“Despicable Me” creator Sergio Pablos struggled to make a 2D Santa origin story, “Klaus,” for nearly a decade at his animation studio in Madrid. And the animation community has cheered him on (including influential Academy members) for trying to reinvigorate the hand-drawn technique with a modern, digital veneer. But, after being turned down by Hollywood studios, Netflix came to the rescue to produce Pablos’ pet project, which opens theatrically this weekend for Oscar qualification before streaming November 15.
“The sticking point, to my surprise, wasn’t 2D but Christmas,” Pablos said. “The studios kept saying, ‘We’re going to be up against whatever Disney has.'” Not to mention the Christmas movie curse associated with such flops as Aardman/Sony’s “Arthur Christmas” and DreamWorks’ “Rise of the Guardians” (featuring Alec Baldwin’s Santa). But Pablos persevered, honing his bittersweet Santa saga as an anti-hate story, and taking hand-drawn animation into the 21st century with volumetric lighting and texturing via new tracking software from his SPA Studios.
Spoiled and lazy Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) gets exiled by his father to a frozen Scandinavian town above the Arctic circle to start a post office, where he steps in the middle of two feuding clans. But, with the aid of hermit carpenter, Klaus (J.K. Simmons), and school teacher, Alva (Rashida Jones), Jesper entices the bratty kids to mail letters to receive toys and the Santa legend takes hold.
“What appealed to me was the idea of Santa as a symbol of altruism,” Pablos said. “But I needed someone to learn that lesson with Klaus serving as a catalyst. So the selfish Jesper [who only wants to mail his quota of letters to return home] learns about the value of giving and the children start a chain reaction of kindness.”
Pablos took it further by adding the theme of diversity through the indigenous Sami Scandinavians. “They are ethnically different from the rest of the Scandinavian people, who are overcoming prejudice too,” he said. “We worked with the Reindeer Sami, who catch and release the whole herd every year. That’s their mode of living for centuries. And we could see a very clear relationship between their outfit and Santa’s outfit and that became part of the origin story.”
Jesper even befriends a sweet girl, voiced by a Sami, who held her own with Schwartzman.
Visually, the initial plan was to create a CG world populated with 2D characters. But that was quickly abandoned by Pablos, who relied on his team to create a retro storybook look with clever integration of 2D and CG (Pablos worked on Disney’s “Tarzan” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the ’90s). “I didn’t need to do elaborate camera work and the hurdle of translating the artwork into CG wasn’t worth it,” he said. “We decided to paint the backgrounds and whenever we needed camera freedom, we could do camera projection, which gives the impression of 3D space, or build a 3D set and paint all the textures by hand.”
The hand-crafted look fittingly resembled the wood-carved toys built by Klaus, as the animators found a fresh way to demolish the technical limitations of traditional animation. “It became clear that we had two major areas to improve on,” Pablos added: “Using complex lighting as a storytelling tool, and making sure that both characters and backgrounds were fully integrated in a cohesive style, which have both been historical hurdles for traditional animation.”
The effect is similar to what Laika has achieved with stop-motion: a modern/retro balance that still manages to be tactile and faithful to its technique. “If we did our job right,” Pablos said, “you’ll feel like every frame is a hand-drawn painting in motion, where every element is perfectly integrated and bathed in beautiful light, with the charm that only the imperfection of the human hand can produce.”
And if he can help usher in a new wave of 2D in Hollywood, all the better. “We were missing a mainstream, high-end option for audiences seeking 2D animation,” Pablos said. “I don’t understand the distinction between family films and adult films. I feel there’s a lot in the middle that we’re not doing.”
Certainly Netflix seems open to the idea as part of its new, diverse, auteur-driven animation slate with broad demographic appeal. The Animation Is Film Festival winner, “I Lost My Body,” gets a theatrical release November 15, while next year includes Glen Keane’s CG musical adventure, “Over the Moon,” from China’s Pearl Studio. Guillermo del Toro’s R-rated, stop-motion “Pinocchio” arrives in 2021.
“Little studios are getting a chance to make their films and some diamonds are going to come out with all that talent,” added Pablos. “I couldn’t be more excited. Animation fluctuates and we’re riding a wave now. And I’m hoping it lasts and we can continue pushing the envelope.”