Song of the Sea (2014): A Conversation With Animator and Author Ken Priebe

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Your next favorite animated movie and one of 2014’s most glorious motion pictures — Song of the Sea — is now available on Amazon Instant, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play. It’s also out now on blu-ray and DVD.

In 2010, The Secret of Kells arrived like the first animated movie from heaven itself.  It was so different — so unique in its style, in its storytelling, even in its voice work — that I did not immediately appreciate its greatness. But over the next two years, I watched it again and again, loving it more every time. Now I’ve planted it firmly at the top of my Favorite Films of 2010 list, over Toy Story 3.

The Secret of Kells is gorgeous, dramatic, funny, moving, alive with mystery, and bursting with details that continue to emerge viewing after viewing. Greatness like that does not come easy, so it’s no surprise that it took so many years for Tomm Moore and his team to come up with another feature-length film. Song of the Sea, like The Secret of Kells, earned an Oscar nomination (and I suspect that both of them would have won if more Oscar voters had actually seen them on a big screen).

Carrying the elaborate visual style of The Secret of Kells even further, Song of the Sea weaves real-world particularity and the magic of Irish mythology together into two hours of visual imagination, musical whimsy, and unpredictable storytelling that shows up the dearth of imagination in American animated features. It follows a brother and sister — Ben and Saoirse (prounounced SEER-shuh) — who lost their mother in mysterious circumstances when Saoirse was born. So when they are taken away from their father and their lighthouse home by their demanding grandmother and dragged off to live in the city, their broken hearts are broken all over again. But before long they begin to realize that their mother’s disappearance and their grandmother’s tyranny are part of a large and troubling mystery. So they set out on adventures involving selkies, owls, fairies, and the wicked Owl Witch. It’s enthralling.

When Kells arrived, I turned in a two-part conversation with film reviewer Steven Greydanus, and it was published at Image. (You can read that here: Pt. 1Pt. 2.)

This time, I invited animator and author Ken Priebe — a man whose imagination seems to exist in a state of perpetual invention. Ken literally wrote the book (books, plural, actually) on stop animation, and we have found that we have very similar passions for the works of Jim Henson, Pixar, and, yes, Tomm Moore. Soon I’ll be writing about Ken’s own creative work — an upcoming book called Gnomes of the Cheese Forest. But here, we couldn’t wait to compare notes on Song of the Sea.

song-of-the-sea6Ken and I spoke at the end of February, while Song of the Sea was playing a short run in Seattle. I’ve done a bit of editing to eliminate spoilers.

Overstreet:

It seems disgraceful to even mention the words “Oscar” and “animation” in the same sentence after the exclusion of The LEGO Movie this year.

But I can’t get too angry at the Academy, as they’ve nominated both of Tomm Moore’s films: The Secret of Kells in 2009, and Song of the Sea, which is only now, here in the last days of February 2015, finally playing in Seattle.

But you’re the animation expert: Can you give us a quick elevator-speech run-down of the animated films that the Academy nominated? (And let’s pretend that The LEGO Movie was nominated.)

song-of-the-sea4Priebe:

I’m sorry to say The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the only one I haven’t had a chance to see yet, but the trailer is amazing so I’m anxious to watch it. The expressive hand-drawn style is a breath of fresh air in a CG-saturated world, and it’s nice to see experimental foreign films like this be recognized.

As for the others, I enjoyed them all on different levels. It’s pretty much a given that the production design and character animation on all of them were excellent and the right mediums for the different stories they were telling.

But The LEGO Movie and Song of the Sea are the only ones that kept my head and heart pondering over them long after leaving the theater. Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Big Hero 6 were loud and fun but fell flat for me in terms of getting emotionally involved with the characters (Big Hero 6 came close, but not close enough). While The LEGO Movie pulled you along like a freight train and then slowed down enough for a poignant, beautiful finale, Song of the Sea was like a steady symphonic poem where the imagery, tempo, and emotions gave you plenty of room to breathe and soak it all in through the whole story, with no extra noise to distract you.

