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The Creative Team Behind “Wolfwalkers” Reveals How They Brought Magic (and Wolves) to Ireland

Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon
Image: Apple

Wolfwalkers, the first original animated film produced for Apple TV+, is the third in a trilogy of Celtic fairy tales by the animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Following The Book of Kells and Song of the SeaWolfwalkers uses traditional, hand-drawn, 2D animation to tell the story of two young girls who become fast friends and try to save the last wolf pack of Ireland. It has been nominated for a slew of awards, primarily for “Best Animated Film”, in the months since its release, with the most recent being its Golden Globe nomination, which was announced earlier today.

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to participate in a press conference with the creative team behind Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon, including people from the visual effects, sound, and editing departments, to talk about the artistic vision behind the film, among other things.

Cartoon Saloon has maintained a commitment to keeping two-dimensional animation alive in a culture that’s moving increasingly towards computer-generated animation, and Wolfwalkers is no exception.

Said Svend Rothmann Bonde, Rough Animation Supervisor for the film, “I think there is something about hand-drawn that is more freeing. I feel you can play more with the style and push the style more, even though we see a lot of 3D-animated films looking much more different – [Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse], you know. But I think there is something organic and very unique about the hand-drawn style.”

Eimhim McNamara, the Supervisor/Animator for the “wolfvision” sequences during the film, believes there can be a balance between the two formats, which makes sense, as the wolfvision sequences involved layering 3D animation over the 2D. “There’s really a blurring of lines between what is 3D versus what is 2D. […] It’s really just about whatever type of story you want to tell, the skills of the people involved […], and mechanically how you make it that makes the films at the end of the day.”

“I love a bunch of the CG movies, and I think just to have as broad a spectrum as possible is the best,” said Bonde. “It’s very easy to grow tired if everything looks the same.”

Though there are positives to using CGI in animation, there is just something whimsical and nostalgic about a good, old-fashioned, hand-drawn cartoon. That’s why Directors and Producers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart were so keen on leaving the linework visible even in the finished cut of the film. As Character Designer Federico Pirovano said, “The idea that [Tomm and Ross] have behind the movies that they make is that they want to embrace what 2D is. […] They wouldn’t want to hide the fact that it’s 2D. And in the old Disney movies, sometimes you can see the construction lines, and it’s just telling you, ‘Yes, this was hand-drawn.'”

Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon
Mebh. (Image: trailer screengrab)

Pirovano continued, “They like the bit of that nostalgia effect and that braveness of saying, ‘This is not 3D. This is a 2D movie at its core.'”

Adds McNamara, “At the end of the day, what we very much wanted to see represented on screen was drawings. […] Animation is just a big melting pot of loads of different things, but […] it was more about the mark-making on paper than it being very precise or very clean. […] It’s about maybe making people feel something more than just describing something absolutely – like being less precise but more emotional.”

“[…] There’s a lot of hands working on that,” said Co-Art Designer and Production Designer Maria Pareja, “and each of them are putting their stamp on it, so […] it’s more reflective in the final piece than when we have a CGI movie where everything is perfectly exactly the same. […] You can see, in the movie, all the artists reflected a little bit more than probably what you could see on a 3D production.”

In a scene near the climax of the movie, the Lord Protector instructs his men to set the forest on fire in order to flush out the wolves. In a CG-animated movie, a software program would be used to make the fire move realistically, but in a movie like Wolfwalkers, all of the effects are hand-drawn. “We were using scratchy lines […] to add texture to it,” said Narissa Schander, FX Lead, “which is something that I, as a 2D effects artist, had never done before in that we were actually animating textures – hand-drawn, frame by frame.”

Wolfwalkers
Wolf!Robyn surrounded by fire. (Image: trailer screengrab)

One of the elements that gives this film such a unique style is the use of “wolfvision”. Robyn, our protagonist, is bitten by Mebh early in the film, which turns her into the titular creature – someone who is human while awake, but whose consciousness separates and becomes a wolf while sleeping. During the scenes where Robyn is a wolf, the creative team wanted a way to emphasize that wolves experience the world differently from humans. Said Pareja, “They really wanted to represent what the wolf would really see or feel when it’s just running in the forest.”

