Richard Fitzpatrick looks at the major stages in the eight-year process


Song of the Sea: Seven steps to the big screen

A new exhibition shows the huge amount of work needed to get Song of the Sea from basic idea to Oscar-nominated film. Richard Fitzpatrick looks at the major stages in the eight-year process

Song of the Sea: Seven steps to the big screen

WHILE Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea continues to build its reputation as the best Irish animation ever, few people who watch the film will realise how much work actually goes into making a feature of this length.

The Butler Gallery in Kilkenny currently has an exhibition based on the film, with original storyboards and character drawings, and opportunities to get hands-on with your own animations. Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind the movie, spoke to us about the different stages of the filmmaking process.


An Oscar-nominated animation film like Song of the Sea starts with an idea. Its director Tomm Moore was hit with the germ for the film while walking on Ventry Beach in Dingle, Co Kerry. He happened upon some dead, mutilated seals and wondered what happened them. A local woman told him fishermen from the area blamed seals for the dwindling stock of fish, and so they killed some. She said it would never have happened a century ago because seals were considered sacred then, as reincarnations of people lost or drowned at sea; they helped with the grieving process. And so was born Moore’s idea for a film with its roots in Irish mythology about “selkies” (people who transform into seals), a bereaved father and his two little, lost children trying to find their way home.


Cartoon Saloon is an indigenous animation film production company based in Kilkenny City. Unlike, say, Pixar or Disney, which can invest €150m into its animated films, Cartoon Saloon’s budget for Song of the Sea was €6m, which it raised from the Irish Film Board, cohorts in Denmark and Luxembourg, and private partners in a process that took two to three years to get off the ground.

“I worked on the trailer for Song of the Sea in 2008,” says Fabian Erlinghauser, head of animation at Cartoon Saloon. “The film is only coming out now so we’re talking about a trailer that has been around for seven years, which in live action is unheard of, but in animation this is how you need to do it. You’re essentially producing a fake trailer because there is no footage to cut it from — you create a trailer out of thin air to entice producers, to get people to invest.”

Fabian Erlinghauser


Cartoon Saloon has a distinctive, two-dimensional, hand-drawn style for its films, which it describes as “impressionistic”. It goes against the grain of most contemporary animation films — especially because of the vogue for gaming’s hyperrealism — which rely on a more realistic, 3D style. Before putting its film’s building blocks in place, it was necessary for Erlinghauser and his colleagues to nail down the characters and the surroundings of their world, which, in the case of Song of the Sea, is infused with Celtic art, faeries, and scary owls, among other creatures.

“We created that universe with the director and art director who had a strong vision of how this universe should look like. We’re talking about a fictional universe where nothing really exists. Everything had to be made from scratch. Every stool has to be designed, every little table and lamp. There’s a long ramp-up time in pre-production, about a year or so, where this process is determined. Once you have that, you visualise the script that has previously only existed in the written word by making an ‘animatic’ — a storyboard, sort of like a comic-book version.”

An exhibition at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny shows some of the storyboards that were used in Song of the Sea.


It might come as a surprise to know that all the actors’ voices on an animated film are recorded before any of the drawing for the film is done. There’s a lot of toing and froing, trying to match the character’s action to the voice. An actor might spend five days in recording and then you could have artists working on it for two years.

“When the actors come on board they have a fairly good idea of what they should be doing in a particular scene,” says Erlinghauser.

“We put scratch voices onto very rough sketches so an actor like Brendan Gleeson will get a very roughly drawn sketch of a scene and what the character should be doing. He has a fair idea of how that should be acted,” he adds.

“So the animators would observe Brendan Gleeson acting out a scene and listen to his lines over and over and then they imagine how that character would interpret the scene.”


At certain moments, Cartoon Saloon would have up to 80 people working on a big project like Song of the Sea. Its animators worked together from studios in Kilkenny, Belgium, Denmark, France, and Luxembourg to sketch the scenes. They used phone, email and software called Hopsoft, for dropping in images and comments, to co-ordinate their thoughts. Characters evolve. The appearance of Ben, for example, changed radically by the time the film finished, altering in size, colour, hair, and facial features. Progress was painstaking. They would average about one second of film a day.

The exhibition will also show some of thewatercolours that were used in Song of the Sea

“One animator only works on one scene, more or less,” says Erlinghauser. “He mightn’t know what mood the character has in the next shot that somebody else might be animating in a different country. It’s my job to maintain the character’s emotion and pace throughout the whole sequence. It could be something mundane like a nose looking crooked or something more complex like the character needs to be more curious than sad in a scene. It’s like correcting actors as they act! For example, if you animate a wave that goes into physics — how a wave impacts on the water surface. You’re trying to create a world that is believable.”


The production on Sea of the Song lasted 18 months. The animators finished in January 2014. It took about six months to add the final music and do the editing. The editing was where the real sorcery with the film happened, where scenes were chopped and changed. Every scene was poured over umpteen times. Erlinghauser reckons he’s seen each of the film’s 1,168 scenes about 50 times.

“The editing is very interesting,” he says. “A lot of the time you have to think on your feet and say, ‘This scene here. Let’s move it to the end of the movie’. All of a sudden you see, ‘This works much better now in the context’. With the editing you think more of the storytelling and the flow of the story and how it carries through.”


After about six years, the film was finally ready. Then Cartoon Saloon had to find a distributor to release it. It takes about a year between the time when an animated movie gets completed and it’s out in cinemas.

“For the distributors, it’s a business,” says Erlinghauser. “They would look at a film like Song of the Sea and say, ‘is that our style?’ Song of the Sea was released in the United States last December and it only came out in Ireland in July. A lot of the time, it’s the distributor deciding the timeframe for the release. Does it clash with another blockbuster that might interfere with a good box office? Their role is vital — you have to entice an audience.”

The exhibition is at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny until Oct 11. The Irish-language version of the film is at Fitzgerald’s Park in Cork on Monday at 10pm

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