With director Sergio Pablos’ “Klaus” (Netflix), the innovative 2D Santa origin story, Annie-nominated production designers Szymon Biernacki and Marcin Jakubowski achieved a unique retro look, channeling Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” but looking forward instead of back.
“Our mission was to revive 2D animation and make it relevant again for audiences,” said Jakubowski, who filled in the gap with new tracking software for volumetric lighting and texturing around characters to make them stand out more in the environments. “But we had to operate within the broad appeal visual language that we are all used to. We couldn’t get too experimental.”
Disney is in Pablos’ DNA: he worked on “Tarzan” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the ’90s. “But our inspiration was Eyvind Earle with his backgrounds from ‘Sleeping Beauty,'” said Jakubowski, “and also his personal work, including the Christmas postcards. It looks like Scandinavia in winter and also he just nailed the setting so well with a simplified philosophy of approaching nature and shapes and objects.”
In “Klaus,” the dark and hateful Scandinavian town of Smeerensburg is comprised of triangles and hard edges typical of the region. “We felt that we could take advantage of those pointy shapes in an aggressive way,” added Biernacki. “It’s hostile. Whenever you touch a corner, you might hurt yourself. It’s not a pleasant place to live. And the color palette was desaturated. It’s almost black-and-white, very misty, light is diffused and eerie, almost like a horror movie. We thought of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ And there was green light suggesting a sickness in the town.”
By contrast, the deep-wood forest inhabited by hermit woodsman Klaus (J.K. Simmons), who eventually becomes Santa as part of the town’s salvation, is colorful, warm, and inviting. And so is his cottage filled with toys. “His house is fully integrated into the place,” said Jakubowski. “You can also tell by the volume of the shapes that everything is very chunky. It has thick columns and a very stable foundation. The center of gravity is always very low.”
But, as the kids turn from naughty to nice and help to revive the town to get their toys, the shape language and color palette slowly begin to change. The houses look less aggressive, there’s a return of sunlight and natural light. This culminates with the first Christmas: Not quite Dickensian, but bright and cheerful. And that’s where the new software came in handy as part of a fully integrated pipeline. “Suddenly, we had all these tools that we could apply to character entrances and to the environments,” Jakubowski said. “We could play with the light and deliver any mood we wanted.”
“We could have a character coming out of total darkness,” said Biernacki. Indeed, that’s why they referenced “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” for inspiration. They even looked at a desert scene from “Breaking Bad” to compare their conniving Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White.
“There was never something that we felt we couldn’t do creatively,” Biernacki added. “We could achieve any mood. That opened up the possibilities to us in terms of storytelling.”