As co-founder of Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and director of the Oscar-nominated Celtic folktales, “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and “Song of the Sea” (2014), Tomm Moore has become the most prominent hand-drawn creator since Hiyao Miyazaki. His secret weapon: art director and childhood pal Ross Stewart, who ascended to co-director on this year’s “Wolfwalkers,” the final film in their trilogy about preserving Ireland’s cycle of life.
Moore and Stewart immediately hit it off in grade school in Kilkenny (the current home of Cartoon Saloon). That’s when they competed in a draw-off to see who could make the better Batman. When Stewart won, Moore knew instantly that he was an artist to be reckoned with. “He always had a strong sense of graphic design,” Moore said. “We had been friends for so long that it was natural to work together on ‘Secret of Kells.’ We were like Beavis and Butt-Head.”
“What I love about working with Tomm is we share the same visual taste, and if you came up with an interesting idea, he would say to push it further, let’s go as far as we can,” added Stewart, who has been able to leverage his own experience as a painter and fine arts enthusiast to expand the look of their movies. “Tomm would never say an idea was too crazy. He was as energized as I was in pushing animation as far as we could [at Cartoon Saloon].”
After studying animation together in the ‘90s at Ballyfermot College in Dublin, the duo dreamed of one day becoming part of the Studio Ghibli of Ireland, which they’ve accomplished at Cartoon Saloon, partnering with indie distributor GKIDS and Apple TV+ as co-producer of “Wolfwalkers.”
“Ross and I were really into comics and self-published [one] with friends in the ’90s, and the original idea for what was to become ‘The Secret of Kells’ was cooked up around then,” Moore said. “We could never do it as a school project, and, in, the end, we got some financing in 2000 from the Millennium Arts and Culture Project. We were in pre-production for several years until it came together at Cartoon Saloon [as French/Belgian co-production]. It was a crazy journey.”
“Kells” follows 12-year-old Brendan, who lives in an abbey and helps complete the sacred “Book of Kells” — Ireland’s most precious religious artifact — as a defense against the invading Vikings from the north. It’s a coming-of-age story full of mystical forest-set wonders, overcoming oppression, and achieving a liberating sense of individuality and artistry. Moore and Stewart thought it would be exciting to translate that into 2D with a hand-made aesthetic inspired by medieval stories and legends of the period.
The pair got a printed copy made of “The Book of Kells” manuscript from Trinity College, which Stewart studied and applied as the basis of the shape language for the movie, including its emphasis on spirals, which formed Brendan’s cape. They envisioned a pop-up book style of animation, which would carry over throughout the trilogy. But it was important to stay true to the Celtic shapes found in “The Book of Kells” as much as possible; that’s where they found coherence as well as historical accuracy.
And yet they also needed to find a style of their own, and that’s where Stewart excelled. He depicted life in the abbey for Brendan as flat and dull in his drawings, whereas the scenes in the magical forest were colorful and bright, full of dreams and flashbacks. And this contrasted with the darker scenes involving the battle with the Vikings, which had the look of a horror film.
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Stewart, Moore, and their shared body of work, below.
“Looking back on this now, any part that we used technological advances, like putting textures into Photoshop, [seems] rudimentary,” Stewart said. “I think that ages faster than any of the hand-drawn [animation], which is more timeless. Which is why for ‘Wolfwalkers’ we wanted to get inspiration from [the line drawings in] ‘101 Dalmatians’ and films not dependent on technology.”
While Moore took inspiration from classic animation, Stewart offered a more intuitive approach, based on art and nature. “We came to a place where he was able to [work in] where the watercolors and looseness made sense and where the more structured drawing made sense,” added Moore. “I think he brought a broader language outside the animation world into the movie, with texture and color, painting the Irish landscape, quite abstract and quite stylized. It was his personal way of seeing the countryside.”
But the biggest influence was Richard Williams’ “The Thief and the Cobbler,” a complex animated adventure that was in and out of production for three decades. “We were prepared to be studio-ready with the basics of animation, and I think when we saw ‘Thief and the Cobbler,’ it showed there was so much more than what we had learned,” said Stewart. “We tried to get a little of that in ‘Secret of Kells,’ playing with optical illusions in flat 2D space and pushing it out in terms of visual language.”
After “Kells,” Stewart took time off to paint and do visual development on Laika’s second stop-motion movie, “ParaNorman,” helping with a naturalistic roadmap inspired by the Pacific Northwest. This prevented him from art directing Cartoon Saloon’s sophomore movie, “Song of the Sea,” a mash-up of rough pencil design and watercolors about saving the mythical Selkies (half-human and half-seal creatures). But even though Stewart’s protégé, Adrien Merigeau, collaborated with Moore on the period piece, Stewart still found time to consult on the look of its underwater world.
