Brendon Connelly chats to Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, directors of the new movie from the brilliant Cartoon Saloon.
I can’t put my finger on it but there’s something special about animation studios that encourage the kind of adoration that live action studios hardly ever attain – and by hardly ever, I’m really just thinking of the imported-megabrands of Marvel Studios and DC. But like Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli and Emeryville’s Pixar, the genius gestalt of Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon garners a collective adulation. It’s definitely a step up from the cult of personality that normally swirls around directors and movie stars.
A film like Cartoon Saloon’s latest – the painstakingly crafted, lovingly burnished Wolfwalkers – requires huge resources of talent to produce, and it’s great that the filmmakers have been registered and appreciated as a team. Just in terms of the work hours burned o during production, feature films this detailed, rich and precise make a coordinated group effort essential. And that co-ordination’s a crucial thing. There’s a vision behind Wolfwalkers, a clarity of design that ensures all of its pieces go together for the best effect.
When I called up Wolfwalkers‘ co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart to chat about the movie, our conversation focused on this exact question: what key principles were in place to guide the hands of the many great artists who worked on this movie?
The narrative of Wolfwalkers moves back and forth between Medieval Kilkenny and the forest that surrounds it. The film’s heroine, Robyn Goodfellow, is the daughter of an English protestant wolf hunter who ventures out into the Irish wilds, leaving her virtual cage of a town for the rawness of nature. As the film then travels between the town and forest, the style of the movie itself also shifts powerfully.
Stewart: I remember that all through pre-production we had this piece of paper on the wall. On the one side it had Wild, Chaos, Instinct. And on the other side it had Caged, Fear, Trapped. Everything that we were designing had to sit on one side of the fence or the other.
Moore: We tried to push beyond it being two worlds, to also being the inner state of the two characters. The way Robin is drawn, whenever she’s coming back from the forest, she keeps a bit of the forest about her in that she’s scratchy for a while. It’s representing two different world views.
Stewart: Robyn is the character that bridges both worlds. From early on, Tomm and myself focused on getting something that would work in both. Robin probably spends half the film in the forest as well as the town so she has to end up looking okay in both sides.
Moore: We wanted Robyn to stand out in the forest at the start, so when she puts up her hood, it makes this really tricky-to-draw angular diamond shape. Then near the end, she has lost her hood, her hair is down and it’s nice and flowy, like the trees.
Stewart: Even the compositions would be much more circular out in the forest, and in the town it’s much more square. Lots of crosses. Lots of English flags as well.
Capitalising on the film’s hand-drawn animation, the wolf characters are portrayed as though their animation has not been tidied up from the original pencil sketches, with rough and explosively expressive lines still visible in the finished image. Where the town and its characters have been tidied up and neatly inked in a Protestant wood-cut style, the wolves reveal their inner, animated wildness through every frame. But, like all of the best filmmaking, there is a little bit of cheating going on: look closely and you’ll see that even a still, resting wolf has moving, living ‘sketch’ lines.
Moore: It’s more cheated than you’d realise. Early on, Ross and I were talking about how much we loved line tests but every animator’s line test is a bit different. And some of these amazing bastards that work for us now draw almost perfectly clean. We wanted to tend towards the rougher look, so some artists had a rough look which we used to set the style, but sometimes, the final line department, who are in charge of making things look uniform, sometimes they had to make things look uniformly not uniform. They had to go in and add a bit of chaos where there was none.
Some of the characters appear in both wolf and human form, so the animation has to relate that the same soul is living and thinking underneath both skins.
Moore: One of the minor voices in the film was John Morton [creator of ace murder mystery show Dead Still] who is a local director and writer and he organised acting workshops for us… about how much like an animal or like a human that a character would move, to get that thinking into the animation direction. At the end, though, you rely on and trust the sensibility of the animators… to transpose the performance from one character into another. Even the in-between bit with Robyn where she’s learning to be a wolf, it’s quite short but we have a couple of scenes where she’s stumbling or gangly, and she very quickly becomes herself again in the running with the wolves sequence. That was something we charted with the animation supervisors, and we made sure to cast that sequence with the right artists.
Wolfwalkers was made with a mixture of new, and sometimes experimental techniques, with old-school animation craft that dates back many decades, and artistic practices that are literally centuries old. But different sequences required different approaches – for example, the show-stopping ‘wolfvision’ POV scenes had a production process that’s nearly the opposite of what we see in the rest of the film.
Moore: The backgrounds were drawn and painted on paper and scanned in, and the characters were drawn, frame by frame, on a Cintiq, a drawing tablet – essentially like paper without scanning. Then it would go to digital ink and paint where it would be painted, and again frame by frame. We didn’t use any software to colour the characters so each artist was making a decision on every frame… like they were a cel painter making the decision. Everybody was working on keeping a hand-drawn feel all of the way through, never letting it become too digital. That was the most often reason for revision – this is looking too digital. We wanted to keep it looking hand-drawn.
Stewart: The pipeline for the ‘wolfvision’ sequences was the inverse of what Tomm described there. Eimhinn McNamara, who headed up the wolfvision department, is a director himself. He modelled all of the environments in VR… they were digital but sometimes looking very rudimentary, cylinders, blocks and tubes. That was printed out frame by frame and handed to his team, and he also did a lot himself, where every frame was drawn on paper in charcoal and pencil until you have a stack of paper where every single page is a beautifully rendered forest in full character, with effects and everything. Other departments would go from hand-drawn into digital, this went from digital back into hand-drawn. What you see on screen in these sequences is very much the brass tacks of pencil and charcoal on paper.
Wolfwalkers is a stunning achievement. Every single frame blazes with character, and its story has a sophisticated, weighty subtext. It’s an ambitious film, from the core of its concept outwards, and also an unqualified success.
Wolfwalkers is in cinemas now, and on Apple TV+ from December 13th.
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