With Wolfwalkers, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart looked to enter uncharted creative territory, while closing out an acclaimed ‘Irish Folklore Trilogy’ that kicked off over a decade ago.
Produced by small-but-mighty, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Moore’s previous features, The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), each earned Oscar nominations. But it’s with Wolfwalkers that he appears to be on the cusp of a breakthrough win.
Marking his longtime collaborator Stewart’s directorial debut, the film distributed by Apple TV+ and GKIDS is set in 1650, in the medieval, Irish town of Kilkenny. Its protagonist, Robyn, is an apprentice hunter, who journeys with her father from England to help take out a pack of wolves. Long confined by the Puritanical society in which she’s been raised, the girl experiences true freedom for the first time only when she befriends Mebh, a girl from a mysterious tribe, which is said to transform into a pack of wolves by night.
Featuring the voices of Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Simon McBurney, Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy and more, the Golden Globe-nominated pic has been named Best Animated Feature by both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, also claiming AFI Fest’s Audience Award for Narrative Feature.
Below, Moore and Stewart reflect on the atmosphere of “polarization” that informed their story and the “unscratched” creative itches that Wolfwalkers allowed them to explore. Explaining why the film was their most ambitious undertaking to date, they also touch on exciting projects currently in the works at Cartoon Saloon, including the Netflix feature My Father’s Dragon and an “epic” animated series for Apple TV+.
DEADLINE: How did Wolfwalkers come about? What inspired the film?
TOMM MOORE: It was something that we started dreaming up while we were finishing Song of the Sea. Ross and I were co-directing a section of The Prophet at the time, and I felt it would be nice for us to co-direct the final piece in our little, semi-spiritual trilogy of folklore. We came up with the idea pretty quickly over lunch, and talked about using folklore from our region, here in Kilkenny. There’s old stories that have almost died out of people that could leave their bodies, as wolves, and we wanted to speak to themes of wildness.
We wanted to talk about species destruction, and the sadness of that. I mean, it’s not just an Irish problem. It’s international, that there’s this polarization. It started in Ireland 400 years ago, but it’s only more and more relevant because there’s polarization in so many countries around the world. People don’t trust other people, even though they’ve more to gain by working together than to be fearful of each other, [and] that stokes up fear between different aspects of society. The whole concept of ‘the other’ is very useful for leaders because it separates people.
So, that’s what was inspiring us, to speak about those things, because those are things that are close to our heart and continue to be relevant. Even though it’s set [hundreds of] years ago, with the English invading Ireland, I think the story of a little English girl and a little Irish girl becoming friends has a lot of resonance today.
ROSS STEWART: It’s also something that we knew would [remain interesting] over seven years of work. Because there are themes that we’re both passionate about, it gives you the energy to go in and keep working away. I don’t know how directors would be able to just do stuff for money, and not care about the themes that they’re working on.
MOORE: I think the trick for a lot of other directors who don’t have the luxury of being able to come up with their own story in the first place is, they have to find something of themselves in whatever they’re working on, or else you can feel it. You can feel it when a project doesn’t have that kind of passion behind it.
DEADLINE: Was the idea of a folklore trilogy something you came up with, while working on The Secret of Kells? Or did you come to that over time?
STEWART: From the first film, none of us were thinking that we’d be able to make three films, let alone one film. We didn’t have that in mind. I think because Tomm realized that there was commonality between Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea—in that they’re both Irish folk tales mixed in with a contemporary feel, for the same demographic—when we wanted to work together on an idea, we knew that it would probably fit with those two, and then we might be allowed to go off and do other things afterwards, that we wouldn’t be pigeonholed. Because the danger would be that people would just be expecting the same film, over and over. And already, there are people disappointed, going, “You mean there’s not going to be any more of these films?” You understand how people can get trapped within a repetition of the work that they have done already.
DEADLINE: I’m sure there’s an extra sense of pressure to stick to a certain formula, when the films you’ve been making have earned Oscar nominations.
MOORE: Yeah. This one, I’m happy with the reception it’s gotten because this was really us throwing everything at it—everything we’d learned on the previous ones. I think one of the biggest things for us both was that we felt that with our experience, and with a slightly better budget, there was a lot of stuff that we wanted to explore more fully, both thematically and artistically. I think something that was just slightly there in The Secret of Kells got developed further in Song of the Sea, and fully in Wolfwalkers, in that there’s a theme about the importance of folklore, and how it connects us to the environment, and to our own sense of how we fit into the world. That theme has been developing over the three, and that might continue, but not in exactly the same form.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the visual universe of Wolfwalkers, and how you arrived at the right concepts in design.
STEWART: In the very first couple of days, when Tomm and myself were talking about the concept, we immediately had certain epic images, and with that exploration, it became clear that we’d have two different worlds. One would be very instinctive and wild, and flowing, and loose; the other would be quite rigid, and would be like a cage for Robyn.
So, everything feeds into those two visual worlds. By strengthening one, you’re strengthening the other because the other is a contrast of the first one. So, every time we would make a decision about, say, the forest being really colorful, then automatically, the town would be really desaturated.
