Lily Bernard of Cartoon Saloon talks ‘Puffin Rock’, ‘Song of the Sea’ and the art and craft of animation

If you call yourself a cinephile and haven’t yet seen ‘The Secret of Kells’ or ‘Song of the Sea’, the Oscar-nominated animated films of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, I urge you to drop everything right now and look them up, because they’re everything you could ask from an animated movie: intelligent storytelling for all ages and folktale-inspired magic, paired with a lovely, highly stylized yet intricate visual aesthetic.

I make no secret of my admiration for the work of this Kilkenny-based studio, so I was thrilled by the opportunity to chat with Lily Bernard, who started working with Cartoon Saloon as a background artist and is currently one of the key people running the ‘Puffin Rock’ project, a tv series for pre-school children. Lily allowed us a glimpse at her work process and artistic point of view:

Nadia: What is your background and how did you start working in animation?

Lily: From a very early age, I really liked to draw, and I was fascinated by animation in general, and by stop-motion and puppets in particular. I was watching making-of’s and trying to recreate the process. I started my artistic education quite early. I went to an applied arts high school, and I already knew that I would love to work in animation, so I directed my studies towards this goal. After high school, I went to a Fine Arts university and then to an animation school called EMCA, in Angouleme, France.

N: You’re French, so how did you end up at Cartoon Saloon in Ireland?

L: I needed to do an internship for animation school. I applied to different studios, and one of them was Cartoon Saloon. I had also done an internship with Zorobabel in Belgium, on a stop-motion project, so I was eager to take opportunities to travel. Later, they needed someone to do key backgrounds for „The Secret of Kells”, I applied and I got the job! I came over, and then they kept hiring me on and off for different projects.

N: The art and craft of animation, what goes on behind the scenes, is something that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention- why don’t you tell us what your job entails?

L: As a key background artist, you usually start from a storyboard scene that you will then turn into a layout and a clean line, eventually. Then you start the colour work, and the light and shadow work. You also are also in charge of atmospheric effects like snow or sunbeams, and you prepare everything for the next stage, which is compositing. I think I could have worked in other departments, but I realised that I really liked to work with colours, and I was attracted to recreating atmospheres, so background work seemed to be the right choice.

N: What is your work process on a single piece? What tools do you use? How long does it take?

L: At Cartoon Saloon, we work mostly with Photoshop for backgrounds, but we really like to work on paper as well, because we enjoy the creative process of watercolours or acrylic paint. You feel more creative with this kind of medium, since the computer may seem a bit cold sometimes. For a feature film like ‘The Secret of Kells’, a key background -which means cleaning it up and working on the lines, the colours and the effects- would take more or less two days, but on a TV series we have a different pace and we have to work faster. We’d most likely make a background in half a day, up to a day.

„For ‘Puffin Rock’, I tried to remember what I used to like when I was a child”

N: What do you do on ‘Puffin Rock’?

L: I’m an Art Director and also a Co-Creator; I have a lot of freedom of decision, I have been developing the stories with a team of writers. The point was to create a pre-school show in the vein of ‘Song of the Sea’, as Tomm Moore was also a Co-Creator and really wanted to make a mini-‘Song of the Sea’. But I wanted to have my own input in the show’s style. We developed the show with Dog Ears and Penguin Publisher, and we all contributed to the spirit of ‘Puffin Rock’, whether it is in the scripts, the personalities of the characters or the style.

‘Puffin Rock’ is a nature show, the animals are not humanised, we tried to keep some real animal behaviours. Our main reference would be the BBC documentaries of sir David Attenborough, which is why we have a narrator, actor Chris O’Dowd. All of these are creative choices that influence the style. I don’t choose shots with a lot of perspective, instead I keep the camera steady and quite close to the characters, so that we can really see them in detail. When we were children, we were always looking at insects in the grass, we were interested in discovering nature. I wanted to place the camera quite low on the ground or at a high angle, which is the perspective a child would have over a toy set.

N: So you have a lot of creative control over this series- you’re involved in both the look and the writing.

L: Yes. The first thing I wanted to develop was the colour palette. Contrary to most pre-school shows, I really wanted to keep the colours natural, because it’s a nature show. I also wanted to be inspired by the colours we have in Ireland, since the show is supposed to be set on an Irish island.

N: How did you manage to figure out what is appealing to this very young audience?

L: I really like children’s books illustrations, so I’m used to seeing work that is made for children. I think I got inspired by what I liked as an artist, but I also tried to remember what I used to like when I was a child. We received appreciation from a lot of people. The colour palette was making the show feel very pleasant and cosy, compared to other series [for the same demographic], which are more vivid and supposedly more dynamic. The visuals [on ‘Puffin Rock’] are more about contemplating nature. In nature, you sometimes see bright colours, but most of the time they are not very saturated.

N: Do you think there is maybe a bit of a stereotype out there that children like things to be as loud and strident as possible?

L: I think there is. And it may well be right, children may be attracted to primary colours more, especially when they are babies, but this series is for a slightly older audience. I wanted to develop the idea that there is not just one pink, one blue, but that there are many colours and shades that you can like. It’s similar to making children try food that is more unusual or exotic to them- maybe they will think it’s strange, or maybe they are going to love it, but it’s always good to try! I think this is how we can educate children on differences, and not just stereotypes. Also, an important part of the series is to encourage our audience to be curious about wildlife.

„I really like supposedly ‘bad’ drawings- they can be surprisingly expressive”

N: What is your personal aesthetic as an artist? What kind of style would you say you have?

