Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Thursday, September 17, 2009

01:03:00 am , 887 words, 3787 views     Categories: Animation, Movie, Foreign

The Secret of Kells

I got to see the wonderful Irish-Belgian-French co-production The Secret of Kells this evening. I'd been impressed by the trailer when I saw it a few months ago, and the film didn't disappoint. Kells stands right up there with the films of Michel Ocelot and The Triplets of Belleville in leading today's animated foreign feature renaissance. So many great animated features have come out of Europe & nearby countries in the last few years. (though I'm thrilled to finally be able to see My Dog Tulip at the VIFF in a few weeks)

It's pretty amazing that they could make a film whose every shot is so unflaggingly inventive and beautiful and stylistically unified. The whole film is pure stylization. The characters are each drawn in their own bold shapes, and are identifiable by silhouette, which was presumably intentional, that being one of the mantras of western animation. I admired how the lines with which each character is drawn cleverly fold into one another in different configurations depending on which way the character is standing or looking. Different characters have different modes of movement, such as the little girl who zips across the screen, popping up in unexpected places, and especially the wolves, whose movement is very interesting and one of the best examples of the uniquely stylized movement matched to the inventively stylized designs in this film.

Kells has that whole hyperstylized retro UPA look that seems so popular today in the west, but it manages to carve out its own place that seems distinct. The film is an animated interpretation of the tribulations surrounding the creation of the Book of Kells, an unfinished 8th century manuscript legendary for its lushly intricate ornamental art. The strong visuals seem to be inspired by the look of the art in the Book of Kells, skilfully adapting the spirit of this ancient stylization into a newer kind of stylization that appeals to today's sensibilities. In spirit, the film kind reminds me of The Golden Bird, with its flat layouts, geometrically stylized characters and colorful byzantine backgrounds.

The compositions are very striking and beautiful at a basic level, with trees in the forest all aligned symmetrically and their branches wound up into Celtic knots and so on. The screen is usually laid out in a flat style reflecting the spirit of the original manuscripts, similar to the look of Kirikou or Azur et Asmar. The choreography of the movement of the characters through these compositions is quite ingenious. It's like they're constantly shifting perspectives on you, coming up with creative new ways for the characters to move through the environs. In that sense it kind of reminded me of The Thief and the Cobbler.

Representative of this is a shot in which a character is climbing a tree. The leaves form a sort of line that divides the screen into two. The character climbs up across the left half, then passes under the line, and in the right half the perspective is suddenly different, as if they were two distinct shots. It's unexpected and subtly done and has a marvelous effect, like a constantly shifting and shimmering optical illusion. So much thought was put into coming up with a variety of ideas to make each shot interesting like this. It's not just the animation and art that are stylized - the directing is too. The 10 years the film was in planning and actual production show up in the film's laboriously conceived and painstakingly executed visual schemes.

I appreciate that the story has multiple levels of meaning in spite of its simplicity. The story of artists in ancient times faced with the spiritual conflict of whether to choose art or survival in the face of an apocalypse-like wave of merciless invaders raining death and destruction on the land and people brings to mind Andrei Roublev. The climax of the film is quite interesting in that there is no victory. There's disaster, and a slow recovery from that disaster, without any sort of catharsis or triumph. The emotional climax doesn't arrive upon a shield bearing a victorious protagonist. The most powerful moment in the film is the very antithesis of bombastic triumph - it's the painfully ironic moment of spiritual capitulation when the abbot realizes that the art he had derided as futile to human well-being would in the long term be more permanent and nourishing than any sustenance of the flesh. I think Kells is admirable for being a family film that presents a complex message about the importance of art to humanity.

The film has strength because it was made by a group of talented artists with something to express, not just churned out by a corporation according to a profit formula. It's not patterned after the 'family feature' template; it carves out its own visual ethos, directing style and narrative vector. The one song there is isn't a Broadway number; it's low key, tastefully handled, even somber. Kells is an example of all-ages animated filmmaking done right.

Kells kicked off the Spark Animation '09 festival here in Vancouver, so it was preceded by an industry mixer. There's nothing more annoying than being in a room where everybody knows everybody else except you. I spent the whole time getting out of people's way. Lesson learned: Misanthropy and mixers don't mix.



leedar [Member]  

I feel like a bit of a dick purposefully missing this at the local film festival.

The schematic drawing style triggers pain feelings for me as an animator, knowing that people had to clean that up. It probably should have been done in Flash, etc. Not to mention an unappealing monotony.

I’ve read it is getting a New Zealand release, but that might be just be on home video. :-\

09/17/09 @ 02:55
Ben [Member]  

You’re right that it has an off-putting feeling of rigidity and excessive cleanliness in the specific drawings, as well as more generally in the relentless overstylization of the forms of the characters, which is exactly what turns me off to western animation these days. There definitely did seem to be a lot of effort put into precisely rendering things like the exact size and shape of the square fingers etc that just made me go… why?? That did nag me a bit at first. Personally I prefer animation to be looser and more free with the lines and shapes. But they were quite inventive with how to move the designs and integrate them into the visual scheme, so I thought it was a case of well executed stylization and a good example of this approach. The design sensibility worked well within the context of the style and theme of the film. Basically, putting aside any preconceived notions I might have had, I thought it was a gorgeous film with inventive visuals and animation that’s worth seeing on the big screen.

