A mix of 17th century Irish folklore with female empowerment and actual history, it comes from animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the third in its Irish trilogy after “The Secret of Kells” and “Song of the Sea.”
The artists deliberately left pencil lines in as part of their visual storytelling. Animators were encouraged by co-directors Ross Stewart and Tomm Moore to be as scribbly as possible to fit in with the timeless aesthetic that 2D hand-drawn animation provides — brushstrokes and etchings included.
That style, and setting the film in 1650 when Catholic Ireland was overcome by English Protestant rule, helped give “Wolfwalkers” its fairytale feel. In the story, young Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) wants to go into the woods with her father when he hunts wolves. She sneaks off without his permission and befriends Mebh (voiced by Eva Whittaker), a young and fearless wolfwalker.
Moore was concerned with the polarization he was seeing in the world. It reminded him of the divide in Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants that dates back centuries, and he wanted to reflect it in the story.
Federico Pirovano, who designed the girls in their wolf personas, says: “These two girls represent the worlds they are coming from and they would reinforce the storytelling concept.”
Robyn represented the town and the English people who were rigid in their beliefs. She was drawn in sharp angles to reflect that rigidity. Since she was the older girl, they made her taller and skinnier. Mebh is the exact opposite. Pirovano describes her as a “ball who bounces around. She is filled with energy.” She represented freedom. “Her shape was round and her shape was flowier.”
The goal was to make both girls relatable not just to one another, but also to the public. “A lot of work went into refining their expressions and emotions,” he says, and that became even more important when both girls transform into wolves.
Pirvano took inspiration from European wolves, opting for the scrawny and rough around the design of the edges as opposed to the classical and imposing version. He added huge fangs and a big snout. The idea, he says, was so the wolves could transition through different emotional states.
“They could go from very aggressive to playful. They could be goofy or they could be scary. We see that when they get angry and show their rage.”
Eimhin McNamara created the “wolf vision” sequences as Robyn transforms, designing scenes so audiences could see things through Robyn’s eyes.
“One challenge was how to translate these gorgeous backgrounds into a 3D world without the design breaking,” McNamara says.
His objective was to make sure everything felt like it was still in the same universe and not jolt the audience out of the viewing experience.
A team of up to 10 people worked on the wolfvision process.
“I would design and build previz in 3D and print it out on paper,” he says. And while the effects were being animated, rendering was being done.
There were marks from graphite sticks, erasers, smudging and big sweeps to give the moment a tactile feel. McNamara worked closely with Ross to discuss how much detail was needed for each frame.
Mark Mullery, who served as the film’s assistant director, aligned with Stewart and Moore’s vision. “He didn’t want any of the 3D elements to be onscreen,” McNamara says. “We used it as a reference point and then we rebuilt it with drawings. It didn’t matter if it was wobbly because that was a part of the charm.”
Sound editor Sébastien Marquilly recorded a pack of wolves, while Axel Steichen went out into a forest and placed eight microphones in a field to capture the environment directly in Atmos.
Elsewhere, sound editor Philippe Fontaine worked on creating the “magic particles.” Those moments, he says, were captured using a few ice cubes and water.
“I shook it a bit, and I recorded the ice cubes hitting one another, and with a bit of digital processing, we had our magical particle sound.”
As Marquilly says, the idea of the sound design was “to be natural aligning with the theme of the film.”