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Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart Talk ‘Wolfwalkers’

The directors of Cartoon Saloon’s stunning new animated feature discuss the film’s metaphorical look at Ireland’s wolves and folklore extinctions, tempering new ideas with old wisdom, and their ongoing love of hand-drawn 2D animation.

Now streaming on Apple TV+, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Apple Original Film, Wolfwalkers, is the latest 2D animation masterpiece from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind Oscar-nominated gems The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner.  

Co-produced with Mélusine Productions and produced by Moore, Paul Young, Stéphan Roelants, and Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner director Nora Tuomey, Wolfwalkers is set in a time of superstition and magic, and tells the story of a young apprentice hunter, Robyne, who journeys to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last wolf pack. While exploring the forbidden lands outside the city walls, 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 and risks turning into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.

The film stars Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whitaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Jon Kenny, John Morton, and Maria Doyle Kennedy. After a short North American theatrical released by GKIDS last month, the film is now available worldwide on Apple TV+.

Beautifully animated and charmingly designed storytelling is Moore and Cartoon Saloon’s calling card. Alongside brilliant artist and co-director Stewart, the two-time Oscar-nominated director expertly visualizes writer Will Collin’s tale about Ireland’s past that many, including the filmmakers who still live there, had never heard of; the hunting to extinction of the country’s wolves also meant the extinction of related folklore, something Moore and Stewart lament, and draw upon, for the foundation of their film.

AWN recently talked to the filmmakers about the origins of the story, the historical foundation and importance of the film’s 1650 Kilkenny setting, and their ongoing love and appreciation of making hand-drawn 2D animated films.

Dan Sarto: You started working on this story while making Song of the Sea, which like The Secret of Kells, wasn’t set in a specific time or place. What was it about 1651 Ireland, Kilkenny specifically, that inspired you?

Tomm Moore: I think it was that Cromwell, during that period, was deliberately getting rid of the wolves. We wanted to work with some of these themes about species and environmental destruction, and people being polarized on two different sides of the fence. And it just seemed like the right time period. I remember one of the earliest things we came across was a documentary series called Wolfland; Ireland had once been called Wolfland. Neither of us were aware of that because the wolves have long been extinct. And a lot of the folklore regarding wolves became extinct as well. Many things considered part of Irish culture, how the Irish saw themselves, were exterminated by exterminating the wolves.

So that period seemed like an important transition in the history of our country and how we saw ourselves; folklore changed the people, and people changed because the wolves were lost, and the woods and forests were lost as well. The really resonated with us. It was a powerful time. I mean, with Secret of Kells, we were looking at the impact of the Vikings, but this was closer to home. We're both from Kilkenny. We grew up here.

Ross Stewart: One of the main reasons why we settled on Kilkenny is because we could just look out our window and start drawing the castle as reference. But, during that time in Ireland, there was tremendous conflict with a huge invading force that had ideas completely different from those of the people living here, on how to live, how to work with the environment, and how to live amongst nature. So, in that conflict, there's great grounds for a great story.

TM: Yeah. You can trace a lot of the stuff that's still going on in Irish politics to that period.

DS: Right. Certainly, those politics, from a historical standpoint, what was going on in Ireland and what eventually became the UK during that period, is more than just the source of legends. It's the history of your country, the basis of how people are living today.

TM: Yeah. And that's what we felt was interesting. When we looked around the world, there is a history of colonialism that started then. Whether it was in America, with indigenous Native American people, North Australia, anywhere, there were parallels to what happened over the next 400 years that started with that Irish colonization by the English. So, we thought that the ripples of colonization that still echo through modern society would have relevance to a lot of people.

DS: There's also an interesting analogy to the United States with regards to settlers and then the government subjugating the Native American population amidst the push out West, and hunting wolves, buffalo, and many other species to the point of extinction, especially once the cattle ranches became so powerful. The continued hunting of wolves in our country remains hugely controversial in the US, as well as other areas of nature conservancy and protection of endangered species. So. you’re right about the parallels.

TM: What I think has happened in the States is that there's been a growing movement to listen, again, to the wisdom of the indigenous people and how they were able to work with the land without completely eliminating the wildlife. I know it's been controversial but take the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone. There's an interesting story about how it affected the whole ecosystem. So maybe it's not too late for you guys. But I think as a metaphor, that whole concept of trying to dominate and control nature was also going on in the world of our main characters; the Puritans, the super strict Protestants at the time, came to Ireland and were trying to dominate their own inner world, their own inner wildness and create cages of sorts for themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically, while trying to dominate us.

And so, for a little girl in that period, she faced an inner conflict as well as an outer conflict. Whatever was going on in terms of how the colonial forces saw the environment, she was part of that group; but she was also discovering things for herself and seeing them in a different way. So maybe that’s the hopeful message. Maybe young people will be able to see that the old ways, the old wisdom, shouldn’t be totally discarded, but integrated and understood.

RS: I think there's a direct parallel there. I mean, now there's the concept of rewilding, like turning a brown space or green space back into wilderness because it's so important. In Robyn's journey, her realization that this wild energy within her should be released, that's who she is, that's her inner spirit and she shouldn't try and keep it under control or tame it, there's a direct parallel there between the two.

