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Crazy artists making a living doing what they want to do, with Tomm Moore

with your host Jessica Abel

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The hard skills I have, whatever their worth…they were only a small part of it.

I think building the company really was about soft skills—making connections and finding trustworthy partners and people.

Tomm Moore

Tomm Moore is an award-winning animator and director, and the co-founder of Cartoon Saloon animation studio in Kilkenny, Ireland. His notable work includes Wolfwalkers, Song of the Sea, and the Secret of Kells, a trilogy of films based on Irish folklore. Discover how Tomm and his partners built Cartoon Saloon from scratch, without any prior business knowledge, in the small city where they grew up.

The incredible films of Cartoon Saloon

More from the episode

  • Why learning to run a business meant graduating from the school of “mend and make do.”
  • How parenthood changed Tomm’s outlook on his professional career, and inspired his films.
  • The importance of soft skills like self-reflection and emotional intelligence when starting a business.
  • Tomm describes the moment he decided not to give up on Cartoon Saloon and “get a real job.”
  • What goes into making an Oscar-nominated film, and why does Tomm compare it to writing a haiku?
  • Tomm explains why he decided to stay in his hometown (Kilkenny, Ireland), and how it paid off.

About Tomm Moore

Over Cartoon Saloon’s history, Tomm has worked as Director, Art Director, Storyboarder, Animator and Illustrator across a range of the studio’s projects. Tomm has directed 3 universally successful feature films: The Secret of Kells in 2010 and the spiritual follow-up, Song of the Sea in 2015, and Wolfwalkers in 2020. All three were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.

His latest feature film Wolfwalkers which he co-directed with Ross Stewart received several prominent critics awards including LAFCA Award and NYFCC Award as well as nominations for a Golden Globe and a Bafta and wins in several categories including Best Director and Best Independent Feature at the 2021 Annie Awards. He is currently working as a producer across several of Cartoon Saloon’s new film and series projects as well as refocusing on his personal art training.

Additional links

The Blog of Kells

Cartoon Saloon

Wolfwalkers trailer


Click here to view the transcript!

Crazy artists making a living doing what they want to do, with Tomm Moore

Tomm Moore: Like basically it’s a failure of management, if people have to like burn themselves out to make something. There’s absolutely no good reason that great art can’t be achieved and have a good work life balance.

Jessica Abel: What does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?

There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional, creative.

I’m cartoonist and creative business. Coach Jessica Abel.

In my own life. The studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.

And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the autonomous creative.


Jessica Abel: My guest today, Tom Moore, is the award-winning animator and director of films and TV, including Wolf walkers, Song of the Sea, Secret of Kells and Puffin rock. I met Tom back in 2015 when I traveled with my family to Ireland. And he was kind enough to invite us, to spend an afternoon at the Cartoon Saloon.

The animation studio that he co-founded in Kilkenny, Ireland. Tom’s film’s drawn a deep well of Irish culture, folktales, and art, and that focus on deep roots seems so aligned with Tom’s choice to locate the company in Kilkenny, where he grew up.

Kilkenny is a small city. It’s not the most likely place to find an academy award nominated studio known for mold breaking visual style, combined with deep commitment to traditional 2d animation techniques.

But visiting the studio and meeting some of the team, I was so impressed with the progressive and inclusive work culture. And I couldn’t help but feel that this animation studio had the power to totally transform the lives of the people who work there and the people in the town.

And of course, you know, the lives of those millions who love the films.

I was so excited to get to talk to Tom about his path from Kilkenny teen to one of the most highly respected animators in the world who also runs his own studio.

I’ll bring you the inside story right after this.

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Now let’s start the show.

Begin interview

Jessica Abel: Tomm. Welcome.

Tomm Moore: Thanks. I’m blushing. What an introduction. Thank you so much. You know, I’ve been a fan of your work and Matt’s work and stuff so when you came to visit the studio, it was exciting for me too. I always had a sort of couple of parallel things in my head that I’d like to have done with my life and one of them was make the kind of comic books that you both make.

Jessica Abel: well, I’m both sad and happy that you chose not to take that life because

Tomm Moore: There’s still time.

Jessica Abel: I would love to have seen those comics, but

Tomm Moore: Yeah, who knows there might still be time.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I think there’s time for a few other little side projects on your, in your, in your future.

So I wanna just start off with just kind of setting the scene and telling, and getting to know a little bit about what your work life is like normally. And I know it probably goes through seasons. There’s different, cuz there’s different stages of production and things like that. And I think right now you’re kind of in the developmental stage of whatever’s next, but can you tell us a little bit about what that’s like maybe during production and then during a more in between period like now? Or maybe I’m wrong.

What is your work life normally like?

Tomm Moore: No, no, this is really, this is the first time in 22 years that I’ve taken any kind of a break. I’m just working two days a week supporting the new directors and from afar. I’m in Paris studying life drawing and, and urban sketching in the Beaux-Arts and mentoring in the Gobelins school. And it’s something I promised myself for years and, uh, only finally got to now, cuz COVID delayed it even after we finished Wolfwalkers.

So my work now is very, very different. I’m just settling in. I’m only here two weeks in the Irish Cultural Center in Paris. But for the past 22 years, since I graduated, or 21 years or whatever it is, it’s been, uh, kind of a cycle, as you say of development, fundraising, writing, story boarding, then into full production, usually for about 24 months and then back into a cycle.

So, I mean, overall, I made three feature films in that time and then founded the company and kind of oversaw a load of other bits and pieces that other people directed. But in terms of the stuff I directed myself, I was usually somewhere in that wheel of development or production, post production, or promotion.

And I always said, I was a bit like a chain smoker that I had to light the next one off the butt of the previous one. So usually while I was deep in production and fed up with all the mistakes I’d made, I had the next one in development. So I could go well, okay, I’m gonna put everything I’m learning onto the next one.

So this is the first time I’ve consciously stopped after three features, which isn’t a lot.

Jessica Abel: It’s amazing.

