Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea

The new animated film Song of the Sea is an artistic triumph, and its strong connection to nature only enhances its power. The story is based on the legendary Selkie, a creature who can change from a seal to a human and back again. Inevitably this pulls in themes of the nature, humans’ relation to the sea, and what it means to be human ourselves.

The film was produced by Cartoon Saloon, whose first feature The Secret of Kells was reviewed on this blog a few years back. I don’t want to give away any of the wonderful surprises in the new film, but I will talk about three things that make it especially powerful in relation to themes of nature.

Song of the Sea

The folklore in the film draws from ancient tradition, and a time when stories were used to explain the mysteries of the world. By entwining the lives of humans and animals, folk tales convey an interconnectedness that is largely lost in today’s world. Science tells us more about nature than we ever knew before, but folklore lets us experience it on a more visceral level. In a recent interview, director Tomm Moore says, “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture.” The film manages to bridge all of these worlds very effectively.

Song of the Sea

Another way the film celebrates nature is through the animals. The big sheepdog, even though he doesn’t speak (which is refreshing in an animated film) is more perceptive than most of the humans, and serves as a link between the world of humans and the magical world of animals and fairies. The seals are another constant presence, beckoning the humans to sea, and helping them in their time of need. The film is populated with creatures of all shape and size, and the constant tug between land and sea is a central conflict and highlight of the film.

Song of the Sea

Finally, the visual style of the film is not only gorgeous to look at, but has an organic quality that helps convey the natural setting. The watercolor backgrounds evoke the watery world of the sea, as well as the damp hills and landscapes of Ireland. The geometric abstraction of Secret of Kells gives way to a softer, more organic design sense, though the strong shapes and patterns make each scene a marvel of beauty and design. Nature is built on pattern and form, and the style of the film conveys this beautifully.

Everything works together for the greater good of the story, which is not just about Selkies, it is about humans and families and never giving up on each other. We are all part of a bigger world, we are all connected, and that is a message worthy of any work of art.

For more information about the film, visit the official website.


The Diatomist – microscopic artwork created from nature

Sometimes the beauty of nature is so small, you need a microscope to see it.

Diatoms are single-cell algae, encased in glass shells, invisible to the human eye without a microscope. During the 19th Century, diatomists would make intricate arrangements of these tiny objects, creating beautiful designs.

Today there is one living practitioner of this microscopic art form, Klaus Kemp, the subject of a new documentary short by Matthew Killip. Klaus developed his own techniques for arranging these tiny works of art, because the original practitioners never passed down their secret techniques.

Below are some of Klaus Kemp’s designs. You can learn more about Klaus and diatoms in this interview with the filmmaker at the Smithsonian website. For more scientific reading on diatoms, visit the Identification Guide and Ecological Resource for Diatoms of the United States.

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Diatom by Klaus Kemp

Diatom by Klaus Kemp

Diatom by Klaus Kemp

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The Snowman

Snowman coverWinter is just about here, with snow already falling in colder climates. Winter can be harsh and brutal but also peaceful and stunningly beautiful. It’s a season that inspires artists, writers and filmmakers. For the next couple months here at The Untended Garden, I will be focusing on art and storytelling that deals with snow and winter, starting with a modern classic.

The Snowman is a wordless picture book written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs. It tells the tale of a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life one night. The snowman explores the boy’s house with him and later takes the boy flying through the air. The magic of the book lies not only in the story, but the wordless images, arranged in a sequential, comic book style that lets you experience each scene moment by moment.

It’s this visual storytelling that makes the book perfectly suited for animation, and in 1982 the book was turned into a film by British director Diane Jackson. This is that rare case where a film adaptation enhances the original story without losing the intent or charm of the original. In particular, the journey through the air is much more elaborate in the film, flying over cities and oceans to the polar regions and back, and the gorgeous music by Howard Blake perfectly sets the mood.

I’d like to call your attention to the animation itself, which is all drawn by hand. This film was made thirteen years before Toy Story revolutionized the animation industry. Today, 3D computer animation is king, and everyone marvels at the amazing feats it can accomplish. But computer animation is limited by computer models and logic, it has to obey certain rules. Hand-drawn animation is limited only by the artist’s imagination. Notice in the film how the mountains shift perspective and seem to melt into each other – this is purely an artistic vision of a landscape in motion, and wouldn’t work in a computer-animated film, yet it perfectly fits the magical impossibility of the story, and evokes a world where anything can happen.

It just goes to show, whether in books or films, a pencil is still often the most expressive tool of all.

Animated films under the sea

Many animated films have used the ocean as a setting. It’s a colorful place that appeals to all ages, and has a mystery that lends itself to the imaginings of a creative animator. Crabs can sing, clown fish can converse with sharks, sponges can live in pineapples. Rarely do animated ocean films stick to realistic portrayals, though ironically there are many real things under the sea that are more strange and bizarre than anything Disney ever came up with.

Here are several animated films that take place under the sea. It’s interesting to see how many different ways the ocean can be seen through the eyes of an animator.

Fantasia – Disney, 1940

This film is a classic in the world of animation, and one of the few feature-length films that focus entirely on the artistry of its subject, not on a traditional narrative. The beauty of the animation speaks for itself, and it recalls a time when animation was more unique in the film world, and appreciated for its own sake.

The Little Mermaid – Disney, 1989

See how much Disney has changed in fifty years. This film has been criticized for draining all of the magic out of Andersen’s original story, and replacing it with trite Disney formula. But it does have some creative portrayals of the ocean, and some of the best songs ever written for the movies (by Menken and Ashman) which lift it to emotional heights that the scriptwriters don’t deserve.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – Nickelodeon, 2004

This movie is just plain silly, and a great example of how creatively you can portray the ocean in animation. Although the focus is on the characters and the sight gags, the ocean is ever-present, and the film mixes live action and animation in unique ways.

Finding Nemo – Pixar, 2003

This film has some amazing ocean animation, covering the bright coral reefs down to the murky depths, and featuring whales, sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and hundreds of other sea creatures. Besides being a great story, brilliantly written, it is like a virtual tour of the ocean and a feast for the eyes. It even sprinkles in some real facts about the ocean.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – 2008, Ghibli/Disney

This film is quite realistic in its portrayal of people and setting, but also the most fantastical of all the films here in its use of mythology and imagination. Ponyo is a magical goldfish who can turn into a human but in doing so offsets the balance of — oh never mind, the story is too complicated, and in a way, beside the point. This is really a visual poem about the human world and the ocean world coming together and making peace. It contains beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring animation of the ocean by one of the world’s greatest animators. (You can read more of my thoughts on Ponyo here.)

So, there are just a few animated films that feature the ocean as a major theme. Out of all of these, I think Fantasia and Ponyo are the ones which provoke the deepest thoughts about the ocean. What are your favorite animated ocean films or scenes? How well do you think animators have done in portraying the ocean, and what new depths are there to be explored? As the ocean becomes more and more of a focus in our shrinking world, I hope more artists choose to explore it through animation.

Whale Rider revisited

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.