The Secret of Kells
Superb art direction, but overly simplistic story.
The The Secret of Kells tells the tale of a young monk, Brandon, who has a fascination with illuminated manuscripts, but more often runs afoul of his uncle, the Abbot of Kells. Tales of Northmen burning and killing throughout the land have caused the Abbot’s obsession with completing a wall to protect the villagers surrounding his abby, but prevents him from giving any quarter to young Brendan. However, with the arrival of Brother Aiden, a master illuminator from another abby, everything changes for Brendan and he is tasked with completing the great Book of Kells.
As a story, The Secret of Kells is nothing to write home about. The characters are very straight forward and quickly overcome any situations of doubt or conflict. As this is a film meant for children, it makes sense that nothing is terribly complex, but as an adult, the plot seemed overly thin. Sadly, the last sequence of the film moved far too quickly, skimming over a great deal of potential story and ends abruptly, leaving me a bit disappointed and wanting more.
However, where this film truly shines is in the art direction and execution.
In a world where more and more 3d films are being made and promoted, The Secret of Kells goes in the absolute opposite direction, trumpets its 2d nature with fascinating perspective and framing. While seeing utterly flat scenes can be a little surprising at first, one quickly becomes accustomed and enjoy the visual choices made by the film makers.
The character designs too are all extremely unique, each bring their own charm and look to each of their scenes. In contrast with the beautiful and intricate patterns of the Book of Kells, the characters are very simple, with only enough lines colour to bring them to life. I really loved seeing the tall, striking figure of the Abbot in each of the scenes he appeared. Also, Panger the cat’s expressions and personality are presented extremely well.
What I found most beautiful about the film was the integration of Celtic symbols and patterns worked into the backgrounds throughout the film. For the most part, these symbols are used in the more natural elements — trees in the forest and (my favourite) the snow falling during winter. Thusly, one can strongly see where the inspiration for those symbols originated and perhaps what drove young Brendan.
Music in the film is well done and appropriately Celtic, featuring the talent of Bruno Coulais and Kila. For a sense of it, I’d recommend listening to some of the youtube videos with the soundtrack or on the Amazon preview (though that has spoilers about the film story). I really enjoyed the music throughout.
As a typographer, my interest in the film was primarily in its connection to the Book of Kells — the imagery, patterns and the pages themselves. Unfortunately, the sections that involve the most stunning elements of integration with the Book are all in the film’s trailer and the film doesn’t bring too much more to bear. The only exception comes in the last 15 to 20 seconds, which are absolutely beautiful, but painfully short. However, as I mentioned earlier, the whole film is littered with Celtic symbols and patterns and I would be extremely happy to watch it again if only to look for those elements and appreciate the art.
While I enjoyed the integration of insular type and forms in the film itself, I did not particularly appreciate it in the opening and closing credits. Set in a more traditional insular script / Celtic typeface in smaller sizes, I found them difficult to read, especially as they were not on screen for particularly long. While keeping in spirit with the setting and basis for the film, I felt the negative impact on readability was more significant than the overt connection with the period. A typeface with Celtic “touch-points”, but more aimed at usage for text sizes would have been more appropriate. After some research (and suggestions from Dan Reynolds) , I’ve found some possibilities that could work better.
Luminari is more firmly based in insular scripts, but has a little more readability thanks to a taller capital height and U&lc.
Amulet offers a large x-height, open counters and more Roman letterforms, making it more readable, but also features many of the stylistic elements found in Insular scripts.
Hamlet is one of my favourites, despite not being primarily based on insular forms. With an integration of Blackletter style and Roman forms as well as large, open counters, the typeface achieves a high level of readability, even at smaller sizes.
Rieven Uncial has many touch-points with Celtic insular scripts, but brings more regular forms to create a typeface that works well at medium sizes.
ITC Korigan is similar to Luminari, but with slightly simpler letterforms that may be more readable at smaller sizes. It wouldn’t work very well in extended text, but in short bursts is rather beautiful.
A final item I wanted to point out was the main title. It seems there was some disagreement over the choice of typeface used for the main title of the film. “The Blog of Kells”, the book and soundtrack feature a lovely illuminated version of the title set in insular script and feels very appropriate to the context of the film.
FF Fontesque is indeed based on calligraphic forms, but not the ones found in insular scripts. Rather that “Shinn explains that he was actually inspired by faces with extreme contrasts of proportion like Garamond and calligraphers like Fred Goudy who believed that type shouldn’t be too perfect” (via Typedia). The illuminated version used elsewhere is lovely, so why the change to this ill-fitting and (to my eyes) inappropriate type choice? My guess is that the international distributers felt the insular film titling wouldn’t be friendly enough to kids and in order to make it seem more “appealing” changed it to something far less effective.
Oddly, after discovering the theatrical poster set in FF Fontesque, I found two other posters floating out there in the internet. One bears similar type to that used on the blog and a second that uses the frame of Aisling’s face in the leaves as the basis. The first, I believe, is the Irish release poster and uses the same image as the soundtrack. I’m not a fan of the usage of heavily saturated colour and odd contrast in the poster design as it draws the eye away from the central focal point, though I really like the usage of Aiden’s and the Abbot’s heads in the bottom right and left respectively. The second is the official US distribution poster created by NYICFF. I really like this version of the poster — it is simple, invokes the sensibilities of the film and has an attractive quality. However, I’m not entirely sure why “The Secret of” is set in small caps while “Kells” is U&lc (see the difference between the ‘E’ and ‘e’ as well as the height of the ‘l’s)?
All in all, I greatly enjoyed watching The Secret of Kells and the art direction, but feel the type treatment for it, while not necessarily inappropriate (except for the Fontesque titling), could have been improved with more careful selection.
I highly recommend The Secret of Kells as it brings a fabulous art and style to an industry that so often lacks it.
Film stills are from The Secret of Kells official website.
[updated with new information courtesy of Eric from NYICFF]