My elevator has stopped now. What do you think?

song-of-the-sea2Overstreet:

I’m in a very similar elevator: Haven’t seen Princess Kaguya yet. And I think the Oscar should’ve gone to The LEGO Movie for how personal and affecting it was even as it was made with standard-setting animation.

But Song of the Sea would be a close runner-up for me. I love the way the way the colors, shapes, and textures of the paint and the sketches in Song of the Sea reflect so much personality and imagination and personal passion. I was awake and alive and attentive to this film in a way that few other films inspired from me because, as the story progressed, it was unpredictable, overflowing with ideas, and not a single scene was treated as filler: There was a visual extravagance and enthusiasm to every single chapter.

It felt to me that Song of the Sea was intended more for younger children than Tomm Moore’s previous film, The Secret of Kells. The brother and sister seem very real, talking and playing and fighting and behaving the way young siblings  do. I appreciated how much personality they’ve been given. And the big floppy dog, Cu — “Cu” is Gaelic for “dog” — was a big hit with the children around me in the theater.

While this film has one clear villain, the scary points were not nearly as scary as they were in Kells — in fact, the villain’s attempts to intimidate and terrify are pretty funny.

Still, as movies for young children go, Song of the Sea deals with surprisingly heavy adult themes about loss, sorrow, and the importance of moving through emotions instead of shoving them aside. To be honest, I felt that some of those themes were explored in ways that were rewarding and moving. I teared up more than once. But this movie, unlike Kells, seemed calculated at times to produce emotional responses. And I was especially disappointed that the film’s climactic song sounds so suspiciously close to that distinctively enchanting song that was a highlight of The Secret of Kells. 

Priebe:

It’s certainly lighter in tone, and a more personal, intimate story.

There were tears for me too, even more so on the second viewing seeing it with my 8-year-old daughter Ariel. She also loves Secret of Kells — in particular the character of Aisling and her song. (Did you catch Aisling’s little cameo on the bus with the other trick-or-treaters?)

Overstreet:

No! Oh, wow. Now I have to go see it again.

song-of-the-sea1Priebe:

When I asked Ariel what she thought, she also noted the similarities with Kells, including the song. The one difference is that in this one, the song itself is almost another character in the film, and a recurring motif that is woven through the story (even the title). In Kells, the song is a highlight of one particular surprising moment in the story.

The first time I watched Song of the Sea, one story element stood out for me as a bit calculated: When Ben [went looking for the key after his] father threw the chest and key into the ocean. … I also found Ben’s character arc to be a bit subtler and less intense than young Brendan’s was in Kells. These things didn’t bother me as much the second time around, however. There are still elements of the plot I’m pondering over which may unfold with more meaning in further viewings.

We also noticed things like the power line towers being in the shape of owls, and there were all kinds of other visual parallels that kept popping up to reflect elements of the story into the design of the film. The backgrounds also frame the characters in interesting ways, echoing their shapes and forms. I love that, and would agree that visually, as I like to say, there is “not a wasted frame” in the way everything fits together. I wish more animated films could do this as well as this one does; it’s something that 2D does particularly well since the compositions are created more flat as opposed to a virtual 3D “set.”

Big Hero 6 also dealt with loss of a family member as a theme, but not with the same level of resonance and beauty as this film does. I’m still trying to figure out why, but I think it may have something to do with the mystical elements, connection to nature, and mythological motifs vs. a story that is driven by lots of fast action and technology, which we are all too bombarded with these days.

Overstreet:

For me, Big Hero 6′s problems began with the title: It’s not a reference to the boy or the robot — it’s the name of a superhero team. The first half of the movie works hard to make me care about this boy and his robot, and they would have been more than enough to keep me interested through the next hour. But the farther it moves into the establishment of a whole team of superheroes, none of whom are as interesting or important as the boy and his ‘bot, the more it became just another rock’em-sock’em Marvel comic book movie.

Song of the Sea, on the other hand, keeps its focus in the right place. There are other important characters, and there’s a lot that it wants to unpack for us about Irish mythology. But it manages to do that without ever diluting the story of Ben and Saoirse. And (you know this is important to me) I love how the villain becomes something more than just a villain — there’s a real story there about fear and grief, and the movie makes us want to see a divided family reconciled rather than a Good Guy defeating a Bad Guy.

