the Song of the Sea turns animation on its head

Chaojie Hu

The Return of 2-D!

As little as ten years ago, no one took animation seriously. It was a kid’s art form, harmless, disposable entertainment. Thanks to Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli, this is no longer true. Animated films are now considered real art, have their own category at the Academy Awards, and are treated by the major media outlets as a complex art form. But we know that with everything good comes something bad: as animation has gained more and more cultural caché that caché has ironically begun to limit the art form. It’s as if the price of respectability is losing what made you interesting in the first place, and that’s a steep price to pay.

With Toy Story, Pixar was the first studio to score a big hit using computer-generated 3D animation. Disney and the other big studios saw the box office and followed suit—3D became the one and only way. From that moment on, the big studios abandoned 2-dimensional animation. Despite the fact that the Japanese have always loved 2D, they are stuck in an anime art style. The anime industry consists of over 430 production studios including major names like Studio Ghibli, Gainax, and Toei Animation. And anime, of course, makes up a majority of Japanese DVD sales. In America and Japan, the leaders in animated film, 3D and anime have come to dominate the filed and limit the way audiences and artists think about animation. So when a small 2D Irish film, Song of the Sea, opened in 2014, it was significant. It broke the stranglehold of the 3D aesthetic and opened up new possibilities for animation. Maybe it is not the best-animated movie ever, but Song of the Sea is a challenge to many preconceived notions about animation.

One of the qualities that make Song of the Sea significant is the character design—it’s very flat. The animation is closer to stylized graphic shapes. Faces and bodies are simple, comfortable, and pleasing geometric figures. Compared to anime and computer-generated 3D, Song of the Sea creates characters in a fundamentally different way. Even though characters are designed as geometric shapes in 3D, the totally flat 2D style allows for more interesting and abstract forms. 2D creates a purer arrangement between shape and character, a more ingenious relationship of the balance between graphic and line. We appreciate the realistic depiction of objects, and often equate that with realistic character: what Song of the Sea does is show how the less simple, realistic 2D style is equally adept at creating memorable characters.

Birthday Parties and Character Design
In beginning of the movie, six-year-old Saoirse’s family is celebrating her birthday. The director Tomm Moore gives us four typical character designs. The designs for the children are inventive and revealing. Saoirse (the seal-child) and her brother have big round heads and their bodies are about two heads tall, a pleasing third to two thirds proportion. Moore represents the father’s head as being somewhat like a boulder. He has wide and round shoulders and a big rectangle body. The Grandmother has a perfect round head, a big, but soft roundish body with tiny hands.

Furthermore, we can see how Moore pays attention to small details in the design: when the characters fingers bend, instead of showing the knuckles, the drawing just uses a flat line or a fluent smooth curve to represent it. Noses are always represented as a single line. Ears are just semicircles. Moore abstracts the characters’ bodies from normal, realistic shapes to the most direct and simple representations. The straightforward stylization of the plain 2D design makes the characters personalities and qualities easier to read, and the beauty shows in each character.

In terms of composition, Song of the Sea doesn’t try to imitate the real world but follows the aesthetic of flat illustration. We admire every single moment as if it were a piece of animated artwork, not simply an animated film. Moore uses straightforward shapes and plain perspective, presenting an attractive environment while displaying the mood and tone of the story. The shapes are abstract but also accessible.

A great example is the setting of the small island of the lighthouse: the drawings of stones by the beach are simple ellipse shapes, and all the shapes of the rocks under the sea are just random triangles. Those triangle rocks point to the center of the picture, directing us the character in this dark environment. Additionally, the animators use loose, simple, free hand lines to catch decorative elements. They draw white circles to represent bubbles in the water, dynamic wave lines for waves, and various lines for tree branches, but they are all well matched with one another in each scene. Moore then creates a dramatic contract between shapes and lines. By trying different variations visualizations of this process, it brings more layers to the drawings, enriching our visual sensation. Visually, Song of the Sea is more concerned with the interplay of geometry and feeling than mimicking live action, caring more about the metaphor of images rather than presenting reality.

I'd buy this painting: if it were one.
The most impressive aspect of Song of the Sea is the use of colors and different types of painting techniques. Song of the Sea balances ukiyoe, pen and ink, and expressionism to create a new visual style. For example, Moore creates the breathtaking sky by using these three painting methods with lighting skills. The effect is a rich exotic atmosphere as if you can smell the damp Irish air.

On the other hand, the landscapes in Miyazaki’s animations are exclusively done in watercolor. Although Miyazaki’s drawings are beautiful and realistic, they somewhat lack the imaginative qualities and sense of exploration. Nowadays 3D is done even more realistically, as it utilizes modern film making techniques, rules, and skills. The problem with 3D animation is the lack of artistic exploration, because it presents color and lighting too close to reality, yet puts stylized characters in the “real world.”

What world are we in?
Song of the Sea has an abstract, clean and simple design, but it is also an elaborate and carefully colored animation with conscientious details. It’s fancy, but not magnificent, like an 18th century cathedral painting. It is like a meticulously prepared illustration in a storybook. It gives us a chance to imagine, enjoy, and explore this new scenery, while in the meantime evoking our curiosity and enthusiasm for the magic of animation. As viewers, we want to see something more detached from the real world to satisfy our curiosity, as well as needing to see something unusual to feed our imaginations. In that sense, Song of the Sea offers us a great experience and inspires us to experiment and create more gorgeous animation in the future.

©Chaojie Hu and the CCA Arts Review

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