Tomm Moore: It’s not a lot of hours of, of animation, but it’s a lot of years.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, I mean, I think it’s amazing to have it’s, you know, the amount of care and love and just people hours that go into making a film like this is just in intense, you know, and the results are, have so much impact all around so it’s obviously worth it, but be to be able to take a break like that. And so, you know, to

Tomm Moore: I’m very lucky.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, it’s amazing. So you’re at the Irish Cultural Center in Paris on what’s the name of the street? Do tell.

Tomm Moore: Rue des Irlandais since the time in Napoleon and this is where the Irish have hung out and much whiskey has been drank in the honor of all our forebears while I’ve been here.

But, um, yeah, it’s fantastic spot. It’s a beautiful old building that used to be, I think a seminary for Irish priests and then was one of the Irish colleges whenever the good old, uh, English stop us having any Catholicism. They kind of sent all the priests here to train and it was like a little center of knowledge.

And then, um, it became a cultural center at some point over the last hundred years. And it’s a really wonderful place where like I’m hanging out with people that are from completely different disciplines. The only thing we have in common is we’re Irish. Uh, there’s a guy writing an opera, there’s a chap writing a novel, there’s, you know, people doing all sorts of things. So it’s a really lovely moment for cross pollination and a little bit of whiskey.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. That’s what I love about the Autonomous Creative Collective is how, how diverse everybody’s things are.

Tomm Moore: That’s what I-

Jessica Abel: It’s all the same, the same concerns. Creative concerns just go across the board so. But to get back to when you’re not in this lovely lacuna between projects what does your workday look like? I mean is it like up at dawn, you know, slaving away over the drawing table. Is it in meetings? Like what? I know it varies, but just give us a little taste.

Tomm Moore: Mm, that’s a tough one. Okay. So at like, yeah, peak production, I’d often be waking up early worried about what had to be dealt with that day. I’d have a team of between 30 and 40 in Kilkenny, usually two or three co-production partners to touch in, touch base with either in Luxembourg, France, sometimes Denmark, Denmark, or Belgium.

So all our product,

Jessica Abel: Meaning other studios?

Tomm Moore: Other studios, we co-produce. Yeah. So like if say there’s 200 people working on the movie that might be the, the key kind of like design decisions and the main writing and the main animation decisions are made in Kilkenny and then we share the work with our co-production partners.

So my day is often more about emotional intelligence and drawing over other people’s drawings then drawing for myself when I’m in production. And then it is it’s all over all of a sudden, and then I’m into another phase which might be flying around promoting it, or as Wolfwalkers proved, I could do it all for my spare room in Kilkenny, which was nice in some ways, and everything was done by Zoom.

But yeah, so like, those are the three phases. I’d say development is the most nerve wracking and also the nicest cuz I’m drawing the most and writing and designing characters with my collaborators, writing scripts with my collaborators, like Will Collins or Pete Poplaski, uh, story boarding. All that stuff is really fun and juicy and creative, and that goes on for as long as it takes to get the story right.

Or to get the finance raised or both, or whichever comes first. And then that intense up at the crack it dawn into late at night, every night for about 24 months is the kind of the grind of production. Cause usually once the story’s cracked and the finance is raised, you’re committed to a date to get it done by and your partners will have, you know, committed their studios resources for a certain amount of time. So you’re really against the clock and you’re really trying to do the best you can within that little chunk of time.

And it’s really surreal because it’s like, it feels so hard to get to that phase and then you’re like, yes, we raised the finance. Oh no. Now we have to make the movie. So that’s the real, you know, to be honest with you, I’ve I haven’t dealt with that phase the best over my career.

I don’t think I was taught enough about the emotional intelligence needed and the self reflection needed during that period. So I, I’m pretty sure I burnt out on each movie at a different point.

Jessica Abel: You mean in the, the self management of sort of, the amount that you’re pouring into the process and the, the trans communication with other people, all those kinds of things?

Tomm Moore: Yeah. And like Wolfwalkers was much more collaborative, but even then I still like to do a lot myself, you know, maybe the controlling way. So that was often the work that was done at 6:00 AM or whatever.

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. And then they come in and they see, they see a bunch of stuff on their desk and they go, “Tomm. What’s up?”

Something like that. Something like that. Yeah.

So you, your role in that period and, you know, throughout it, but in particularly in that period, is that as director, right? And so I’m curious what that means cause obviously you like to get your hands literally dirty, you know, actually doing stuff.

Tomm Moore: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: But are there also kind of managerial roles or is there somebody else who’s handling that?

Tomm Moore: Yeah, see, I have not directed or co-directed anything that I wasn’t also the producer of, and that was a very conscious decision of mine because I saw friends who kind of had their, their vision compromised by producers meddling or whatever.

So there’s a huge part of my job which is a studio owner and co-producer, you know, so I’m answering to financers and I’m, I’m talking with production managers, I’m talking with line producers about the problems of the day, and there’s always a fire to fight, so there’s a good bit of that in there too.

Usually lunch times are given over to meetings with my partners Nora and Paul and, uh, Gerry Shirren, our managing director. And that’s when we kind of download where we’re at.

And sometimes Nora’s in, in another stage of production, one of her films.

So sometimes there’s, there’s, there’s more directors in the studio now, so yeah, sometimes it’s just like, uh, what’s going on? And then straight back into the fire of production again after lunch.

How did you learn to run a business?

Jessica Abel: Wow. Yeah. So tell me a little bit about how you learned to run this as a business, I’m sure it was as you were going, but I mean, where have you reached out for resources? What were big sort of turning points for you thinking about this as, you know, that it wasn’t just making the film. There’s this whole structure that has to go around it.

Tomm Moore: Yeah, that was the hardest thing. That’s not what we were trained for in Ballyfermot. Like I was kind of trained to be an animator in someone else’s studio, probably Don Bluth’s studio, or whoever set up the course, you know? And so when we set up our own studio, we had to learn all the other stuff ourselves.

But it’s a little bit like, you know, that Wallace and Gromit cartoon where they’re going along on the train and putting the track down in front of the train as the train has gone. And we, we crashed a fair few times. We were really lucky. I think part of being in Kilkenny allowed us to crash and pick up the pieces and go forward again.