I’m glad you brought up the way the design contributes to the storytelling and reinforces themes and ideas. I love how the awakening of the stone figures increases our attentiveness to the characters’ environments, and increases our anticipation that something — anything — might happen. It gives you a sense that there are secrets under every rock, or maybe even inside them.

And yes, I loved those owl power towers. Reminded me of Twin Peaks, where both owls and power lines are symbolic of something wicked at work in the world.

I’ll be curious to see where Tomm Moore goes from here. He has established a visual style unlike any other animator I can think of. There’s something of Miyazaki in just how much expression, emotion, and humanity he can find in such simply drawn characters. But the elements of cultural designs — the Celtic scrollwork in The Book of Kells, the swirling Irish designs that weave their way throughout this film — may make pose challenges for him as he expands his body of work. How much of that can you do without becoming redundant?

Do you see other influences in Moore’s work? I’m always curious to know what animators are thinking about when they watch someone else’s animated feature.

song-of-the-sea2Priebe:

I would hope that people remember to keep watching through the end credits, where several sequences from the film are shown in their “pencil-test” form before all the digital coloring and clean-up takes place. Animators especially like to geek out over that kind of stuff.

One of the biggest influences on Tomm Moore’s work is what is often referred to in the animation community as “the greatest animated feature NEVER made,” Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler. It’s notorious for being in production for 30 years only to have it taken away from Williams and ruined by the studio that distributed it, but that’s a whole other story in itself. Being a huge Thief and the Cobbler fan, I had an inkling of this the first time I saw The Secret of Kells, after which Moore confirmed it at the Q&A he was present for at that particular screening. There are several interviews with him online that talk about this too. The influence of The Thief and the Cobbler is very apparent in Secret of Kells, but watching Song of the Sea I didn’t feel that same level of influence. There is a witch character in the original cut of Thief and the Cobbler that is vaguely similar in spirit to the crazy old guy with the “story threads” in his beard and the owl witch, but I didn’t really think about this until now.

Watching Song of the Sea, I too felt a lot more of Miyazaki’s influence, in particular with the owl witch, who reminded me of the old woman from Spirited Away. I also felt echoes of painters like Gustav Klimt, and a feeling like every shot could be a moving illustration in a children’s picture book. (I actually found an amazing children’s book in Paris last summer called Le Petit Loup Rouge by an artist named Amelie Flechais, who I discovered later was a concept artist on Song of the Sea! I still can’t read the text, as it’s all in French, but I still bought a copy because the artwork is so beautiful.)

One of my favorite sequences in Song of the Sea is the car trip through Ben’s hand-drawn map on their way to the city. The visual motif itself is similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with such an original twist in the animation as the car weaves in and out of Ben’s funny drawings. It’s one of those Spielberg-ian moments that brings the film into life from a child’s point of view. When they finally arrive at their grandmother’s house and everything is staged very flat, orderly and symmetrical, I felt a sense of Wes Anderson creeping in too. Any filmmaker, like Moore or Anderson, can latch on to a signature visual style, but the best ones I think are those who can still surprise you from film to film, drawing or expanding on different influences each time around.

Some of the things I felt in terms of outside influences watching Song of the Sea were also related to the story. I was reminded, for instance, of George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin in the scene where Ben follows his thread through the cave to find his sister.

I also agree it was nice to have a story about redemption and family which included a sympathetic villain, rather than an all-too-typical Hollywood showdown of “Us vs. Them” with the snarling bad guy, or the “follow your dreams and you can do anything” kind of story. Very refreshing to think about, especially during a week when we’ve been inundated with news of animated sequels and remakes.

Overstreet:

You’ve made me eager to get my hands on a copy of Le Petit Loup Rouge. I did a quick search and winced at the price of importing a copy from France. Let me know if it becomes available in the U.S. It looks gorgeous.

song-of-the-sea3Priebe:

Hopefully they will release it in English someday. I’m still trying to translate the text so I can read the actual story, which seems a bit on the dark side. I’ll have to show you sometime.

