parents, they were very supportive. I had made up my mind that I would leave college and get a job to support the baby, but my mum and dad said stay in college and finish it out. There was a panic about doing something more sensible but they encouraged me to stay the course. We were up in Dublin on our own and for the first couple of years we didn't even have a mobile phone but we knew our parents were there for us."

Still, it was difficult becoming a father at such a young age. "I'm still dealing with it," he laughs. "I've got PTSD."

While he was at Ballyfermot, he met future collaborators Paul Young and Nora Twomey. "Nora was quiet and a little older. At the time, there were less girls in the class - it's inverted now, there are more women in animation - and there were loads of lads jockeying for position to be the best drawer, and she was just there, quietly being brilliant. We were neighbours [in Kilkenny] and friends. Right from the start she was aware of broader themes than just knowing, for instance, all the animators on Donald Duck."

By the time they all became friends, animation was experiencing something of a renaissance. Movies like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Toy Story, which came out when Moore was in first year at Ballyfermot, had been huge box office hits.

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A still from 'Wolfwalkers'

A still from 'Wolfwalkers'

A still from 'Wolfwalkers'

He remembers passing the poster for The Lion King and interpreting it as a sign that he was on the right path, but his own inspiration was taken from The Thief and the Cobbler, an Arabic folklore-inspired film that employed the hand-drawn, two-dimensional perspectives for which Cartoon Saloon would later become known, and Mulan, a Disney film that was based on Chinese legend. The time seemed right for a distinctively Irish animated feature and Moore was determined to be the one to make it.

After graduation, he moved back to Kilkenny with Liselott and Ben, bringing a dozen young animators with him, and, with the aid of a grant, set up Cartoon Saloon with Paul Young and Nora Twomey.

"I was in it [Young Irish Filmmakers] since I was 14, so it felt familiar. I'm sure some of the lads who I'd convinced to come down were more apprehensive but we were at that age when you are happy to try new things out and none of us wanted to go into video games which seemed to be the main option. When we came down, it was like a continuation of Ballyfermot but with even less equipment. Ross actually made the desks that we sat at. We bought equipment to do hand-drawn animation at a time when everyone was saying that hand-drawn animation was over. It seemed like a lark, the feeling was that we'd do it for a couple of years and then get real jobs."

The studio's first productions were short films directed by Twomey, one based on Inuit folklore, and another in Irish. Their first big project was The Secret of Kells. It told the story of a young monk who helped to complete the sacred manuscript at a moment when the powers-that-be wanted to focus on defending the Abbey against invaders. Visually, the film was intricate, employing the flattened perspectives of the Book of Kells itself, and its story seemed like a metaphor for the value of art and the struggle of creation. It was also distinctively Irish in a way that seemed neither stereotypical nor patronising. The film "didn't do much" at the box office, Moore recalls, but went on to be nominated for an Oscar.

The ceremony itself was interesting. "[Film director] Richard Linklater came up and said he loved it. Quentin Tarantino was buzzing... he said, 'I'm so excited for you guys. Yeaaahhhh!' And then he walked away and I realised that he'd been standing on my certificate of nomination so now I've a framed Quentin Tarantino footprint. Himself and George Clooney were so friendly and you realise they are these huge stars, but at one stage, they were just fans too."

The hand-drawn animation of Kells felt countercultural at a moment when most animated films used CGI (even if Moore modestly describes Cartoon Saloon's signature style as "wearing the same pair of pants for long enough that they came back into fashion") and would be credited with turning Disney back to hand-drawn work.

Meanwhile Moore and his friends had earned the belief to keep going.

The success of the film made financing their follow-up - Song of the Sea - easier. The film, which told the story of a family grappling with grief, was a very different film tonally and remarkable in the way it distilled dark themes without condescending to its young audience.

"Around the time of Song of the Sea, I became very aware of tone and how you can deal with darker themes. Roald Dahl, who I love, would have dealt with fairly dark stuff but tonally the illustrator was Quentin Blake and there was a playfulness. I was a kid in the '80s and there was a lot of dark stuff that I think maybe had come from the hippies of the '70s - like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, they all had this Jungian psychological darkness to them, just crazy movies for children."

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Like its predecessor, Song of the Sea was a critical hit and an Oscar nominee, but, aside from China, where more than 50 million people watched it, it didn't make a big commercial impact.

"I'm not sure why that was," he begins. "If you're spending money going to the cinema and there's something that looks cute and appealing versus something that looks a bit more challenging, maybe you don't take the risk as easily. Song of the Sea was distributed as an arthouse film. I think Soul is quite interesting because it's like a European co-production, but I think, until now, most mainstream stuff wasn't as challenging and so audiences are not used to that."