Um, certainly after Secret of Kells and, uh, Skunk Fu!, our first TV show, we really hit a wall and we had to like borrow money from family and friends and things to get, keep things going.

And then from that lesson we kind of learned that we needed that business savvy outside of the main group. Now we did have another partner, Ross Murray, who was focused on the business side, but again, what happened was Ross immigrated to France.

And that gave an opportunity for us to hire a managing director. So we actually hired Gerry Sherrin about eight or nine years ago to become our managing director. And he’d actually been the MD of the Sullivan Bluth Studio in Dublin, which was kind the studio that made me believe it was possible to be an animator in Ireland.

It was a big American studio set up in the eighties and it made things like American Tail and Land Before Time. And depends how old your audience are they might know these movies, but for me, they were like the cartoons of my childhood. And the fact they were being made in Dublin was mind blowing. So when we first set up Cartoon Saloon, we asked a lot of vice of- advice off Gerry, who at the time was running his own studio in Dublin.

And then by the time we were ready to hire a managing director about nine years ago I guess, Gerry had become available, and that has really been the turning point in the business in terms of us thinking about in a very different way.

Prior to that I always joke, it was like the crazy artists from art school just trying to kind of make make a living doing what they love to do. And we are still so lucky that we get to do that, but we became just a bit more disciplined about things after that.

Jessica Abel: Right. I mean, just separating those things. I feel like it’s sort of like that switch over from the point of view of being a freelancer where it’s like, what’s the next gig, the next gig, the next gig.

And you’re just kind of scrambling from thing to thing to pulling back and going like, all right, what’s strategically, what do we need to be doing here in order to set ourselves up to not crash and burn at the end of this next project?

Tomm Moore: Yeah. See, I’ve been a member of Young Irish Film Makers, and that was a wonderful experience as a teenager in a sort of mend and make do, and go for it, kind of, you can do it kind of way. But then we needed to sort of graduate from that sort of philosophy.

And because on Secret of Kells obviously we’d crashed and run outta money and everything. And so there was a graduation period where Enterprise Ireland, which is a national body for encouraging sort of startups. We were past the startup stage, but, you know, for that kind of thing, they came in and gave us a mentor and helped us make the transition.

And the Irish Film Board. Like a lot of people were like delighted that we were getting Oscar nominated and winning prizes and stuff and alarmed at how chaotic um, our, our business, uh, side of things was.

And I mean, it wasn’t all our fault. I do feel it was part of the industry at the time, like animation it goes through cycles. And when we set off, when we set up, unless you were in CG, there wasn’t a whole lot of work so we were kind of scrambling between projects.

But I do remember after Secret of Kells I started asking everybody I met, how do you do it? How, like, I was trying to figure out how people did it. And I remember even saying it to you when we went for lunch, when you visited the studio and you were like, well, I think you figured it out by now, Tomm.

It’s like, oh, maybe we have actually somewhere along the way we figured it out. But for years, I’d say for the first 10 years of the studio, I was always kind of had one part of my brain thinking, geez, maybe I need to get a real job. You know, maybe this is all gonna, you know, I’m gonna have to cash in this experience and get a real job as it were. Quote unquote, real job. Um

Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, I, I totally hear you. And, and that, I mean, that conversation is what we do here. Like that’s why I

Tomm Moore: That’s what I love about this.

Jessica Abel: That I have permission to ask everybody exactly that.

Tomm Moore: And that’s why I love listen to it cause I used to ask that everybody I met. I remember meeting Bill Plympton, like how do you do it? Like everybody is just trying to figure it out.

The moment you started to feel successful

Jessica Abel: Yeah. So what was that moment for you? Do you remember a moment when you’re like, I’m not gonna have to go quote unquote, get a job?

You knew that you would be employable in animation, but it would. I mean, it’s just a completely different thing. I mean, you said a few minutes ago that. The reason you’re a producer on your own films is you don’t wanna lose control. You said that you are maybe a little controlling and you come in in the morning and fix people’s Wolfs drawing, you know, like

Tomm Moore: Maybe. Yeah. Along those lines, I tried to, I think I’m better now than I was, but yeah, I do.

Jessica Abel: Oh, no. I mean, I’m teasing, but, but I, but I understand not, not in this kind of like, um, not in a pejorative way, but in a we have a vision.

I mean, you have a vision. You wanna do 2D animation. You want it to be stuff that’s rooted in your own, you know, history, experience, all these other kinds of things. And these are not standard issue films, you know, they’re not, they’re not cookie cutter in any dimension. And so you have to have that kind of control in order to make that stuff.

The idea of you saying like, I need, I’m gonna go get a job as an animator someplace. Storyboarder, whatever, whatever it would’ve been. And I know you were thinking about that in the first part of your career. So what, was there a moment when you’re like, nope. I’m, I work, I work here. This is, this is me. I do this.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. What happened was Ross Stewart who co-directed Wolfwalkers with me had been the art director on Secret of Kells and obviously when we crashed we had to shrink down to just like 10 people.

And Ross had been contacted by LAIKA to do some production work for ParaNorman. And I was like, oh, I’d love to be part of that too cause I loved what LAIKA were doing. I was a fan of Coraline and Secret of Kells was kind of in its slow burn phase. It was picking up awards. But as I told you we weren’t, you know, we were scraping together a live and doing commercials and making a short film and stuff. So we weren’t really booming.

And I was picking up that work with Ross doing production design, and then it was on the cards that I might go and work with LAIKA, for example. And they’re lovely people and I would’ve loved to worked with them, but I remember Chris Butler, the director of ParaNorman. I met him at the Annies after we’d been, um, nominated for an Oscar.

And I was like, geez, I don’t know. And he goes, I think you do know. I think this means you gotta make your- another film. And I, it really felt in my heart, like, yeah, you’re right. And it wasn’t just Chris. That trip to LA for the Annies we’d just been surprised nominated for Oscar. And so many people like Jim Capobianco at Pixar. And I, I won’t even try and name everybody.

