Turning darkness into light: Interview with Tomm Moore

By Tania Mann

“I have seen suffering in the darkness, yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the Book – the Book that turned darkness into light”.

The Secret of Kells opens with these whispered words. The independent film produced in Kilkenny, Ireland, was one of this year’s surprise Oscar nominees. It was up for Best Animated Feature against such box office hits as Disney-Pixar’s Up and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. The film’s plot centres on 12-year-old Brendan, an orphan in 9th-century Ireland living among a community of monks who practice illumination, the art of illustrating and embellishing Gospel texts.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon

Brendan’s adventures begin when a quirky old illuminator named Aidan arrives with his cat Pangur Bán. The monk is renowned for his work on a famous Gospel manuscript  under the legendary St Columcille (also known as St Columba). Br Aidan’s seemingly whimsical arrival is a harbinger of danger, however; he comes seeking refuge, having fled from the Viking raids that destroyed his home of Iona.  Prompted by Aidan’s request for inkberries, Brendan ventures beyond the village’s fortified walls against the wishes of his stern uncle, the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). There in the forest he meets Aisling, the sprightly and boisterous girl who accompanies him on his journey.

Director Tomm Moore, a 33-year-old Irish illustrator, comics artist and filmmaker, spoke about the significance, historical background and creation of The Secret of Kells in a telephone interview granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s English edition on 12 March.

Moore explained that extensive research was involved in the making of the film. This included studying the actual Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels which is considered Ireland’s finest cultural artefact. Today it is displayed at Trinity College in Dublin, but originally it was housed at the Abbey of Kells, the monastery founded by St Columba where the story is set.

By combining history, fantasy, and myth, Moore’s team aimed to illustrate the importance of preserving valuable traditions and shed light on the truth common to all faiths. The result is a dream-like journey that speaks of sacrifice, gaining strength through suffering, reconciliation and hope.

Several of these themes emerge in the way the film’s catch phrase – turning darkness into light – is interwoven with the story: “We took that language from a poem that a monk wrote about his cat, Pangur Bán, and it’s a direct translation from the old Gaelic”, said Moore. “He wrote it in the corner of the Gospel he was transcribing. He said that his cat had a like path to him – that his cat was chasing mice but he was chasing words, and that they worked all night turning darkness into light”.

Brendan’s adventures involve facing the darkness both within and without. As the boy struggles with the idea of leaving to brave the forest, Br Aidan assures him of the importance of experiencing the outside world: “I lost my brothers to attackers from the outside. Now I only have the Book to remember them by. But if my brothers were here now, they would tell you that you will learn more in the woods … than from any other place. You will see miracles”.

In the forest, Brendan’s enemy takes the form of Crom Cruach, known in Irish legend as a pre-Christian deity to whom pagans would make human sacrifices in the hope of good crops. But in the film Crom appears as a snake-like creature that devours its own tail, an Ouroboros.

“The Ouroboros is a symbol that you see a lot in the Book of Kells”, said Moore. “It was a symbol of eternal life that was used often in the crossover period between pagan and Christian faith in Ireland”. He explained that the scene symbolizes an inner battle: “We decided to make Crom very abstract so that it was more Brendan’s own fears that he was defeating rather than a specific pagan god. It’s Brendan’s journey into his own subconscious where he has to fight with his own fears, and then comes out triumphant with a new vision”.

In his defeat of the creature, Brendan’s character parallels the figure of St Patrick, who was said to have struck down Crom Cruach, bringing an end to paganism in the country.

If Brendan can be likened to St Patrick, then perhaps the film’s illustrators can be compared to the Gospel illuminators.  “Whenever we were looking at the Book of Kells, a lot of people pointed out that it must have taken a certain meditative quality to create that work. The monks would have had to be completely calm and focused, because it’s almost impossible to imagine how they created such detail with such rudimentary tools that they would have had at the time”.

Similarly meticulous is the work entailed in creating a 2D animated film like this one, which is 95% hand-drawn and produced “without a lot of fancy computer equipment”, Moore said. “People are forgetting how magical it can be that just a pencil and a piece of paper can bring something to life”.

The director explained that each second of animation took approximately 12 drawings per character, in addition to the extremely elaborate backgrounds. “We spent four years working full-time on creating the film, but prior to that there were about six years of designing and developing”.

