ANNECY, France — Netflix held a Works in Progress session for the platform’s first-ever animated feature “Klaus.” First-look images, story details and in progress and nearly-finished scenes were shared with a room that sold out minutes after tickets were made available online.
The film started as little more than a personal exercise by SPA Studios founder and “Despicable Me” co-creator Sergio Pablos to play within the framework of an origin story. Especially impressed by Christopher Nolan’s work on “Batman Begins,” Pablos started a list, checked it twice, and thought tales about Dracula or Napoleon would likely be naughty, but the history of Santa could be nice.
At first it seemed unlikely to produce a compelling story. An all good, all the time protagonist offers little by way of narrative development, so Pablos had to find a way to add irony, humor and heart.
“I thought for a while, and the moment it came together was when I looked at it this way: If you take Santa not as the main character, but as a symbol for altruism and good will and create a main character that has to learn that lesson, that could work,” Pablos explained in Annecy.
Thus was born the film’s protagonist Jesper, a spoiled-rotten young man whose father is the no-nonsense Postmaster general at his wits end when it comes to making anything out of his son.
When it becomes clear that Jesper has no intentions of shaping up, his father ships him out to a remote island in northern Scandinavia. Tasked with integrating the postal service into the community, Jesper is given one year to achieve his goal, or get cut off completely.
Never one to put in the work if there’s an easier solution to be found, Jesper takes advantage of circumstance when he meets a reclusive woodsman named Klaus, who has a hidden workshop full to the rafters with toys.
Once the general idea for the story had been established, Pablos decided that his story needed to be told using traditional 2D animation. It was an idea that some producers weren’t too keen on, but the director refused to waiver.
“When CG came along I embraced it, but I never bought into the idea that with CGI traditional 2D animation would disappear. These are the tools you use to tell your story, like how a painter chooses to use oil paints or water colors,” explained Pablos. “So I asked, ‘What’s the best medium for this story?’ Looking at ‘Klaus’ it was clear to me this story would benefit from a 2D look.”
Once the decision had been made, Pablos went into problem solving mode with Polish animator Marcin Jakubowski, who coincidentally had studied computer science before settling on animation as a career.
“We were ecstatic when Sergio announced we were going fully 2D,” remembered Jakubowski. “It’s a dream come true for a concept artist and artistic director. All of the concept art can be transferred directly into the movie.”
Just making a film that looked like something Disney might have done in the ‘90s wasn’t enough however, so right away Jakubowski started to develop a new lighting tool which allows 2D animators to manipulate light in such a way that every frame in the film has the quality, to use Pablos’ own analogy, of the airbrushed photo on the DVD cover or early concept art.
Whereas traditional 2D animation has characters moving across static backgrounds, the characters of “Klaus” move through the backgrounds in a completely fresh-feeling way.
“We wanted to use light and atmosphere as a part of the storytelling and that’s never been done in 2D, so we had to figure it out ourselves,” explained Jakubowski.
“The goal was not to bring traditional 2d animation back, but to bring it forward,” said Pablos.
There were audible gasps in the room when a video played showing the immense visual difference between unlit and lit drawings, and once again when the lighting tool was briefly demoed.
“Very often people tell me that it looks like there is a step missing between ink and paint and lighting. The difference is too huge,” Jakubowski added. “But I swear that’s how it works. There is nothing in between.”
Finally, it was time for production designer Szymon Aleksander Biernacki to discuss the film’s visual language.
“We started researching and looking for inspiration, and as ‘Klaus’ takes place in a fictional location in 19th century Northern Europe, we looked at photos from that area and paintings from the period to identify the mood for our world,” he explained. “We looked a lot at snow. It’s good we (Biernacki and Jakubowski) are both from Poland so we know a lot about snow.”
He also shared visual references from seemingly unlikely sources such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Breaking Bad,” showing side-by-side comparisons of iconic moments from the film and series, and their similarly-lit and colored “Klaus” counterparts.
Biernacki finished his portion of the presentation by explaining the importance of the fictional village in which the film takes place, not only as an environment for the characters to live in, but as a living, evolving character itself.
“It’s a corrupted version of an Icelandic village on steroids,” he explained. “Klaus is about transformation in characters but also the environment. We think of it as another character with its own arc.”
The film boasts a powerhouse voice acting cast including Jason Schwartzman as Jesper, J.K. Simmons as Klaus, Rashida Jones as primary school teacher Alva and Joan Cusack as the ominous-looking Mrs. Krum – who received an especially enthusiastic cheer when character art was shared briefly.
The film was developed and produced entirely at Pablos’ Madrid-based SPA Studios with Jinko Gotoh (“The Little Prince,” “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”), Gustavo Ferrada and Marisa Román producing. It’s scheduled to launch on Netflix around the world for Christmas this year.