As for how they achieved the style, McNamara said, “Basically what it started off with was me messing with graphite on paper as soon as we were in production and developing not only a sense of the render style – like what types of material to use – but also the style of the camera. […] It was a lot of back and forth about, OK, how many lines do we have on the screen, how much detail is there on the screen.”

“They wanted to make it different from the rest of the movie,” said Pareja, “in that the movie is very flat in general – the backgrounds are pretty flat – and they wanted to have a more three-dimensional space for the wolves because they can hear stuff that are behind and they can see things that are super far. So they wanted to create something a little more atmospheric for the wolves.”

“It was a huge kind of melting pot of, again, different parts that all needed to come together and complement each other,” said McNamara. “And I had different styles for how the town was being approached versus how the woods were being approached.”

“It was also a lot of experiments of different colors for the different scents,” said Pareja. “We were studying the spectrum of colors and we were giving the lower colors to the townspeople and then the more vibrant reds and very passionate colors for the wild in the forest.”

“At the end,” said Pareja, “it was just this idea of having something completely different that we cannot experience as humans.”

Wolfwalkers
Wolfvision. (Image: trailer screengrab)

The wolfvision scenes provided a bit of a challenge for the sound department as well, because it wasn’t just about how a wolf sees the world differently; they also hear differently as well. As Sound Editor Sebastien Marquilly explained, “They wanted to hear the human dialogue of Robyn, but they wanted to hear […] the translation of Robyn’s dialogue in ‘wolf’ at the same time. So it was a good challenge, because we need to, of course, understand the human sound but have the sensation of the wolf sound at the same time.”

“So we decided to put the wolf sounds all around the speakers – to have the immersive sensation,” Marquilly continued, “and keep the human dialogue of Robyn in the center of the speakers. It’s the same effect with the foley – the step of the wolf. […] So you have the sensation of being inside her head completely.”

Sound Editor Philippe Fontaine added, “Compared to a more classical treatment – which is normally you have all the atmospheres and everything all around you and more the effects and foley just behind the screen. And here, that was one of the challenging parts, was to have a real difference between the ‘normal’ moments and the POV of the wolves. That’s why we wanted to have something completely different.”

A particularly lovely sequence is in the middle of the film, when Robin first transforms into a wolf and meets Mebh and the pack in the forest. The sequence is set to “Running with the Wolves” from Norwegian singer-songwriter AURORA, who worked with Composer Bruno Coulais to re-work the song so that it fit in with the rest of the score. As Editors Darren Holmes, Richie Cody, and Darragh Byrne explained, that scene was very challenging to work into the film simply because when it was storyboarded, the artist used the entire length of the song, and it needed to be cut down for time.

“That song was found by Tomm,” said Cody. “He was listening to some wolf-inspired music while they were working on the storyboards very, very early on. He took that song and gave it to the board artist, Guillaume [Lorin], and Guillaume just took that song and boarded to it all the way through. So when we got it back from him, it was this complete, long sequence.”

“When it came down to time to go into production with that sequence,” continued Cody, “we needed to cut it down a little bit. So I had to go through and try and trim stuff out of the song and try and match beats where I could and hopefully not totally destroy it […] while trying to keep the joy and the energy that Guillaume originally brought to it. It was a bit of a challenge.”

Wolfwalkers
A scene from “Running with the Wolves”. (Image: trailer screengrab)

“That’s what the editor does,” said Holmes, “is try to respect one, the idea of the emotional element of that beat, plus also what is available in the visual side of it, too, and making sure that everything feels like it’s naturally part of the film’s story.”

“Sometimes you get, with a lot of films when there’s a musical number and the whole thing stops,” said Byrne. “I think what’s really nice about the song in this film is that it’s beautifully integrated, so, you know, the story keeps on flowing.”