If you're expecting snippiness about the likes of Peppa Pig, you've come to the wrong place; he thinks both are "well made".

He says that he tried to make the type of cartoons that he'd like his son Ben to see, even if the boy, who was soaking up indie fare from Japan and the US, wasn't the most representative young audience.

Three years ago, when Moore was just 40, Ben had his own daughter, Mara, when he was 23. "It's kind of amazing," Moore says, smiling. "I mean, what could I say to him [Ben]? We were warning him the whole time but at least he waited a few years longer than we did.

"Mara is a ray of sunshine in our lives, she loves watching Wolfwalkers and we're nearly as popular as Frozen."

He says that he's sometimes kept awake at night worrying about the world Mara will grow up in. Moore is a vegan and Liselott is involved in animal welfare issues through the Green Party. Climate change worries him.

"A lot of people, me included, felt that something urgent needed to be done about climate change and nothing was being done and I found that depressing. I will admit I did have mental health issues in the last years and part of it was trying to imagine a future for my granddaughter."

He has always suffered from anxiety, he says, and was recently diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). "And it's far from tidiness, you should see my studio. You get very obsessed and very focused and you might drive to the studio in the middle of the night but then you can become obsessed with finding answers where there are no answers."

I mention that I've heard it described as like having "a bully in your brain".

"That's exactly it. And society will reward you once the bully is on its side, if it's constantly telling you to work harder, or insist that everything is done to a certain standard and never be satisfied [with] anything you do, you're told you're great. And after a while, you just think, 'hang on, this is not pleasant to live like this'. I'm glad I'm managing that better because I do believe you can be an artist without suffering. I'm getting better at it, almost to the point where I'm going 'who am I' without anxiety, which is a lovely place to be."

Part of his improved mental health has been realising that there are, in fact, a lot of people like him out there. His youthful passions, veganism, animal rights and hand-drawn animation, have all become more mainstream in recent years. "It feels like I'm in some solipsistic film. My generation were the most miserable as teenagers and yet we've seen a lot of positive developments in our lives. I can't imagine what it's like to be a young person now."

He seems to be at a happy moment in his life. He's heartened by the wave of creativity that Cartoon Saloon has helped usher in - The New Yorker, which profiled him recently, refers to "a golden age of animation".

Having had his son very young, he and Liselott are now at the point where they have a freedom of which most parents their age can barely dream. They had planned to go travelling this year before the pandemic put paid to that.

"It's a nice period of life now, to be honest. I'm doing a lot of life drawing and being there for the younger directors. I'm not the engine of the studio any more and in a way that's a relief.

"I don't know if I'd advise people to have kids young but if you survive it and you get out the other end, you still feel fairly young."

'Wolfwalkers' is available now on Apple TV+ and will be in cinemas later in the year

 

Fantastical creations:  three classic kids' movies

Pinocchio (1940)

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Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Pinocchio

 

This Disney classic built on the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and brought to life a stylised world which more than held its own against the live action films of the day. It came at a moment when animators, rather than today's celebrity voice talents, were the stars, and they innovated in myriad ways, hinting at the action offscreen and using multiplane perspectives. But the enduring power of the movie is the timelessness of the story, a parable about the danger of telling lies. At a gut level, it was a narrative about becoming, and the climax, when Geppetto is captive in the belly of the whale and Pinocchio proves himself at last, is a fireworks show of visual brilliance.

Labyrinth (1986)

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David Bowie as Jared the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

David Bowie as Jared the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

David Bowie as Jared the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

 

Three geniuses, George Lucas, Jim Henson and Monty Python's Terry Jones, combined to blow the minds of 1980s' children with this dark, musical story about a Gen X Dorothy (Jennifer Connolly in her film debut) who must rescue her little brother from a goblin prince (David Bowie). Henson's gloriously gnarled puppets, and sparkling, sepia backdrops, were a huge leap forward from his previous film (The Dark Crystal), and ensured that the film would never really date. Bowie's mullet-wearing wizard, one moment brooding, the next playful, was just the right side of scary (adults could quake at his revealing tights) and his raucous contributions to the soundtrack were enough to make anyone believe in magic.

Spirited Away (2001)

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Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote and directed this, was a huge influence on the folk at Cartoon Saloon, and while the Japanese animator hit vertiginous creative peaks both before and after (with Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle), this film might well be his masterpiece. It's a phantasmagorical feast, set in a bathhouse underworld which shifts and morphs as fast as its bewildered young fugitive-heroine can absorb it. There's a buffet of slobbering pigs, a demented flying crone and a slime creature. The whole thing has a hallucinatory quality, and, like the great children's classics, a beguiling wit and playfulness.

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