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September 09
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ALL-IN CREATIVITY INSPIRES STORYTELLING FOR ANIMATED THE WITCHER: NIGHTMARE OF THE WOLF

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

Given the popularity of The Witcher, it is not surprising that Netflix decided to expand the universe in which the genetically modified monster-slayer Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) lives by exploring other characters and time periods. The origins and adventures of Vesemir (Theo James), who was the mentor of Geralt,  gets explored in the animated feature The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, directed by South Korean filmmaker Kwang II Han. Han gained international recognition for his work with Studio Mir and in particular Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.

Through a translator provided by Netflix, Han took the time to explain how the Avatar franchise has influenced him, and the challenges of making a prequel that directly connects with the original series and serves as a bridge to the upcoming second season that arrives in December 2021.

“When I direct animation or animate scenes myself, I always add some improv and offer my creative input that I feel is relevant to the story,” explains Han. “My work philosophy has been to stay creatively proactive in whatever roles I’m in, even if my ideas get cut at the end. I developed the habit when I was an animator on Avatar: The Last Airbender and a storyboard artist on The Legend of Korra, both of which gave me incredible creative freedom to explore ideas. I also kept that approach on The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, and I believe it helped me create more nuanced and enriching work. The Legend of Korra taught me how to handle actions followed by emotional scenes in equal parts, and that experience had a considerable influence in directing Nightmare of the Wolf. Some improv examples I remember are young Vesemir and old Vesemir giving the same two-finger salute in different scenes to create a link, which we added in the storyboarding stage.”Early concept art of Kaer Morhen and the noble estate where Young Vesemir once lived became cornerstones of the design style. “I tried to put our creative input and my team’s DNA into the film while keeping the essence of The Witcher universe,” explains Han. “Essentially, it’s a Studio Mir’s take on the universe that makes this film distinct from The Witcher series.

We wanted to make sure all our design – from the architectural style to landscapes and terrains – live in the same The Witcher universe. We did a lot of research on medieval fantasy environments and built off the landscapes from there. We drew inspirations from real-life terrains in Poland and Netherlands that best matched the descriptions in the script. As for the architecture, we combined symbolic elements of different iconic architectural styles, including Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque, to come up with something unique yet grounded.”

3D background of the crumbled Kaer Morhen laboratory.

“Essentially, it’s a Studio Mir’s take on the universe that makes this film distinct from The Witcher series. We wanted to make sure all our design – from the architectural style to landscapes and terrains – live in the same The Witcher universe. We did a lot of research on medieval fantasy environments and built off the landscapes from there. We drew inspirations from real-life terrains in Poland and Netherlands that best matched the descriptions in the script. As for the architecture, we combined symbolic elements of different iconic architectural styles, including Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque, to come up with something unique yet grounded.”

—Kwang II Han, Director

“Caricatures were drawn of real-life actors who we felt were good references for our characters as a starting point and then went through rounds of takes to find a style that fits our animation,” states Han. “As for the environments, we tried to match the live-action series as close as possible. For the final look, we utilized compositing effects and tools to help sell the details of the universe.” The basic lighting schemes were established when the backgrounds were being painted. “We set the directions and intensity of the light, and we painted the backgrounds accordingly,” Han describes. “Then we added depths and detail in compositing. We used motion tests to make action references for storyboarding, but most of our artists are already strong at action animation, so we heavily relied on their skill sets. And our animators worked very hard to bring our animatic to life as vividly as possible. We made conscious efforts to bring talented and stylistic animators to our production. And of course, our in-house directors went through many revisions to supervise and elevate each drawing.”

A prominent setting is Kaedwen Castle which serves as the home of the Witchers.

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf tells the story of Vesemir (Theo James) who was the mentor of Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill).

An example of improv in the storytelling was having young and old Vesemir give the same two-finger salute in different scenes to create a link between them.
“The Legend of Korra taught me how to handle actions followed by emotional scenes in equal parts, and that experience had a considerable influence in directing Nightmare of the Wolf. Some improv examples I remember are young Vesemir and old Vesemir giving the same two-finger salute in different scenes to create a link, which we added in the storyboarding stage.”
—Kwang II Han, Director

“We stayed true to the main flow of the script [written by Beau DeMayo], and filled in any gaps in the descriptions to help visualize and translate the script into animated content by adding details such as gestures between the dialogues and the characters’ subtle expressions to help sell their emotions,” explains Han. “I came up with the closing scene during the storyboarding stage to give it a direct link to the live-action series. We could have gone with more grandeur and climatic ending, but we wanted the audience to enjoy it not only as a standalone film but in continuation to the live-action series where their excitement can carry over.”

“We tried to be ambitious in staging the storyboards within our fixed schedule,”  adds Han, “but I wish if we could have a bit more time to be as thorough as we hoped to be. Personally, as a director, I would want to spell out all key details in the storyboards as a solid blueprint for our animation team. In the end, we found a happy medium to serve both quality and sustainability, which is a common practice in production.”

