Secret of Kells - The magic cat
The magic cat © 2009

In an animation industry dominated by photo-realistic digital animation, The Secret of Kells is a notable exception. Combining magic and Celtic mythology in a riot of color and lovingly-drawn detail, it tells the tale of young Brendan whose life changes when a master illuminator arrives from another land carrying a book loaded with ancient wisdom and powers. When Brendan is forced to complete the book, he embarks on a journey into an enchanted forest where he encounters the mysterious fairy girl Aisling who aids him in his quest.

For Irish director Tomm Moore, the Oscar-nominated film (currently in UK theatrical release and for sale on DVD and Blu-Ray in the USA) was a decade in the making. With a team of artists and animators scattered across several countries worldwide, the biggest challenge for the filmmaker was maintaining the carefully crafted-style that evoked the look of medieval art.

During a recent promotional visit to promote the Kells home video release, Moore discussed his own personal quest to bring the film to life…

The Secret of Kells has been a big part of your life for many years. What was it that kept you dedicated to the project for this length of time?

Secret of Kells - Poster
Poster © 2009

It was a labor of love or maybe even a pipe dream in the early days, but it was the thing we came back to all the time when we weren’t working on other projects like commercials or whatever. It was something we weren’t sure would ever get into production, so it kind of benefited from a very long development period.

For me, I suppose the story was always evolving. I felt like it was getting better as I learned more during the development period, especially in the writing end of things, so it ended up being a bit of a self-reflective story. It’s about a kid wanting to be an artist and struggling to do something against difficult circumstances so I felt I had a bit of kinship with Brendan.

With the ever-increasing growth of digital animation, was there any resistance to the style you wanted to create?

It took six years to find a partner that was willing to get involved so we had a lot of no’s. I guess those people were saying no because they weren’t confident that they could market something in 2-D. When Toy Story came out in ’95, that was my first year in college, and by the time I graduated in 1999, everyone was talking about 2-D being dead so it was a bit of an uphill struggle.

When we partnered with Les Armateurs and Vivi Films, The Triplets of Belleville was a surprise success, so they believed in the possibilities of 2-D animation and really got behind us. We didn’t have too much trouble after that.

It’s ironic that we’re talking about the simplicity of 2-D animation, but some of the processes you used are quite sophisticated. For example, there was a new ink and paint software used to create those thick outlines and an almost stained glass look.

Secret of Kells - Voice artists Christen Mooney and Evan McGuire
Aisling (voiced by Christen Mooney) and Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) © 2009

The biggest challenge for us was that we were working with such a small budget and a team that was really spread out, so while computers and digital help were important to the production, we still wanted to keep this handmade look.

All the characters were drawn on paper and painted and so on, but our partners in Belgium came up with some really cool software that allowed us to save some time.

If we wanted to put a thick outline on each frame of animation, it would have taken an hour per drawing, but they found a way for the computer to select our pencil line and grow it so it was still a pencil line not a computer line. But it was thicker than if we had to go over it more than once to make that thick outline.

Those were the little tricks we had to use, because we wanted to finish the film in our lifetime, so we had to find clever ways to work around the fact that it was such a difficult style to draw in.

What was it like going to the Oscars as a nominee?

Secret of Kells - Voiced by Evan McGuire
Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) with his magic cat © 2009

They were certainly not the sort of people I would normally mingle with or imagine I’d be mingling with. Coming from a small town in Ireland, I was fairly cut off from that world so it was a bit of an eye-opener, but everybody was really kind.

I got to know some of the other nominees, like Pete Docter and Henry Selick and we were all sort of in the same boat, so we were looking around saying, ‘Oh look, there’s James Cameron!’

This film is quite significant to the Irish film industry isn’t it?

There has been an explosion of good live-action films over the last few years, but this is really the first Irish animated feature film, at least in its subject matter and inception. That was part of the driving force that kept me going. It didn’t seem like anybody was going to pip us to the post, so we were able to put that little notch in history.

What do you have in mind for your next project?

Secret of Kells - Voiced by Evan McGuire
The magic cat gives Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) a fright © 2009

When I was working on this film, I always used to joke that I was going to make a follow-up about girls in bikinis on a spaceship, just to do something completely different. In actual fact, I’m doing a film that is inspired by some of the research that we did ‘Kells’ that didn’t fit in.

It’s a modern fairy tale about the last Selkie child, who’s trying to find her way back to the sea. On the way she meets all these forgotten characters and creatures from folklore that are fading back into the landscape. I suppose it’s more of a comment on modern Ireland than The Secret of Kells, but I hope to get this film done a lot sooner than the last one!

Joe Nazzaro

Joe is a New York based journalist