Take a Walk on the Wild Side with Wolfwalkers

February 20, 2021
We speak with the animation wizards behind Cartoon Saloon's final film in their 2D animated, award-winning Irish folklore trilogy.

Earlier this month, Sarah Jessica Parker and Taraji P. Henson announced on behalf of the Hollywood Foreign Press that Wolfwalkers is among the five films nominated for this year’s Golden Globe in the Best Animated Feature category.

Following The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), Wolfwalkers is the final film in director Tomm Moore’s Irish folklore themed trilogy. Moore, his co-director Ross Stewart, and the rest of the creative team at Cartoon Saloon, the animation studio co-founded by Moore, are pitted against two Disney/Pixar animated films (Soul and Onward), a Dreamworks/Universal production (The Croods: A New Age) and a Netflix co-production (Over the Moon).

The achievement of this boutique Irish animation studio based in Kilkenny, Ireland is all the more impressive when you consider its high quality output in light of its comparatively limited resources. The average budget of Pixar’s two nominated films exceeds $175 million. While the budget of Wolfwalkers hasn’t been revealed by its makers, it — like the other predominantly hand-drawn feature-length animations from Cartoon Saloon — was produced at a fraction of the costs racked up by Hollywood’s powerhouse animation studios.

Here, some of Cartoon Saloon’s creators and animation wizards discuss their artistic choices, their passion for 2D animation and the challenges of creating a vision unique to the film’s wolves and wolfwalker characters.

A Tale for the Ages

The action of Wolfwalkers begins in 1650 in Kilkenny.

To understand the film’s context — and how folklore infuses the story — requires stepping back in Irish history. In October of 1641, a group of Irish Catholic landowners rose up against English and Scottish settlers in Ulster province. By December, Irish rebels had taken over the town of Kilkenny. Protestants living there were attacked, their houses looted. Similar events took place all over Ireland.

Following this Irish rebellion, the majority of Ireland came under the control of the Irish Catholic Confederation. When Oliver Cromwell landed in Ireland in 1649 his mission was to re-conquer the country on behalf of the English Parliament. When he converged on Kilkenny, headquarters of the Confederacy, in March 1650, he addressed the town with these words:

“My coming hither is to endeavour — if God so please to bless me — the reduction of the city of Kilkenny to their obedience to the state of England.”

In the Wolfwalkers tale, English hunter Bill Goodfellowe arrives in Kilkenny along with his daughter Robyn in 1650. Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell tasks him with killing the packs of wolves that roam the forest on the town’s edge so that the woods can be cleared for farming.

Wishing to help her father in his quest, Robyn secretly follows him out of the town one day, joined by her pet falcon, Merlyn. Confronted by a wolf, Robyn aims her bow and arrow at her perceived attacker but inadvertently strikes Merlyn. A girl with wild, flowing red hair scoops up the falcon and disappears into the forest along with the wolf pack.

The Lord Protector admonishes Robyn for leaving the town and orders her to work in the scullery. But she escapes her armed escort and returns to the woods where she discovers Merlyn. To her surprise, her bird has been miraculously cured. When a wolf approaches, Robyn stumbles into a trap laid by her father. The wolf tries to rescue Robyn — who lashes out in fear. And the wolf strikes back, biting her arm.

Yet nothing is as at appears. The wolf that had bitten her later shapeshifts into the red-haired girl with healing powers that had taken Merlyn. The girl’s name is Mehb. She reveals that she is a “wolfwalker,” a being whose spirit becomes a wolf when she sleeps. The two girls become friends and as they begin a search for Moll, Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn is drawn deeper and deeper into the enchanted world of the forest and begins to realise that the effect of a wolfwalker bite has the power to transform her into the very creature that her father has been ordered to eliminate.

Town vs Forest

Since ancient times, the near-impenetrable forest in which we can lose ourselves has symbolised the dark, hidden world of our unconsciousness. And in legends and fairy tales — or so renowned psychologist Bruno Belttelheim tells us — being lost in the forest symbolises not a need to be found, but rather that one must find or discover oneself.

Upon leaving Kilkenny, which provides a framework that gives her life structure, Robyn enters the wilderness of the woods with an underdeveloped character. But by the time she succeeds in finding her way out of the forest, she will emerge with a much more highly developed humanity and sense of self.