DS: When you dig down into the story, there are themes of violence and subjugation of people, there’s a pretty nasty villain, and some pretty heady ideas to put it into a family-friendly film. How do you approach such important but quite adult themes and translate them into something suitable for all ages?

TM: We kept coming back to the girls, the two main characters, and making sure we were telling the story through their eyes. There were many drafts where Ross and Will [Collins], the screenwriter, got far too interested in the dad character, or the history, or the civil war that was going on in England…

RS: Or even witchcraft and all kinds of dark stuff…

TM: …it was a time with a lot of dark stuff to explore. And if it wasn't a family movie, we might've gone down the witchcraft angle, which stayed in drafts up until we realized it just wasn’t where we wanted to go with the film. So, we kind of kept on coming back to the kids. We kept on coming back to, “What is Robyn's story?”

RS: The focus on the friendship, and the way it grows from this kind of odd couple scenario, to them being like sisters, then to this break-up, and then... their journey is what makes it seem a bit more family friendly. And when we did get to the showdown, we had to avoid too much gore, have the soldiers and the Lord Protector taken care of off-screen. It still works for story reasons if these things happen, but we don't need to see them happen.

TM: On the page, it was a bit scary because it was a battle between a pack of wolves and the British army. But we managed the storyboard in such a way that it's a bit cartoony.

RS: We were also a little bit worried about how, on the page, Mebh's mother, Moll, is in a cage and is ordered to be executed. We were like, “Geez!”

TM: It was dark.

RS: We must remember that this wolf is Mebh's mother. So, we can't really go too dark with this. She's chained up, she's paraded around, she has flames thrown in her face. It's…

TM: It's part of the magic of hand-drawn animation. We talked about Roald Dahl's books, which were super dark, but the way that Quentin Blake, the illustrator, drew the witches…when you watch the live-action movies with the witches, it's kind of terrifying. But in the books, when I read them as a kid, the drawings were kind of quirky. There was a quirkiness to the darkness. And I remember early on we picked storyboard artists who had that kind of tone, an interesting tone where you could depict things in a certain way. They were drawn in a playful way and that helped a lot. Hand-drawn animation is a much more palatable way to tell stories like this than live-action. Obviously, audiences love the live-action adaptations of Disney films, but I prefer the original hand-drawn versions myself.

DS: There's a visual style and beauty with 2D that can't easily be duplicated in 3D. What is it about 2D animation that you feel conveys a story, a tone, and a visual setting that you just can't get with 3D?

TM: 2D is closer to the language of dreams. It's closer to the language of symbols. You can see cave paintings from 30,000 years ago, and they are magical because they're stylized and represent a way of communicating that's evolved over the whole history of painting; drawing comics, illustration, these are things that only work as drawings that you can use in hand-drawn animation. For Wolfwalkers, we had animators who'd worked on Klaus; we were kind of going in the opposite direction, as Klaus is super polished, and beautiful, and we wanted to really make a virtue of the fact that Wolfwalkers was drawn. So, we let the lines be alive and show the inner workings of the characters.

One of the concept artists we work with, Cyril Pedrosa, was a Disney animator, but now makes comic books, beautiful French bandes dessinees, and when he draws a sad character, everything about the character is sad, like the inking is blobby and sad. When he draws an angry character, the lines seem angry, jumping off the character. We tried to bring some of that into the animation because how you draw the character, not just how they speak or how they move or what they do, but the lines that are used to delineate the outline of the character, can show what's going on inside them.

RS: It's like the immediacy of when an artist creates an illustration, a painting, or drawing; there's an expressive element, there's an emotive element to the mark making and anything that can be illustrated, can be animated. So, there's so much more possibility for this exploration of emotive qualities. Whereas if CG attempts to do that, there will always be a kind of reverse engineering needed. We have an artist that makes a painting directly onto the page. But, if you wanted to do that in CG, you'd have to build the models and all sorts of other stuff first, and then try and reverse engineer it to make it look like a painting on a page. So, we just take the cheaper, straighter, more efficient approach.

TM: Honestly, yeah, 3D/CG can look really cool. I thought [Spider-Man: Into the] Spider-Verse looked really cool. I thought How I Lost My Body looked really cool. But we also just like drawing. Our studio culture is drawing. Everyone's an artist in the studio and we just enjoy that.

DS: Aside from dealing with the pandemic, what were the biggest challenges for you in making this film?

RS: Wolfvision was probably the biggest challenge, in terms of production. It took the whole length of production, almost three years, but was only three minutes of the entire film because it was such a labor-intensive process.

TM: Those are the sequences where we see through the wolves' eyes, by the way, like when we see the landscape kind of moving past us in three dimensions. It's a really different style than all the rest.

RS: We worked with this director and animator, Evan McNamara, who created sets in VR to allow flythroughs, to get the kind of scene we needed, then printed out every frame for his team to hand render.

TM: On paper, with charcoal and pencil.

RS: Every page is like a fully rendered background with characters and effects. So that took a long time.

TM: It's a complex pipeline. But we wanted what ended up on screen to be paper and pencil. So even though he used CG to map out what he was going to do, the result on screen is completely hand-drawn, 12 frames a second; the whole background, the characters, and everything all on a page of paper, which is really labor-intensive. But I think it looks spectacular.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.