Brenda Chapman. So many friends in the industry said, look, you’re live in the dream. You’re getting to make your own movies. This Oscar nomination is the industry telling you we’d like to see what you’re doing, not come over here and help us make whatever, uh, we’re doing.

As much respect as I have for the craft in, in, in LA, it did seem like they all felt you’d be mad to chuck it in now that you just were nominated for an Oscar. So I really do think that that Oscar nomination was worth a whole lot. It was validation of what we’d spent our twenties building, and it was kind of a pat on the back and a reassurance that we should keep going despite the fact that we’d learned some we’d been bruised by some hard lessons along the way.

Jessica Abel: Cause I bet you they’re all saying you’re living the dream and you’re thinking

Tomm Moore: Yeah, you’ve got free pizza and the swimming pool and all the stuff the big studios have. Exactly. I do remember coming back from my first ever trip to LA, I won a Directors Finder Series Award and Secret of Kells wasn’t even finished, but the DGA had this thing for young directors and I was, I think I wasn’t even 30 at the time.

And I went over and I got a tour of the studios and I met all these agents and, you know, the whole thing. And it was amazing cuz it was like a playground, like places like Pixar and Disney Studios, Dreamwork, et cetera. And then I came back and I was at my desk and I was jet lagged and there was like pencils shavings around the floor.

And you know, there was like eight of us all on top of each other in the little office. And I ah, mmm, you know, but it was all worth it.

Jessica Abel: So this is the dream, huh?

Tomm Moore: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. There you go.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. So you keep saying, sort of referring to this period after you’d finished Secret of Kells and hadn’t yet gotten this nomination, this sort of crash and burn period and when things really were pretty rough.

So do you feel like you made a mistake at any point there that, that you learned from? Or was it just, this is what’s gonna happen when you try to extend yourself to make a feature when you are just starting out, you don’t have the full structure around you. I mean, what, what did you learn from that?

What lesson did you learn from the early days of running Cartoon Saloon?

Tomm Moore: There’s two things we did. We didn’t have something else ready to feed the team. We just were barely finishing it cuz as I said, we were laying track as we went and um, Ross and Paul were amazing producers, uh, Ross Murray and Paul Young, they did so much work pulling the finance together, but they were just like us, you know, we’d all just been in college together.

Ross and I had been Young Irish Film Makers together. Paul had been in Ballyfermont Senior College so none of us were business people really. Ross was much better at business than Paul, was much better at business than me, but even still, we just didn’t have those smarts. And if we brought those in while times were good, we might have rode out that storm.

I say all that and also there’s factors beyond your control. I mean, it was 2009. That was after there was a crash. People had been betting on mortgages. There was stuff going on that was way beyond our control and I remember taking meetings around the time that the Secret of Kells was finished prior to being released and nominated for an Oscar in LA.

I think it was that trip I was talking about and it, it had it, there was a sense of everybody was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everyone knew, you know, the bubble that the world had been living in was gonna affect Hollywood soon. It was going to, it was gonna hit at some point. So there was that kind of tension in the air as well.

So some things are beyond control and you can’t really do much about, and if it hadn’t been the Celtic Tiger Boom in Ireland, I don’t think we would’ve been able to raise the amount of money we raised for Secret of Kells, you know. But capitalism is fun, you know, booms and busts all the time.

Jessica Abel: Roller coaster.

Tomm Moore: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, no, I think that’s great. It’s like, they’re both the lesson that there are things you absolutely can’t control and that are gonna happen and you have to figure out how to ride them out. And also that, um, you can identify specific things you could have done, like having more managerial acumen

Having more capacity maybe for…

Tomm Moore: Even as a small studio, yeah. Even as a small studio, we built up a little business doing commercials, which I always hated. It always felt like using your powers for evil or something, doing commercials. And we did a lot of illustrations. We used to illustrate books.

So we had a little tipping long studio for about 10 people and we let all that go to focus on the feature and the TV show. So even that business was hard to pick up again because other people had taken that spot. And so we needed to go bigger and that took longer and that took some bravery on all our parts to kind of hold the line for a while and wait for the kind of delayed reaction to the fact that Secret of Kells had been nominated, Skunk Fu! had done well.

And you know, you don’t make money the day after it’s released. You make it years later. It’s a long, long tail. And even then, it’s not like, you’re not like, it’s not like winning the lotto or anything, but it kind of, it builds, you know. You build a rights catalog, you build a, um, a reputation in the industry and you get more and more trust and more people want to work with you.

So we just had to hold the line and do whatever paid the bills for little while. And, you know, some great stuff came out. That Oscar nomination meant that stuff like doing the little section of The Prophet for Salma Hayek came along.

And Nora met Angelina Jolie and, you know, all that kind of stuff started to happen, which bore fruit like five years later, but those kind of connections, we kind of had to stay in business to take advantage of them. Otherwise we might have dispersed and just gotten quote unquote real jobs and never made another independent film anyway.

Do you enjoy the business aspect of what you do?

Jessica Abel: Do you enjoy the relationships and business piece of this now at all, or is it something that you’re happy to hand over?

Tomm Moore: I love the human side of it. And I wouldn’t want to let go of the, Paul is a really been our main kind of, you know, traveling sales man or whatever, since we set up the studio, and Nora and I have been the ones that stayed at home directing.

And then over the last few years, as we built a, a business team around Gerry, like head of finance and lawyers and all of that kind of stuff, I feel more and more comfortable meeting potential partners cuz I know that we have a team at home that are gonna deal with that stuff, you know.

And I don’t have to get into the stuff that I’m bad at like negotiating or playing hardball or whatever the heck you do to kind of get to, you know, cause we, we weren’t great at- good contracts make good friends, but we weren’t really good at contracts and stuff.

We often seemed to kind of shoot ourselves in the foot and maybe that was part of just getting started and you can’t avoid it. But, um, now I really enjoyed the, I mean, when I arrived here in Paris, I went to a screening of the Summit of the Gods, which was produced by Didier Brunner.

I really should mention Didier’s role as another mentor in my career. We went to see that and everybody in the cinema was like the, the French animation world. And I knew them all, either tangentially or directly from working with them. And to me, they’re friends, you know. To me they’re an extended family.