You’re working in tandem across that divide, but we were lucky enough to have a great team of concept artists and scene illustrators. Even early on, we had illustrators that we were huge fans of, like Emily Hughes and Cyril Pedrosa, and I think that is something that we probably wouldn’t have been able to do on our earlier films, too. We just reached out to those artists directly and said, “Hey, could you work with us? Do you want to do some images for our film?” Whereas before, we wouldn’t even entertain that possibility. You would have their artwork up on the wall, and you’d just go, “Ah, man. Imagine working with them.”
DEADLINE: Was the look of the Irish town Robyn comes to live in inspired by woodblock prints?
MOORE: Yeah. The town is all blocky.
STEWART: As we were doing research, we came across all the 17th century woodblock prints of the time, and they had this real kind of raw, dark, aggressive, energetic quality to them—and then also, these very austere, big black lines from the state of the rudimentary printing. So, it seemed to fit the visual style perfectly, and we wanted something that felt of that time, as well. We were lucky enough that one of the concept artists was a printmaker herself, and she really more or less finalized the town style, once we gave her guidance.
DEADLINE: In the film’s credits, you acknowledge a set of “wolf consultants.” What were you referring to there?
STEWART: They’re the studio dogs. There’s a whole range of dogs that come into the studio, from the really tiny to the really large.
MOORE: The other, less hairy consultants were James Baxter and Aaron Blaise. [Laughs] They were two really cool Disney animators, and much like Ross was saying about the concept artists, they were the kind of people that we would have looked up to, but never would have thought we could work with. Both of them approached me at different points, saying that they loved what we were doing and wanted to help, and they’re both really famous in hand-drawn animation circles, as amazing quadruped animators.
James is the head of animation for Netflix now, but he came and gave a lecture for all the animators on how to animate four-legged creatures, and he animated a couple of shots himself. And Aaron helped a lot with just wolf anatomy. He gave a lecture on animal anatomy, and it was great for the studio because it felt like these really famous animators in our little world were taking us, as a studio, so seriously that they wanted to work with us.
DEADLINE: Which sequence in the film was the most challenging to bring to life?
MOORE: One that took a lot of figuring out, at a story level, was the final confrontation between the army and the wolves. Because it was an action sequence, we figured out the whole geography for that area, and we had concept artists make a map of the area, so that the audience could feel that we were gradually getting closer to the wolf’s den. We had a sense that there was fire on one side of the screen, and the cool water of the waterfall on the other, and we had to constantly work to feel that the continuity was in the right direction. And every technique that we’d developed for the movie was in there, because we had soldiers that were drawn with that woodblock style, and their fire had angles to it. Then, the forest was all curvy, and the woodblock fire was burning the watercolor trees.
It was quite a challenge, even from a color point of view. It’s set at night, and it can be easy to lose stuff in darkness. You have to design it really carefully, so that it stands out. Then, we had a challenge where we were showing that Robyn’s dad, Bill, had been bitten and was turning into a wolf. So, when we showed things from his point of view, we were showing that kind of ‘wolf vision.’ But it was him seeing an army, and they all had to be traced frame by frame. The backgrounds had to be drawn on paper over and over again, to shimmer.
So, it had a lot of challenges built into it, and it was something that we’d never done before. Action sequences are hard in animation because they require a lot of quick cuts, and a lot of continuity between the cuts, which means that every background has to be painted, even if it’s on screen for only a few seconds. And it has to be super clear because you might not get a chance to really figure out where everything is. We’re more used to these tableaux in the studio where we set things up and just let the camera rest, and it gives you time to look around. But with an action sequence, you have to have a really quick read because some of the scenes only last for like 20 frames.
STEWART: In that sequence, what was quite sad is that the color backgrounds would have to be fully painted, and then turned into nighttime. So, all of that color is just turned into blue, even though we knew that nearly all of it was going to be covered by fire and smoke and everything. So, the color backgrounds themselves are an absolutely beautiful thing, but you might only see maybe one-tenth of it, through all the smoke and the fire.
DEADLINE: Why do you consider Wolfwalkers to be the most ambitious film you’ve made?
STEWART: I think it was a big leap in every department, not just because of budgetary reasons. It became very clear from early on that it’s an action movie, so we had way more scenes, way more wolves, way more soldiers, way more people, way more action shots, way more perspective. Everything was a level up. We were asking the final line department to do two different types of cleanup, depending on if it was a forest creature or a town creature. Then, we were asking the ink and paint departments to act as artists, and have the color block be separate from the lines sometimes, and follow through. So, in every department, we were really asking them to go much further than they had before.
DEADLINE: With your trilogy at an end, what’s next for you, and for Cartoon Saloon?
MOORE: I think Ross and I are taking a sabbatical. It’s hard to speak about new projects that are only embryos at this stage, but the studio is very busy, thankfully. Wolfwalkers was the biggest thing we’ve tried yet, and now, we’re doing something even bigger with My Father’s Dragon. That project is so huge and they’re doing it all remotely, so I’m always impressed when I see what they’re pulling together for that one.
And we have a big series for Apple TV that’s not really announced. But it’s epic because it’s feature-quality, hand-drawn animation across 12 half-hours, and then a big, hour-long special at the end, which is going to take a lot of work.
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