These artists’ pencil-sketched creations include a diverse group of monks from Italy, Africa and the Middle East. Moore explained that the choice of characters came from researching the Book of Kells, in which there are inks from Afghanistan, Moroccan designs, and other foreign influences. The artists imagined that perhaps people had come from across the world to work on the Book. “We also read a book that talked about how Ireland was a kind of a refuge, that the library in Kells was one of the few refuges existent in the Dark Ages”, he said. “That’s how Ireland became known as the land of saints and scholars, because during that period people came from all over the world to study or to work whenever it was more dangerous on the Continent”.

Moore’s favourite character, however, is Aisling. The fairy-like girl seems to be bursting with both youthful energy and ageless wisdom. Her character grew out of ideas from literature and from real life. “Aisling is often a figure in 18th-century Irish poetry, where Ireland is represented by this beautiful woman, very serene, and she appears to the poet in a dream – because aisling means ‘dream’ in Gaelic. We decided to turn the tradition on its head and make her a mischievous little girl instead of a sombre matriarchal figure”. Moore based Brendan’s relationship with Aisling on his own relationship with his younger sister, whose personality he claims is similar. “My sister even looks a little bit like her, except for Aisling’s white hair!”.

As the film begins to open to record-breaking crowds in the United States, it seems the “secret” is definitely out. And with it comes a message rife with Christian meaning.

“The Book was never meant to be hidden away behind walls, locked away from the world which inspired its creation”, Br Aidan tells Brendan, destined to become Abbot of Kells. “You must take the Book to the people, so that they may have hope. Let it light the way in these dark days”.

For further information visit the film’s production blog, http://theblogofkells.blogspot.com

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 03/17/2010


Sweet Home Chicago

From cotton fields to city streets, blues music tells the story of a people struggling to survive. Its syncopated rhythms convey a meaning as deep as the raspy voices crooning its melodies. The blues has evolved along with the history of black people in the United States – a journey marked by persecution but also by progress.

Theirs is a story that today opens to a new chapter, being written by a man who calls the city that transformed the face of the blues:  “Sweet Home Chicago”. Thus a closer look at the origins of blues music provides insight not only into black history but also into the context from which President Barack Obama, who lived in the Windy City before his move to the White House, entered the international scene.

It was in Chicago that blues music was modernized, where it adapted into a form that could then be easily diffused into popular culture. It would permeate many other musical genres and create the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and the British pop made famous by the Beatles. Today, the blues rhythm beats on as the heart of American mainstream music, which in turn plays an influential role in the music world across the globe.

The twelve-bar structure found in the blues today is the same as that which the slaves invented as they worked in the fields, using music to communicate. This system of “field hollering” allowed the slaves to exchange secret information and indicate potential escape routes.

Chicago blues grew from these roots in the Mississippi Delta, where thousands of blacks lived before moving north during the Great Migration, which occurred in two waves between 1913 and 1970. Its heavy backbeats recall the oppression of slavery, while the charged guitar riffs and gravelly voices in the foreground express an insatiable longing for freedom.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression propelled the blues forward by providing not only greater reason for people to lament but also more opportunity to come together to perform and listen to music. From that decade on in the ghettos of Chicago, residents organized “rent parties” to raise money for families with financial difficulties. Thus listening to the blues also became a concrete experience of solidarity.

By this time, blues musicians in Chicago had already begun to create a more urban sound, distinguishing their own style from more rural or classic forms. This new sound reflected, with its quicker tempos, the frenetic pace of working life in an industrial metropolis.

“It was in these neighbourhoods that I received the best education I ever had”, President Obama said in a speech announcing his presidential bid. With this statement he recalled his work in Chicago from 1985-1988, organizing job training and other programs for the working-class residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project amid shuttered steel mills.

The blues is a lyrical expression of both “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit”, writes Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man(Random House, 1952). This work, set in the newly industrialized Chicago of the 1930s, analyzes the problem of the black man’s identity in U.S. culture.

The people of Chicago are generally known as being “tough”, if only for having to endure the severe weather that results from its position on the edge of Lake Michigan. For this reason the blues, in the tenacity of its sound, personifies the Windy City (even if it was originally named as such in reference to its long-winded politicians, not its notorious weather).