I’m really happy to meet them all. And I’d be really, really happy to initiate another co-production with any of them. But I don’t have to do the, the business side, I don’t have to negotiate the contracts or go

Jessica Abel: Right. And I think all the stuff you’re saying in terms of not making the actual artwork, but making the company, making the structure in which the artwork can happen seems to be about, um, identifying partners, building relationships, figuring out how to hire, and how to structure a business around people’s expertise.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. And I think that’s something that like the hard skills I have, whatever their worth, they were only a small part of it. You know, I think building the company really was about those soft skills and making connections and finding trustworthy partners and people that, you know.

I mean, and what I wanted to say was like, there’s a whole other part to my story that I think like, I, I kept a Blog of Kells during it cause I was so excited about everything I was learning and I wanted to share it with everyone. That’s why I love what you’re doing and it’s the kind of thing I want to let people know.

So the big thing for me was discovering European co-production. And at whatever age I was, like 23 or 24, Didier Brunner, who was already a very established French producer, believed in what we were doing and took us on. And sort of said our movie was his next movie.

You know, he was in the middle of Triplets of Belleville and him doing that changed a lot. Even Irish funders took us more seriously because they said, okay, these aren’t just a bunch of guys down in Young Irish Filmmaker’s buildings in Kilkenny, they’re actually internationally recognized and there’s a serious producer in France willing to take a punt on them.

And so from that point onwards, I think I learned a lot from working with Didier and all our coproducer, you know, cuz they’re all somewhere in their own journey. Like Didier was like, whatever, 20 years ahead of me, but then some of our other partners were people who’d set up after they’d worked with us.

And so there’s a kind of European co-production model where we’re all comparing notes and looking at how each other are doing. That’s been really important part to my career too. It’s worth mentioning, I think because you learn so much just from being honest and open with each other.

This idea that, you know, everyone’s in competition and we don’t tell each other what we’re doing. I think it’s so counterproductive cause once the industry is doing well, it’s good for all of us.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I mean, in general, I feel like there’s, um, there’s so much, there’s so many stories out there about the way creatives are supposed to work and the way we’re supposed to make our careers work and how it’s supposed to kind of magically happen and all this other kind of stuff.

And we’re reduced to running around having, you know, sidebar conversations with people, like, how do you do this? How do you, how are you making it? You know, what’s happening? It shouldn’t be that secret. It shouldn’t be that hard to get this information.

Tomm Moore: I think it’s also in education.

I think like young people they study to, like you talked about this, I think in one of the other things I listen to. People study to do their craft, to get the hard skills, but nobody teaches them all the hustle and all the work it takes to make a living as an artist.

And I mean, it’s a miniature version of it. So many people who work with us, they’re kind of running their company of themselves or their company of, the little group that work together all the time. And then they work with us sometimes, and then they work with other people and they come back and they’re kind of having to do a miniature version of what we had to do as a studio.

Like there was a group of us like me, Nora and Paul, and then an extended group of kind of friends and founders. What we were doing was looking for the next job as we finished up one job and discovering that you have to have the next one lined up. And that’s exactly what so many of the artists we work would have to do.

You know, if they come to the end of the contract. It’s partly why we set up Lighthouse Studios. So just to have another island for people to swim to in Kilkenny.

Cuz one of our challenges being in Kilkenny was we, we balloon up to scale so that we could do a bigger project and then people would all be let go and they’d have moved to Kilkenny, or, you know, what if people had families and things like that.

So we had to think about that there might, you know, other people were kind of going through that same cycle that we were going through as a company.

Jessica Abel: Right. So they had to have some place to go. Like they had to have some place to have new work and, and keep that, keep their own little, you know, business economies going. Yeah.

Tomm Moore: What I love in France, they have this intermittent payment. Do you know about this?

Jessica Abel: Yes.

Tomm Moore: It’s so perfect.

Jessica Abel: Oh, they French.

Tomm Moore: No, they’re so perfect. I mean, in Ireland, there’s some really nice stuff. We don’t pay income tax on like creative work, like writing a script or something, which is pretty amazing. But in France it’s next level. Yeah. It’s next level.

Jessica Abel: Although you do pay income tax on writing income income in France. Yeah.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. But then it’s worth it because then you’ve got this time when you’re in between projects. I think it’s amazing. I really believe in I’m totally lefty. Like I think higher tax and more social.

I love the idea, like the green party in Ireland, and my wife is a member of green party in Ireland, and they’re really working on a universal basic income for artists.

And I think, I, I think the whole society should have a universal basic income, but if artists felt that their basic basic income was covered, the amount of amazing stuff that we generate as a society. It’s like even maybe, like not to get too highfalutin, but we might solve some of the big problems that we’re facing, that people weren’t worried about just making a living, you know, in order to get, but it’s a bit utopian. It still doesn’t exist outside of France and other enlightened countries.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. And even in France, I have to say like there’s some major issues with that kind of basic income level stuff. I mean, having lived there. But yeah, I totally agree with you. I mean, as an American, I can only gaze across the ocean in, um, misty-eyed…

Tomm Moore: yeah, but I suppose America has a lot of positives too, because it’s like,

Jessica Abel: Oh yeah, for sure.

Tomm Moore: Full of creativity. And like so much of the stuff that inspires us comes out of America too, you know? And, uh, I always feel like amazed at artists in America who like go to college and get like a big debt and all of them go into the business. Like it’s such bravery, you know, there’s so much,

Jessica Abel: Well, I mean, I think that there’s something to be said there about, the necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re an artist and you do not have any social supports at all, like Americans don’t, it’s do or die, you know. It’s kind of like you’re talking about when you sign all the contracts with your production partners and everything’s locked in for a film and you’ve got 24 months to finish the thing.

You know, that energy is kind of, that’s American energy. That’s like, we gotta do, we have to do this. Like, we have no choice, you know, and it’s good and bad, you know, there’s, there’s upsides to it, but it’s also,

Tomm Moore: Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Complicated.

