Stamp Act
Issue: Winter 2019

Stamp Act

The holidays are all about tradition. And that extends to the beloved animated Christmas films and TV specials. Indeed, there are a number of 3D animated favorites, but the ones that have truly warmed our hearts are the hand-drawn and stop-motion classics. This season, Netflix is releasing a brand-new hand-animated Christmas tale sure to fill audiences with holiday cheer this year and, likely, for years to come.

Klaus, crafted by Sergio Pablos Animation (SPA) Studios in Madrid, tells a timeless tale of transformation, where selflessness overcomes selfishness, all through a touching story. Klaus weaves together familiar holiday threads - letters to Santa, toys for good little girls and boys, reindeer, stockings hung by the fireplace, a remote northern locale, and more - into a terrific tapestry unlike any we've seen before. Written and directed by Sergio Pablos, Klaus is SPA Studios' first full-length feature film, although the facility has been providing animation, content and visual development, character design, and storyboarding services since its founding by Pablos in 2004.

Klaus tells the story of a spoiled, entitled postal student named Jesper, who is exiled to the far northern outpost of Smeerensburg, the "unhappiest place on earth," where he has one last chance to prove himself to his father, the postmaster general. If he successfully stamps by his own hand 6,000 letters in one year, he can return to his more comfortable lifestyle back home.

Alas, the endeavor is even more complicated than Jesper can imagine; the village has been without a postman for a long time, run out of town by the residents, whose clans are constantly at odds. But, they do have one thing in common: Neither side is happy with Jesper's presence (or, initially, his presents). Despite a cold welcome, Jesper sets up shop and hatches a plan to accomplish his seemingly impossible postal goal so he can leave Smeerensburg forever.

Jesper then meets Klaus, a lonely man of few words living deep in the woods with a house full of toys he has made over the years. If Jesper can encourage the children of Smeerensburg to write letters asking for toys…. There's one more problem, though. The children have not attended school in quite some time and cannot write, and the teacher, Alva, has turned to fishmongering to earn enough money so she can leave town, too. Jesper persuades her to return to the classroom, now full of eager students. He also persuades Klaus to continue toymaking. Happiness begins to fill the homes and hearts of Smeerensburg, except for the leaders of the two warring clans, who unite against their new common enemy - the postman - to stop his distribution of toys in hopes of returning the children to their miserable old selves once and for all. Will Jesper succumb as well?

To tell this tale, Pablos opted to use traditional hand-drawn animation (2D), which gave the film a more organic quality. For some time, he had been waiting for someone to make a hand-drawn animated film again, but no one did (outside of independent foreign filmmakers). One of the few still working professionally as a 2D animator, and the fact that he had his own studio, Pablos was uniquely positioned to do so.

Pablos honed his animation skills by working on many Disney 2D classics: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Hercules, and Treasure Planet, to name a few. Then, as animation shifted toward CGI, Pablos embraced the new medium, seeing it as one more method of animation. Later, he co-created the ultra-successful 3D Despicable Me franchise and continued his work in character design for the CGI animated film Rio. More recently, he was the original creator of the 3D film Smallfoot.

Well-versed in both hand-drawn and CG animation, Pablos is a creator and a storyteller. He begins with an idea he finds intriguing, and only afterward does he ponder the best medium for that particular concept - whether CGI, live action, or hand animation. "Very rarely do you come across a story that you say, 'Oh, wait, the medium that would best serve the story is traditional animation,' " he says. "I was looking for such a project when I had the idea for Klaus, and I felt strongly - and this is completely subjective; there's nothing technical about it - that there's something about the story that would be better served through hand-drawn traditional animation."

One reason was due to the film's nostalgic components and its period-fantasy setting. Another reason is the subject matter, particularly a character who would be better represented in 2D. "You wouldn't attempt to do Wall-e hand-drawn; it wants to be CGI, so you let it," he explains. "As I said before, the answer in most cases when you have an idea is CGI. Could we have done it in CGI? Yes. But it was very clear to me that we had to do it in 2D, or at least try."

