Morten on the Ship of Fools is special for a lot of reasons. Not simply because it’s full of Ireland’s most recognisable names like Brendan Gleeson and Pauline McGlynn. Not just because it’s being made in a studio in rural Ireland. But it’s Ireland’s first ever fully stop motion feature film.
It tells the tale of Morten (newcomer CIAN O’DOWD), a 10 year old who builds a toy ship to avoid his reluctant guardian Anna (PAULINE MCLYNN) while his Father, Captain Viks (BRENDAN GLEESON) is away at sea. One day Morten hopes to be a Captain, just like him.
Of course, one has to be careful what they wish for… Morten is shrunken and held captive by pirates aboard his very own toy ship!
Morten must then take back control of the ship, and stop the scheming Aunt Anna from destroying his Father’s ship to find the hidden treasure it holds.
Heather Grace Mills is the Head of Stop Motion in Telegael studios, one of three studios behind Morten. The other two are Nukufilm in Estonia and Grid VFX in Belgium. Whilst it is an Irish project, it’s not only Irish. Mills is eager to clarify that.
“For us, Morten has been three years getting green-lit but for the Estonian Producers Nukufilm (who are the delegate producers) it’s been far longer! The film’s story is the creation of Director Kaspar Jancis so really it’s his baby.”
The film has the resources of three studios behind it – but this is a stop motion feature – you need all hands on deck, and Heather knows this.
“The Morten film employs 79 crew between Studio Telegael and Telegael’s HQ in Spiddal. You need a lot of space!”
This is one of the reasons they are based in Connemara as opposed to Dublin, as one would expect of a large industry.
“From both an industrial and creative aspect, it’s good to have the animation industry’s net thrown wider than the capital’s borders…one of the main motivators for being situated where we are is space.
“There are a number of ways in which stop-motion overlaps with 2D animation, CGI animation and even live-action production but the one thing we have to have more of than these other formats is lots of space in a fixed location where we can control conditions.
“Studio Telegael has an overall floor space of over 24,000 square feet.”
And all of it is needed. It houses a full workshop, puppet fabrication room, shooting studio, production offices, edit suite and compositing suites, and that’s only a few of the facilities.
They often require people with skills not traditionally needed with stop motion. Take the film’s water scenes, for example, a big piece of a film with a maritime theme.
Heather’s team have to be creative depending on the budget and the aesthetic.
“You can create water in stop-motion with cellophane, bubble wrap, clear gel and even actual water if you so wish!
“For Morten, the water is being added in afterwards in post (by Grid VFX who did the water FX on Two By Two, another Irish coproduction (Moetion Films, Ulysses Filmproduktion) as this is the chosen method to create the aesthetic desired. “
With all of these moving parts, that crew of 79 people can get divided many times. Stop motion is a slow operation at the best of times, disciplined like a line of ants taking a contribution to the growing anthill. You have to shoot it one frame at a time, unlike video.
It all depends on the resources at hand.
“A film with a relatively big budget like Coraline ($60 million) might be able to afford to shoot just one second a day per animator and have a large number of sets operating at once.
“Five minutes of animation might take seven or eight weeks. On Morten, we will shoot six seconds a day per animator with three to four sets operating at once and would cover five minutes in around three to four weeks.
“It sounds strange, but often the more money you have, the slower you go!”
Compare this to pre-school animation series Igam Ogam 2, the last big project Heather’s team embarked on.
“We had 6-8 animators working at any one time and producing 10 seconds of animation a day each. It doesn’t sound like it but that’s really fast!
“10 seconds of animation shooting 12 shots per 1 second means moving all of the puppets and props in your shot 120 times in the one day.”
Projects like this that require such large teams are scarce in a world drifting to Computer Generated animation. But Telegael has team members with experience from what few big projects there are.
“Many of our crew have worked on stop-motion projects such as Frankenweenie, Fantastic Mr Fox and Pirates! And so they bring with them that experience. Stop-motion on this scale is new to Ireland but our Irish crew (over 60%) are learning from the best.
“The crew is our most important resource. Once you have the right people doing the right job and with the right attitude, that is more than half the battle. Stop-motion is a vocation for our crew – I wonder how many employers have to practically kick their crew out of the door at the end of the day? Because that’s what I have to do!”
Pulling together a team this big is rarely done, so to see a big part of that being done on our shores is cause for optimism. Especially when these people love what they do. It would be a shame to lose these skills, in the same way that other traditional animation is going extinct like hand-drawn.
But even if it does – Morten on the Ship of Fools will be Ireland’s contribution to this century-old legacy.