Tomm Moore: I love the positivity. Like the amount of American artists I know, they’re so positive. They’re so upbeat about stuff and they really want to give it a go, you know. Europeans are a bit more cynical.

Being a father throughout his professional life

Jessica Abel: It’s true. It’s weird, but it’s very true. I wanted to ask you about one other thing that I know is gonna be really interesting to our audience, and I haven’t really heard you talk about it that much, but you’ve been a father throughout your entire professional life. Is that not true?

Tomm Moore: I’m a, I’m a grandfather now. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: You’re a grandfather now and you are quite a bit younger than me. I just wanna get a sense of, so your son was born when you were in school still?

Tomm Moore: I was 18. So I was in my first year of animation school. Yeah, my wife was just starting art school as well. She took a year off and, uh, yeah, we were, we were teenage parents still.

That kind of straightened us up. And I mean, you know, there’s a huge amount of luck. We turned out to be incredibly compatible. You know, we’re still together, whatever, 27 years later. We turned out to be a great support for each other, but it’s true.

My wife as an artist had to put a lot of her own career stuff on hold until our son was about 16. She’s only now like coming back into her own in the last five or six years, I suppose.

Really, really getting back out there again as an artist. She was teaching a lot and a huge amount of those crazy times I talked about, the rent or the mortgage or whatever was paid by the fact that my wife was a teacher.

But also I think having my son made me not flip about and go, oh, I’ll just work in this studio. Maybe someday I’ll set up my own studio. It kind of made me make some, you know, I kind of committed early to a lot of stuff.

And I see that, you know, I see similar, similar thing in different people, for whatever reason. It may not be becoming apparent. Who knows what it is.

Usually there’s some external factor that makes people want to go the indie route and really go and stick with it. Sometimes it’s, as you said, necessity can be the mother of invention. And for me, the opportunity to build my own company and build a life in my hometown was much preferable than having to immigrate and travel around and all that.

Jessica Abel: I mean, being a parent, anytime is hard. You know, there’s a lot of work involved in it. It changes you, changes your perspective on the world and those kinds of things. But also, you know, you’ve had to balance this family life and I know it’s really important to you.

I mean, your films are basically all about fathers and fathers and children, you know, and like that’s in there so, so deeply. And, and I, I love that you are seeing that this perhaps had some played some part in your willingness to just throw everything into this.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. And also it was a lot of the juice for stuff, you know, like you said. I mean, especially, um, say Song of the Sea.

I mean, the main character was based on my son then, like he looked like him at type. It took so long to make it he was fully grown and leaving home by the time it was finished, but the initial idea was he was that kid, you know, he was 10 years old. And I think for me, the movies I make, I usually pack them full of people I love or people that are very close to me and that way I can live with them for so long cause it’s a long journey.

Like once you commit to a movie, it’s gonna be maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven years of your life until it’s finished and over and in the rear view mirror. And even then you have to stand beside it and either, talk about it or whatever later. So yeah, you have to pack it full of people you care about. That’s been one of my little tricks.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. I love that.

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Okay. Back to the show.

Deciding to stay in Kilkenny

Jessica Abel: So I read a quote from you someplace that said I grew up thinking it would be terribly tragic if I stayed in Kilkenny my whole life.

It’s, it’s cute. Like it’s exactly what a high, you know, like a teenager would say. Right. But, so you’re a teenager, you’re in this, you know, small city and then you go off to art school in the big city and, um, then fatherhood happens. Oops. And then here you are back in Kilkenny. I mean,

Tomm Moore: Kilkenny, I think making Secret of Kells originally it took way longer than I anticipated, but originally there was a part of me that felt, big plan B, this is a great launch pad. Like if we make something decent here with the support of Young Irish Filmmakers, which felt very much like home, that’s where, you know, that’s where I met my wife and that’s where I spent all my teenage years. I was kind of one of the, the weird art kids. I wasn’t into sports and stuff.

And Kilkenny is the all Ireland champion at hurling, and I went to a hurling school. Hurling is a Gaelic sport. And because I wasn’t a hurler, I was so lucky there was Young Irish filmmakers to hang out in, you know. So yeah, it all, it’s

Jessica Abel: Hurling. Animation, you know.

Tomm Moore: I love my favorite thing. My favorite thing is that the old seminary in clearance, which isn’t, there’s not enough people training anymore in the priesthood in Kilkenny, is what we ended up renting for Lighthouse Studios. So when we were installing all the ques and stuff, I was looking at the kids playing hurling and going revenge of the nerds.

My old school. Yeah. It’s, it’s weird. It’s a weird cyclical, strange thing. I think stuff that was laid down like our, our current president Michael D. Higgins. I really think I owe my career to, in a way that I’ve met him once and shook his hand, but basically in his career before I was born, he’d set up things like the Irish Language TV channel, the, the, the Irish Film Board, you know, the section for it on tax relief.

Like the amount of things he put in place. His vision for the arts in Ireland meant that it was possible for me to have a career as an artist in Ireland. So it’s it’s and, and Mike Kelly setting up Young Irish Film Makers so that the town I was growing up in had a place where you could go and muck around with cameras and, and try and be a filmmaker as a teenager. So, you know.

Jessica Abel: So Young Irish Film Makers, is that like a, a club? What is that?

Tomm Moore: Basically a club. It was like an organization and is. It continues? Like a little after school filmmaking place. And they had like in the 90’s, I always say this, in the 90’s, it was a place to go to get your hands on the equipment.

So I wanted to animate with the Amiga they had, and I wanted to use the, the Genlock and the stuff they had in 90’s, top of the range stuff. But actually, I always say this, none of that mattered. The equipment keeps on changing and now kids can make movies with their phones, but what we learned was collaboration.

What we learned was that if we came together on a Saturday, At the end of the day, we had something much better than we would’ve done. If we’d stayed at home and our bedroom’s trying to make something. And I think that’s the main thing that I took from Film Makers.

