“I’ve never healed anything this bad before, it’s going to take time.”
The idea that we cannot find commonality, that we have to destroy what we don’t understand or don’t like – that instead, we should unite to help our neighbors – to combat fear and the pandemic – as well as our frail environment – were themes that were percolating in my mind as I woke up yesterday morning. I had a Q&A with two directors from Ireland – Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart — about their spectacular new animated film “Wolfwalkers” (2020), and I mentioned my concerns and distress about what was happening yesterday in the Capitol – across our country — and how much comfort and hope I found in their lovely film that is one of the best of 2020… and one of the best pieces of family entertainment I’ve seen. “The enemy is no longer the enemy once you make friends with them,” said Tomm to me, speaking about one of the many timely profundities in their film. “When you begin to figure out what scares you about those you consider to be the enemy, you suddenly get a much more holistic understanding of things. We need to start seeing things from other people’s perspectives.”
Drawing heavily on the rich Irish mythology and folklore, the story follows an eleven year-old English girl – Robyn – whose father – Bill Goodfellow — has brought her to Ireland, to an unfriendly town where he’s to hunt and kill wolves that are not allowing the trees in the perimeter to be cut down. The village is run with an iron fist by the villainous Lord Protector – who is loosely based on the historical figure of Oliver Cronwell, and Robyn feels suffocated by the Puritanical and tyrannical world in which she finds herself.
Unexpectedly, she encounters Mebh – a wild native girl who lives in the forest with a pack of wolves. It turns out Mebh’s a Wolfwalker and has the ability to leave her human body in her sleep and freely roam the woods – and she’s been endowed with healing powers, as well. In order to protect Robyn from a precarious situation, Mebh accidentally bites her and Robyn becomes a Wolfwalker herself — and experiences a world of instinct and freedom. The two young women find themselves joining forces in an exhilarating adventure – Mebh has to look for her missing mother and Robyn has now become the very thing her father has been entrusted to hunt.
There are so many ideas circling this Celtic adventure – from female empowerment to the protection of the environment – embracing freedom and moving away from oppressive ruling. The adult in me was challenged and the kid in me felt exhilarated. There’s one glorious scene in which Robyn in communion with Mebh starts to see the forest and the universe in all its splendor – the way a wolf sees it – that is one of the most visceral and emotional sequences I’ve ever seen. I felt a rush of happiness like never before. Norwegian artist Aurora Aksnes (AURORA) sings a song ‘Running with the Wolves’ to accompany the ride, and it’s heavenly.
Moore and Stewart who’d worked on the 2010 Oscar nominated animated feature “The Secret of the Kells” and the follow-up “Song of the Sea” (2015) have created a hand drawn visual design that becomes a counterpart to the themes as well as an expression of the emotions of our heroines. The town is full of geometric parents creating a sense of imprisonment. Black bars, rectangles, squares and angles illustrate the oppression in which Robyn lives. Even her cape’s hood has a triangular shape hovering over her head. There are hard edges everywhere. In the forest everything’s loose and fluid – and it all creates a kinetic world that encourages self-expression and openness. It’s also rich in colors – green, red and orange. Mebh’s hair flows and it has a circular shape. As Robyn navigates towards a freer environment, the visual lines of her body and clothing start softening – including her hair. She undergoes a total visual transformation that matches that of her soul. The strict world becomes wild and free.
The voice acting is really phenomenal. I told the directors that I don’t remember being so in tune with character work in an animated film in so long. Sean Bean (so loved as Ned Stark in “Game of Thrones”) is the torn and sympathetic father of Robyn – and Simon McBurney (who is a phenomenal theatre director and performer) makes for a very complicated villain.
At this tumultuous period in our history, this film will give you hope, inspiration, wonder and much needed joy.
Mebh: “There’s two of us now.”
