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.


Creating your own natural world

Toca nature

I like to cover a wide variety of art forms on this blog, including electronic arts. Computer games have come a long way in the last twenty years, and now cover a wide variety of themes and subject matter, including nature.

Swedish game developer Toca Boca is known for creative and immersive games that foster open play. Their latest app is called Toca Nature, and it lets the user create their own virtual world of mountains, trees, plants, and animals. I tried it out for the first time today, and found it an engaging experience.

The graphics are simple and stylized, but the 3D environment allows for real-time exploration of your world. Much of the fun comes from flying over the hills and valleys you created, watching rabbits, bears and other creatures eat, sleep, and explore. You can also collect food to feed the animals and watch them grow. There is a camera to take snapshots as you explore.

Toca Nature

Toca Nature

The animation can be a bit awkward at times, with animals not always walking solidly on the ground, often passing right through trees and plants. And I found myself wishing for a little more to do in my newly-constructed world.

Still, as an immersive environment that lets children play with nature in a different way, it’s a fun and appealing experience. And if it makes kids want to go out and look for a real fox in the wild, so much the better.


Stop-motion on the other side of the woods

On The Other Side Of The Woods by Anu-Laura Tuttelberg

Anu-Laura Tuttelberg is an animator from Estonia who works in stop-motion, a medium that is all the more compelling in this digital world of computer animation. Her latest film, being released this year, is called On The Other Side Of The Woods, and it uses imagery from nature that is stark and compelling.

As she describes the story, “a clay doll awakens her surroundings that become a surreal world in constant flow of change.” What I find so unique about this film, as seen in the trailer below, is the use of real elements from nature — plants, dirt, water — animated in ways that are both eerie and strangely comforting. Also wonderful is the use of natural light, which flows over the scene in unpredictable ways that make the whole environment seem alive. The viewer discovers this strange yet familiar world even as the character does.

The film is being released in festivals this year. Her first animated film was called Fly Mill (“Kärbeste veski”) which was her graduation film at Estonian Academy of Arts in 2013. You can see more of her work at her website.

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Teisel pool metsa / On the Other Side of the Woods TRAILER from Anu-Laura Tuttelberg on Vimeo.


On The Other Side Of The Woods by Anu-Laura Tuttelberg




On The Other Side Of The Woods by Anu-Laura Tuttelberg

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Premier Automne – First Autumn

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne is a brilliantly animated short film directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset, produced by Je Regarde. It is stunningly beautiful, and explores nature both visually and thematically. But I don’t want to summarize the story if you haven’t seen it yet, because the discovery and mystery of each moment is what makes it so compelling.

Watch for yourself, and then I will share some thoughts below. (Watch on Vimeo for a larger picture, it’s worth it.)

There are so many ways to look at this film. As a simple human drama, it’s the story of two people eternally set apart from each other by the laws of nature. And yet they are both lonely, are both drawn to one other. Both inhabit a world completely foreign to the other, and frightening as well, even as it seems perfectly natural to them.

There is an overtone of death throughout the film, echoed in the darkness that surrounds their world, and yet there is also life below the surface, waiting to spring forth. In most stories, the protagonists manage to overcome their problem in the end, but this film is much more open-ended.

Life and death, summer and winter, boy and girl. There is a lot to think about here. How do you interpret this film?

For those of you who like to go behind the scenes, here is a link to the production blog, and here is a video about the making of the film.

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The fantastical world of Benjamin Lacombe

L’Herbier des FéesNature stirs the imaginations of writers and artists. Benjamin Lacombe is a young artist from France whose work recalls that of Arthur Rackham and Brian Froud, but also dips into a spooky surrealism that is often unnerving and always compelling.

The images below are from his book L’Herbier des Fées, or The Herbarium of the Fairies, written in collaboration with Sebastien Perez (available in several languages, though not yet in English). It tells the story of a fictional Russian botanist who ventures into a strange forest searching for the secrets of immortality. The book is designed as a collection of his sketches, letters and photos, all meticulously illustrated by Lacombe. The influence of Leonardo Da Vinci is evident, from the brown ink studies to the chiaroscuro and classic poses of the characters. There is also an interactive version of the book, which you can see in the video below.

The pages of this book — and many of Lacombe’s books — overflow with imaginative creatures that often blur the lines between flora and fauna, between living and artificial. Some of the pages include die-cuts and transparent overlays to give added dimension to his mysterious world. His beautiful flowers and fairies often seem like they could devour us, even as we are fascinated by them. It is an amazing and unique vision that explores our fear of the natural world as much as our fascination with it.

L’Herbier des Fées
Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe
L’Herbier des Fées
Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe
L’Herbier des Fées
Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe
L’Herbier des Fées
Artwork © by Benjamin Lacombe

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Here is a video trailer for the book and iPad app:

Here is a video about the making of the interactive book:

Here is another video about the making of the interactive book:

Here is his official blog with even more amazing artwork.

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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.

The Secret of Kells, the beauty of nature


There are many reasons to love the new animated film The Secret of Kells, and not least is the way it portrays nature. More than just a picturesque backdrop, nature plays an integral part in the story, and is practically a character in itself, personified by the forest sprite Aisling. She is a vibrant presence in the film, both childish and wise, who protects the forest and yet is vulnerable to the dark forces that lurk there. She teaches Brendan, the cloistered hero of the film, about the beauty of her forest as well as the dangers.


The visual portrayals of the trees and plants are spectacular, and the stylized lines and animation make you feel the growing, thriving life that dwells within. In one scene, Brendan scales an impossibly tall and twisted growth of trees to find the small berries that grow at the top, and the symbolism of life and rebirth is subtle but powerful. The film is filled with such small moments, that add up to a collective tapestry of the natural world as a vital force all around us. The book that Brendan helps to create not only contains images inspired by the forest, but the inks are made from ingredients found there. Nature inspires art, in more ways than one.

Below are some more images from this magical film. If you want to read more about The Secret of Kells, I wrote about it over at the Creative Juices blog. Better yet, go see it!










Come Again in Spring

Come Again in Spring by Belinda Oldford, National Film Board of Canada

Continuing our snowy theme this month, we turn to animation.  Come Again in Spring is a short animated film about an old man who has a mysterious visitor one day who threatens his peaceful existence. This gentle film contains gorgeous imagery of the snowy landscape, and also the birds who are ever-present throughout the tale.

In addition to the beautiful animation, it’s also a great story, and I urge you to watch it through to the end. It is a film about life, about nature, and about the human spirit.

The film is based on a story by Richard Kennedy. It was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and was directed and animated by Belinda Oldford.

The Old Mill – a study in nature

Walt Disney’s animated short film The Old Mill won an Academy Award in 1938, and it is remarkable not only because it’s a beautiful film, and pioneered the multi-plane camera, but also for how it depicts nature.

The mill itself is merely the backdrop for the story. The main characters are the animals — in the opening minutes we see creatures who live outside the mill (a spider, ducks, cattle, frogs, crickets) and those who live inside the mill (a pair of nesting bluebirds, doves, mice, bats, and a wide-eyed owl.) All are living peacefully until a storm sets in, and everyone ducks for cover.

The mill is forced to battle the elements, and it nearly topples over — but somehow all becomes right in the end, and nature’s balance is restored. We get the sense that the abandoned mill, built by human hands, is not long for this world and won’t survive too many more storms. But the birds, the mice, the owl — the creatures of nature will somehow always pull through, if left to their own devices. If only we would let them.