WOLFWALKERS is the Oscar nominated animated movie from Irish based animation studio CARTOON SALOON. The film is back on the big screen this month to celebrate the return of Irish cinemas.
We caught up with directors Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart to talk about this stunning animation.
You’ve been working on Wolfwalkers for seven years. What has that been like?
Ross: Well the first four years before we went into production Tomm was finishing up Song of the Sea and we both worked on a project another segment for The Prophet. So we were tipping away at other projects while developing the script for Wolwalkers, but really it built up momentum as we got people involved in the whole project. Seven years ago we just sat down at lunch and started writing out ideas and it just gathered momentum from there.
Do you remember what was the spark that eventually became Wolfwalkers?
Tomm: We had a list of things that we wanted to explore in terms of themes. We got some advice from friends in the industry that a good way to develop a story is to think of all the things you love, all the things you hate and try to combine them and that will create a lot of passion and conflict and drama comes from conflict so we wanted to talk about the species extinction and the polarisation that is happening around the world because people can’t meet in the middle or any kind of connection because they are so locked into their ideologies so we liked the idea of exploring this time period where a world view was coming in. You had the English Christian views clashing with the ancient Irish pagan views and what would happen if two kids from those two completely different backgrounds made friends.
Ross: It was also a momentous time in Irish history for the wholesale destruction of flora and fauna. Irish forests were cut down around that time and there was this persistent extermination of wolves until eventually in the next century they became extinct. It seemed like the perfect era to set the story in.
What was it like working with your teams to get the stark differences with the two worlds of the film?
Tomm: Yeah, we had an amazing team of artists come on board and they really got all the tricks and the visual language that we developed in the previous movies to another level. And we had a team who were very focused on the forest and then another team focusing on the town, people who were more interesting in printmaking and woodblock prints which are related to the town.
There were also people interested in watercolours and rough pencil drawings for the forest. It was great because a lot of them got to go out around Kilkenny and research around Kilkenny and get some inspiration from the environment. What I thought was nice was there was a workshop atmosphere to it.
It wasn’t just me and Ross dictating orders. There was a sense of people bringing ideas to the table and bringing enthusiasm that even Ross and I might not have had. Having grown up in Kilkenny you get a bit blasé about the beautiful medieval streets. Whenever artists from all over the world come in and bring their enthusiasm and their inspiration to the table it gets us fired up again.
I noticed in the credits there were wolf consultants. Can you speak on that?
Ross: We’re lucky dogs are allowed in so there have been a few dogs present, running around and playing with toys. From big to small, there is one little guy, Dilbert who has the personality of a tiger. Another of the dogs, Hobbes is a beautiful dog who has a lot of wolf characteristics in just their mannerisms. So those were the consultants, we would look to them for their behaviour.
What was it like building the cast of characters, Mebh, Robyn, Bill and the Lord Protector and fitting them into this world?
Tomm: One of the things we like about hand-drawn animation is that you can adapt the characters to their environment and it can be one illustration but all the people in the town have that woodblock print outline to them and the way they are drawn is geometric like the backgrounds. While the people of the forest and the animals of the forest are sketchy and loose but that is part of the design of the characters and then you would have a little bit of influence from the actors, certainly Sean Bean was in our head as we were designing Bill Goodfellowe. However, the great thing about animation is you can design characters who look nothing like the actor. Which is where we come to Simon McBurney who looks nothing like the big and burly Lord Protector.
Ross: And the animators were provided with video reference of the actors delivering their lines. So they could look at little Eva Whittaker for Mebh or Robyn’s actor Honor Kneafsey and try and get some of the visual cues from their performances.
You speak on Eva and Honor. What were they like to work with?
Tomm: Eva didn’t need much direction she is very much a live-action Mebh. She brought such amazing energy. It was kind of crazy for us because we lived with the character of Mebh for such a long time one of the artists did a temporary voice for Mebh, it was a woman pretending to be a child and it was perfect for what we needed but once Eva appeared the character really came to life. When we first met her, she had not even done much acting but by the end, she was showing us what an actor could be.
Ross: What attracted us to her from just the casting tape was her husky voice as if she has been roaring all her life.
Tomm: We had all these tapes for the English girls because we couldn’t meet them in person and a lot of them were talented but once we saw Honor it was amazing. We didn’t know anything about her, but she read in a Northern English accent and we didn’t realise she wasn’t from the North of England, but she did a fantastic job with that. She doesn’t look like Robyn but the way she held herself in such a way that it felt like we were looking at Robyn. It was exciting and I remember showing it to the other artists in the studio and going, “oh my god look at this little girl she is so talented.” Then we Googled her and learned that this young girl had been acting a long time and already at eleven or twelve was a veteran of all these Netflix series’ and feature films and had already worked with Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock and so we thought we were dealing with the Meryll Streep of eleven-year-olds here.
What were the challenges of getting your vision of the world across in the film?
Ross: The wolf vision was one of the bigger visual challenges for us. Tomm and I had an idea that it had to be immersive and it needed to be almost like a roller coaster ride. It had to be something so visually splendid that when Robyn experiences it she can never go back to her normal day to day life in the town. So, it would have to be something unique that would get them to sit up in their seats. We still could not put our finger on what it should be. So, we worked with Eimhin McNamara. He is from Paper Panther Studios in Dublin and they work with a lot of traditional media and are experimental in what they do with animation and so he came down and we collaborated.
We threw around some ideas and he showed us some ideas of what it could be and all three of us came together on a process where he would build the world in VR (virtual reality) and then a camera pre-viz (Previsualization) of that and then print out every frame of that pre-viz camera and then render it in pencil and charcoal. It is like reverse engineering, using the best of technologies to come up with the most traditional basics of media. We have stacks of paper downstairs with full rendered backgrounds and characters in each of them. It is quite impressive, but I think it needed to be for the wolf vision. It really needed to stand out from the rest of the film.
So, what do you think of the reviews coming out from people who have been lucky enough to see Wolfwalkers?
Tomm: It has been wonderful to see all these positive reactions. It is really encouraging because so many artists worked on this movie. We were lucky actually, before the lockdown came in we were able to show Wolfwalkers to about a thousand people, fifty people at a time and that was really worth its weight in gold because the cinema experience can’t be replaced.
Even if people were social distancing, they were still in a cinema immersed in the sound and got to see it on a big screen. That was lovely. Not only that the cast and crew who could make it to Kilkenny came down and that was great. It is a lot better than skimming Twitter for hashtag Wolfwalkers.
Ross: I think if people get the chance to see it at the cinema they should definitely do so.
Tomm: We’re working with Wildcard and even if it’s later in the year we’re still going to make sure it releases in Irish cinemas so that people have the option to see it on the big screen.
Finally, what do you hope audiences get out of Wolfwalkers because as you said it is a timely tale?
Ross: Well there is a strong environmental theme and hopefully when younger audiences watch it, they will realise the importance of preserving wild areas just for the sake of being wild areas not to see a monetary benefit in it.
There’s also the message between Robyn and Mebh in that the person you are told is your enemy and seems like your enemy once you walk in their shoes you might see what bonds you and shows how much you have in common. I think that is needed so much in today’s society of polarisation where you are told to hate the other side so much that even though we should be united.