The spirit of a city ever aware of life’s challenges – of a city where people are accustomed to adapting to change – is manifest in the blues. The city and the music have each shaped the other into what they are today.

But the influence of Chicago blues has extended much further than its own streets. This is seen clearly in the career and the heritage left by the man who is said to have defined its sound:  Muddy Waters.
His grandmother gave the musician this nickname, after the puddles of the Mississippi River in which he played as a child. Waters transferred to Chicago in 1943, where he received an electric guitar as a gift from his uncle. With this instrument – the volume of which he intensified by using a pick – Muddy Waters revolutionized the city’s musical scene.

In addition to the guitar, the harmonica and bass were also amplified in order to compete with the loud atmosphere of the locales where blues bands played. The first to win this battle against the noise with his harmonica was Little Walter. He did so simply by cupping his hands around the instrument.

From then on these methods of amplification and electrification characterized the Chicago blues sound. This new sound was part in thanks to the new possibilities that came with the end of the Great Depression and World War II. Muddy Waters and the other blues artists in Chicago became a vehicle for the optimism emerging at this time. It was here that the now widespread image of a small stage in a smoky bar, crowded with musicians improvising on the electric guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, was born.

Today, it is not difficult to find evidence of the impact these musicians have had on the music world. It was, for example, Water’s song “Rolling Stone” that both the magazine and the rock group took their names. The same song was very probably an inspiration to Bob Dylan when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”. And it was reported in Rolling Stone magazine that among the playlists on President Obama’s iPod are songs by the group of the same name, by Dylan, and also by Howlin’ Wolf, who was known as Waters’ rival.

The list of artists and musical genres influenced by Chicago blues is endless. Among the numerous names of note are Chuck Berry, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and also Eric Clapton, who has carried the inheritance of the blues from the seventies through to the present.

In the hands of the same “Slowhand”, as Clapton is known, the Chicago blues sound has evolved with the changing music scene while still remaining faithful to its deepest roots. A powerful witness to this is one of his recent albums, “From the Cradle”, composed entirely of songs by traditional blues musicians. Among them is Willie Dixon, one of the greatest musicians to have played with Muddy Waters.

But the electrified blues that was founded in the post-war era is not only a thing of the past. The music continues because the stories it recounts are still being written. Worth noting is that this year’s list of Grammy nominees for blues music included several protagonists of Chicago’s musical revolution. Among those carrying this tradition into the modern day is Buddy Guy – known as Muddy Waters’ successor – who opened his own club in 1989 in the heart of downtown Chicago.

The culture which developed around the blues clubs that have sprouted up around the city over the years is indeed thriving, creating a music scene that draws tourists and natives alike. Today, many of the most popular blues clubs are found in neighbourhoods inhabited predominantly by young white people.

In fact, the evolution of blues music in the city also entailed a diffusion into white culture. For proof of this on a wider scale, one can look to artists such as Clapton, Dylan, and even younger musicians like John Mayer. The latter, an artist who had already gained wide acclaim on the pop scene, surprised everyone with a blues album in 2005, featuring Clapton, Guy and B.B. King as collaborators.

Surely one cannot fail to acknowledge the extent to which the famous Blues Brothers, with their “mission from God”, have served to propagate blues music and culture into the mainstream. Working on the Chicago-based film inspired the “brothers” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, never before musicians, to form their own group modelled after that featured in the movie.

While Chicago blues has survived in its purest form through the revolution’s biggest names and their successors, the deep influence it has had on the many genres of today’s chart-topping music is not to be ignored. Just one example is the widespread diffusion and popularity of rhythm and blues (R&B), a term that was originally used for Chicago blues but has extended to encompass much of black music heard today.

It becomes evident from the longevity of Chicago blues – in its original form as in its many variations – that at its heart this music expresses a depth of human emotion which stems from the very essence of human experience. For Ellison, the blues does not offer a solution to the human condition. It offers instead a strong resolution to overcome suffering:  a “yes” to a life marked by grace and irony, and a defiant decision to preserve the human spirit. Its sound is marked by sadness but also by fierce determination, thus reflecting the history of blacks in the States. In a time of global crisis, the President who pens this story’s newest chapters meets a challenge that will undoubtedly demand the same tenacity.


Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

(Original version was written in Italian and published in L’Osservatore Romano’s Italian daily edition – 03/11/2009)