Between  Two Worlds
Issue: Jan-Feb-March 2021

Between Two Worlds

When describing Cartoon Saloon's third and final installment of its 2D Irish folklore trilogy of films, the phrase "third time's a charm" comes to mind, or perhaps more accurately, "third time's most charming of all."

The hand-animated Wolfwalkers follows in the tracks of The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), the first and second installment, respectively, in the Irish tryptic of films from Director Tomm Moore and the Irish animation film and television studio Cartoon Saloon. He co-founded the studio in 1999, which further crafted the 2017 animated drama The Breadwinner. Ross Stewart, who was art director on the earlier films in the trilogy, co-directed Wolfwalkers, which began streaming on Apple TV+ in December, following limited global cinematic release, to much anticipation.

Approximately 200 artists worked on the film at Cartoon Saloon's Kilkenny studio, assisted by nearly 100 others at Melusine Productions (Luxembourg and France), which co-produced the feature.

Based on a mix of local myths - wolves are prevalent in Irish folklore - the story of Wolfwalkers is somewhat historicized, taking place in the town of Kilkenny, Ireland (where Cartoon Saloon happens to be located) during the period of the Cromwellian campaign through that country. During this time of English colonization, the area was still mostly forest and populated by wolves, but it was being cleansed of its older Irish myths, practices, superstitions, and traditions, as well as its large wolf population.

Here the myth unfolds as we find the young English apprentice hunter Robyn Goodfellowe, who journeyed to Ireland with her father, hired to eradicate the last wolf pack. One day, while exploring the forbidden wilderness beyond the town walls, Robyn meets and befriends the free-spirited feral-like girl Mebh MacTire, one of the last members of a mysterious tribe with a spiritual connection to the lupine and the ability to transform and roam among them at night. Soon Robyn uncovers a secret that draws her further into the enchanted world of these "wolfwalkers," as she becomes a wolf when she sleeps and a girl when awake - shapeshifting into what her father has sworn to kill.

"Ireland had once been called 'Wolf Land,' and Irish people had once identified strongly with wolves, and because they were eradicated, so was the folklore and everything pertaining to the animals. We wanted to rediscover that for a new audience," explains Moore. One bit of folklore in particular, focused on the werewolves of Ossory, about pagan people cursed to become wolves, especially caught his attention as it was a tale from Kilkenny, where he and Stewart grew up.

Wolfwalkers features two very different, contrasting worlds. The austere Puritan town, where everything within it is rigid and straight, depicted in sharp, hard edges, horizontal and vertical patterns, and straight black lines. "We wanted to reference the woodcut art of the 1600s, which have a very aggressive shape, angular markings, and very big, black lines and big, solid colors underneath," Stewart says. To this end, the town is a cage-like environment for Robyn; she's not permitted to do what she would like, and she feels trapped. To reflect that, the filmmakers shot from the perspective that made the environment appear very flat. They even went so far as to avoid showing the sky in town scenes, always looking down, trapping Robyn within a little box.

In contrast, the forest is very energetic, wild and free, and instinctive. Here, the lines are sketchy and loose, with under-drawing and Impressionistic watercolor painting that gave it an organic feel - warm, curvy, exciting.

The respective designs carried over to the characters. When Mebh enters the town, she lacks the thick outline present in the other town characters, and instead has a pencil-scratched line illustrating she belongs to a different world - without the contrast being too jarring.

"It's really about pushing the cels as far apart as we possibly could, while still keeping them consistent enough so that it [looks like] one film," Stewart notes.

According to Stewart, there was a lot of thought that went into the actual movement that helps explain the different worlds. "It ties into the whole art direction of the film that there are two worlds. One is control and order, turning all the people [especially the soldiers] into robots of society who are told what to do and do what they are told," he explains. "Then the opposite is the world of the forest, where it's all freedom, instinct, and wildness. So you sit on one side of the fence or, as in Robyn's case, you go from one side of the fence over to the other."

Images from the village are hard-edged with a thick black outline.

Traditional with a Tech Twist

Moore and Stewart, childhood friends, came up with the basic story nugget for Wolfwalkers seven years ago, picking at various drafts and versions until about three years ago when they made a trailer; pre-production began a year after.

When most hear the phrase "hand-animated," especially in features, they auto-matically assume it means no technology is involved. In terms of Wolfwalkers, that is incorrect. In fact, a good deal of tech, including 3D and VR, was used, though in such a way as to retain the handcrafted aesthetic.

"Our studio is known for hand-drawn [animation], and we really value the fact that everything we do looks hand-drawn and timeless. But, we do use technology," says Moore. "Our whole pipeline is semi-digital, even if we are starting with paper and pencil. [The technology] is used all the way through in subtle ways, in ways that are invisible, and a bit obvious other times."

For the traditional 2D animation process, including posing rough animation and cleanup animation, the team used TVPaint Animation from French company TVPaint Developpement. In addition, they employed Adobe's Photoshop for the backgrounds once the initial work was done on paper. (The line work of the background is done in ink, charcoal, or pencil on paper, and then the painting is usually applied on paper, scanned in, and modified in Photoshop.)

