7 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart discuss Wolfwalkers
21 Dec 2020 : Nathan Griffin
We caught up with the directors behind Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart to find out more about the intricacies involved in developing and creating an animated feature film, their approach as co-directors, what animation can teach live-action filmmakers, and the influence of Wes Anderson on the Cartoon Saloon family.

Wolfwalkers is the third animated feature from two-time Academy Award©-nominee Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and Ross Stewart (ParaNorman, Song of the Sea). The film is co-produced by Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon and Melusine Productions, and Variety has tipped it for winning the Best Animated Film Oscar next year.

Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe, a young apprentice hunter who journeys to Ireland with her father in a time of superstition and magic to wipe out the last wolf pack. While exploring the forbidden lands outside the city walls, Robyn befriends a free-spirited girl, Mebh, a member of a mysterious tribe rumoured to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As they search for Mebhs missing mother, Robyn uncovers a secret that draws her further into the enchanted world of the Wolfwalkers" and risks turning into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.

The Apple Original film is directed by Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart and written by Will Collins (Song of the Sea). Paul Young, Nora Twomey, Tomm Moore, and Stéphan Roelants serve as producers. It follows Moore’s two prior Oscar-nominated animated features, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, as well as Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner.

It had its world premiere at the 45th Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and also screened at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival to great critical acclaim. Wildcard Distribution brought Wolfwalkers to Irish cinemas from Friday 4th December.

An official Ireland-Luxembourg co-production, Wolfwalkers was produced with the participation of Value & Power Culture Communications Co, Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, Film Fund Luxembourg, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTÉ, Canal +, OCS and the Pole Image Magelis, and Charente Region Fund.

IFTN: Where did the idea for Wolfwalkers initially come from?

Ross: A few years ago, Tomm and myself were doing a storyboarding workshop that I think might have been organized by screen Ireland, I don't know, maybe Tom you remember that but it was a two-day workshop, I think. At lunch on one of the days, Tomm and I went off, and we just started jotting down a few ideas like themes that we were interested in, things like environmentalism, conservation, animal rights, and conflict. We were thinking if a hunter became the hunted, then maybe they'd be able to see the world from their prey or their enemies' point of view, and that might change their minds.

“Tom reminded me of a myth or legend that he had read in a book when he was a teenager called The Wolf People of Ossory. It's not a very well-known legend in books of Irish legends, but it was about this family that was purported to be cursed/blessed with the ability to turn into wolves when they slept. It wasn't the typical werewolf myth. They weren't monsters. They were just like normal wolves. With being a wolf but with the human minds, they would protect certain people who were in trouble and they would help others, but they were seen as beasts that would attack livestock by others.

“It was a blessing and a curse and we found that really interesting. That's why we didn't want to go down any kind of werewolf route. We wanted to make it very clearly something else, that when Robin turns into the wolf, it's not like she turns into a monster. I think the whole elevator pitch of ‘Robin is a hunter's daughter, but then she becomes the very thing that her father is hunting,’ I think that was a kernel of story that we had seven years ago and it still is very present and very true right to the very end. That was our keynote for the whole thing.”

IFTN: Am I correct to say it was 2013 that you guys started developing all this?

Tomm: Yes. Ross and I had the original idea in 2013, but we didn't really start working on it for a couple of years because I was really busy working on and finishing Song of the Sea and releasing it all. So it would have been 4 or 5 years before we got really down to brass tacks with it.

“I think Song of the sea had a long life afterwards, because I was traveling around festivals and launching in different countries. So there wasn't much time to develop it after Song of the Sea, we worked on developing it for about a year and then we finally got down to it, and Will started doing various drafts and stuff.”

IFTN: Ross, you touched on some of the plot points earlier, but the film is also loosely centered on quite a delicate subject matter, in terms of the early plantation history of Ireland under Cromwell. How did you approach that and establish a non-political balance to telling that story?

Ross: “I think we were more interested in the whole idea of an oppressed society and this autocratic leader and holding on to the reins, controlling people through fear and through punishment. It was the whole turmoil that happened in Ireland around that time that we found really unique and interesting because there was one older way of life been slowly stamped out in any colonization.

Also, it's a really rich part of Irish history. Around the time the whole medieval, there's a certain darkness to it, and a real richness to this change from one society into another.”

