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January 12
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CARTOON SALOON: RUNNING WITH WOLVES IN WOLFWALKERS

By TREVOR HOGG

The glowing spiritual transformation into a wolf was composited in Nuke and was to emulate the old days of cel animation when animators would have a back light and do double exposures. All images courtesy of Apple TV+ and Cartoon Saloon.

The angular hood of Robyn emulates the geometrical shapes of the village and makes her stand out in the forest, which has a watercolor and sketch aesthetic.

If not for folklore the presence of wolves in Ireland would have been long forgotten. Amongst the medieval stories are the werewolves of Ossory, which was as an inspiration for the Cartoon Saloon production of Wolfwalkers that premiered at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival and streams on Apple TV+.

 

An apprentice hunter (Robyn) is eager to assist her father in killing the wolves living in a neighboring forest only to have a fateful encounter with a wild native girl (Mebh) who has the ability to transform into a wolf. Friends since of the age of 11, Cartoon Saloon Co-founder Tomm Moore and artist Ross Stewart share directorial duties on Wolfwalkers.

 

“During the real heat of production when all of the departments were going,” explains Stewart, “Tomm focused on giving reviews to animation and character design while I was working with layout and the art direction side.”

 

“Inspiration was taken from the linocut prints when conceptualizing the town with geometrical shapes contributing to the oppressive atmosphere. “We based it on the woodcut printing of the 1600s. We wanted to get in some of those aggressive big, dark, black lines with a lot of degrading from the print process.”

—Ross Stewart, Co-director/Artist

The project provided an opportunity to raise awareness of the cultural significance of a particular animal. “If you ask Irish people what are the native species of Ireland, they’ll list off everything up to foxes and badgers, but never realize that it also includes wolves, bears and wild boar which were driven to extinction,” states Stewart.

“If you go for a walk through an Irish wood these days, there is absolutely nothing that could kill you apart from another human being,” declares Stewart. “About 250 years ago you would have had to contend with the fact that something was out there that could actually get you, and that makes you have a respect for nature that doesn’t exist in our psyche anymore.”

 

A concept trailer was released in 2017. “The animation style was locked in and we were close to a final draft when we pitched it as a cartoon movie,” states Moore.  “But then we rewrote a lot of the first act in the storyboard process. 2018 was a busy year rewriting and storyboarding.” 

 

“A different approach was adopted for the home of the wolves to emphasize their wildness and freedom. “Watercolours are a big part of the forest style. Sometimes we were wild and crazy and the paint was going off the edge of the screen. Other cases it was more controlled. Then we had scenes where you’re at the edge of the forest, and some of the trees were angular and had more of a thick line so that it felt that you were getting closer to the town style.”  

—Tomm Moore, Co-director and Co-founder, Cartoon Saloon

One of the hardest aspects of the character design was being able to incorporate physical and personality traits of Robyn and Mebh into their wolf forms.

Concept art by director Tomm Moore of Moll breaking through her chains, helped by Robyn and Mebh.

Wolfvision concept art by comic book artist Cyril Pedrosa and director/artist Ross Stewart.

Inspiration was taken from the linocut prints when conceptualizing the town with geometrical shapes contributing to the oppressive atmosphere. “We based it on the woodcut printing of the 1600s,” remarks Stewart. “We wanted to get in some of those aggressive big, dark, black lines with a lot of degrading from the print process.”

 

A different approach was adopted for the home of the wolves to emphasize their wildness and freedom. “Watercolours are a big part of the forest style,” notes Moore. “Sometimes we were wild and crazy and the paint was going off the edge of the screen. In other cases it was more controlled. Then we had scenes where you’re at the edge of the forest, and some of the trees were angular and had more of a thick line so that it felt that you were getting closer to the town style.” 

Concept art of the Lord Protector, who was hard to design correctly until Simon McBurney was cast to voice the character. 

A scene illustration by Maria Pareja who, along with Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, served as an art director on the project. 

Characters are given the same treatment as the environments that they live in.  “[Lead character] Robyn [Goodfellowe] has a big, angular hood in the forest,” states Stewart. “She has to stand out because that’s not her place. But as Robyn gets more comfortable with Mebh, she gets the rougher clean-up style and the hood is down. We concentrate more on the rounded shapes in her hair.”

The wolves shifted between being angular and sketchy depending on their emotional state. “If you look at Roald Dahl’s books, they had these quirky and inky illustrations by Quentin Blake that made the story seem a lot less dark,” observes Moore. “We had a character designer, Federico Pirovano, and he had a lovely way of drawing the wolves. Up until then I felt that the wolf designs owed too much to what we had done with Secret of the Kells, but Federico brought a lovely, scratchy, loose energy to it. The wolves are scary when they need to be but can also be like a big pile of puppies.”

“We had a character designer, Federico Pirovano, and he had a lovely way of drawing the wolves. Up until then I felt that the wolf designs owed too much to what we had done with Secret of the Kells, but Federico brought a lovely, scratchy, loose energy to it. The wolves are scary when they need to be but can also be like a big pile of puppies.” 

—Tomm Moore, Co-director and Co-founder, Cartoon Saloon

An original character design of the Lord Protector by Ross Stewart.

A wolf design by Eimhin McNamara who directed the ‘wolfvision’ segments. 

Moho enabled motion to be incorporated into the various props. “We had a lot of cannons and moving vines,” states Moore. “Moho is good for doing 2.5D animation in the background because you can take an illustration and move it with bones in the computer. It was fairly seamless and didn’t stand out. The worse thing was we were afraid that the guns and props might look completely different if they were in the character’s hand or on the ground or in the background. Using Moho, we were able to have the same amount of texture on the animated props whether our character was interacting with them or not.”

A color model sheet for the wolf version of Mebh.

 

The effects guide for fire. 

A signature element displays a change in perspective after Robyn gets bitten and turns into a wolf. “We wanted to go as far as those great scenes in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya when she runs out of the palace and throws off her clothes in the ‘wolfvision,’” says Moore. “Eimhin McNamara built the environment in VR using Oculus software Medium and Quill. He did a fly-through that got rendered frame by frame on paper, so it’s actually the most handmade and CG sequences that we’ve ever done in the studio.”  

A complicated task for compositors was the sunset progression where it was critical to maintain lighting continuity to convey the passage of time.

Previs of the magic effects. 

 

Illustration of the ‘wolfvision’ process which started in VR; a CG version was created with Blender; a pencil sketch was rendered; and the final composited version. 

 

A color test for the den of the wolves where Moll and Mebh live. 

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