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Interview: ‘Wolfwalkers’ Artists on Creating Magic Between the Lines

When you watch Wolfwalkers one thing immediately stands out, the humanity behind the work. Every frame is stunning, from the first to the very last, and the presence of the artists can be felt in the lush hand-drawn visuals, the music, the performances, and even the editing. The film is inspired by classic animation techniques and design styles, fusing them with modern, original approaches to deliver a breathtaking film, unlike anything you have seen before.

The team at Cartoon Saloon’s fingerprints are all over this film, perhaps literally. Lead by the passionate directing team of Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the artists behind the film were given strong direction but also the opportunity to inject their individual touches into the film. A true collaboration between dozens of artists that feels incredibly personal.

There is a wild flow to the whole process, while the vision is clear, the way it comes together is more organic. Each artist plays off the other’s work – a seven-year journey full of a magical mix of creativity, experimenting, teamwork, and emotion.

We had the opportunity to speak with the team of artists behind the film. Below you can read some select outtakes from the interview that helps convey the vision behind the work and just how intertwined their efforts were. After reading the team’s takes on the making of Wolfwalkers you will certainly enjoy and appreciate even more than before. Wolfwalkers is streaming exclusively on AppleTV+.

Courtesy of AppleTV+

WORLD BUILDING TAKES CHARACTER

Beyond the gorgeous visuals is a film with many messages and well-developed characters that could only be told through 2D animation. It goes beyond being a fantasy film to examine themes much deeper than found in many animated films. As the film addresses timely subjects, it is also a fun, touching, and exciting adventure. While quite engaging the more important themes will be overlooked by some viewers, especially younger ones. The team spoke about how they pulled off that balance.

DARREN HOLMES, ACE (Editor): The contrast of live-action compared to animation is that live-action will create characters and moments. Animation really creates a world that you’re drawn into, an environment. Ross (Stewart) and Tomm Moore created such a beautiful world. The mythology through all three of their films really portrays that cool storytelling aspect you get from that Irish culture. It’s just wonderful to especially go deep into those older periods and not just mythology. It’s also grounded in your character moments that you really feel with your characters as you go through this experience with them.

RICHIE CODY (Editor): Most of the recording for this voice work done in a studio up the country called Grouse Lodge. They brought in all of the principal actors, pretty much at the same time. And, the two girls, most of their performances they are bouncing off each other in the room. Two actors in the room, two mics between them, and all of that energy, all that intensity they bring is because they were feeding off each other and because they were able to to to match their performances to each other.

I’m most proud of the relationship between the two girls in that film. The reaction to it from people who’ve seen the film, have really engaged with it, have loved following their journey along with them. The rest of the flashier elements, the action, and 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.

DARRAGH BYRNE (Editor) It’s all about the central characters because they’re from scratch and automate. Particularly Robin, I really love Robin, especially towards the end of the film where she really stands up for herself. That’s a really great message. Tomm and Ross should be really proud that they’ve created this very empowering film for young girls to see. That would be the thing I’d be most proud of.

SEBASTIAN MARQUILLY AND PHILLIP FONTAIN (Sound Editors): You don’t want the music and the sound effects to fight each other. You want them to be one part of one big soundtrack which is composed of dialogues, sound effects. atmospheres and music. You don’t want it to be separated.

BRIAN SEZNEC (Sound Supervisor) We work with some rough takes of the music but the plan is to give the picture a more rich sound-feel. In the end, the recording mixer takes whatever recording elements he thinks serve the movie at that point and works with it.

Courtesy of AppleTV+

HUMAN EMOTION CREATED BY HAND

You won’t need an art history degree to appreciate the universal beauty found in each frame of the film. Astute viewers will notice that in addition to creating their own style, the filmmakers incorporated several well-researched historic design styles into the film – from linocut to medieval style and beyond. Wolfwalkers’ distinct visual look not only injects a sense of history and culture into the film, it also helps to create characters that evolve visually as they change as people. Layers and layers and layers of hand-drawn pencil marks, brush strokes, lines, and vivid colors make the character jump off the screen with human energy no computer can copy. You can see the literal handy work of the artists come to life in pencil marks, lines, brushstrokes, and etchings found in the frame. Behind each and every aspect of the film is a human being applying it by hand.

DARRAGH BYRNE (Editor): If you watch this film there’s so much artistry. You can stop every frame of this film and you can hang it on your wall.