Jessica Abel: You, you learned relationships.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Like that’s, and that seems to be. Yeah, collaboration and, and building. You know, these kinds of durable, professional relationships that have been just, you know, key to your whole, your whole career.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. And Ross Stewart and I, I mean, it’s funny, like we looked at each other several times during the production Walkwalkers, going when we were sitting beside each other in school out trying to out draw Batman, you know, I can draw a better Batman than you. When we were like 11 or 12.

And then in Young Irish Film Makers, we joined film equally to make movies and meet girls cause we’d been to an old boy school, you know, and we’re in our forties and we were there making the feature film together. So yeah, it’s been an amazing ride.

Like I dunno, someone used the word like kismet or something that, you know, we all met each other as teenagers or like one of those bands, like U2 or something that are still, still rocking.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah. I read an amazing article. I wanna say in the New York Times, couple years ago that was about scenes and how relationships between artists are one of the most powerful predictors of success, ever, like of anything, you know, and you could, it was a sort of modernist chart and it was like, you know, who was connected to who and how did they know each other? It was, it was very cool. I believe, believe that I really believe that.

Tomm Moore: I always think that’s super interesting too.

Jessica Abel: So, um, I have two questions for you. Basically about work life balance.

How do you prioritize time for your family?

Jessica Abel: How do you prioritize time for your family? What do you try to keep in mind to try to balance these different parts of your life? You know, obviously as we’ve gone through there are different phases where I’m sure it’s easier and harder depending on where you are in production, but what do you have as a principle around that?

Tomm Moore: I’ve tried to get better. I think I was bad at it. I discovered very lately that some of the stuff that was my so-called superpower was actually, uh, an OCD diagnosis. And I regret some of that stuff. Like I remember kind of willing my son to sleep at night, reading him a story so I could get back to the animation desk or whatever.

And I remember many, many times feeling like I’d overcommitted. I had to go to a festival. I remember being in Cannes and missing like his fourth birthday and feeling like, what am I doing? I’m losing the balance, you know, and I think it was part of being so young and trying to get the bal- the priorities balanced up.

And again, thankfully my wife was there to kind of catch when I dropped the ball a bit. Over the years, I’ve learned about worklife balance and that’s why I kind of scheduled this sabbatical for myself after Wolfwalkers. I knew I couldn’t just keep rolling from one into another, into another, and I needed a bit of time to recharge or to let the field be kind of fallow, you know, so that you can see what happens next.

Otherwise, I think you just burn yourself out. And then I do think I’ve burnt out and worked true burnout a few times in my career when I look back on it. And it’s only the, kind of, the blessing of it being such a collaborative medium that I got carried by some of my talented collaborators during those periods.

So, yeah, look out. Like, I mean, geez, one of the most inspiring things for me about the younger generation as they come into the studio is how emotionally intelligent they are and how wise they are to nonsense of being defined by your work or feeling that working hard was somehow virtuous or, you know, sleeping in the studio overnight, cuz you work so hard with something to be proud of rather than ashamed of.

Like basically it’s a failure of management, either personal management or management as a company, if people have to like burn themselves out to make something. There’s absolutely no good reason that great art can’t be achieved and have a good work life balance. And I think, I think honestly my preference would be a work life balance rather than a great movie. But that’s old man maturity, I suppose.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I don’t know that you’d convince, you know, 22 yourself, 2, 22 year old self that, that is the case.

Tomm Moore: Like my hero, my heroes were people like Miyazaki and Dick Williams who were like almost Puritanically self-flagellating animators, always saying they weren’t working hard enough. And they were so hard in themselves. They were famously really hard on their team and whatever Catholic post-colonial nonsense was in my brain. I longed to be on their team for them to tell me I wasn’t good enough. And I had to work harder and all that stuff.

So, you know, it’s really strange when I look back on that whole culture where artists sort of, yeah, self-flagellated and made themselves miserable as some kind of sign of being a great artist and it’s crazy really.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, totally agreed. Totally agreed. What does, what did burnout look like for you and, and how did you come back?

What did burnout look like for you?

Tomm Moore: I think because, um, I have, because my artwork, like my wife says I’m a nicer person when I draw a few hours per day and I’m hoping after six months drawing every day, I’m gonna be a saint.

But, um, basically the drawing wasn’t the, there was times when I felt very burnt out with the business, with the pressure that the weight. I kind of had this, I think it was becoming a father young as well, I had this kind of paternal feeling about the business. And I sort of over like, was kind of called responsibility OCD by a therapist where I felt I was responsible for everybody and it was too much.

Yeah, it was, you know, it was classic, um, embarrassing mental health stuff, like crying in the toilet and pulling myself together and walking into a meeting. And it’s only that I’m on the other side of it and I got help that I can see how crazy that was, but that went on for a long time.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Okay. So with that in mind, what’s your advice to young animators?

What’s your advice to young animators?

Tomm Moore: Yeah. Watch out for that. Don’t, don’t

Jessica Abel: If that’s happening it’s a red flag

Tomm Moore: Yeah. Well, what was huge for me around mental health was one of our animation supervisor was just so open about his own journey. And then he spoke about that and then other people in the room spoke about it, and I was like, oh, oh, we can talk about this. We don’t have to be.

And I think it’s a real service to talk about. And I mean, I’m mortified talking about it now, but I also think it’s important that we talk about it. So I do think communicate with your colleagues and talk about your experience, cuz I got so much value from that.

And the other thing is the tribe. Find your tribe. You know, like if you’re starting out everybody’s drawing. Every, most animators are in their bedroom, a lot drawing and, but try and find your tribe. Try and find the people. Maybe it doesn’t even have to be in real life. Maybe it can be online, but try and find the people that will kind of encourage you and spur you on.

And people that you can work with that will, you know, either help you in your individual journey or that maybe you can team up and do something together that’s bigger than any one of you could do on your own. Cause I do think there’s real strength in numbers that way.

Jessica Abel: For sure. Yeah. I mean, that is something that I really see playing out in our community in the Autonomous Creative Collective is that just the, the energy of everybody jumping in and trying to help somebody when they’re in a crisis point.

How do you balance the needs of the story versus the needs of the budget?

Jessica Abel: It’s really amazing. And, and so powerful. Okay. So, uh, how do you balance the needs of the story versus the needs of the budget? Do you find budget and time constraints valuable in distilling the story down to its most important elements?