Available to stream on Apple TV+
Screenplay by Will Collins
Story by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart
Writing and Bringing “Wolfwalkers” to the Screen
According to directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the central elements of “Wolfwalkers” came together quickly. Around seven years ago, after the longtime friends directed a segment of “The Prophet” (2014) together, Moore asked Stewart to codirect his next feature. “I knew I wanted to do one final piece in the Irish folklore space, exploring [those] themes,” said Moore, referring to his now-triptych of films that also includes 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2014’s “Song of the Sea” from Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon. “So I asked him to spend time just helping me come up with what that might be, because there was a lot of different options.” From their earliest brainstorming session the pair turned to topics they were passionate about, such as animal rights, speciesism and extinction. They were also concerned about the political climate, which has only become more extreme since then. “We were worried about the world becoming more and more polarized,” said Moore. “We were comparing it to Northern Ireland and the [divide between] Catholics and Protestants … and that all started way back in the 1600s with [Oliver] Cromwell invading Ireland.” Part of the English leader’s legacy is how he worked to rid Ireland of wolves. Whatever the practical motivations, wolves once thrived on the island and are prominent in Irish folklore, so wiping them out was symbolic of his conquest. This history is reflected in “Wolfwalkers” through the tyrannical Lord Protector, who is understood to be Cromwell although his name is never mentioned. “Wolves were the last megafauna in Ireland to go completely extinct,” said Stewart. “With the extinction of wolves, so much of a connectedness to that animal is also gone from our society. You’re not just losing the animal, but you’re also losing a whole part of human culture and human society with it. And once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
One key detail that changed between the earliest version of the story and the completed film is Robyn: Originally, the character had been envisioned as a boy. Having already “done the brother-sister thing” in his previous movies, Moore said the plan was to explore a first friendship or a first crush dynamic with Robyn and Mebh. But the setup didn’t quite work. “We wrote a whole draft with Robyn as a boy, and it wasn’t working,” said Moore. “We were confused [about] why it wasn’t working. We were constructing conflict, stuff for the little boy to come up against. We had to construct all these obstacles for why he wasn’t allowed out. It made so much more sense for him to be a little girl.” With “a girl, then it’s not just going to be [her father] saying ‘You can’t be a hunter,’” said Stewart. “All of society, especially this Puritan overlord society, would be like, ‘No, a girl’s place is inside doing dishes and making food and looking after the kids.’” The adjustment, which came at the suggestion of others in the studio, helped smooth out the story and also changed the character of Robyn and Mebh’s relationship. When Robyn meets Mebh, she is meeting her counterpart — a reflection that lets her really see an alternative to her stifling life. According to Moore, one unforeseen result of having a girl Robyn is the queer subtext present in the film. “The [film] editor at one point said, ‘This is a coming out story — this could be a real first crush, queer romance’ … [and] reinterpreted the whole movie,” said Moore. “We didn’t lean into it, but we were aware it was there. It was kind of gratifying to see that some people saw that.” In addition to its themes and story, Moore and Stewart had started developing the visual elements of “Wolfwalkers” from the beginning. “Even on that very first session where we came up with the bones of the story, we were already drawing characters and we were already drawing key moments,” said Stewart. “As soon as we get a story in our head, we immediately would get certain visuals of that story. Key moments [like] Robyn on the back of Moll or Mebh breaking out of a cage.” (latimes.com)
The Inspirations Behind “Wolfwalkers”
Among the film’s artistic inspirations was Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in the same year as Moore’s “Song of the Sea,” and its use of expressive line drawing. “That was an idea that we wanted to do, and we made it part of the story,” said Moore. “The English and everyone who lives in the town are like a woodblock print [with] thick, black clean outlines. And then, the more that Robyn became part of the forest, the more her lines would change to be like Mebh and the wolves who are really scratchy” with visible underdrawings. This approach was to emphasize how these are hand-drawn characters and that the film is indeed composed of actual drawings. “In all animated films, there’s so much craft and so much artistry that goes into it,” said Stewart, who also noted how as artists they don’t just look at other animated films for inspiration. “Some of the backgrounds that are flashing by in half seconds, took artists a week to make.” And “Wolfwalkers” pushed its artistry even further through its use of “wolfvision,” a different visual mode to represent how wolves see the world. One of the key messages of the story relates to the importance of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. For Robyn, this involves transforming into the creatures she had intended to hunt to actually see the world the way they do. Developed with experimental animator Eimhin McNamara, “wolfvision” is more than just vision — it also conveys scent and affects the sound and “it was much more immersive than anything we’ve done before,” said Moore. Stewart said that he was particularly interested in pushing expressive animation in addition to visual language with “Wolfwalkers.” If “you can do a painting that can express joy, that can express sadness, that can express anger just in mark-making and color and visual line,” said Stewart. “Then you can also imply that into your animated feature as well.” “Anything that can be made visually can be animated. Like, if you do a painting, you can animate paintings. Stop-motion is basically animating sculptures. Anything visual can end up onscreen and end up moving. So once you realize that, then you’re open to the whole gamut of expressive art forms.” (latimes.com)
Co-Writers and Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart on “Wolfwalkers”
Stewart: “They say to write stories about things that you know and have experience with. We grew up on these folk tales. It’s something we know very well. It’s part of our culture. Then, also, like, Robyn and Mebh’s childhood story, we drew on our own childhood. So we can’t get away from the fact that these stories are powerful for us. It might seem a little bit weird if we went and tried to co-opt folk tales from another culture. Maybe it wouldn’t come across as being as authentic or something like that.”
Moore: “It also felt for me, nice for all these movies to be an offering to the next generation… Maybe not overly commodifying or commercializing the stories, that you get to retell them and have them remembered and reimagined. You’re in the middle. Storytellers will take the story from the previous generation and pass them on to the next generation, and the next generation will find meaning and ways to rediscover them for themselves. You’re kind of a conduit, you’re in the middle. You’re not necessarily the final version of it. I always think it’s such a pity when you see that… When Disney does a fairy tale, that’s the definitive version of the fairy tale. I always think it shouldn’t be, you know?”