SVEND ROTHMANN BONDE (Rough Animation Supervisor): There is something about the hand-drawn that is more free. You can play more with and push the style more. There is something unique and very organic about the hand-drawn style.

FEDERICO PIROVANO (Character Designer): The idea, from the very beginning, Tomm and Ross were discussing at the beginning of the script they wanted to make very symbolic, contrasting styles for what was the town and what was the forest. Because, that is helping visually the central conflict in the movie, between what’s considered order and civilization and what’s considered the wilderness. They started researching art from the period. There is a lot of wood cuts that are really interesting for the period. Wood cuts have a very dry and edgy, kind of blocky look to it. That really naturally got into the style of the film. It made sense. Lord Protector, for example, is the representation of the idea of order and Puritanism. The style is very rigid. To contrast, they decided to go exactly in the opposite sense and had a very loose style in the forest that would evoke freedom, the absence of boundaries, the possibility of being whatever you want and you dream of. That’s exactly what Robin happened to be in the movie. She starts being blocky and constrained in a cage that society and her father created. Then through the movie, you can see her outline changing because she’s getting just freer and freer thanks to this new knowledge she has of the outside world.

BRUNO COULAIS (Composer): The forest is like a main character in the film. It was amazing to see how Ross and Tomm are concerned by the ecological problems and it’s why this film is very important. Because it’s not only a film for families, it’s important for what’s up now in the world.

MARIA PAREJA (Production Designer/Co-Art Director): For the characters, we have to draw, we have to color in, we have to clean the lines, then pass it to Serge and the comp department to add more details and textures. There’s a lot of hands working on it and each artist is putting their stamp on it. It’s more reflective in the final piece than when we have a CGI movie where everything is perfectly exactly the same and very homogenous.

All that sketchy line that we wanted to bring is boiling all the time on the characters and the colors are offsetting from the characters from the backgrounds. There’s so much stuff going on. You can see, in the movie, all the artists reflected a little bit more than probably what you would see in a 3D production.

NARISSA SCHANDER (FX Lead): For a fire to move like fire and still have a graphic style, you have to make the decision of where to simplify the shapes while still maintain the physics of fire. For example, the fire was very sharp and angular so we had to use the knowledge of the actual movement of a fire, then stylizing it making it very very angler. We were scratching lines as well to add texture to it, which is something that I and the 2D effects artists have never done before, in terms of that we are actually animating textures. Hand-drawn frame by frame. So it’s really unique in that sense as well.

EIMHIN MCNAMARA (Wolfvision Supervisor/Animator): Animation is a big melting pot of a load of different things. At the end of the day, it was more about the mark making on paper than being very precise or very clean. I was operating with a very, very clean output from Blender (animations software), in terms of the 3D build. Every step I did afterward was about muddying it up, adding more grime and smudging and grief and all this stuff. It might seem like a backward mentality, but it’s about making people feel something more than just describing something absolutely. Less precise, but more emotional.

SERGE UME (Head of Compositing): There a two or three different styles during the movie. We needed to keep something similar but also little different. That’s when we made a treatment on the line. For example, the town was different than we have on the forest because in the forest everything was rougher – we have the rough line effect on the line. On the town we had some texture to up the impression that is a rough but real straight rough to keep a current spirit between the different style, at the same time, to have something different.

Courtesy of AppleTV+

THE VISION BEHIND ‘WOLFVISION


One sequence in the film is so enchanting audiences have fallen in love with it. Nicknamed “wolfvision” the scene puts the viewer inside the head of the wolf running through the forest. Techniques that have a long history in animation, used in everything from Pinniochio to 101 Dalamtions, were implemented to capture the right feel. Animator Eimhin McNamara created a 3D version of the scene to capture the flowing freedom and unleashed energy needed. Then each frame was redrawn by the artists by hand. It was an ambitious process that took 18 months for the 3-minute scene and directors Moore and Stewart were all for it. Instead of relying on the familiar, they gave their artists time to explore the style until satisfied with both the visuals and the sound. The results speak for themselves

EIMHIN MCNAMARA (Wolfvision Supervisor/Animator): We did the “wolf vision” sequences for this, which involved 3D. There’s this blurring of lines between what is 3D versus what is 2D. SpiderVerse gets brought up because of the fact that they were actually drawing on top of the 3D animation, as well.