“From the very beginning when Tomm (Moore) and Ross (Stewart) were discussing the script, they wanted — because it is very doable in 2D animation — to make very symbolic contrasting styles for what was the town and what was the forest because that helped [define] visually the central conflict in the movie — what is considered order and civilisation and what is considered the wilderness,” says Lead Character Animator Federico Pirovano. “So we started researching a lot of art from the period. There was a lot of woodcut, which has this very dry and edgy and blocky look to it.” It made sense to render the authoritarian Lord Protector, for example, using this rigid and orderly style, Pirovano says.

“By contrast, Tomm and Ross decided to have a very loose style for the forest that would evoke freedom and the absence of boundaries, the possibility of being whatever you want or can dream of,” Pirovano explains. Robyn transforms in the course of the movie. Constrained in a cage that society and her father have created, her form is initially depicted with wood block aspects. “Through the movie you can see her outline changing because she is getting freer and freer, thanks to this knowledge that she has of the outside world.”

2D vs 3D

Wolfwalkers, like the other feature films from Cartoon Saloon, was painstakingly created with an emphasis on hand-drawn animation, an art form that has by and large been eclipsed by computer animation. “The idea that Tomm and Ross have behind the movies that they make is that they want to embrace what 2D is,” Pirovano observes. “Of course, they embrace new technology, but they don’t want to hide the fact that it’s 2D. And in old Disney movies, sometimes you can still see the construction line. It’s just telling you ‘Yes, this is hand drawn.’ And, Pirovano adds, by drawing attention to the choice of 2D, the creators are emphasising “that little bit of nostalgia and braveness.”

In a world where essentially every big budget animation studio has deemed 2D extinct in animated filmmaking, Cartoon Saloon instead celebrates the benefits of using two-dimensional animation. “Hand-drawn animation is freer,” says animation supervisor Svend Rothmann Bonde. “You can play more with and push the style more. I think there is something very unique and very organic about the hand-drawn style. And if you are working with a budget of a certain size, I think that you can get more with the hand-drawn style.”

However, 3D approaches and techniques are essential to achieve certain effects. “For the sequences that I supervised, we built 3D scenes in which we had the camera running through the scenes. But at the end of the day, what we wanted to present on screen was drawings,” notes Dublin animator Eimhin McNamara. “We very much used the 3D as a structure. It’s not a new technique, in terms of the tracing of photographs, camera obscura style stuff.”

McNamara cites two classic Disney movies that employed similar techniques. He references the shots in Pinocchio of the cage where Stromboli imprisoned Pinocchio: “That was all a model that they filmed and then they basically traced over.” And, he notes, in 101 Dalmatians the creators “did a model of Cruella de Vil’s car and then drew lines on so they could help track it in 3D.”

Blending a knowledge of 3D technology with 2D artistry was necessary to create specific elements. In CG movies, to capture the physics of fire, for example, an animator may use software like Houdini. “So ,for the effect of fire to move like fire but still have a graphic style, you have to make the decision of where to simplify the shapes but still maintain the physics of fire,” observes FX Lead Narissa Schander. “We had to use our knowledge of the actual movement of a fire but then stylise it to make it very angular. We used scratchy lines as well to add texture to it, which I, as a 2D artist, have never done before in terms of actually animating textures — hand-drawn, frame by frame.”

“The wolf sequences involved 3D,” McNamara adds. “There really is a blurring of lines between what is 3D and 2D. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse keeps getting brought up again and again, but they were actually drawing on top of the 3D animation. It depends on the story you want to tell, and the background of the people involved. Animation is just a big melting pot of loads of different things,” he muses. “But at the end of the day, it was more about mark-making on paper than it being very precise or clean. I was operating with a very clean output from [3D computer graphics software toolset] Blender in terms of the 3D build. Every step that I did afterwards was about muddying it up, adding more grime and smudging. It may seem like a backwards mentality but it’s maybe about making people feel more than just describing something absolutely. It’s about being less precise but more emotional.”