“I am not a huge fan of a song in the middle of a film,” said Coulais, “because I think songs stop the story. […] This song was really good, and we tried to incorporate the mood of the song to the score.”

Critics have praised not only the animation, but also the characters (with the relationship between Robyn and Mebh being a particular highlight), the vocal performances, and the emotional depth.

“It’s the family elements of it, I guess, that I’ve been hearing back about a little bit more,” said Cody. “My own mother really enjoyed the family dynamic between Bill and Robyn while they were living in the town. And then as their relationship evolved, she said it felt very real to her. […] That’s the level I try and approach films on, and when people engage with that, I’m always delighted.”

“Ross and Tomm had hoped, as well, there is an ecological message in there,” said Byrne, who hopes that this film inspires people to do some research not only into ecology, but perhaps the history of Ireland. “‘Was there wolves in Ireland long ago?’ and there was, and they’re all gone now, and why have they gone? So, you’d hope that maybe children would start asking those questions and looking up their own history.”

“The forest is like a main character in the film,” said Coulais. “It was amazing to see how Ross and Tomm are concerned with the ecologic problems. It’s why this film is very important. It’s not only a film for families. It’s important for what’s happening now in the world.”

“Live-action will create characters and moments,” said Holmes. “Animation really creates a world that you’re drawn into, and an environment. And Ross and Tomm both created such a beautiful world.”

Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon
Magic in the forest. (Image: trailer screengrab)

Beneath the film’s environmental message are very simple lessons about not judging based on appearances as well as the dangers of a rigid belief system. Robyn’s father refuses to listen to his daughter, dismissing her stories as tall tales and forcing her into a life of drudging servitude because the Lord Protector has ordered it. Later in the film, you learn that he has very little control over his own life in the same way that Robyn has little control over hers.

Said Pirovano, “The idea was from the very beginning […], because that’s very doable in 2D animation, was that [Tomm and Ross] wanted to make very symbolic contrasting styles for what was the town and what was the forest, because that was helping visually with the central conflict of the movie, which is between what’s considered order and civilization and what’s considered the wilderness.”

This is one of the reasons they settled on using woodcuts in the design. This was very typical in the art from the time period (1600s Ireland) and helped represent the style of the town very well. “Woodcuts have this very dry and edgy and kind of like blocky look to it,” said Pirovano. “That really naturally got into the style, because it made sense that where [the Lord Protector] is the [representative] idea of order and Puritanism, it would also be styled very rigid.”

“Where to contrast,” Pirovano continued, “they just decided to go exactly in the opposite sense and have this very loose style in the forest that would evoke freedom, and the absence of boundaries, the possibility of being whatever you want and you dream of.”

Pay particular attention to Robyn’s design throughout the film. At the beginning, when she is still bound by the constrictions of the town, she has a more rigid, blocky style like the rest of the town. As the movie goes on and she starts letting go of her inhibitions more and more, her outline changes. But it isn’t just the art that changes; the dueling natures represented by the town and the wilderness are reflecting in the music, as well.

“It’s a film of contrasts,” said Coulais. The town is “very dark and very square”, whereas the forest is full of “freedom, shapes, of movement, of colors”. “So, for the music, it was also very interesting to play on the both sides.”

Wolfwalkers
Mebh and Robyn. (Image: trailer screengrab)

“The thing I’m most proud of,” said Cody, “is the relationship between the two girls in that film. The reaction to it, from people I’ve seen, have really engaged with it, have loved following their journey along with it. And the rest of the flashier elements – the action, everything else – it kind of all hinges on the relationship between those two central characters. I’m really happy that we managed to get it feeling as authentic and as real as possible.”

Wolfwalkers is currently streaming on Apple TV+. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. Aside from being an absolutely gorgeously drawn movie, it’s got a good story with great characters and a positive message. It absolutely deserves every award that it’s nominated for, and if you haven’t checked out any of Cartoon Saloon’s other films, you should definitely try to watch those, too.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.


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