L: I’m very versatile, actually, I like to experiment with different styles, I like researching and creating a style according to a project. The tools I use – Photoshop, chalk, pencils, acrylic- would help determine the style of the drawing. If I wanted to sketch realistic things, I would use a pencil. If I wanted to draw quirky characters, I would use a marker.

N: Do you still have time or desire to draw for yourself, since your work every day is drawing and animating?

L: It is true that background making takes a long time and you spend a lot of time thinking about it, too. In my spare time, I like to just express myself, and draw a quick idea. I really like Quentin Blake’s illustrations, and he wrote a book about expressing ourselves through drawings, ‘Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered’. It doesn’t matter if something isn’t academically very well drawn. What matters is its meaning. I really like supposedly “bad” drawings, they can be surprisingly expressive! This is what I enjoy when I’m drawing on my own, when I don’t feel I have to create something finished, but to be surprised by what my pen is drawing. In a way, it’s more like automatic drawing- drawing ideas. However, if I can catch the right expression or something quirky in a character, then this is more ‘perfect’ than any drawing I’d spend hours on.

N: How do the different perspectives of the artists working at the studio fit in?

L: There are many different kinds of artists at Cartoon Saloon. They all found their place on the team. For feature films, Tomm Moore would work very closely with the art directors, but everyone put a bit of themselves in it. On ‘Song of the Sea’, we were watching the storyboards and animatics all together and we could give our opinions on scenes, or on parts of the animation. I think they really like that their staff is creative, and they like to leave us some space to create our own projects. For example, if the schedule allows us, they leave us an afternoon per week for our personal work. Also, a lot of people pitch some of their own projects, especially series and short films. Everybody can come up with something.

N: Coming back to ‘Song of the Sea’, what was it like to work on that film? I remember really loving the backgrounds, they were full of detailed patterns and textures.

L: The art director, Adrien Merigeau , developed the style along with Tomm Moore. Ross Stewart (Art Director on ‘The Secret of Kells’) also worked on concept arts. The backgrounds were very detailed. Sometimes it was just a way to have an information about the location, the atmosphere, the weather, but most of the time we tried to hide some sort of subliminal meaning and symbols in the backgrounds, because the movie is about emotions. So we wanted to translate that in colour palettes and patterns.

N: When you draw backgrounds, do you use real locations as inspiration or reference?

L: Most of the places we see in the film are actually inspired by real places in Ireland. For instance, we see Molly Mallone’s statue in Dublin, the place where the family lives is in Donegal etc. We went on trips with the studio, to feel the atmosphere of these locations, so we could sketch and bring back a lot of information that we will then put in backgrounds, animation, storyboards… A lot of the fantasy settings are inspired by folklore and legends, for example on the design of some rocks and stumps, we drew carvings inspired by Celtic symbols (oghams and neolithic symbols), which you can find in Ireland, in Newgrange for instance. I cannot spoil the movie, but there is a lot of inspiration from famous Irish legends hidden in the effects and backgrounds.

„Artists want to express something different, not necessarily to make enormous amounts of money”

N: Do you think that the success of your studio, and perhaps other European projects, will allow for European animation to be more prominent in the field? Because for the time being, all the ‘big’ animated films are coming from the USA.

L: I feel that the industry in America is so different. They created Hollywood, so I guess they are used to making big movies, blockbusters. In Europe, we wouldn’t necessarily aim this big, we want to tell stories, not to have the most impressive audience, necessarily. People who work in the animation industry in Europe are very much interested in researching new artistic styles, it seems. Michel Ocelot’s aesthetic is completely different from Yuri Norstein’s, which is also very different from Aardman’s style, etc… The style is adapted to the production, to the story genre and the personality of the director and art director. Also, each European country has its own original type of cinema and literature, so it does have a big influence on animated productions as well.

N: Maybe there will be more potential for folk tales to be explored in animated features. The year when ‘Song of the Sea’ was up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, ‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’ from Japan, also based on a folk tale, was nominated as well.

L: I loved Princess Kaguya! Especially the song at the end. I think it’s sometimes up to what broadcasters think will sell best. Often, and unfortunately, blockbuster films tell the same story, in the same way, and in the same style. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. It is understandable that some studios can’t take the risk to suddenly release something very different. Nevertheless, others do create original films, like Laika, Ghibli, without forgetting all the original animated series. So creativity is definitely there, but a big part of the industry is business, of course. An artist’s point of view is generally that they want to express something different, for the audience who is interested in seeing it, not necessarily to make enormous amounts of money.

N: I think the films of Cartoon Saloon got many people interested in Irish folklore! They certainly got me interested in it. How did you fit in this Irish vision, not being Irish yourself?

L: Irish tales are fascinating, magical, very beautiful. Anyone can be interested in them, I believe. While I’m creating a background, I research folklore, and I love doing that, I get to know more about the Irish culture and History, which is very interesting. And of course, I can always ask our director about the stories he wants to tell. When I started on Cartoon Saloon’s project, it really reminded me of series of books I used to love as a child, called “Contes et Legendes” [Stories and Legends]. And my favorite was the one about Ireland, about Tuatha de Danann, Tir na Nog, Hy-Breasil…

N: So what’s it like to work in animation, for you? Is it a dream job? Does it make you happy?

L: It is definitely a dream job! I always wanted to do it, as long as I can remember. I think I have been very lucky , as I’m very happy with all the productions I worked on until now. I also love working in a team, it’s very important to me. I am much prouder of a team project than when I make something on my own. I also enjoy the fact that we can travel a lot, I really like travelling, discovering new cultures, learning languages. The job can take you to Singapore, Helsinki, Portland, Tokyo or even Killkenny…

Interview by Nadia Barbu.