Since releasing its debut film “The Secret of Kells” in 2009, Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has been proudly waving the flag of hand-drawn animation at a time when feature films have largely dwelled in the world of computers. With their fourth film, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, along with their team of animators, pushed their skills to the limit to create one of the most beautiful animated scenes of 2020.
“Wolfwalkers,” which is now nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, tells the story of Robyn, an English girl in the 16th century who moves with her father to the Irish city of Kilkenny, which is now under England’s control. Her father has been tasked to hunt wolves in the nearby forests so that the land can be razed for farming, but everything changes when Robyn encounters Mebh, a wild Irish girl with the ability to turn into a wolf when she sleeps. When those powers accidentally shift over to Robyn, she experiences freedom — and danger — unlike anything she’s ever known.
Moore and Stewart spoke with TheWrap about the inspiration behind “Wolfwalkers” and what it took to make the highlight of the film: Robyn’s first run as a wolf. Moore said the scene involved more complex techniques than anything Cartoon Saloon had ever attempted.
“It really was Ross and I trying to guide some of our most talented artists in our team for really going up to 11 in terms of all the tricks and ideas that we had on the visual language side,” Moore said. “It includes some of those wolf vision shots… and I know that in CG animation we’re used to that, but in hand-drawn, it’s a crazy undertaking. You have to draw each tree and each branch and each leaf on each branch getting closer. Drawing a scene like that is a mammoth task.”
Stewart also said they got help animating the wolves Robyn and Mebh run with, as it took painstaking work to draw the pack as an almost singular, fluid entity while also keeping the details of each individual wolf visible.
“Even early on we had an idea that the wolves would move almost like a liquid,” he explained. “We had one of our main animation artists Federico Pirovano do an animation test with the updated characters, and there was one test where the wolves were squirming around like a bunch of worms… and they moved so much like a liquid that we realized that we have to draw them like one big mass. But the individual animators have to be aware of legs popping out and structure and things like that, so there’s a fine balance to get.”
The conflict between civilization and nature is one that Moore and Stewart were inspired to put at the core of “Wolfwalkers” because of the escalating climate crisis, but it also comes from Ireland’s own history with wolves. While Robyn and Mebh help their pack escape the clutches of those who would hunt them, history shows that wolves haven’t been seen in Ireland for over 250 years. In recent years, the country’s Green Party — of which Moore is a member — has pushed for various rewilding programs in Ireland, including a proposed reintroduction of wolves similar to the successful project performed in Yellowstone National Park back in 1995.
Moore and Stewart haven’t had a chance to screen “Wolfwalkers” to an in-person audience due to the pandemic, but over the course of making the film, they’ve felt a shift in Ireland in terms of its people’s connection to nature.
“Our national forestry program has started up a new initiative where they’re going to try to get people invested in growing new forest that’s just left alone,” Moore said. “I think that’s healing the biodiversity program. What’s been choking the environmental movement is that everything had to be quantified, that we had to convince people that it’s worth saving the environment because it’s worth ‘X’ amount of money. There’s a spiritual and cultural shift towards believing that nature is worth protecting just for itself… and I hope that kind of discussion is advanced by films like ‘Wolfwalkers.'”
“Wolfwalkers” is now available to stream on Apple TV+. Watch Moore and Stewart’s remarks in the clip here and above.