Tomm Moore: Yeah. I have a, one of the editors got a frame thing that Richie Cody one the, one of the editors on Wolfwalkers said, he said, uh, so much of making a movie is trying to make as little movie as possible.

And it’s really like that, you know, and I think that there’s something like a haiku about feature film, you know. It’s, it’s very small. It’s very, you know, tight structure.

Not so, um, there’s not a lot of room to be, to, to, to elaborate in different directions. You have to really pair down and then we give a tight budget.

For me, we always tried to make a, a virtue of the, the budget limitations and schedule limitations, and, and tried to find a style that worked within that budget rather than trying to go like full Disney animation. And then just looking like a cheap, uh, version of Disney when you couldn’t, you know, achieve that.

So I tried to, tried to kind of design good solutions. I think design has been a big part of my career and it’s like designing solutions to budget problems and designing beautiful ways to make stylized animation look rich enough to justify a big screen experience without having hundreds of millions to spend on it. So.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I think this whole thing of, you know, it’s sort of going back to first principles in some ways saying like, okay, well, you know, what we could do is just chop off all of these features from something that’s being done at a higher budget and say, we’re not gonna do those features and so it’s gonna be a cheap version of the thing, or you say, okay, well, what could we invent? That’s gonna do the job. Um,

Tomm Moore: Yeah, I remember Nora, Didier again, um, was really strong like that cuz he had the experience of European co-production that we didn’t have. We’d grown up kind of dreaming of being like, you know, American style animators or whatever. And so I always loved Eastern European animation and I ended up learning a lot by working with Kashmir Film Studio in Hungary and with Didier here in Paris and the team here in Paris.

And I learned a lot about how, um, I can’t remember how Didier put it, but it was something like you have to be efficient, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful, whereas I actually started to see a lot of the animation that I admired as a kid as a bit superfluous, like to doing too much, like too many bells and whistles that weren’t really adding to the story.

Whereas we really learned to use visual language to our advantage and try and art direct our way and storyboard our way to making the story compelling before we’d even started animating. And then everything after that was kind of bonus.

Jessica Abel: Yeah, definitely. Okay, so I’m gonna get, get one last question in here. Um, from Owen who says, I want to go into directing. What must I do to build up my skills for the role and how did you do it?

How did you build up your skills as a director?

Tomm Moore: To be a director I think that being a director is a lot about communication and, um, a lot about, I think you need to build a certain confidence to be a director as well. You have to sort of feel like, yeah, I’m really.

I’m really sure of what I’m gonna do. Not that you know you’re right, but sometimes that decision is better than no decision. Like an indecisive director is the worst thing. You don’t want that. So you kind of have to build your confidence in that, whether that’s making shorts, whether that’s doing your own work.

You kind of have to build a point that you know, that your voice is gonna work. Like, what you want to say is gonna work. It’s gonna communicate what you’re trying to say. And I think you have to have something to say, and I think that’s maybe the most important thing for a director, not to just want to make a cartoon or want to make a comic or whatever, just, just to make one, just cuz you’d love to do that, but actually have something to say and that’s a bit of self work.

That’s a little bit of inner work that you have to do, whether that’s meditating or journaling or whatever, look at what you have to offer the world and then once you’re clear on that, then you can kind of communicate that I hope.

Jessica Abel: But I don’t, I mean, you can’t have, oh, maybe you can have been, but were you that confident when you started or was it a matter of doing the thing? Saying, I’m just gonna try this and oh, I guess it kind of worked, you know, now I’m gonna do this and that’s okay. Now I feel like I can make these decisions. Was there a process that you went through?

Tomm Moore: Yeah, I was definitely terrified. I was really lucky to have Nora who was really strong on story and really confident on story beside me during Secret of Kells.

And of course, Fabrice, who brought all that script writing in chops to it. Where I was confident was on the art direction and animation side because we’d had a studio for five years and we’d gone, you know, we’d made commercials, we’ve made short films, we’d made parts of other people’s features. So I felt pretty confident on that side and I had done a lot of work, a lot of development work.

We’d spent a long, long time. We didn’t have money, but we were kind of rich in time. So we’d spent a lot of time honing the look and how we wanted to do it and everything. So it was pretty clear on that. And Ross and I did a lot of like scene illustrations to show the co-production studios, how we wanted it done and like Barry Reynolds and the rest of his team on the characters did huge model packs where we really figured out every, like we overdesigned and over, um, prepared on the art direction side.

And I, so it felt strong there. Story? Terrified. Really relied on collaborators. Voice direction? Terrified. There was plenty of stuff that, yeah, took, you know, feeling the fear and doing it anyway to get more confident. And I’d still not as super confident in those areas as I’ve always been around the art side.

Jessica Abel: Got it. Okay. Well, that was amazing. That was so great. Thank you so much for being here and sharing all this history with us and all of your insights on your career. Um, how can people find out more?

Tomm Moore: I think the best thing is to follow the Cartoon Saloon stuff. If you follow me on social media, you’ll just see lots of vegan ranting and, uh, life drawings.

Jessica Abel: Well and cute granddaughter.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. And photos of my granddaughter. Yeah. But I, I, I just post my personal art on social media, so I’m not sure how interesting that is for people, but in terms of the studio, follow the Cartoon Saloon, you know, website and Twitter and Instagram and everything.

Yeah. And watch out for Wolfwalkers.

Jessica Abel: I felt super lucky to be able to see it early on. Although I can’t wait to see it in a theater one of these days.

Tomm Moore: Yeah, man. I went to see Dune last night in the cinema and I just was like, it was an enthusiastic audience. It was a packed cinema. It was a huge screen. And I was like, oh yeah, I’ve been missing this, you know, as, as good as having a home projector and everything is. Yeah, I’ve been missing it.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. It’s a whole other thing.

Tomm, thank you so much for being here. I am really excited and I hope we can do this again sometime soon.

Tomm Moore: Yeah. Really enjoyed it. Nice to chat to you again.


Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.

Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.

You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at

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