Wolf Vision

In fables and fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is not just the male seducer: he also represents all the asocial, animalistic tendencies within ourselves, asserts Bettelheim. Yet in the mythical world of wolfwalkers, the notion of reincarnation as a wolf avatar, which leaves the human body at night during sleep, is celebrated by Robyn as a joyful awakening — her avatar leaves society behind to run free and wild and experience the world with the heightened, animalistic sensations of a wolf.

In all the sequences showing how wolf avatars view their surroundings, the film deploys a completely different set of visual elements. For example, the smells experienced by the wolf are depicted in riotous colour; all else is shown in shades of grey. “They really wanted to represent what a wolf would really see or feel when it’s running in the forest,” says Maria Pareja. “They wanted to make it different from the rest of the movie, in that the movie is very flat in general, the backgrounds are pretty flat. They wanted to have more of a three-dimensional space for the wolves, because they can hear stuff behind [them] and they can see things that are super far [away]. So, they wanted to create something a little bit more atmospheric for the wolves.”

Eimhin McNamara was tasked with managing the creation of the wolf vision scenes. “It basically started off with me messing with graphite on paper as soon as we were in production,” he recalls, “and developing not only a sense of the rendered style, like what type of materials to use, but also the style of the camera, how much depth we needed in the shot. Does the camera move very far forward or really far back? Does it need to look around the corner? So, based on those criteria, we established that we needed the camera to move a lot. That established that we needed to use our 3D baseline.” By rendering the scenes in a 3D virtual reality model, McNamara was able to establish the film’s lupine point of view. “But after that, it was a lot of back and forth about how many lines do we have on the screen? How much detail is still on the screen?” McNamara emphasises that it was a collaborative effort that required a melding of different parts that needed to come together and complement each other. “It was like nine months of development before I got to a finished shot. It was complicated.”

Pareja explains that the team ran a lot of experiments with colours to represent the different senses. “We gave the ‘lower colorus’ to the town people and then the more vibrant reds and very passionate colours to the wild in the forest. There was a lot of research. I know that Tomm and Ross were trying to find pictures and references of what a wolf can see. But in the end, it was this idea of having something completely different that we cannot experience as humans.”

Wolfwalker Voices

To voice the hunter Bill Goodfellowe, the Wolfwalkers team cast Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones). “He is such a recognisable voice,” says editor Darragh Byrne. “He gives a great performance in the final product. He’s so emotional. It’s a side to Sean Bean I haven’t seen before in a film. He’s very soft in some scenes. He really lifts everything.”

“There was a lovely moment in the voice records where Honor [Kneafsey], who plays Sean Bean’s daughter, was being coached how to do a Northern accent, because she’s from a different part of England,” recalls editor Richie Cody. “So, to have Sean in the room coaching her on how to best imitate his accent probably strengthened the feeling of that relationship.”

Aside from a few pick up sessions after most of the production had wrapped, the lead actor recordings for Wolfwalkers were completed over a period of a single week in a studio called Grouse Lodge, located on an old Georgian estate outside the village of Rosemount in the heart of Ireland. “We were very lucky to get everybody together for that one week,” says Cody.  “They brought in all of the principal actors pretty much at the same time.”

Casting someone to voice the role of young Mebh posed the greatest challenge — until the team found Eva Whittaker, an 11-year-old from Prosperous, a town in northern Kildare. “We never thought we’d get someone as good as Eva. It was a miracle really we found Eva,” says Byrne. “She’s just incredible. As soon as we heard her, we were like ‘Oh, that’s Mebh!’ Honor who plays the part of Robyn is quite an experienced actress. So you had the difference between a very trained actress and a very raw talent. And it works really well. If we hadn’t found those two actresses, I don’t think we could have made the film.” The spontaneity between Honor and Eva is evident in the film because the two girls were able to bounce their performances off each other in person: “Two actors in the room, mics between them and all that energy and intensity that they bring was because they were feeding off each other,” says Cody.

And to reinforce the film’s authentic Irish voice, the Wolfwalkers team also recorded a lot of locals from Kilkenny. “The studio is from Kilkenny, the film is set in Kilkenny, so we wanted to get as many local voices in there as possible,” says Cody. “So, we had groups of people, groups of kids coming into a local recording studio to record all the crowd and background audio, which really helped to make it feel a little bit like home.”

Wolfwalkers is now available on Apple TV+



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