MARIA PAREJA (Production designer/Co-Art director): I think they really wanted to represent what a wolf would really see or feel when it’s in running in the forest. They wanted to make it different from the rest of the movie. The movies very flat, in general, the backgrounds are pretty flat and they wanted to have more of a 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 bit more atmospheric for the Wolves. It was a lot of experiments with different colors for the different sense. And we were studying the spectrum of the colors, giving the lower colors to the townspeople. Then the more vibrant reds and very passionate colors for the wild in the forest. There was a lot of research. Tomm and Ross were looking for a reference of what a wolf can see. In the end, it was this idea of having something completely different than what we can experience as humans.

EIMHIN MCNAMARA (Wolfvision Supervisor/Animator): There’s a huge kind of melting pots and different paths that needed all to come together and complement each other. I had different styles, for how the town was being approached versus how the woods were being approached. That was, again, trying to do mirror what was being done with the fine line department and the final color department which was supervised by Eduardo and Stefano. There were a lot of different reasons, but it was mainly because I could see what other artists were doing, and then I could wolf-visionify that and then integrate it back into the film. If was more of you-know-it-when-you-see-it rather than knowing exactly what the ingredients are to make it. There was about nine months of development before I got to a finished shot. It was complicated.

Sebastien Marquilly and Philippe Fontaine (Sound Editors): They wanted to hear the human dialogue, but also the sensation of the wolf sound at the same time. This is the same effect when following the steps of the wolf. We put all around the speakers so you have the sensation to be inside the head of the wolf completely.

Courtesy of AppleTV+

THE PRIDE OF THE WOLFWALKERS PACK

While speaking to the team there is one thing that quite evident, the pride they took in the film and each other’s work to make it. The sense of family made the collaboration even more cohesive and rewarding.

MARIA PAREJA (Production designer/Co-Art director): From the very first day that I watched the animatic and the sequence of running with the wolves, I was just in tears. I was just crying. I was like, “Oh my God. I cannot believe it. The story is so beautiful. I cannot believe I’m part of this.” As the time passed and I see all the beautiful artwork that people were doing, the team working together, it’s just so magical to be part of it.

EIMHIN MCNAMARA (Wolfvision Supervisor/Animator): Generally when I was making things I’d go, “Okay, well, we could do this way or we could go this way that’s much more expensive and time-intensive.” And fair play, to Tomm and Ross, they’d normally were more tempted by what would take longer and would be more elaborate and look more exciting as well. That was an unusual thing for me to be in the position of working just 18 months on one three-minute sequence.

NARISSA SCHANDER (FX Lead): Personally for me, the most fun part about Wolfwalkers and being a part of the project, as he said, every frame, you can print it out and put it on the wall. And, that’s something that you really noticed with the feedback you got from the directors as well. The little things that they noticed that just really pushed the composition of things, for effects as well, the little things that needed to be added and should be in there. Like even for us doing the waterfall, you have the foam and that kind of stuff that is missed. That was hand-drawn and we scratched in the texture on every single frame. So, the texture is constantly moving. It’s just to give that little extra texture on the effects or that little extra detail on the magic with the spores or that kind of stuff. It’s really fun project to work on. I’ve never worked in anything like this for effects. It has challenged me the most creatively

SVEND ROTHMANN BONDE (Rough Animation Supervisor): I think what I liked the most from the whole production is just the mood that is at the studio. It really doesn’t feel like an office. You’re not going into an office building. You’re going into a club house or something and sitting with your weird friends, painting and doing all kinds of things.

SERGE UME (Head of Compositing): There are hundreds of people who work on this project and it was really great. Each project is different. A feeling of making something special each time, especially in 2D animation. Because we really need to make a special piece of art and develop techniques and are really, really amazing to do that.

FEDERICO PIROVANO (Character Designer): The best thing was really the sense of a family more than just a studio making a movie. We started in the beginning, we were 15 people in a room just throwing a lot on paper and trying stuff out, having longer lunches with a lot of wine. That that spirit never left. That spirit of camaraderie never left until the very last moment, is what I think mattered the most to me.

(Below is an interview I conducted with the film’s directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart where they dig deeper into the themes, the techniques, and more of the magic behind the lines).

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  1. Yeah, I haven’t even see the movie yet and I’m gonna need this to win the Oscar. The ‘Human Emotion Created By Hand’ section, and especially the Maria Pereja bit, is just beautiful stuff. Dying to see what this ‘Wolfvision’ looks like. Great job.

  2. Thanks, Ryan.The article was able to convey it all. That was a concern when I took on the challenge – one I was committed to take on. I would love to see this in theaters with high end sound. Maybe if it wins.

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