Young Vesemir [David Errigo Jr.] and the Basilisk were the most challenging character and creature to design, Han says. “A younger version of Vesemir was not in the original novel, so we had to imagine what his younger version would look like based on his adult version. Also, we put a lot of effort into making him stand out as the main character, from his design to acting. We explored a different workflow specifically for Vesemir. We made a CG modeling of his head for our 2D animation team to utilize when animating him. Different references were compiled for thematic colors. “There are snow piles in Pontar Valley where Vesemir spends his childhood, and we made subtle red shades from the sun over the snow piles as a visual foreshadow. Our team made conscious color choices as part of the storytelling tools.” Basilisk was the most prominent monster we created in CG. Because it had unique anatomy and movement, we created a separate animation guide for Basilisk to make it feel real.”

An important part of the animation process is enabling the crew to have a creative voice. “We had robust discussions trimming down the ideas to what served best for the story, and we stayed vigilant to keep the creative direction and the workflow intact to avoid too many cooks spoiling the broth,” notes Han. “Whatever stage in the process we were in, we tried to be flexible and creative. As far as the crew setup, we went more global, collaborating with many talented artists around the world. We wanted to have various creative resources available and secure quality content that we could proudly present as Studio Mir’s brand. The scope of resources and collaboration was much greater followed by greater challenges, but it was all very much worth it. Since I’ve been an animator and storyboard artist myself for a very long time, I wanted to be as hands-on as I could, adding my strokes and touches in as many scenes as possible. I was fortunate enough to be deeply involved throughout all stages from start to finish, compared to other directors in the same position on a project with this scale.”

3D elements assisted in making the production smoother and in elevating the quality of the animation. “3D visual effects involved complex work,” states Han. “We first came up with 3D sources, but had to go back to the compositing stage to establish the space and details. This would serve as a base which we then applied to other scenes/sequences. One thing we constantly made sure to achieve was a seamless blend between 2D and 3D elements. This also involved working between two different pipelines. We went through learning curves to pull it together, especially in the last compositing stage. We ended up checking scene by scene for accuracy.” The biggest challenge was taking all of the existing material and translating it into something unique. “There was just so much material to digest, which was both exciting and overwhelming at the same time. I also had my learning curves adjusting to the new position I was in overseeing the entire production.”

The architecture of Zerbst, Germany inspired the design of Kaedwen Castle, which is the home of the Witchers.

Concept art of Kaedwen Castle and Noble Estate.

“Since our early production meetings, our mantra has been, ‘Let’s create something that future shows would draw reference from!’ We’re used to compiling references from other iconic films before, and I really hope Nightmare of the Wolf becomes that new reference point, where people would say, “Let’s refer to the Nightmare of the Wolf style.’ If that ever becomes true, it’s all thanks to the hard work and achievement our entire crew put in our production.”

—Kwang II Han, Director

The hardest characters and creatures to design were Young Vesemir and the Basilisk.

The black-and-white design and final color of the lake situated in the Pontar Valley.

“Since I’ve been an animator and storyboard artist myself for a very long time, I wanted to be as hands-on as I could, adding my strokes and touches in as many scenes as possible. I was fortunate enough to be deeply involved throughout all stages from start to finish, compared to other directors in the same position on a project with this scale.”

—Kwang II Han, Director

Young Vesemir [David Errigo Jr.] and the Basilisk were the most challenging character and creature to design, Han says. “A younger version of Vesemir was not in the original novel, so we had to imagine what his younger version would look like based on his adult version. Also, we put a lot of effort into making him stand out as the main character, from his design to acting. We explored a different workflow specifically for Vesemir. We made a CG modeling of his head for our 2D animation team to utilize when animating him. Different references were compiled for thematic colors. “There are snow piles in Pontar Valley where Vesemir spends his childhood, and we made subtle red shades from the sun over the snow piles as a visual foreshadow. Our team made conscious color choices as part of the storytelling tools.” Basilisk was the most prominent monster we created in CG. Because it had unique anatomy and movement, we created a separate animation guide for Basilisk to make it feel real.”

 

The mood board and final image of Geralt of Rivia as an apprentice Witcher, which is the closing shot of the animated feature.

 

An important part of the animation process is enabling the crew to have a creative voice. “We had robust discussions trimming down the ideas to what served best for the story, and we stayed vigilant to keep the creative direction and the workflow intact to avoid too many cooks spoiling the broth,” notes Han. “Whatever stage in the process we were in, we tried to be flexible and creative. As far as the crew setup, we went more global, collaborating with many talented artists around the world. We wanted to have various creative resources available and secure quality content that we could proudly present as Studio Mir’s brand. The scope of resources and collaboration was much greater followed by greater challenges, but it was all very much worth it. Since I’ve been an animator and storyboard artist myself for a very long time, I wanted to be as hands-on as I could, adding my strokes and touches in as many scenes as possible. I was fortunate enough to be deeply involved throughout all stages from start to finish, compared to other directors in the same position on a project with this scale.”


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