Tradition and Technology: Inside the Beautifully Hand-Animated “Wolfwalkers”
Computer-generated animation has dominated screens large and small beginning with the debut of Toy Story in 1995.
Since then, studios from Dreamworks, Sony, and Illumination Entertainment, to the recently shuttered Blue Sky, have competed to raise the bar on what can be achieved by manipulating polygons and pixels.
That’s why it’s especially gratifying to see Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon’s most recent hand-drawn release, nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Academy Awards. This marks the fifth time out of five films that the Kilkenny, Ireland-based studio has vied for the Oscar, an achievement in itself.
But just because the film is painstakingly handmade doesn’t mean that they didn’t employ modern tools and technologies as part of their process, and we’re thrilled to call them Frame.io customers.
In this installment of Made in Frame, we were lucky enough to speak with assistant director Mark Mullery and post-production supervisor Alan Slattery, who took us through their process from pencil and paper to production in the cloud.
Inspired by the past
For anyone unfamiliar with their filmography, Wolfwalkers is essentially the third part of Cartoon Saloon’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy.”
Beginning with 2009’s The Secret of Kells, in which a young boy journeys to an enchanted forest to finish a magical book. 2014’s Song of the Sea tells the tale of a brother and his selkie sister on a journey to save the spirit world.
Wolfwalkers is inspired by Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in the mid-1600s, when British forces slaughtered the wolves and deforested the country to build ships. The story follows a wolf-hunter’s daughter who meets a young girl named Mebh, part of a magical tribe that turns into wolves at night to protect the forest.
Wolfwalkers co-directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, who have been friends since age 11 and were both part of a program called Young Irish Film Makers in Kilkenny, are passionate about animal rights and environmentalism. Their recent short film for Greenpeace, There’s a Monster in my Kitchen, won a 2021 Annie Award for Best Sponsored content.
All three films share themes about man’s disconnection from the natural world, the destruction we cause by treating native species as our enemies—and the harmony we can achieve by embracing them and treating our planet with care and respect.
A lengthy process
An animated film, no matter the medium, is a lengthy process.
Before the first frame of animation even goes into production, there has to be a script. From the script, a storyboard is created with drawings of key frames, and that gets turned into an animatic, which is essentially the storyboard frames edited together and placed against a “scratch” voice track for timings—the animation equivalent of a first assembly on a live-action project.
The key creative team hones the animatic iteratively, revising for plot and story beats. It’s the stage at which the directors can feel free to experiment, and there are typically numerous rounds and revisions that take place over the course of many months.
“From conception to delivery was a very long time, as it always is,” says Mark Mullery.
“But from the beginning of storyboarding to the end of compositing, color grading, and sound was only about three and a half years, and what we consider the core of production, from layout to the end of compositing, was just over 18 months.”
Working on Avid, Mark guesses that they had more than a dozen different story cuts over the course of the two years they spent prior to commencing animation production.
It’s also the time during which the team finalizes casting and records the voice performances to create a fleshed-out animatic that serves as the road map for production, a kind of visual script.
Look development for characters and environments takes place during the pre-production period, as well, when everything from the line quality to the color palette to the materials they’ll use to achieve the desired aesthetic is established.
Only once all of that is set and the animatic is locked do they proceed to creating the actual painted backgrounds and animation.
When you consider that Cartoon Saloon’s animations typically require at least 12 drawings to be completed for every second of screen time, the fact that a crew of fewer than 150 people took 18 months to complete production is incredibly brisk.
A timeless quality
One of the reasons Cartoon Saloon remains so committed to hand-drawn animation is to give the stories a sense of timelessness.
Citing the traditionally animated films from Disney in the 1940s and the masterful Hayao Myazaki of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle,and so many others), Tomm Moore has said that he tries to imbue his films with a beauty that remains unique no matter when it’s viewed.
Although the stories draw from the past, they are relevant in the present—and remain so for the future.
Unlike the frantic pace so common in mainstream animated movies since the 1990s, the Cartoon Saloon films are more lyrical.
They’re also visually distinctive, calling back to Celtic artwork and runes, and inspired by the landscape surrounding Kilkenny, according to Ross Stewart, who uses these same elements in his fine art.
Mark says that in Wolfwalkers, even more than in the previous two films in the series, they “embraced the hand-drawn, hand-painted, and physical media.”
Describing the references that established the film’s richly beautiful aesthetic, he says, “Fairly early on, the squareness and boxiness of the town [of Kilkenny] lent itself to the art of woodcut prints, which was a contemporary practice in 17th-century Europe.”
Once that was established, the wildness of the forest made a lot of sense as pencil, charcoal, and watercolors which, again, were a practice in medieval Europe.”
He cites the watercolor studies of Albrecht Dürer’s Young Hare as an example of the way the choice of materials contributes to the viewer’s experience of the environment—in this case, one of organic motion when they’re in the forest setting.
It’s important to understand that in computer-generated animation, both 2D and 3D, there are all sorts of effects that can be easily applied with a keystroke—motion blur, parallax, or filters can all be added to the clean characters or to background plates.