Tomm: These historical figures, they're of their time and they have to be assessed of their time and they're more complex than a simple symbol of one thing or another, but there isn't really much debate about how brutal he was in Ireland. People will notice, of course, and most people have noticed that it's actually Cromwell that we're depicting, but we made a conscious choice not to name him in the film just to keep it that people who have no idea of that history could see him more just as a general colonial force rather than any particular historical figure.

“It would probably have more resonance with people in the British Isles about Cromwell, and then I think probably internationally, he will just hopefully read as a figurehead for a certain world view that exists even today.”

Ross: Because it was just supposed to be a universal story that someone who didn't even know where Ireland or England was, could still enjoy the feeling.”

Tomm: “And that there's this polarization everywhere. It takes trying to see things from the other person's point of view to overcome it.”

IFTN: Can you give me a bit of insight into the shorthand you developed working together on The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and how the decision was made to co-director this project?

Tomm: During Song of the sea, Ross and I were asked to direct a small part of a compilation feature called The Prophet; directed by Salma Hayek.  We were able to try out a load of stuff that we wanted to try on Wolfwalkers on that, which was great. Then we were already developing Wolfwalkers while we worked on that, so that was a good first step. We had a shorthand. We've been working together for most of the history of Cartoon Saloon –

Ross: “- Even before that.”

Tomm: Ross was an art director on Song of the sea doing concept work. We were members of young Irish filmmakers as kids and we knew each other since we were about 11 in school, so we had a fairly easy shorthand already. We’re a bit of an old married couple at this stage.”

Ross: Tomm and myself would have grown up, getting inspired by the same films, same graphic novels, we share very similar tastes in visuals. So it was one of the easier parts of co-directing in that, from the very start, we both had a very clear idea that the visuals would be a certain way so very, very few arguments were had.”

IFTN: You both have a strong background in Art Direction. How hands-on were you guys in establishing that aesthetic from the beginning? There are some fantastic contrasts of scenery used within the film such as the juxtaposition between the harsh, rigid, and straight look of the settlement that the English occupying compared with the round and vibrant forestry that you see the Wolfwalkers inhabit whenever the film moves outside to the woods and wilderness.

Tomm: All of that was stuff that Ross and I were doing concepts of. We asked other concept artists to help us out and it was a great period of development. We knew what we wanted early on because it was all the development of stuff that we'd been doing before. So it was actually creating the drawings and concepts ourselves or whether it was directing other artists for what we wanted, I think even the artists, having seen the previous films we've worked on together had a pretty clear idea of the thing that we were going for.”

Ross: Then in story stage, I remember we had a little time in Cartoon Saloon where it was just a Wolfwalker development room. We had this page up on the wall that had a cage, oppression, and being trapped on one side. Then on the other side was freedom, instinct, and wildness. It was very clear that the visuals would have to reinforce that thematic structure of the story and everything connected with the town, Cromwell, Lord Protector, and the oppressors would reinforce that cage visual. Then everything associated with Mebh, the Forest, and Wolfwalkers would be very free and loose. So it just made sense after that. Anything that would contrast or conflict with that idea; we would just change or throw out.”

IFTN: A word I’ve heard used to describe the film is “synesthetic.”  For example, the first transition into becoming a wolf for Robin, the visualization of the scent. It is really incredible.

Tomm: For us, that part was one of the pieces that we didn't really know exactly how to pull off. We had an idea of this thing, we did a lot of concepts, and we worked with different concept art design. We did a lot of research into how wolves see the world and how they experience the world more through scent than sound and visually. They don't even see the amount of colors we do, but they can smell things that happened. They can smell if somebody has been there or they had been in a bad mood and all this interesting stuff.

“We had a lot of ideas around that and then worked with Eimhin McNamara from Paper Panther. He's a brilliant animator and director. He ended up heading up a team of artists that specialized in those sequences. They're the ones, I suppose, that is the biggest break from anything in Cartoon Saloon Features before. They're quite 3D. Even though they're hand-drawn and they're more like the speeder bikes in Return to Jedi or something.” (laughs)

“You're moving through a forest as if you are a wolf, not just as if you are a human running on all fours, but the whole screen changes and becomes black and white and the scents are represented with different colors and the way it's animated is yes, hopefully fairly trippy and synaesthetic.”

