The shape of fear
Text by Cole Delaney
In both The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea films, there is a barrier between the protagonists and the outside world. Tomm Moore and his team at Cartoon Saloon use the design of the characters and the world to express these deep themes.
In The Secret of Kells, Brendan is blocked by the huge, flat wall of Kells that Abbot Cellach is building in fear of the outside world. Whereas in Song of the Sea, Ben’s wall is the terror he associates with the ocean; he blames it and Saoirse for the loss of his mother, Bronagh. He no longer sees its beauty, rather he is bound by the barrier of the ocean, and his fear of its danger.
At the beginning of Song of the Sea, we’re presented with very clear visual language to show what safety means. The circular characters, within a circular world, like a storybook; all these circles within circles create safety. Once Ben is removed from the island and Saoirse is taken, he must literally face his fears by diving into the mirrored well. However, the film highlights his path is safe by lining the well with concentric circles, reminiscent of the previous safety he had at home with his family. Even as he moves past his encounter with the Seanachaí, he is surrounded with a circular aura of light, further illustrating his safety in determination.
Brendan, in The Secret of Kells, is confronted with the fears of the outside world once he stumbles into the forest. Fast, triangular wolves that move in horizontal lines, threaten to invade his circular world. But once he meets Aisling, the danger of the forest disappears, and she helps him uncover the wonder of the world they explore. Everything transforms into a rich tapestry and as Moore puts it, they move through a ‘stained glass window’. The perspective disappears and everything is safe once again. His adventures with Aisling are reminiscent of the safety he has at home and the outside world, though still harbouring danger, becomes a place of wonder. Danger only reappears at home with the Abbot’s refusal to let Brendan develop into an illuminator. Then, once again, when the Vikings invade; their sharp, angular shapes bring the viewer back to a realistic perspective. They add a sense of weight, reality and danger to the world.
This danger at home is contrasted by Brendan's protector, Abbot Cellach. He also acts as a wall to Brendan, shielding him from the outside world. His character is much like a cross between the Romanesque arch and a Roman Scutum: strong and tall, often blocking Brendan’s view. He always bends his neck forward, to show the weight of the world bearing on his shoulder. Similar to Conor’s design in Song of the Sea. His shoulders are hung and he moves as if he carries a tremendous weight.
Both films are masterclasses in developing the characters and the world they exist in to reinforce a story. Using simple design elements like flat perspectives and concentric circles, they subconsciously speak to the audience to hint at danger or promote safety.