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Four Magical Minutes from Cartoon Saloon
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Happy Sunday! We’re back with more from the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Here’s the plan:
1️⃣ How Cartoon Saloon made On Love.
2️⃣ The world’s animation news.
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Now, here we go!
1: “Mesmerizing detail”
It’s hard not to root for Cartoon Saloon. The plucky studio has made Irish animation world-famous from its homebase in Kilkenny. It’s landed five Oscar nominations and counting.
Cartoon Saloon is best known for films like Wolfwalkers and The Secret of Kells — but not all of its standout work is in features. Recently, its short Screecher’s Reach in the Star Wars: Visions anthology got people excited, and understandably so. The studio works well in short form. If you haven’t seen its beautiful, nine-minute Oscar nominee Late Afternoon, do yourself a favor.
That said, we’re focusing on an even shorter piece today. It’s just four minutes, but it stands with the studio’s most unique and ambitious work. Its title is On Love, a sequence hidden away in The Prophet (2014). That film wasn’t a hit — so Cartoon Saloon’s contribution to it has gone unseen by way, way too many people.
With On Love, co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart made something gorgeous. Rarely has Cartoon Saloon, which usually operates on indie-film budgets, been unleashed quite like this. As Stewart later noted:
… the four minutes had a huge budget for it. […] So, we were actually able to spend the money and make sure that it was of really high-quality, whereas, on other projects, you’d have to cut corners and people might have to sacrifice some quality for the budget. But, on this, we didn’t have to sacrifice anything.
It wasn’t just the money, either. The Cartoon Saloon task force dedicated to On Love (“a small little team,” Stewart said) was firing on all cylinders. Their passion is obvious in every breathtaking frame of the finished sequence, watchable below:
The question is, how did Cartoon Saloon get to make something so ambitious? The answer: The Prophet, which features this segment around the 48-minute mark, was a Hollywood project. It had serious backing.
Cartoon Saloon was one of several indie teams given cash to craft far-out animation for the film, which is based on Kahlil Gibran’s book of poems The Prophet from the 1920s. If you find that confusing, it’s worth adding that the entire project was greenlit without a screenplay or a director attached.
“I don’t know how they sold this,” said Roger Allers, who eventually took the overall director role.
The whole thing began in the 2000s, when a group of money people bought the film rights to Gibran’s book. No mean feat, given that Gibran’s work belongs to a small Lebanese town called Bsharri, his birthplace. The executive who headed up the plan had to convince a local council of “butchers, farmers, homemakers” and so on to approve a movie. He claimed that it took five years. A deal would get close, and then the members of the council would cycle out, restarting talks from the beginning.
The ball finally started rolling in 2009.A group of investors and Hollywood types got involved, trying to figure out how to turn a book of poems into a film. And an idea arose to create “an omnibus-style 3D-animated” project, as Variety described it.
So, the producers hunted for animators to interpret the poems in their own styles. And that’s where Cartoon Saloon came in.
Despite being small and Irish, Cartoon Saloon was buzzy in Hollywood animation circles at the time. That buzz only increased in early 2010, when The Secret of Kells got its long-shot Oscar nomination. The team had “a lot of meetings with big studios” about its next project, according to Kells director Tomm Moore. He and Stewart, the art director of Kells, even did concept art for Laika’s ParaNorman.
During the early planning for The Prophet, its producers reached out. As Moore recalled:
We were like, ‘Sure, happy to be part of the team.’ The list of people they had was impressive. The project also looked a bit ambitious and maybe a little bit unlikely, so we didn’t expect to hear anything from it.
If it did happen, Moore felt that it would “be the perfect job to do between one feature and the next.” The sequence would be short, and The Prophet’s producers wanted to make the whole film quickly and cheaply — it was meant to be done by late 2011. Things didn’t go quite according to plan.
Still, “unlikely” as the project was, The Prophet slowly built steam. Salma Hayek got on board as a producer in early 2011. Roger Allers, famous for The Lion King, came on to direct the main story — which would connect the poem sequences together.