Insofar as 3D is concerned, it was mostly relegated to some design and visualization. The most compelling use involved scenes using what the studio calls "wolfvision," whereby the world is presented through Robyn's eyes as she runs free in the natural world in her changeling form.

"We wanted to treat wolfvision almost like a little short film within the feature film, maybe with a different pipeline and different means of production, because we knew it had to be something that would be so special in the film that it would make the audience perk up and go, 'Oh, wow. What's this? This is different.' Also, it had to be so immersive that once we see Robyn's experience, we know that she can never really go back to living her normal caged life in the town," says Stewart.

Conceived by Irish animator Eimhin McNamara, the wolfvision process involved the use of Oculus' Quill, a VR painting tool typically employed for sketching out scenes in VR to determine scale, the proximity of objects and characters, and so forth. McNamara built a forest environment in Quill first, allowing him and his team to do camera previs fly-throughs of the forests, trying different easily-adjustable flight runs with rudimentary markers for trees and so on, improving the work at that stage.

"Tomm and I could adjust the camera, bringing it down to watch [at] level or bring it up higher, or have trees whip by the camera," notes Stewart.

Once the camera previs was approved and locked off, McNamara worked with artists who used the 3D open-source Blender software to build variations of the forest. Then the group printed the 3D model and fly-through frame-by-frame, and each one of those rough frames became a reference for the 2D animators while they hand-drew and re-animated it on paper with pencil and charcoal. So, what ends up on screen is actually pen and paper animation, and underneath that was a previs pipeline that took advantage of VR.

"[McNamara] had a team of three or four people who would do a fully-rendered background, characters, and effects, everything, on paper, which was a huge task," says Stewart. "At that point, we had a stack of paper that had a beautiful rendered background, characters, and effects on every single frame. That was rescanned; we wanted that to very much be the finished product on screen. We didn't want too much pre-production or compositing on top of that because we really wanted that beautiful handiwork to shine through."

The wolfvision scenes were intended to be a roller-coaster ride of sorts. To integrate a sense of sensory perception, the regular world appears monochromatic but sparks with phosphorescent visual scent when Robyn transforms.

 As McNamara points out, the nice thing about working with technology today is that it's not an either/or scenario. The weakness of hand-drawn animation is that in order to get fluid animation on screen, artists have to draw everything. And if there is any editing that needs done, even the tiniest bit, it's literally back to the drawing board. He further adds that by using 3D in previs to approve camera angles and movements, it was not a matter of letting technology rule, but rather to speed up the editorial process before the group got into the lengthy stage of hand-drawing everything on paper after the previs was complete.

"You can still use technology to help make more traditional animation faster. You can still do the full hand-drawn final look, but you can use technology to make it more efficient and maybe more interesting because you can try different things," Moore adds. "So, it's a nice combination to use."

In addition, for characters and especially objects in the distance, such as wagons, cannon, and other mechanical elements, the artists used the vector-based 2D animation application Moho, formerly Smith Micro's Anime Studio Pro, just recently acquired by Lost Marble. With Moho, paintings, etchings, or drawings on paper can be scanned and then applied to a 2.5D model, resulting in complex animation that would take a lot of time to draw frame-by-frame by hand, Moore explains.

Stewart points to another scene similar in style to the wolfvision shots, which is a fly-through among the trees following a deer, only this was done completely by an animator, Emmanuel Asquier-Brassart, who first sketched out a grid and animated the camera fly-through, and then animated the deer on top. "It's fantastic, but that couldn't be done by a team. You can do that if it's just one amazing animator. But when it has to go into a pipeline for a team to do three and a half minutes of it, it's just not possible," says Stewart.

For a fly-through of the town, where backgrounds were mapped onto planes and rotated, the compositors used Foundry's Nuke to keep the perspective from distorting and the imagery flat. "Nuke is usually used to make something look as realistic as possible, for effects and things like that. But, we wanted to use it to make things look as hand-drawn and hand-painted as possible," says Stewart.

Although Wolfwalkers is hand-animated in 2D, plenty of technology was used.

Maintaining the Course

There are not that many studios producing 2D hand-animation today, Cartoon Saloon being one of them. Is it because they feel their stories are best served through hand-animation versus CGI? Not exactly. As Stewart points out, the more that 3D evolves, the more it can replicate hand-drawn animation. So the answer is that Cartoon Saloon's pipeline and talent are set up for 2D, and the interest in 2D is extensive there.

Whereas some 2D projects by other studios might start with CGI and then bring in 2D elements (for instance, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and How I Lost My Body), at Cartoon Saloon, when CG is used, it is done so to complement the hand-drawn aesthetic. "I think there is something about a hand-drawn aesthetic that's very timeless," says Moore.

Stewart admits, though, that 2D and 3D each have their advantages and disadvantages. "I think you should know your medium and take advantage of that medium," he says. "With our medium, it allows us to use the whole visual language of 2D - hand-drawn, mark making, painting, and everything else - to help amplify the mood, the tone, and the characters' emotions."

Whether it is the story, the art, or the combination of both,Wolfwalkers has been receiving a lot of attention, including Oscar buzz, something not foreign to Cartoon Saloon and its filmmakers. The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea both received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature. And, it's likely that Wolfwalkers will follow the same path, perhaps even running away with the top prize.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.