Overstreet:

You’ve also made me eager to spend some time with The Thief and the Cobbler. If I were putting together a double feature with Song of the Sea, I can’t think of an animated film — outside of the obvious Miyazaki titles like Totoro or Spirited Away — that would make a good companion piece. But I would love to see a double feature of this with The Secret of Roan Inish, for its patient storytelling and focus on selkies; or with Into the West, another film about Irish mythology, oceans, and how children struggle with the loss of their mother.

Priebe:

Oooh, now you’ve made me eager to check out Secret of Roan Inish and Into the West!  The Thief and the Cobbler would almost make a better double feature with The Secret of Kells due to the similarities in design-style, and then you could double-bill Totoro or Spirited Away with Song of the Sea… or just make a marathon out of it and watch them all! Anyone interested in knowing more about Thief and the Cobbler can check out this documentary recently released on DVD, about the making of the film.

Overstreet:

You mentioned the car trip: There were moments on the bus that reminded me of the train ride in Spirited Away — a sequence in which public transportation takes on a strange, dream-like quality.

Priebe:

Good point! I hadn’t thought of that.

song-of-the-sea5Overstreet:

Another distinction of the narrative: We don’t get many feature films about brother-sister relationships. It seems strange. I suspect that some of the tremendous success of Frozen has to do with the fact that it’s the first Disney animated feature to focus on sisterhood. I’m hoping that families discover Song of the Sea for the rare and inspiring portrait of a big brother who learns to appreciate and prioritize the well-being of his young sister.

Priebe:

I hope so too! The media generated a lot of buzz over the focus on sisterhood in Frozen, particularly comparing it to the more negative portrayal of sisterhood in Cinderella. But in 2002, Disney also released Lilo and Stitch, which had two sisters at the center of the storyline.

Overstreet: 

Wow. I had completely forgotten about that.

Priebe:

Although it didn’t become the cultural phenomenon that Frozen did, it was still successful and I think it’s a much better film, definitely in my Top 10 favorites from Disney. Here was another story about two sisters dealing with the loss of both their parents which was told with such beauty, sadness and grace, with beautiful watercolor backgrounds like they used to do in the old days (for films like Bambi). It was produced out of their Florida studio which had less oversight by the studio executives, and I think this is partly why the directors had more creative freedom to make a very personal film with a different look and feel.

One of the ways I like to compare animated films is by whether they are artist-driven (by the personal vision of a passionate director and storyteller) or studio-driven (where it starts out as a personal vision until the studio gets too involved in requesting changes to make it “marketable.”).  I would put Song of the Sea, Secret of Kells, Lilo and Stitch, and Miyazaki’s films in the artist-driven category. The earliest films from Disney (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia) and Pixar (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up, etc.) I would also put there.  I felt Frozen was more of a studio-driven film, as well as many of the sequels we get bombarded with.

I heard a great lecture on animation once by actor and animation critic Ed Hooks, who connected animated storytelling to the tribal visions of ancient shamans. He said a great filmmaker with a vision shares what the tribe needs to hear, not what they need to buy. What they need to hear is not always easy, and all too often the message of personal gain, follow your heart, and beating the bad guy is an easier story to sell, especially when it makes money.

All things considered, I hope Song of the Sea reaches the greater audience it deserves as it has now become available for home viewing. There is so much there on the surface, and like you said, under the surface as well, like spirits inside rocks waiting to be discovered and talked about.

One last thing I’ll mention about it: At the first screening I attended last fall there was a Q&A with the film’s Head of Story Nora Twomey. Someone in the audience made an comment about how they saw a connection between the film’s theme of “bottling up emotions” with the alcohol bottles, and how the father in the film uses this as a way to deal with his grief at the pub rather than be closer to his family. I would pray that the redemptive quality of this beautiful story might speak to viewers on that level who may be struggling with either alcoholism, loss, or both. It’s a story about family, about parents and siblings, about sacrifice, and about personal responsibility and forgiveness. We can have a tendency to bottle these things up in our lives, but it’s what the tribe needs to hear.

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