Wolfwalkers builds on the previous two movies, delivering a potent story about empathy, which lives at the core of an emotional tale based on folklore and history — all of it told with Moore’s dreamlike signature style of hand-drawn animation.
The trio of films are made by Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon, of which Moore is a co-founder. The first title, 2009’s The Secret of Kells — Moore’s directorial debut, which earned an Oscar nomination for best animated feature — is a fictional account of the writing of the Book of Kells, set in ninth century Ireland. His follow-up, 2014’s Oscar-nominated Song of the Sea is a fantasy film based around a child who is a selkie, a being from Irish legend that can transform from human to seal.
Directed by Moore and Cartoon Saloon vet Ross Stewart, the third in the set, Wolfwalkers (a co-production between Cartoon Saloon and Mélusine Productions in Luxembourg), tells the story of a young English girl named Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) who is summoned with her father (Sean Bean) to Kilkenny in 1650. The town lives by the rule of the authoritarian Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), who is forcing Robyn’s father to kill the region’s wolves. In the woods one day, Robyn befriends a young Irish girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), who comes from a pack of “wolfwalkers” that transform from human to wolf form — and she soon becomes one herself.
Written by Will Collins (Song of the Sea) from a story by Moore and Stewart, Wolfwalkers has roots in the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland (Lord Protector is based on Oliver Cromwell) and Irish folklore about the Wolves of Ossory, a tribe of beings who could transform themselves into wolves.
In a recent episode of THR Presents, Moore explained that thematically, the story is about empathy. “We very quickly hit on this idea of telling this story of people on opposite sides being able to see each other’s point of view, and it’s only become more and more relevant,” explains Moore. “We thought, what if a little child of a hunter became the thing he is hunting, and also becomes friends with one of the creatures they were hunting? These themes just become stronger: environmentalism, empathy, polarization between people and how kids can sometimes see past that.” He adds: “Nature isn’t something for us to decide whether we want to protect or not. Our invasion of wild habitats is a big part of where the pandemic has come from … I hope that there’s some kind of inspiration that maybe we can come together and heal it rather than keep on dividing ourselves.”
Moore and Stewart developed the film’s visual style to show a contrast between period Kilkenny — with its blocky look to convey its oppressiveness, inspired by 17th century woodcuts — and the more fluid, free look of the forest. “[Robyn’s home in Kilkenny] is a cage, and the visuals reinforce that. The linework is very harsh and very black-and-white. There’s high contrast and there’s a lot of geometric patterning, like a kind of a warped perspective,” Stewart says, adding that to convey the freedom of the forest, “we leaned into very sketchy, rough pencil work and linework describing all the forms with lots of curves, lots of flowing lines. You got a sense that the entire environment is alive and very luxurious and lush, almost rococo style.”
Maria Pareja, who created the production design with the directors, adds that for period Kilkenny, they took creative license but also did research, including stops at Kilkenny’s Rothe House. “That is one the oldest houses in Ireland,” she notes. “We did a lot of trips to this house to see how it was built inside … the details, decorations and how people would live in that period because that house is exactly from that period.” Stewart relates that color reinforced the notion of two worlds. “The forest leans into high saturation of orange and green and tries to push the amount of color. It’s very sumptuous, and then the town is quite cold and gray and muddy.” The characters also have contrasting styles. Robyn — who Moore conceived as a sort of Greta Thunberg — is angular, like Kilkenny (a look that becomes more fluid during the course of the story), in contrast with Mebh, whose look is more curvy, like the shapes of the forest.
The villain, Lord Protector, “represented the idea of squareness, rigidity and inflexible power. He needed to be a physical challenge, so we made him burly. His eyebrows are really stern, slightly evil-ish, but his eyes are kind of emotionless about everything that is going on,” character designer Federico Pirovano relates, adding that this character is based on Oliver Cromwell, who ruled the British Isles in the 17th century. “We used a lot of that reference … many warts,” and also took some inspiration from voice actor McBurney. Less obvious to the audience, some of the background characters were designed as likenesses of artists from Cartoon Saloon, including Moore and Stewart. Pirovano adds with a laugh, “They were really happy, but they said they were prettier than how I drew them.”
The film’s signature look is hand-drawn, though computers are used to augment the process. “We still draw every frame, but we’re not animating on paper like we used to,” Moore explains, elaborating that their tools allow them to draw each frame as if it were traditional hand-drawn animation, but the images go directly into the computer. “We use special digital brushes to look as much as like the pencil line that we want,” he adds. “Backgrounds are painted with watercolors, but the linework is also done on paper with pencils and pens. They’re combined and photoshopped to make the final background.”
For this movie, the team also conceived a look that they refer to as “Wolf Vision” — effectively a different look and color scheme from Robyn’s perspective, when she is in wolf form. It started with virtual previsualization of the shots: The artist would wear virtual reality goggles to move the camera through the environment. “Each frame of that would be printed off, and it would be very rudimentary,” says Moore. “The final backgrounds were drawn frame by frame with paper and pencil. So, that was a labor-intensive thing.” Adds Stewart, “the pre-vis allowed Tomm and myself to have a sense of what the camera is doing.”
Screenwriter Collins’ early research focused intensely on hunters’ lives in and outside Kilkenny during the era of the Cromwellian War, saying of his deep dive into the details of daily life at that time, “It’s important to fill up, but not get bogged down by it. I also had great research assistants in the form of Tomm [Moore] and Ross [Stewart], as anytime I visited them in the studio the walls were covered in concept art and drawings of the period.” He continues, “It made my life a lot easier when trying to imagine the world of the story.” For Stewart, “The story is the most important thing. There’s a time and a place for historical stories and being really truthful to the original, but that doesn’t mean that everything has to stick to that. Stories have to adapt to the way that they’re being told in this century, and they’ll be different in the next century.”