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‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’ Returns to its Fairy-Tale Illustration Roots

For Production Designer Nate Wragg, the daredevil feline star and supporting characters of DreamWorks Animation’s new 3DCG comedy adventure, launching today in theaters, sport more exciting, painterly looks that draw heavily from their illustrated origins.

From his theatrical debut in 2004’s Shrek 2, to his latest appearance in the six-season TV series The Adventures of Puss in Boots (2015-2018), DreamWorks Animation’s daredevil feline has maintained the same 3DCG animated look for over 15 years. But, in his latest film, Puss gets primped and pampered in newly designed painterly strokes. 

A sequel to the studio’s 2011 Puss in Boots, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, produced by DreamWorks Animation, finds the usually fearless hero at a somber point in his life. Puss is down to his last life, having spent the other eight running wild with perilous adventures, facing worthy adversaries. But now, the fearful feline has checked into Mama Luna’s – essentially a hospice for cats – believing he’s conquered his last foe… until he learns there’s a chance to regain his nine lives and embarks on an epic adventure.

The film, directed by Joel Crawford (The Croods: A New Age) and produced by Mark Swift (The Croods: A New Age), releases in theaters today, Wednesday, December 21.

“The biggest opportunity we were looking for was to just breathe a little bit of new life into the franchise, into the character, and give the audience a more fairy tale-driven experience,” says Nate Wragg, the film’s production designer. “We've done the hyper-realistic approach in CG films plenty of times. Every studio has. Now, I think audiences are looking for new opportunities and new visuals versus just going back to what we've already seen.”

“What's been exciting about this movie is we've taken it to a more emotional and dangerous space for Puss,” Wragg continues. “We've expanded on what his character has to deal with, outside of the comedy and the adventure. That's been one of the things that's been exciting and unique about this experience versus the first one. But both have been great because the character is just a ton of fun to spend time with.”

Wragg returns to tackle Puss for the first time since working in the animation department on the first film. After over a decade away, he says having a new kind of design sandbox to play in with character design, coloring, and environments was an exciting change of pace and a way to add more depth to the story.

“With this movie, we didn’t want to just do any new look,” explains Wragg. “We wanted to make sure it was grounded in something that actually mattered for the character. And so, we took it back to his roots as a character born out of fairy tale stories and illustrations and thought, rather than just doing the realistic thing, let's start with fairy tale illustrations and bring it into a contemporary space by using contemporary tools for digital painting rather than a classic oil painting or an acrylic. That helped us feel like we were crafting a contemporary fairy tale, both in story and in visuals.”

Instead of the usual 3DCG look that Shrek characters have become known for, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish enjoys a modern fairytale, comic book-like feel, where colors are brighter and edges are harder, but with the satisfying textures and fluid feline movements still intact. However, the new look was still achieved with the same production pipeline used on the original film. 

“It’s all the same software, but our animation rigs and our models can be incredibly detailed and complex now, which allows the characters to feel really sophisticated in their movement and in their look on screen,” he shares. “However, in order for us to get this painterly feeling onto objects, whether that’s a more illustrated look to Puss’ fur, or materials on objects, or the world around him, that was where we started simplifying, and looking more at an illustrated level of detail, and incorporating that level of finish versus something that was photorealistic.”

Models started out the same, but the finishing touches Wragg and his team applied varied in levels of detail depending on how painterly they wanted objects to look. And he says it wasn’t about changing or updating the software – it was about developing tools that would allow the team to paint on the exact look they wanted, taking off and adding details where necessary. 

“The biggest new tool we developed was one that allowed us to add a painterly, irregular edge to any 3D object that we wanted to put that sort of treatment on,” he shares. “That allowed us to have objects further apart, or further on the peripheral sides of the frame, be more dialed up with a more impressionistic look. It felt like an illustrated page, with refinement and detail centered around our characters in the acting, and it got looser and more impressionistic, like a painting, in the outer edges of the frame.

Wragg and his team also used the new tools to make their camerawork, lensing effects, depth of fields, and light blooms more illustrated, not just the character designs themselves. Their efforts can be seen right away in the first three minutes of the film, as a dazzling falling star shoots across the screen, spattering the camera view with flecks of color and light.

“The way the movie starts out, it puts the audience in an unexpected place,” notes Wragg. “They're instantly submerged in this new style. And you're just off to the races with it. And it doesn't feel out of place. It feels like just a new experience, which is fun.”

But steering away from the photoreal approach came with one big challenge: avoiding the danger of the designs looking oversimplified and cheap. 

“When you remove detail, it can oftentimes feel undercooked or cheap if the treatment isn't properly applied,” Wragg says. “And what we had to make sure of was, if we were approaching this in a more simplified, illustrated way, it couldn’t be for a lack of sophistication in the look or feel of what we're doing. So, even if something was fairly simple, we made sure that the paint strokes and textures and paint splatters, whatever sort of painterly effects that we were recreating digitally, still had a high level of detail and fidelity in those applications, even if they were more artistic.”

Getting the new design effort right, consistently, required quite the tightrope walk. Too undercooked and the film and its characters would resemble Instagram filters. Too detailed or complex, it would suddenly feel too natural and realistic, resembling every other Puss and Shrek film on the market. The sweet spot was what Wragg called the “Goldilocks Zone.’

“Finding that dial to where everything, to quote Goldilocks, ‘felt just right,’ was difficult,” he admits. “But once we started that scene with the wolf in the bar, which was our first sequence, that was a really wonderful testing ground for finding that balance of how stylized we could go with lighting and whether or not it would help it feel more artistic, which it did. How detailed things needed to be around the characters and on the characters at different levels of depth in the frame to make sure that things didn't feel undercooked or too naturalistic… all of this we learned in that sequence to find that right spot.”

The painterly effect gives Puss new life in many ways, from movement and style to a remastered color palette. For how old Puss is, he’s never looked younger – minus the beard. 

“Because we were going for a more illustrated look, we felt like we had a bit more freedom to push the palette a bit stronger,” says Wragg. “Our main character Puss is an orange cat. And if you go too naturalistic with your color approach on him, he ends up feeling a bit dingy, a bit brown, or sort of dusty, and it's less vibrant. It's less playful. So, we used a more playful color palette, where appropriate, to play to the comedy and the adventure.”

He adds, “But then we also were able to swing that pendulum in our palette and go darker and scarier and moodier when the stakes for Puss change and become more dangerous, or a bit more sad or morose. Like when he’s eulogizing himself, and then checking into Mama Luna’s. It took us on a little bit of a design adventure to find this new, more contemporary illustrated look. But once we found it, it felt like it just opened up so many more opportunities for us as filmmakers.

On top of getting to watch audiences embark on a new adventure with a character they love, Wragg hopes Puss’ new look also highlights that this film is “a story that needs to be told for this character,” and not simply a new chapter told for laughs and entertainment.

“It feels like it really grounds [Puss] and makes him vulnerable in the way audiences, I feel, ultimately want to connect with the characters they love on screen,” says Wragg. “So, I think, from a general audience perspective, I hope they're wowed by the visuals and are drawn in with the story. From an animation perspective, to the industry familiars who are making these movies all the time, I hope they recognize that we pursued a different experience in telling a new story with this character, not relying on sort of a simple, easy solution to making a sequel. And I hope that everybody sees that as an opportunity for expanding on the animation medium.”

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at