Stewart then got his first chance to co-direct the “On Love” segment of the animated anthology, “Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet,” alongside Moore. “I was busy on ‘Song of the Sea’ and it was a good test run for ‘Wolfwalkers,’ which we were already planning,” said Moore. “It was freer than anything we’d done, and it was a good chance to experiment with [expressive lines and geometric patterns].”
With “Wolfwalkers,” the duo achieved a hand-animated tour de force, building on what they had accomplished in the earlier features while boldly taking it further stylistically. It’s a mystical adventure about saving the hunted wolf population of Kilkenny in the mid-17th century, when Ireland was under the control of Oliver Cromwell (The Lord Protector). English apprentice hunter, Robyn, befriends the free-spirited Mebh, who lives in the forbidden woods outside the Puritan town, and is a member of the mysterious tribe of shapeshifting wolfwalkers.
“Wolves are important to Irish folklore,” Moore said. “They are associated with the countryside and with human transformation. As teenagers, both Ross 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.”
Thus, “Wolfwalkers” provided the perfect opportunity for Moore and Stewart to not only extend their collaboration as co-directors but to also expand their hand-drawn aesthetic. They were both passionate about the empowering story and visual opportunities, which stretched their imaginations and skills. The result: “Wolfwalkers” is their masterpiece of Celtic mythology and the importance of preserving Ireland and its indigenous beauty.
While it took Stewart a couple of weeks to get a better handle on the other departments (including story and layout), his experience as a musician made him adept at giving notes on the score to composers Bruno Coulais and Kila. And Stewart’s maturity as a painter and art director enabled him to achieve more expressive line work.
“Wolfwalkers” became a game-changer for this dynamic duo. The two worlds were divided between the rigid lines associated with the town, and the looser curves of the lush, autumnal forest with large oak trees where Mebh lived. “Very early on, we knew that the town had to represent a cage for Robyn because the Lord Protector had a tight rule over society,” said Stewart. “And so we looked at the old woodblock prints of the 1600s with black lines and aggressive mark making and lots of horizontals and verticals. And it seemed appropriate to merge that into the style of the town. In contrast to that, the forest had to be free and energetic in outlook. The forest had to embody that wild energy that the wolves have.”
“Ross had a very specific vision for making it look like an Irish forest [with orange oak trees and green vegetation behind it],” Moore added. “Even if it’s a scribbly oak tree, he’d show the artists that it had to have a certain shape with the leaves and the bark. It wasn’t an ordinary cartoon tree.”
The boldest innovation, though, was conveying Robyn’s POV when she transforms into a wolfwalker herself. They called this “wolfvision” and it was achieved in collaboration with Irish animator and director Eimhin McNamara of Paper Panther in Dublin. 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.”
“We knew we had to do something really immersive, like a roller coaster ride,” added Stewart. “And it had to be a visual representation of a scent. It was an impossibility, really, but Eimhin has this amazing approach to traditional media, working with oil paint on glass and papercut animation. We treated it like a three-minute short film and his small team handled it [at Cartoon Saloon].”
The early design of the trees and landscapes were done as camera flythroughs in VR, but the final effect was a hyper-real experience that helped Robyn tap into her inner wolf. “She can never go back to the 2D, flat, oppressive, cage-like town,” Stewart said.
Although Moore and Stewart rarely disagreed, there was one heated exchange about Robyn’s falcon companion, Merlyn, that became almost embarrassing. It was the only time that their aesthetics were not in sync. While Moore wanted Merlyn to talk, Stewart found it too distracting, preferring a more realistic bird.
“Tomm had the idea that the Merlyn should be a cartoony sidekick that would have human expressions and be able to communicate with her,” Stewart said. “That seemed totally wrong to me. We live in a world where they’re distinct. I remember for two hours we wouldn’t even talk to each other, and all the people around were like: ‘It’s just a bird.’”
“I wanted Merlyn to have more expressions,” added Moore. “I could see in one sense that you don’t want it to feel like every animal in the movie might be a person who’s transformed into the animal. And [Ross] also had a very specific vision for the bird. I don’t think I would’ve had the same understanding of how those birds move. Their wings are flapping so fast you can barely see their legs. And Ross really brought that to it as well.”
For a while, there was a standoff. They were like an old married couple who had known each other since they were 11. But then, finally, a breakthrough. “We sat down and found a compromise,” Stewart recalled. “Tomm said, ‘Let’s pull back the expressions so they’re not totally cartoony, but let’s give Merlyn the capability to have some [bird-like] expressions.”
It’s the kind of compromise indicative of both the pair’s bond and their individual strengths — Moore as a cartoon geek and Stewart as a naturalistic artist — and how they are better animation filmmakers as a result of that unique partnership. —Bill Desowitz