With “Wolfwalkers,” Cartoon Saloon has achieved a hand-animated tour de force in completing its Irish folklore trilogy, led by Oscar-nominated director Tomm Moore (“Song of the Sea,” “The Secret of Kells”) and art director-turned director Ross Stewart. The mystical adventure about two young girls saving the hunted wolf population of Kilkenny (home of Cartoon Saloon) in the mid-17th century offers a compelling story about female empowerment and animal rights, told with a bold visual aesthetic. The Oscar contender from Apple makes its North American premiere at TIFF this Saturday followed by a theatrical run by GKids and streaming on Apple TV+ later this year.
“Wolves are important to Irish folklore,” Moore said. “They are associated with the countryside and with human transformation. As teenagers, both Scott and I were familiar with a story of the wolf people of Ossory. We borrowed [some of that mythology] but took our own artistic license. The wolf was seen as a person and a partner, an apex predator, rather than a monster, that we had to fight against, and that was really inspiring to us.”
“And, when we were doing the research, we came across so many old myths involving wolves, and in most of them, the wolves were seen as these wise creatures, that if you were fair to them, they would help you back,” added Stewart.
In “Wolfwalkers,” a young English apprentice hunter, Robyn Goodfellowe, helps her father (voiced by Sean Bean) to wipe out the last wolf pack. However, exploring the forbidden woods outside the Puritan town, Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh, a member of a mysterious tribe rumored to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As they search for Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn uncovers a secret that draws her further into the enchanted world of the Wolfwalkers.
Moore had great ambitions and twice the budget on “Wolfwalkers,” and he entrusted more responsibility to Stewart after his enormous visual contributions to “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells.” This was important in designing the two contrasting worlds of the town (rigid line work) and forest (warm curves), which carried over into the character designs as well. Whereas Robyn, Mebh, and the wolves are drawn as round and loose, Robyn’s father and the rest of the townspeople are more solid and square.
“It made sense for the Puritan world to be based on the artwork that they were creating at that time, which was printed texts with art illustration and they were done in wood cuts a lot of the time,” Moore said. “And it was very rough because wood cuts generally have this aggressive line: very sharp and very angular marking with big, solid colors underneath. And sometimes they’d be offset from the mark making.”
And against that, for the forest, they wanted a freer look that wasn’t as controlled. It made sense to sketch in pencil the wild land of the Wolfwalkers with loose, energetic curves. “And even in the compositions, they would flow into the scene and flow out, not so angular and blocked off,” added Moore. “It wouldn’t be like a cage, which the town was for Robyn. And then, even in the coloring, it made sense for [the forest] to be loose watercolor painting and very organic.”
Stewart also wanted the forest to reflect the authenticity of Ireland, with the orange of the oak trees weaving into the lush, green vegetation deeper inside. “The forest has to embody that wild energy that the wolves have,” he said. “It’s more rounded and softer in shapes versus the town, which was hard, woodblock geometry. We also did a lot of art direction notes for final line and color background scenes, like squaring off the compositions if you’re in the town or having flowing, curved lines if you’re in the forest.”
The boldest decision of all was creating the POV of the Wolfwalkers (wolfvision) in collaboration with Irish animator and director Eimhin McNamara. Wolfwalkers are people 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 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.”
The team planned the action in previs and built environments in VR, said Stewart, “and then would print out the 3D model and the fly through frame by frame and use that as reference, and re-animate it all on paper with charcoal and pencil, so the final look is hand-made. But we got there by using computer technology that we’d never used before.”
At the same time, compositing was able to bring more atmospheric perspective and cinematic techniques to get a sense of depth. Even in the backgrounds, the fine line departments used pencils and markers and ink all the way through and scanning their finished artwork. “From the early concepts, Tomm and I wanted the wolfvision to be a roller coaster ride,” Stewart said. “And because it concentrated on sensory perception, we made the regular world look monochromatic, and their senses were glowing and phosphorescent.”
“From a story point of view, you rediscover the world as a Wolfwalker,” added Moore. “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. It’s something that 2D animation can do well and you just accept, like Miyazaki’s work.”