***This article originally appeared in the December ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 305)***
In another example of how inspiring animated projects can lift spirits even during the darkest years, Cartoon Saloon’s much-anticipated feature Wolfwalkers arrives in select theaters via GKIDS in November, and will be available for streaming via Apple TV+ in December. This third offering in Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore triptych (which includes The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) is astounding both in terms of its inventive storyline and characters and its creative use of the medium.
The film’s narrative takes us back to Kilkenny, Ireland in the mid-17th century, where we meet Robyn, a young English apprentice hunter who comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last pack of wolves in the country. Her life changes after she saves a native girl named Mebh, who leads her to the discovery of the magical “wolfwalkers” and her transformation into the very thing her father (voiced by Sean Bean) is tasked to destroy.
The exquisitely crafted film has been a labor of love for the team at Cartoon Saloon for many years. Moore says Ross Stewart, who co-directed the movie with him, recently found a notebook where they had taken down notes and ideas about Wolfwalkers some seven years ago. “The story has evolved so much since then,” says Moore. “The production officially began about three and half years ago. We had a much bigger budget, which was a lot more than what we had for Song of the Sea.That’s why we were able to incorporate some of the ideas that we had for the first two movies, but weren’t able to execute them at the time due to budgetary limitations.”
“Ross and I were inspired by the legends of wolfwalkers in Kilkenny, which we learned about when we were kids,” says Moore. “It’s basically the Irish version of a werewolf story, where they would leave their bodies and traverse the forests as wolves, while the human bodies would be asleep back at home.”
The Rigid vs. the Organic
One of the cleverly executed ideas that echoes throughout the film is the way the characters and environments related to the forest are distinguished from those associated with the rigid human world and the English arrivals. “Those stylistic differences were baked in from the beginning when we were developing the story,” explains Moore, who was the art director on Moore’s two previous movies. “We wanted to explore this visual contrast between the organized, straight lines and confined world of the city and the free-flowing organic world of the Irish forests. We looked at woodcut prints from the 1650s, German Expressionism and anything where we could use a lot of shadows, ink and geometry to make everything quite squared off to symbolize the oppressive feeling. Then, as we journey more towards the forest, we wanted things to feel more organic psychologically. So we were thinking about [Isao] Takahata’s Tale of Princess Kaguya and illustrations by Emily Hughes, pushing into these really organic, flowing look for the forest.”
The directors add that they were excited about introducing more elements from the world of comic books and illustration to their movie. “This is something that we’d talked about before but never managed to achieve in our films,” says Moore. “When we have Mebh arrive from the forest into town, she doesn’t have that thick outline around her that the other characters do. Instead she has a pencil-scratched line around her so we can clearly see that she’s from a different world, without it being completely mismatched. That’s something that you would find in a comic book, where you see a character look different in each panel. When Mebh is angry you can see the lines fire up and pop up around her.”
“We used lots of shape, design and color languages and basically use all the tools in our toolbox to tell our story as expressively as possible,” says Moore. “One of the things about hand-drawn animation that differentiates it from other movies is that you can use the whole language of drawing, the history of painting and representation visually. You can use the space to compose in a very painterly way or very abstractly, depending on what you want audiences to feel during a specific scene.”
Running with the Wolves
One of the standout innovations of the movie is the use of VR, CG and frame-by-frame animation to visualize the world through the POV of the wolfwalkers. Created in collaboration with Dublin-based animator Eimhin McNamara (The Bird and the Whale), the system involved building the environments in VR and CG, and then printing those pages, and rendering them in charcoal and pencil.
“We reverse engineered the process so that every single page has a totally rendered background,” says director Ross Stewart. “We used dynamic camera moves, natural media, mixed with previz that was done with 3D software to create this ‘wolfvision,’ so audiences can see how the world looks from the point of view of the wolves as they run and roam the natural world. We achieved this by using computer technology that we’d never used before. We were able to make the regular world look monochromatic, while their senses were glowing and phosphorescent.” Adds Tomm Moore, “It feels like a rollercoaster ride. When we showed it to the audience, it made people in the cinema really perk up!”
About 200 people worked on the project at Cartoon Saloon’s Kilkenny studio, and they were assisted by about another hundred based in Mélusine Production in Luxembourg and Folivari in France. With the exception of the film’s innovative “Wolfvision” sequence, the backgrounds were done in paint and paper using Photoshop and the animation was done in TVPaint. They also used the Moho software to bring the props to life. “Moho acts as a rigged Toon Boom software, which allows us to tackle some of the smaller things and the crowds,” says Stewart. “Everything else is hand-drawn by TVPaint. With Moho, we can move some of the background elements so that we avoid the old Scooby-Doo TV show effect.”
As challenging as the technical and the labor-intensive nature of the hand-drawn production were, Moore says the toughest part to get right was the story. “This was my third time directing a movie, and the story is always the most challenging part. At one point, we thought we had it all down, and then we ended up rewriting the first act!”
Moore says he and his team were thrilled to bring their co-production partners from France and Luxembourg to Kilkenny. “We love showing them bits of Ireland that have influenced our work,” says the director. “Song of the Sea’s dominant colors were blues and purples, while The Secret of Kells was mostly green. For Wolfwalkers, we have the green of the forest, and the orange colors of the trees in the fall and the wolves’ magic, and some greys as well.” It can’t be a coincidence that the colors of the Irish flag are also green, white and orange!
Stewart adds, “We were lucky as the COVID-19 lockdown happened right toward the end of the production. We got the news in February, and managed to get the music recorded two weeks before the lockdown, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to get the orchestra to record Bruno Coulais’ music.”
The directors are grateful that they were able to screen their movie in their hometown at a special premiere, where people got to enjoy the movie with a live audience. Artwork from the movie has also been featured in a special gallery exhibit in the city, and special illuminations featuring scenes from the movie were projected on the walls of Kilkenny Castle last month as well. As the movie gets a limited release in the U.S. and will debut on Apple TV+ next month, they hope audiences will take the positive messages of the movie to heart. As Moore puts it, “There are lots of themes running through the movie that deal with species extinction and environmentalism, but I think the heart of the movie is that Robyn and Mebh manage to be friends despite the fact that they come from wildly opposing backgrounds.”
Stewart notes, “The movie also has a nice little message about the way Robyn ends up being true to herself as it takes a lot of bravery for a young person to come to terms with who they are and say it loud, despite what society has to say.”
GKIDS releases Wolfwalkers in theaters on November 13. The film will premiere on Apple TV+ on December 11.