Song of the Sea and the hand-drawn animation revival

10 Jul 2015 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

6 mins
Song of the Sea
Song of the Sea

Most animated films are made by big Hollywood studios, but there is a shift - more and more animations are being made by smaller companies in other countries.

In the UK we have Aardman Animations, responsible for Shaun The Sheep and Wallace & Gromit; in France there is Folimage, who made the brilliant A Cat In Paris and the upcoming Phantom Boy, and Japan has the legendary Studio Ghibli, responsible for such classics as The Wind Rises and Spirited Away.

Also making waves is Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, with their two films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea.The Secret of Kells was nominated for an Oscar and is one of the most popular films with our film clubs.

We're willing to bet that Song of the Sea (also nominated for an Oscar) quickly becomes just as successful and Cartoon Saloon start giving Hollywood a real run for its money. Fans of The Secret of Kells should keep their eyes peeled when watching Song of the Sea, as Aisling makes a surprise appearance. Let us know in your review if you spot her.

Hand-drawn techniques

As opposed to computer-generated animation, the whole of Song of the Sea is hand animated. Hand-drawn animation looks beautiful, but it is also a very long process - each second of footage requires twelve drawings per character. The tradition of hand drawn animation seemed to dying out, but the popularity of recent films such as The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, as well as the Disney short film Paperman prove that hand-drawn animation still has an audience.

Song of the Sea is about an Irish boy called Ben, who lives on a remote island and discovers that his mute younger sister Saoirse is actually a mysterious creature called a selkie. The turn of events sees them set off on a wondrous journey full of challenges and adventures, taking in enchanted forests, Faeries and magical wells, in a story inspired by ancient myths and legends from Celtic culture. But the filmmakers also wanted to make the film relatable, so like many of the best animated films, such as Bambi and the recent Big Hero 6, it also deals with complicated human emotions in a very recognisable way.

Selkies are mythological creatures in Scottish and Irish culture, half-human, half-seal, living in the sea and on the land, and gifted with magical songs. They also play an important part in The Secret of Roan Inish, another of our favourites, described as 'spellbinding' by a member of our Youth Advisory Council.

More myths and legends

Folklore stories form the basis of lots of films from around the world. Some of our favourites are The Sword in the Stone, The Adventures of Robin Hood; Snow White; and Tangled. Many more films draw heavily on ancient myths and legends, such as How to Train Your Dragon, The Lord of the Rings, and Brave.

The film begins with lines taken from a poem called 'The Stolen Child' by the famous Irish poet WB Yeats. He was particularly known for including references to local myths and folklore in his writing.

In Song of the Sea, scary witch Macha tries to turn Saoirse to stone. This is another common feature in myths and legends and is called petrifaction. Have you heard of the Greek legend of Medusa, a monster with live snakes instead of hair? People would be turned to stone just by looking at her. Think too of The White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia stories or of Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films.

About the filmmakers

Song of the Sea's Director, Tomm Moore, says he was inspired by lots of the Studio Ghibli films when making this film, particularly My Neighbour Totoro, which is also about magical adventures in a mysterious forest. Tomm was also inspired by his own childhood memories of watching the Irish fable Into the West, about two children whose lives are transformed when their grandfather brings them a beautiful white horse.

Like all film directors,Tomm had to be very aware of his audience while he was making the film. To be sure that children would enjoy and understand the finished story, Tomm screened parts of the film at his local primary school, long before anybody else in the world could watch it.

The filmmakers wanted the sounds in the film to feel as real as possible. So instead of using archive sounds that are commonly used, they went out into forests and onto the sea itself to record sounds as captured in the wild.

Tomm is already busy working on his next film, called The Wolf Walkers, which is set in Ireland during the 1650s and is again based on ancient folklore. Cartoon Saloon are also making The Bread Winner, which is set in modern-day Afghanistan. We're eagerly anticipating both!

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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