To some degree, that’s possible in the compositing process of hand-drawn animation, but the more it’s built into the character and background design from the beginning, the more authentic to the directors’ and designers’ vision the final product will be.
Think, for example, of the intricate details in the stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs, where they created elaborate sets with hand-crafted tufts of cotton or wool to look like smoke. Every scene required compositing at the end, but the minute details that brought it to life were baked into every frame as it was captured.
It’s the same kind of production ethos in Wolfwalkers.
Describing the textural choices, Mark says, “The natural offsetting that happens when printing in multiple colors using wood was employed as an analogue of optical focus or of the kind of chromatic aberration seen in older lenses. It was also used as a form of motion blur on the characters by creating pseudo ‘smears’ and ‘multiples,’ motion techniques that date back to commercial animation in the early 20th century.”
It’s also noteworthy that in Wolfwalkers, the team made a conscious decision to keep the pencil and charcoal under-drawings of the wolf characters and the forest in the final animation.
The rough, bold, sweeping lines provide a contrast from the boxier, more structured town and its characters, all of which helps the viewer more viscerally experience the magic and mystery of the forest and its creatures.
“In a sense, we did it to honor the act of drawing itself, but it also resonates with a technique known as xerography developed in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Instead of cleanly painting character lines onto fresh animation cels, the rough character pencil drawings were directly photocopied onto the same cels,” Mark explains. “The first film to harness this process was Disney’s 101 Dalmations, which was a strong visual inspiration on Wolfwalkers.”
The backgrounds were produced on A3 and A4-sized paper with markers, charcoal, and pencil for the linework, and they used thicker watercolor paper for the paint. But, before creating the physical media, the team actually sketched the backgrounds out digitally in Photoshop.
The character animation was primarily produced in TVPaint, a raster-based hand-drawn animation software that Mark describes as “like Photoshop for animation.” They also used Moho, a vector-based animation software for secondary animation.
During production, Alan Slattery was responsible for updating the six reels of the film with the latest versions of each scene from a list of overnight renders. “Each morning, I assembled the reels exported from Media Composer into Final Cut Pro, then shared the assembly with the directors through Frame.io,” he says.
“They were able to watch the edit right away on their computers or on their iOS devices or Apple TV, and send notes and comments back right away so I was able to immediately get to work as each comment appeared. As we got further into production, we were able to upload sound design reels, allowing Ross and Tomm to leave notes for the sound design team in Paris prior to the final mix.”
The COVID pandemic arrived later in the production, after the physical elements had already been completed. The team, used to working in-house at the Kilkenny studio and at their co-production facility, Mélusine/Studio 352, quickly pivoted to a distributed work-from-home model.
The artists used a combination of file transfers, and screen-sharing or remote-accessing the more powerful workstations at the studio from their homes.
The team had only recently started using Frame.io prior to COVID, but once the team was distributed they relied more heavily on it.
“Using Frame.io meant we could hit the ground running once we were working at home.”
“This was the first time we really used it to its full potential,” Alan says.
“Logistically, using Frame.io meant we could hit the ground running once we were working at home. Unlike traditional edit sessions where we were all in the same room, editing this way meant the directors could watch through the assembly at the same time I was making revisions instead of waiting for me to finish one and press play again. That made edit sessions very quick, giving me more time to make changes and the directors more time to work with other departments.”
This method of using Frame.io has solved several problems for the team.
The first was that they needed a way of securely sharing the work, and the ease of assigning access and permissions allowed them to keep control over who could view, share, or download specific assets.
“We could watermark, set time limits, or disable access at the click of a switch,” Alan says.
But even beyond what they needed for working remotely, Alan thinks Frame.io actually made the process itself more fluid.
“Before Frame.io, comments were generally delivered on spreadsheets with timecodes that didn’t always match up. Editing meant referencing printouts and QuickTime movies, while double-checking that you did, in fact, have the correct and most up-to-date version of each.”
Awards and rewards
Wolfwalkers marked Apple TV+’s first foray into animation production, and Cartoon Saloon is already in the planning stages of a new feature-quality 12-episode series for them.
As the studio takes on increasingly ambitious hand-drawn projects with distributed teams, like co-founder-director Nora Twomey’s next feature, My Father’s Dragon, Alan believes that Frame.io will continue to be a valuable part of the workflow even after artists go back to work at the studio.
Brushes down as last week was my last day helping design Nora Towney’s @nora877 next feature, My Father’s Dragon. Had the privilege to work with the genius team at @CartoonSaloon in Kilkenny in this beautiful film. Coming to @netflix soon! pic.twitter.com/gUfPisRLVQ— Almu Redondo (@AlmudenaRedondo) March 12, 2020
“We’ve started using it on other productions and it will still play an integral part of the editorial and post-production process,” he says.
Throughout the lead-up to the Academy Awards, during which Cartoon Saloon took home five Annie Awards for Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore has said that whether they win the Oscar is unimportant.
What seems to matter to him and his partners at Cartoon Saloon is producing beautiful work that reflects their values and allows them to share meaningful stories that transcend time.
And that’s the kind of reward we at Frame.io value.