Stewart: “That really annoys me. When you go to hear a really great storyteller, like, a live storyteller, they’ll be telling stories that you have heard before. But it’s the telling of the story that is the enjoyment, the entertainment, and it can totally keep you gripped. Even though you know the ending, and even though you know the characters and you might have heard the story 50 times before, it’s the actual telling of it that is the talent, and the skill, and the enjoyable part of it. It doesn’t always have to be brand new and unique, and once it’s told, that’s not the end of it! There’s always good retellings.” (screenrant.com)
Moore and Stewart on the Animation of “Wolfwalkers”
Moore had great ambitions and twice the budget on “Wolfwalkers,” and he entrusted more responsibility to Stewart after his enormous visual contributions to “Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells.” This was important in designing the two contrasting worlds of the town (rigid line work) and forest (warm curves), which carried over into the character designs as well. Whereas Robyn, Mebh, and the wolves are drawn as round and loose, Robyn’s father and the rest of the townspeople are more solid and square. “It made sense for the Puritan world to be based on the artwork that they were creating at that time, which was printed texts with art illustration and they were done in wood cuts a lot of the time,” Moore said. “And it was very rough because wood cuts generally have this aggressive line: very sharp and very angular marking with big, solid colors underneath. And sometimes they’d be offset from the mark making.” And against that, for the forest, they wanted a freer look that wasn’t as controlled. It made sense to sketch in pencil the wild land of the Wolfwalkers with loose, energetic curves. “And even in the compositions, they would flow into the scene and flow out, not so angular and blocked off,” added Moore. “It wouldn’t be like a cage, which the town was for Robyn. And then, even in the coloring, it made sense for [the forest] to be loose watercolor painting and very organic.”
Stewart also wanted the forest to reflect the authenticity of Ireland, with the orange of the oak trees weaving into the lush, green vegetation deeper inside. “The forest has to embody that wild energy that the wolves have,” he said. “It’s more rounded and softer in shapes versus the town, which was hard, woodblock geometry. We also did a lot of art direction notes for final line and color background scenes, like squaring off the compositions if you’re in the town or having flowing, curved lines if you’re in the forest.” The boldest decision of all was creating the POV of the Wolfwalkers (wolfvision) in collaboration with Irish animator and director Eimhin McNamara. Wolfwalkers are people that possess a spiritual connection with the wolves and roam among them at night as avatars. And wolfvision, according to Moore, was “an attempt to show how the world appears to wolves, with a limited palette but heightened colors and expressive styles for scents and sounds. This final style uses a much more three-dimensional camera than our previous projects.” The team planned the action in previs and built environments in VR, said Stewart, “and then would print out the 3D model and the fly through frame by frame and use that as reference, and re-animate it all on paper with charcoal and pencil, so the final look is hand-made. But we got there by using computer technology that we’d never used before.” At the same time, compositing was able to bring more atmospheric perspective and cinematic techniques to get a sense of depth. Even in the backgrounds, the fine line departments used pencils and markers and ink all the way through and scanning their finished artwork. “From the early concepts, Tomm and I wanted the wolfvision to be a roller coaster ride,” Stewart said. “And because it concentrated on sensory perception, we made the regular world look monochromatic, and their senses were glowing and phosphorescent.” “From a story point of view, you rediscover the world as a Wolfwalker,” added Moore. “It’s symbolic that if you can see the world from someone else’s point of view, there’s so much more that you can understand and appreciate. It’s something that 2D animation can do well and you just accept, like Miyazaki’s work.” (indiewire.com)
About Co-Writer and Director Tomm Moore
…Tomm has worked as Director, Art Director, Storyboarder, Animator and Illustrator on a range of projects from commercials to service work for feature films and TV series, as well as a number of short films projects. Tomm has directed 2 universally successful feature films. Both were nominated for Best Animated Feature at the ACADEMY AWARD® The Secret of Kells in 2010 and the spiritual follow-up, Song of the Sea in 2015. Tomm also co-directed (with Ross Stewart) the “On Love” segment for The Prophet, a feature animation produced by Salma Hayek based on one of the best-selling books of all time. He is currently working on his latest feature film “Wolfwalkers” which he will co-direct with Ross Stewart. Tomm Moore received the Directors Guild of Ireland and America’s Finder’s Series Award in 2008 and European Director of the year at Cartoon Movie in 2009. (cartoonsaloon.ie)
About Director and Co-Writer Ross Stewart
Ross Stewart has been painting, illustrating, designing and working in animation for over 20 years. Earlier in his career, Ross worked primarily in Visual Development and Art Direction including roles on 3 Oscar-nominated movies – Art Director and Concept Artist for “The Secret Of Kells” and “Song of the Sea” Respectively, both for Cartoon Saloon, and Visual Development on “ParaNorman” with Laika Studios. More recently he has moved from art direction into directing, working with Tomm Moore on “The Prophet” and now the latest Cartoon Saloon feature, “Wolfwalkers.” As a freelance conceptual artist he has worked for many animation and film studios worldwide on award winning projects and has illustrated books and literature for a variety of publishers. His paintings are exhibited throughout Ireland and the UK and held in collections worldwide. He is a nature lover and would gladly sit under an oak tree all day long. (cartoonsaloon.ie)