By the time The Prophet was starting in Hollywood, though, Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea was revving up in Europe. There was a scheduling conflict. “I came under a lot of pressure from the [European] co-producers on Song of the Sea not to do that sequence of The Prophet, because they didn’t want my time divided,” Moore said.
He decided to take the job anyway. As he remembered, “I just felt the team and the project was too interesting.” Cartoon Saloon would make the sequence concurrently with Song of the Sea, with all of the problems that entailed.
The linchpin of Moore’s strategy was to bring in Ross Stewart as the co-director for On Love. Although Moore was heavily involved in its early stages, developing it in the mornings before the Song of the Sea crew arrived for work, Stewart took on more and more core responsibilities with time. “I have to admit, Ross did the heavy lifting day-to-day on this project,” Moore later said.
In an attempt to keep things manageable, Moore made at least one executive decision from the start. He chose Gibran’s chapter about love as the one for Cartoon Saloon to animate, for practical reasons: it seemed like the easiest and least time-consuming option.
The producers offered Cartoon Saloon carte blanche with the sequence. Allers was offered the same when he took the supervising director role. But that’s not how Hollywood works. As Allers later recalled:
… they said, “This is going to be short schedule and small budget. There won’t be any executive interference. You’ll just take this thing and you’ll run with it.” But, of course, that doesn’t happen. It’s never that way. But I fell for it.
Cartoon Saloon had a somewhat similar experience. Its first idea, co-created by Stewart, was a romance between two birds-of-paradise. The visual design took from traditional Arabic and Islamic art, to match the film’s setting.
Looking over the pitch, the higher-ups essentially replied, “You can do whatever you want, but maybe not this,” said Moore.
Stewart and Moore guessed that the idea just wasn’t Celtic enough for the producers. But their alternative Celtic pitch, finished around June 2012, got the same response from Allers and the rest. Moore came to realize that “it wasn’t the Celtic influence that they were after; it was more the ‘mesmerizing detail,’ as we say.”
So, Cartoon Saloon came up with a romance between humans, which stuck close to the poem’s actual words. The idea was to portray a relationship in miniature, with a special new style for the art. Stewart again:
… the producers really liked the “mesmerizing detail” that we were able to get in Secret of Kells. So, we thought, instead of doing Celtic mesmerizing detail, we would maybe approach the mesmerizing detail of more universal shapes.
They revived Stewart’s idea to use Arabic art, including Islamic geometric art, and blended it with the paintings of Gustav Klimt. This mix would be visible all throughout On Love. In the scene where fire appears around a loaf of bread, for example, the shapes of the licking flames come from traditional Arabic calligraphy. Several later shots look like Klimt paintings in motion.
Alongside the new aesthetic, Cartoon Saloon changed its character design sensibility.Moore:
I love the language of cartoon characters, but, for this, we wanted to do something that wasn’t, like, big heads and big eyes. We wanted to do something a little bit more elegant. And we did a lot of experimentation to come up with something that was as caricatured and exaggerated as cartoon characters, but not towards cuteness or towards funniness, but toward something more graceful. ‘cause the whole thing was kind of trying to be based on a dance. We even hired some dancers to act out all the movements, and the main animator, Eve [Guastella], is a very talented dancer as well.
It’s no figure of speech to say that Cartoon Saloon made On Love alongside Song of the Sea. The teams worked in the same room, even as the two projects entered production — scheduling meant that both were fully underway, side by side, for more than half a year.
The bulk of On Love’s production occurred in 2013. While Moore supervised Song of the Sea, Stewart handled On Love, bringing Moore across the room to check the team’s work and offer feedback. On Love’s task force consisted of returning Cartoon Saloon collaborators. Some were “animators who’d done a great job on Song of the Sea” and been given more work, Moore explained, while others were “animators who were really talented but we didn’t have space for on Song of the Sea.”