Traditionally Untraditional

Full-length CGI animated films arrived in the late 1990s, breaking box-office records and redirecting cartoon innovation. Ever since, hand-drawn animated features in Hollywood became kind of a lost art. It's been a decade since the last wide release of a 2D animated film: Disney's 2009 The Princess and the Frog. As such, finding skilled traditional artists presented some difficulty, especially when it came to 2D layout artists, according to Szymon Biernacki, who along with Marcin Jakubowski, served as production designers.


Despite this, SPA Studios was able to assemble a young team with a few veterans in the supervising roles, training concept artists to handle the 2D layout and backgrounds. "When we were recruiting artists, they would get so excited that they were going to be drawing by hand," says Jakubowski. To take on the film, the studio grew from close to 20 traditional artists to 250, and moved to a new location, setting up a brand-new pipeline that could handle a project of this magnitude.

While CGI has enjoyed great innovation over the years, with the general lack of hand-animated projects, that component has been missing from its 2D cousin. "Instead of trying to look back and pick up where the traditional animated studios left off, I thought we should look forward and examine all the elements of the pipeline and question whether they are intrinsic to the process or a result of a technical limitation," says Pablos.

During that process, the team found there were certain things that should not be changed. That was not the case when they got to lighting, though. As Jakubowski explains, in the traditional approach, the character animation is just a flat cel with an outline and a flat shadow on top, and then that's placed on top of a fully rendered background - and often the two do not match. "Sometimes the background is like an oil painting or a watercolor, and the character kind of feels like a sticker on top," he says. "They look like they come from different worlds because the backgrounds fully use light and the characters are very limited in how they are lit."

Thus, the goal was to develop tools that enabled the artists to add the sensation of volume and light onto the hand-drawn character: to shade characters and to place lighting on 2D characters in a way that hadn't been done before, so the characters and backgrounds merge seamlessly.

"We feel light and color are powerful storytelling tools," says Biernacki says. To that end, the group focused on bringing light to the animation world in a way that it would self-serve not just the beauty of the shot, but also the actual storytelling - in the same way light is used in CGI. In essence, they wanted to develop a custom lighting tool that would give characters as much volume and texture as the backgrounds.

"When Sergio pitched us the look he wanted, we were uneasy. You can achieve that by painting frame by frame, but that's obviously not something you want to do for a feature that is 135,000 frames - let alone make it consistent, since every artist paints a little differently," says Biernacki.

Using a rare blend of artistic and technical knowledge, Jakubowski began experimenting with existing software designed for another function entirely, and used that for the film's proof of concept in 2015: a two-minute, 30-second video. In order to handle an entire feature film, however, that tool would have to evolve.

SPA Studios then reached out to Les Film du Poisson Rouge in France, which had developed texture-tracking software. "Basically, we merged the method we had developed for the proof of concept with their tracking system, resulting in a tool designed specifically to be super-efficient and super easy to use," says Jakubowski. The result was KLAS, which stands for Klaus Light and Shadow.

"It used to be that to light a character, you would actually draw the shadow to the character, and then you would decide how hard the transition between the light and shadow would be. And that would always be the same. It was limited," Pablos explains. "But that's not how light works." Also, the process used to be time-consuming, since the artist had to draw and in-between the shadow by hand.

But with KLAS, an artist can complete an entire set of lighting with all the components, mimicking the way artists paint light in Photoshop for a digital illustration by integrating the most important layers. In a nutshell, the artists are splitting the light into several components, such as direct light and shadow, ambient light, rim light, and bounce light. Because the artist designs each of those components, in the end, they have very precise control of the lighting and can blend characters into their environments, so they are not "stuck" onto a beautiful painting, as is the case in most 2D animated movies.

"This tool allowed them to do that in movement, and it takes less time than doing a single layer of shadow the way we used to do it," Pablos points out. "As a storyteller, having the ability to use the light and integrate all the elements of the shot so it seems like it's painted by the same hand is a gift that we tried to use to the full extent in this movie," he says.

Pablos compares this tool to Meander, which was used for Disney's animated hybrid short film Paperman (2012), which tracked 2D drawings on top of CGI geometry. "But now you are doing this on top of actual drawings, and it works in the same way," he adds.



As Biernacki points out, they weren't trying to replicate realistic lighting by faking a 3D render. "The look is still centrified and based on graphic shapes and caricature, even though we are playing with light and color as much as possible," he adds.

