Set in 1650 Ireland, the film follows Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey), a wolf hunter’s daughter brought to Ireland as part of the English colonization of the Emerald Isle during the time of Oliver Cromwell. Robyn wants join her father in the hunt but he bans her from going into the forest. Being an adventurous girl, Robyn ventures there alone, where she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker), a young Irish girl who happens to be able to transform into a wolf — a wolfwalker.
When Robyn goes to sleep, she learns she, too, can shapeshift and transform into a wolf. The flattened aesthetic of the 16th-century Irish town in which she lives — inspired by rough and boxy woodcut art of that era — transforms into flowing lines, vibrant colors and illuminated scent trails as she herself transforms into a thing of nature: a wolf.
“If you make a print and it kind of slides, that color is a little bit offset from the lines. So we tried to do that in detail. But then in the forest, it’s much more organic” with “watercolor splashes and really sketchy lines and random shapes. So really just trying to build a contrast between the two worlds,” says co-director Tomm Moore.
Cartoon Saloon’s hand-drawn animation fuses with 3D techniques for the immersive, wolf-point-of-view shots to represent scent and what that would look like.
Co-director Ross Stewart had no idea what the finished look would be. All he knew was that scent would needed to be illustrated in a visually spectacular way. “Wolfvision” supervising animator Eimhin McNamara explains that reverse-engineering the idea helped to crack the process.
McNamara says it initially began as an exploratory experimental sequence. “But it became integrated into the story because of how useful it was to display the different perspective Robyn is living through.”
The process began with Ciaran Duffy, “wolfvision” paint artist, who rendered the image using charcoal and inks.
The point-of-view idea came together as McNamara watched video footage captured by Stewart and Moore of a cavorting Labrador retriever. Furthermore, he utilized the Occulus headset and virtual reality technology and built a forest to navigate through the space. “It was important to do that so we could figure out scale relationships very quickly,” says McNamara.
Since the technology wasn’t as sophisticated as he needed it to be, he transitioned it into using Blender, the 3D software tool, to help assemble the animation.
McNamara worked on the prototype for nine months. Not only did he have to work on that, but he also had to resolve the paper stage, which meant translating the 3D digital animation into a paper pipeline. The final image qualities needed to be processed to be “rough around the edges, textured and there’s mark-making. You can feel the hands of the artists.”
To achieve that, he started with a 3D printout in magenta and drew on top of the drawings. “We would draw on top of that with graphite and charcoal. We would smudge it, we would streak textures and build the tones and lines. It was about obscuring the clarity of the image,” McNamara says. “The stack of paper for ‘wolfvision’ was about four feet high in the end.”
His inspiration for visualizing the scent came from Studio Ghibli’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” and other cartoon tropes that were as simple as three lines coming off a pie. “We had to do something innovative for our world and experimental,” McNamara says.
Every frame was printed out and hand-rendered for what amounts to almost three minutes on screen as the audience goes on the rollercoaster ride with her, and Robyn can never go back to life as she knew.
It was important for Robyn to at first see the wolves as an enemy, and something to be feared because “when she became a wolf and she was hanging around with them she was able to see them goofing around, smelling her butt and playing around,” says Stewart, “and see oh, wait, this is just like a big happy family. And then once Robyn was able to see that, they could no longer be the scary enemy anymore. And … when you step into your enemy’s shoes, you suddenly understand they’re not scary anymore and they’re not the enemy anymore. I think that’s a very important thing.”