Eve Guastella, a Kells veteran, served as On Love’s lead animator from July through November 2013. Paul Ó Muiris (Eddie of the Realms Eternal) supervised the “mesmerizing” visual effects and compositing from August through December.
What the team made, Stewart admitted, is essentially a music video. Cartoon Saloon animated to the song. It also helped to put that song together, suggesting the Irish singer Lisa Hannigan — who’d voiced the mother in Song of the Sea.
Overall, the team was tight. Despite the production overlap, Stewart called On Love “really good fun” to make. His experience wasn’t quite the same as that of the higher-ups. Back in Hollywood, the Prophet project was in total chaos. Allers called it “crazy tough,” and said that the level of stress gave him “a full-body rash” that lasted until mid-2014.
As Salma Hayek said, “I pulled it off through three years of not sleeping, an ulcer, and I think I lost half my life.”
But the film did make it across the finish line. The Prophet, complete with On Love, had its first showing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014. As if by fate, the film appeared at the event alongside Song of the Sea. Here’s Moore:
… we had the Song of the Sea premiere and I had to rush directly to the Prophet premiere right after it. They were both on the same day, one after the other. So that was another once-in-a-lifetime thing, to walk a red carpet and then walk the red carpet again right after.
Whatever the flaws of The Prophet, the On Love sequence stands tall. Even if it’s not a large piece, it’s one of the most impressive moments in Cartoon Saloon’s oeuvre, especially from a visual standpoint.
And it shaped the course of the studio’s future. Stewart and Moore treated On Love as a dry run for co-directing. This would lead to Cartoon Saloon’s biggest project to date — Wolfwalkers (2020), co-directed by the pair.
After On Love, they “kind of knew that it should work,” Stewart said. “In theory.”
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on April 21, 2022. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — over a year later, we’ve made it free to all.
You already know that the American film Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is out and getting rave reviews. It’s also blowing up at the box office, with a debut above $120 million domestic and $88 million international. China is its top foreign market — even the hyper-critical users of Douban currently rate it 8.8 out of 10.
A big Japanese story: Hayao Miyazaki’s How Do You Live will have no further promotion — no trailers, no ads. We’ve only got the inscrutable poster. Producer Toshio Suzuki says that the “poster is the first thing Hayao Miyazaki has ever really praised me for,” and that modern promo gives away too much, leading to this new strategy.
Meanwhile, Japan is getting a new book about the entire history of Studio Ghibli, from its start in the ‘80s through the production of How Do You Live. It comes from Toshio Suzuki, it’s over 500 pages long and it’s up for international preorder.
The Brazilian series Wake Up, Carlo! is a sort of modern Rip Van Winkle story, and it’s secured a deal with Netflix. See its very strange trailer, which finds the protagonist silently dancing to a car alarm.
In America, there were deep cuts to Pixar, where 75 people lost their jobs. Among them were Angus MacLane and Galyn Susman, the director and producer (respectively) of Lightyear.
China’s prestigious Golden Dragon Awards are partnering with Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, for a new prize aimed at what’s known in China as “short video” (短视频) animation. Think: an Annie category for TikToks.
Russia’s expert councils on film, which select projects for state funding (crucial in Russia), had an unprecedented shake up. The animation council lost half its members, a number of whom were replaced by Ministry of Culture officials and even a Russian Orthodox priest. (The children’s film council has it worse: it’s now primarily officials, activists, establishment religious figures and pro-Putin politicians.)
Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s Soyuzmultfilm, Yuliana Slashcheva, spoke with Putin. She brought proposals for growing Russian animation, and he agreed, calling this a “huge industry” with a “very important educational aspect.”
Lastly, we took a visual tour of Toei Doga.
Until next time!
From Animated Gifts: Welcome to Cartoon Saloon, a presentation that Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore gave in 2016. This is our primary source for the piece. (The On Love section starts around the 48-minute mark.)
From the book On Animation: The Director’s Perspective (Volume 1). It contains interviews with a number of animation directors, including Allers and Moore. Another key source for the article.