In addition to KLAS, which was used for the lighting, Les Films Du Poisson Rouges also provided its proprietary tools to add texture on top of the characters. The artists in storyboarding, animation, cleanup, ink and paint, and 2D effects used ToonBoom's Harmony; for backgrounds, Adobe's Photoshop. For compositing, they used Foundry's Nuke.

Creating Klaus

The idea for Klaus came to Pablos in 2010, and he spent approximately a year writing and working with concept designers to develop a pitch. With no specific plans for it, the project was shelved. The Spanish TV network Atresmedia Cine picked it up in 2014. Netflix signed on in 2017 and preproduction began.

Insofar as the project is traditionally animated, there are some elements and shots that were created in CGI because that was the best solution for the scene. "Our philosophy has been to keep as big of a toolbox as we can," says Pablos. "And we used every trick in the book, as long as it made sense."

As Biernacki points out, it's very difficult to animate rigid, hard-surface objects in 2D because it is not easy to maintain consistency of the volume and shape. "If you're animating organic objects, all the imperfections just give it more charm and an organic quality," he says. Therefore, the horse carriage and sleigh were 3D, as were a few locations when a 3D camera move was appropriate to the story moment.

For the 3D work, the team used Auto-desk's Maya, but made sure the CGI was textured, lit, shaded, and composited in a way that fit with the rest of the imagery. Often, the team used projections, creating basic 3D models or flat cards, and then projecting the hand-painted textures. "We paint from certain angles, so we couldn't get too crazy with the camera; it only works for a specific angle," notes Jakubowski. There is one scene near the end of the film that was mostly 3D: when Jesper and Klaus are being chased on their sleigh pulled by reindeer, as toys spill out from a giant bag inside.

So, which was easier, 2D or 3D? Pablos recalls asking famed Disney animators Ron Clements and John Musker, with whom he worked on Treasure Planet, which they found more difficult. Their response: "Hybrids are the worst." And, he agrees. "You're merging all these elements from different software - CG props, hand-drawn characters, organic hand-drawn effects combined with CG-generated simulated effects…. It's a mess. And you have to make all that work belong in the same world," he explains. "You can make it all look great visually, but it always has to merge seamlessly when you put it together."

But, if the team could draw it or paint it, they would lean in that direction. "We wanted it to look like an illustration that's put in motion," says Biernacki. "It does feel somewhat like a picture book, which gives the film a certain charm. We wouldn't have been able to go as graphic in some of our design choices with just 3D."

The backgrounds in Klaus are mostly static, and when depth was needed, the artists would choose simple, traditional solutions, such as multiplane, unless there was a lot of camera movement. In those instances, 3D projections were used. When the camera had to travel beyond a certain point in the background to where it was obviously not dimensional space, then a 360-degree set was built and lit.


A New Tradition

Thanks to the new lighting tools, Klaus has a more modern look than, say, those classical hand-drawn animations of the past. "There was a time when every new Disney film brought a new innovation, and I feel that what we're doing here is the same thing. Here's one more tool we devised, and we hope to continue adding more tools to it as we move forward with traditional animation once again, as long as we don't lose what's essential and what gives it its charm."

The same holds true for story as it does for aesthetics. Yet, Klaus takes a unique spin on the traditional Santa story. Or does it? Pablos says he used Klaus more as storytelling training than an actual attempt at a film script - simply because he felt Santa was missing a true origin story. "It felt too sappy, telling a story of an old man who lives in the woods and starts making toys for kids," Pablos recalls. He then came up with a less-altruistic main character who needed to learn the value of giving. And, Jesper was born.

Once this became a Christmas story, Pablos was determined to make Klaus part of the selective short list of classic Christmas films that people watch each year. Will that be the case? All the elements are there, from the amazing traditional animation to the heartwarming storytelling. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers do have another Christmas wish: that Klaus's fresh look will inspire other studios and creators to look at 2D animation differently and help push it forward by building and expanding the tools, to create a more elaborate, immersive look for the genre. "That may inspire others to look for new ways to use 2D animation as well as 3D animation [ a la Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse]," says Biernacki. "Maybe we'll arrive at a point where people no longer say '2D animation' or '3D animation,' but just 'animation.'"

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.