The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Wolfwalkers.
It is obvious from the first frame that a tremendous amount of work went into this film, even by the high standards of feature animation. Can you discuss the seven year process?
Tomm Moore: The story development went hand in hand with the art development. Ross and I have known each other since we were eleven years old, and we had worked together before— he was the art director on The Secret of Kells. So we already had a visual language that we knew we wanted to explore further. Right from the beginning of the story development, there was a lot of art development too. A lot of stuff didn’t end up in the movie of course, but yeah, it’s definitely the most ambitious thing in terms of purely “pencil mileage” that our studio has ever done. We have sequences in there, like wolf vision, where every frame is a full background rendered on a page. But that wasn’t the focal point. I mean, we knew we wanted to do that, but we also knew we needed a story to justify that. And those ideas, those visual ideas, are all linked to story ideas. We didn’t just want it to be a neat collection of cool images. We wanted all the images to help tell the story and to bring an emotional aspect to the film. The themes were very important to us too. Friendship across borders, environmentalism, the warning about having a colonial mindset… We wanted to bury them deep enough to where they didn’t feel didactic, but we also wanted to make them integral to the story. So we had to keep reworking and reworking to make sure that the story focused on the two girls, Robyn and Mebh, and their points of view, because we kept getting lost in our own middle aged man fascination with the dad character, and the historical context and so forth. We went off on a lot of tangents!
hand drawn animation could and should be more expressive, more experimental
The visual language of the film is totally enthralling. There’s an energy and a sketchiness to the art that feels totally brave and unique.
TM: I’ve been moaning for years that photorealism is a bit of a dead end, and now that CG has achieved it, I think it’s free to go in all different directions! That’s why it’s so exciting to see things like I lost my Body, or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, and those kind of movies coming out. But for us, as hand drawn animators, it has been my manifesto for a long time that hand drawn animation could and should be more expressive, more experimental… be more like what happened to painting when photography came out (and we got expressionism and impressionism), and this is my thing that I was talking about back when Song of the Sea came out, and that same year, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya came out and kinda kicked me in the pants! Because it went even further than what I was talking about. I saw it and I thought, “wow, now those are drawings on screen,” and drawings that are expressive. So I felt that [Isao] Takahata had kind of thrown down the gauntlet to other hand drawn animators, sort of saying, “step it up! You can go farther.” And that was sort of the starting point for Ross and I. We looked at that, and particularly some sequences in that, and said to ourselves, “how can we get that energy onto the screen?” I’ve known Ross for a long time, and one of the things I’ve always loved about his work is that it has an energy and an organic vibrancy that isn’t going on with photorealism. We’ve had a little bit of that in our films from time to time, but let’s see how far we can go with that and really challenge the audience with Wolfwalkers.
Ross Stewart: Tomm and I have always been inspired by the visuals of short films. Short films frequently try to be visually much braver than feature films just because of the nature of making a huge production that involves hundreds of people. Trying to get everyone on the same style for a feature almost forces you to dumb down the art direction a little bit; you can’t afford to be as brave with the choices. And also there’s this fear that maybe over the course of ninety minutes, people might just get sick of a style that is really really far out there. So I think, in our younger days, we kind of maybe erred on the side of caution a little bit more. But for Wolfwalkers, I think especially after seeing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and saying, “well, there’s a feature film that has rough sketchy lines and expressive lines the whole way through,” and it doesn’t bother or bug the audience, people don’t come out of the cinema saying, “yeah I wish the lines were a little bit tighter and a little more precise than that.” So it just shows how far you can go, and I actually think you can go much farther than we did in Wolfwalkers! Maybe the next one will be super expressive. I think we were always wary of concept art being really really energetic and really exciting, and then that also getting dumbed-down, so that what’s in the finished film is sometimes a little bit less than what’s in the concept art. And this time, we tried to make sure the energy and creativity of the concept art stayed through the entire finished film.
There’s something about animation that allows for a more intense connection to the story and emotion, in spite of the fact that on some level, it’s more abstract than living actors on a physical set.
TM: It’s George Clooney all the way through! You don’t remember the character’s name, you just say, “oh George Clooney fell in love with Scarlett Johansson.” Scott McCloud talks about it in his book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” actually. He talks about Japanese animation and how it features very simple character design and very lush backgrounds, and by so doing it creates a kind of masking effect where you kind of get lost in the character. They’re like emojis or something: they’re very simple representations, and so they’re more universal in that way. It’s a very interesting theory, and even if it’s not 100% right, it’s very interesting to me anyway.
RS: I’ve often thought that. The veil doesn’t drop in the same way in animation. For example in The Simpsons, Homer is always that character. There’s no question of you thinking, “oh, that actor I know is playing that idiot.” Homer Simpson only exists as Homer Simpson. And I think that’s why everybody found him so funny. If it was an actor playing that, then I don’t think it would have worked.
TM: I’m a bit contrary sometimes. I love lowbrow art that’s actually kind of sophisticated. I love tatoo art, for example. Not everything is sailor Jerry, there’s some really interesting stuff, but generally people look down on tattoo art, and that kind of makes me like it more. And the same with comics and cartoons: I kind of love that we have this little niche where we can be really creative and we’re kind of away from the scrutiny of the “serious filmmakers,” you know what I mean? I don’t feel like we need to be “as good as,” I think we’re already way ahead and they just haven’t realized it yet.