For directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, their hand-drawn “Wolfwalkers” Irish folktale demanded something special to convey the POV of running with the wolves. That’s because Wolfwalkers are humans that possess a spiritual connection with the wolves and roam among them at night as avatars. And Wolfvision, according to Moore, was “an attempt to show how the world appears to [Robyn, the protagonist], with a limited palette but heightened colors and expressive styles for scents and sounds.”
But because this type of bold experimentation required greater stylization and 3D augmentation than they were accustomed to, the directors tapped an outside the box specialist to supervise the three-minute Wolfvision footage: Eimhin McNamara, owner of the Paper Panther studio in Dublin. “We had absolutely no idea of what the finished look would be,” added Stewart. “But we knew that we had to have something really immersive and almost like a roller coaster ride so that when the audience are watching it, the people go, ‘Oh, wow, what the hell is this?”
McNamara came to Kilkenny to work with the Cartoon Saloon animators. They previsualized the action in 3D and used VR to plan the camera fly-throughs in the medieval town and lush forest. They printed out the 3D models and the fly-throughs frame by frame, and re-animated it all on paper with charcoal and pencil to match the same hand-made quality as the rest of the movie. It was a very time-consuming and iterative process, which took six months to test and more than two years to complete.
“They wanted to capitalize on the heightened sense of smell that a wolf has,” said McNamara. “But how to visualize that? Wolves view a limited spectrum through sight, so we would see smells in color and the rest of the background as [more monochromatic]. We decided to have a glowing scent trail weaving through the forest or town that characters follow, represented by [tubes of] colors: yellow, gold, or frozen blue.” Then he’d hand-draw on top of that. “For the scent itself, we had ground rules, normally about three strands that weave around each other, and I color-coded those in 3D. To make it more dimensional, the overlapping parts were darker. It was almost Cubist.”
McNamara used the Blender 3D software, which offered a beta version of a new 2D workspace that proved beneficial. This helped blend in with the overall hand-drawn aesthetic. Blender’s grease pencil function allowed him to establish camera angles and to draw on top of the models from other artists. Creating a flow through the forest, though, was most important, and McNamara devised a tunnel effect to reinforce that, enhanced by the use of motion-blur.
“The first time we see Wolfvision is when Robyn has her hand out and looks up at her friend Mebh,” McNamara continued. “We used an existing background and integrated 3D into 2D. But there were design quirks because it was so flat, we built up the line work and made it look more illustrative. For Robyn’s dream sequence where she meets herself at the end of the tunnel of trees, it’s like an awakening. The shade of the forest was more abstract and the color was slightly faded. And the camera style was different. The idea was like ‘Evil Dead’ where Sam Raimi strapped the camera to plywood and ran through the woods. That made it seem more surreal.”
The soldiers being knocked down by wolves in the fire was one of last shots they finished, requiring several layers of compositing. “I think the novelty of the paper animation is you forget how much an administrative burden it is,” McNamara said. “There were stacks of papers to be scanned and combined as a big sandwich of drawn paper layers.
Looking back, McNamara is amazed how Wolfvision came together. “I still think it’s a bit bonkers that they let me do it, considering how long it took and how resource heavy it was. It’s an achievement and we survived.”
Yet Moore said the sequence was vital to completing Robyn’s character arc. “It’s symbolic that if you can see the world from someone else’s point of view, there’s so much more that you can understand and appreciate,” he added. It’s something that 2D animation can do well and you just accept it.”