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The Secret of Kells Director Tomm Moore on His Surprise Oscar Nomination: ‘We Barely Qualified’

No Academy Awards have yet been distributed, but perhaps the year’s biggest Oscar upset has already happened. We’re talking, of course, about the nomination of a small little Irish animated film, The Secret of Kells, for Best Animated Feature, beating out several well-reviewed studio blockbusters. But to anyone who’s seen the film, its nomination should come as no surprise — it looks fantastic, with character design that recalls illuminated medieval manuscripts, and it features an old-fashioned, snark-free quest story line that recalls classic fairy tales and children’s books. It’s also a genuine labor of love — the brainchild and handiwork of 33-year-old Irish animator Tomm Moore, who has been working on it for years. (He told us he first had the idea for the film in 1999.) We spoke to Moore during his recent visit to the U.S., as he prepared to fly out to L.A. for the Oscar ceremony.

Was it a huge surprise when you were nominated for an Oscar?
It was a surprise for everyone. We barely qualified, because we only had a brief qualifying theatrical run in Los Angeles and New York last year, and I guess enough people saw it and liked it. We were shocked, really.

So you didn’t have an Oscar campaign?
No campaign. It was just word of mouth. Friends and supporters in L.A. made sure they told as many people as they could about it. I went to one of the screenings. I had won the Roy Disney award at a festival in Seattle, and I’d gone to pick that up. And I flew down to do a Q&A at a screening in Burbank, and I was surprised that it was packed — a lot of animators from all the studios were there, and they had loads of questions. I began to think that maybe we had some support in L.A.

It’s an interesting category this year, almost as if each type of animation is represented — you’ve got the 3-D film in Coraline, you’ve got the stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox, the Pixar computer animation, the return of the traditional Disney hand-drawn film …
It’s a broad category, but I’m glad it exists. Animation is a very broad medium. Whenever I watch a stop-motion film, I always scratch my head at how much work it must have been to deal with all those puppets and all those tiny little movements. It’s really tactile and beautiful, a really great format, but it’s very different from my job, which is to spend hours and hours at a drawing board. But I’m delighted to be in a category this year which features such a beautiful computer film by Pixar (of course, they’re all beautiful) and some really beautiful stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. And I’m also happy that Up is nominated for Best Picture, because it really is a very strong film.

The Secret of Kells is fascinating in the way it utilizes different types of design. Even though it’s all hand-drawn animation, it feels like a hybrid of different styles.
We do mix some things, but in truth, we were trying to find our own style — an Irish style of animation. And because we were working with a limited budget, we had to be very creative in how we pulled it off. We were looking at medieval art, mainly. In a lot of pre-Renaissance art there’s very little perspective, and I think it really lends itself to the flat frame. We wanted to get further and further from the American and Japanese influences that you see in animation these days.

What was your inspiration for the film?
We were looking at the Book of Kells itself, which is kind of the high point of Irish art and visual art, from the ninth century. It’s still on display in Trinity College in Dublin. It’s survived all sorts of fighting, attacks, and different things. Everybody’s familiar with Celtic designs, which show up in pubs or tattoos or album covers or whatever. But all of that really started out in the Book of Kells. There’s an amazing history, lots of legends and stuff surrounding it, and we thought, there’s got to be a movie in there somewhere.

The story itself feels old-fashioned, in a good way. It’s a very earnest tale of a journey — almost like a throwback to the animated films of some decades ago.
We were working independently and didn’t have to answer to any studio or corporation, and we wanted to make it feel like those fairy tales, but still keep it universal. We were inspired by the really old Disney stuff, which have a lot of light and dark stuff in them, like Bambi. We weren’t afraid to give it that kind of earnestness. We didn’t want to be too clever or tongue in cheek. We didn’t want that Shrek kind of mentality.

Ironically, it also has a genuine sense of visual wonder, which everyone says is increasingly hard to create in a world where computers make everything possible.
There is something about giving life to drawings that I think people appreciate, the way they might appreciate a children’s illustration or an old book. There’s something special about it. And you don’t really get that with photo-realistic animation. Hand-drawn animation had been declared dead around the time we started working on this movie, and I felt very strongly that there was so much that it could still do.

What are you working on nowadays?
I’ve been working on a new feature film for the past sixteen months, actually. It’s called The Song of the Sea. It’s about a little girl who’s a selkie, which is a creature in Irish folklore who can be either human or a seal. She’s lost in the city and has to find her way back to the sea. We’re hoping the financing will come together faster this time, especially after the nomination. It took us nearly six years to find the financing for Kells; I first had the idea in 1999, when I was still in college.

Photo: Courtesy of GKIDS