Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn “Wolfwalkers,” one of the most eagerly anticipated animated features of the year, from Oscar-nominated Irish director Tomm Moore (“Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells”), was quick to set up its artists remotely to work from home when Covid-19 hit last month. In fact, the Kilkenny-based studio mobilized about three weeks before the lockdown. As a result, Moore’s folkloric adventure about two young girls saving the hunted wolf population of Kilkenny in the mid-1600s will make its fall release (streamed on Apple TV+, but GKids, the usual distributor, has not yet been confirmed for theatrical).
“We were almost done with the hand-drawn animation when we had to begin working from home,” said Moore, who co-directs the final entry in his Celtic trilogy with art director Ross Stewart. “The last clean up scenes were done in Luxembourg [at Studio 352 ] the week we were first working from home, and the Kilkenny team was down to a skeleton crew finishing SFX and clean up animation.”
They first moved to safe social distancing measures in the studio and then to working from home after figuring out the individual needs of its animators. Those already with decent internet plans were fine, while others moved into crew houses until they had good internet and remote access to the servers. The biggest problem was home internet bandwidth (including Moore’s), so the compositing team was the last to leave the studio with all of the heavy uploading of files needed. But, thanks to Cartoon Saloon’s IT and administration teams, they hardly lost any time.
“Certainly VPN solutions needed to be installed where needed,” added Moore. “However, we are already very used to co-production scenarios with partner studios across Europe, and ‘Wolfwalkers’ was no different. We had been using Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom to work with our teams in France and Luxembourg since the beginning of the production… though we preferred to have the main crew all together in house. This was just an extension of the ways of working we had been using for many years now due to the spread out nature of European co-productions.”
So far, they’ve been lucky with none of the Cartoon Saloon artists reporting any coronavirus symptoms. Yet one of the sound designers in Paris had the virus and has since recovered. Overall, though, they’ve been fortunate in post, particularly with the score from go-to composer Bruno Coulais. “The orchestra in Sofia was recorded in January, and, in February, we recorded with the Irish Band Kila in Ireland,” Moore said. “And there are two songs, which were recorded before the lockdown, but the singers recorded the final version of their vocals from home.”
“Wolfwalkers” represents a significant advancement for Moore, who has a keen interest in humanity’s sensitive connection to nature. Robyn, a young apprentice hunter, comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last wolf pack. But when she saves a wild native girl, Mebh, Robyn begins to understand the unique importance of the Wolfwalkers. “As an animal rights advocate, I feel the current crisis is largely from a broken and out of kilter attitude we, as a global society, have developed towards animals, and ‘Wolfwalkers’ speaks to that at a certain level,” he said.
Moore developed the story with Stewart, who previously co-directed the section “On Love” for “The Prophet” feature. They based it on themes that have inspired them since they were teens growing up in Kilkenny. The visual style is quite ambitious, though, allowing them to “use the full bandwidth of the hand-drawn animation potential, creating a block print style environment for the townspeople and a contrasting pencil and watercolor style for the forest.
“In addition, we worked with Irish animator and director Eimhinn McNamara to create a style for when we see the world through the eyes of the Wolfwalkers,” Moore said, “a sort of attempt to show how the world appears to wolves, with a limited palette but heightened colors and expressive styles for scents and sounds. This final style uses a much more three-dimensional camera than our previous projects, but is rendered with charcoal on paper to create a very handmade effect.”
The character clean up line is also more detailed here than in previous Moore films, “with the final line animators using much more expressive line work to show various emotions and character development, as our heroine, Robyn, moves between the worlds of the movie,” he said.