09/17/09 @ 11:35
leedar [Member]  

Perhaps unintentionally it mirrors the painstaking, literally religious processes that went into making mediaeval illuminated scripts, like the Book of Kells.

09/17/09 @ 17:30
h_park [Member]

I’m interested in seeing this animation. As long as these animation makers express themselves in honest, sincere way, that’s what it counts. Interestingly, its trailer contradicts Ben’s review. Trailer reminded me of one of those family oriented adventure consist of a hero looking a McGuff to save the world. That’s so funny about movie industry nowadays. Trailers look better than bad movies themselves.

I just visited its website and my first impression of visual is that their designs remided me of flat designs seen Nickeledeon toons. Regardless of flat or solid designs, I think it matters most when either design is expressed in unique way rather than being a trend of the day. I could be wrong, but I believe that creative people bring out their best when they have limited resource. Honestly I have no idea what budget is like on this film, but I’m sure these people weren’t blessed with deep pockets.

09/17/09 @ 20:49
Ben [Member]  

Leedar - Which I guess could be applied to most feature animation… reminds me of what Malcolm Sutherland said here. Actually, I feel stupid, because I said it in my post - the particulars of the designs were clearly inspired by the script of the Book of Kells, so they’re not just meaninglessly rigid.

H Park - Yeah, essentially the design ethos is rooted in that whole Nickelodeon cartoon style that seems to grip the west today, but for the first time I felt I’d seen something in that style with real substance and thought put into it, which is why I appreciated it. And don’t get me wrong, the story is kind of a video-game quest for trinkets in a lot of ways (you must get the amulet, but to get the amulet you must find the key, to do which you must…), but it’s also more than that.

Another important thing about the film is that it’s a great success story of an independent project produced by collaboration between a handful of small studios. Maybe that’s the way to get out of the rut of big duds produced by big studios.

09/18/09 @ 10:33
pete [Member]

Such kind of projects are only possible in Europe, where additionaly language and religion were of no hindrance. French, Irish, Belgian and Hungarian studios contributed in this case.

Unfortunately the huge potential of Asian animation lags behind in this field. There will not be a chance for such kind of production to happen and to surpass nationalistic boundaries.

But it does not seem so independent, but such are petty details:

Awards are made by a committee on which each member state has one representative, on the basis of the quality of the proposal and on “whether (they) reflect and promote diverse national components of Europe’s cultural identity".

Eurimages loan is repayable from the first Euro of each producer’s net receipts (revenues from exploitation of the film minus distribution advances and costs).

Eurimages was set up with twin objectives, which it defines as cultural and economic. Its cultural goal is to “support works which reflect the multiple facets of a European society whose common roots are evidence of a single culture". In parallel, it aims to foster the co-production of films in Europe and their distribution in the cinema, on TV and in other media.

The Eurimages board meets five times a year. Dates and submission deadlines are posted on the organisation’s website.

Eurimages awarded €14.9m support to feature film productions in 2005, compared to €19m in 2004 and €19.5m in 2003. Animated movies funded in 2005 include Brendan and the Secret of Kells (awarded €500,000), El Sueno de una Noche de San Juan (€600,000), Nocturna (€580,000) and La Reine Soleil (€580,000).

09/21/09 @ 04:09
gaguri [Visitor]  

I wonder if you’ve watched this film called ‘Song of the Sea’, I think by the same director -> (trailer). You can tell it’s a lot similar to Kells. Anyway, loved the film, hopefully this one is just as good too.

One more thing I want to mention about the film is its absolutely gorgeous soundtrack. It created that melancholy kind of atmosphere like Kaiba and Casshern Sins.

09/21/09 @ 07:57
Ben [Member]  

gaguri - I hadn’t seen it. Thanks for pointing it out. It’s beautiful. I agree about the soundtrack, although I couldn’t think of a good way of expressing what was good about it other than it being pretty, so I didn’t mention it.

By the way, great post on the film. You make a lot of good points that hadn’t occurred to me, especially about how the film’s visuals reflect the mix of figurative and ornamental art in the original manuscript that helped make the abstractness more palatable. Also about the massive amount of detail that only resolves upon microscopic inspection in the manuscript’s art being brought alive conceptually in the film’s butterfly scene, among other places. Such an ingenious film in many ways. I can’t wait to see it again. Looking at those stills on your page, I find I’m quite partial to the way the animals are stylized. The morphing of the lines and volumes on the cat really impressed me.

09/21/09 @ 15:21
gaguri [Visitor]  

Haha, thanks for the kind words, coming from you that really means a lot.

09/22/09 @ 06:53