Ross: I suppose Cartoon Saloon is known for being a 2D studio, but this was one of the few projects where we built a 3D world. Eimhin had the VR goggles on and was building a forest in VR and then doing camera fly-throughs, then printing out those frames of the camera fly-through, and then hand rendering it with pencil and charcoal. So it was a really interesting mix of doing something CG and then bringing it right back into pencil and paper.

“Wolf vision had to be this immersive roller coaster ride that would make the audience sit up in their chairs. Because obviously Robin after experiencing that, it's such a break from her normal world that she could never really go back to being a normal human after that. Then it has to be something that would be a life-changing experience.”

IFTN: Can you give me a bit of insight into working with the team? What was your most important focus during the production stage of the film?

Ross: Well, Tomm and I were working with Will (Collins, the writer) and then just developing the story. Then we would be doing a lot of visuals and conceptual pieces ourselves. It was just the three of us for a couple of years. Then when we got into pre-production, we had a team of scene illustrators and character designers, and pre-production artists helping us to develop the worlds, develop the characters, and really get the nuts and bolts of the whole visuals together. That would have lasted about a year.

“We would have done a lot of concepts. A lot of scenes illustrations are like a glorified concept where we put in characters and effects and lighting, and really get something that looks like it could be a still from the final movie, which is a reference point for every department after that. Then once production started, it was such a big team that Tom and I, both worked on storyboards, and with the storyboard team, but then Tom took care of the animation and character design while I took care of the backgrounds and layouts.

“It's just a lot of things, a lot of plates spinning for one person. Then once those departments were flowing and once they got a good track on what they were doing, then we ended up directing together again towards the end of production.”

IFTN: One of the great benefits of having two people in the director's role, with the added bonus of established shorthand, is that you can split the workload and be in two places at once. It must have been stress relieving for sure.

Tomm: Yes. I can't imagine how people do it if they didn't know each other already for a long time, but definitely, because we've worked together before it was reasonably easy and there was a fair understanding of what the other one would think. Ross would give me a lot of feedback on the characters and animation and stuff, and I would get involved in backgrounds and all, but we were ready to divide and conquer it too.”

Ross: I think one of the bigger differences between a director of a live-action and the director of animation would be that the departments tend to focus just on their own tasks without maybe being aware of the bigger picture or the story. Even for myself, when I was an art director, I didn't have to think about how the story impacted other departments, so I just didn't. Now I could see from being a director how people would just maybe micromanage their own departments. I suppose some of the staff were just there to remind people how certain things that they were doing would affect the overall story and the overall themes and the overall mood of the piece. It's kind of just like having a bigger picture.”

IFTN: The film has some great actors including Sean Bean, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Tommy Tiernan. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to working with voice actors and how to get the best results?

Tomm: The good thing about it was that a lot of the people we cast were people we had in mind when we were designing the characters, particularly Sean Bean and we were lucky enough to get our first choice for nearly everyone. I always find voice directing is (especially with the adults), it's just casting. If you've got the right person and they understand your intention, it often goes fairly smoothly.

“I guess with the kids, it was a little bit of a longer process because it's the same thing really, like if you find the right kid. We were really lucky, again, it is pretty painless, but it's more the case of the casting process, which is hard. We worked with Louise Kiely and again for the adults, she was great, she just sort of liaised with agents, but for the kids, she got a huge amount of auditions from little girls in England and in Ireland for Robin and Mebh.”

Ross: “We were working with such professionals that we didn't really have to give too many notes, even when we were recording, I think because we knew the storyboards and we knew the mood of the scene or the sequence, we might say like, ‘Oh, well, it might be a little bit calmer in this one or a little bit angrier in that one,’ but really it was very few and far between the notes that were given. Mostly we're just sitting there and going, ‘Wow’.”

“Especially with Eva Whittaker the little girl who does Mebh, she was just involved in amateur dramatics with her school before and we were a little bit worried how she might be able to pull off the huge ranges of emotions that Mebh goes through like when she’s roaring her head off and then crying. There were times during recording where we would just be silent after her performance and there'd be hair standing up in the back of your neck, and there would just be electricity in the room after. We'd just be saying, ‘Jesus, Eva are you okay?’ Then she'd turn around all bubbly and go, ‘Yes. Did you like it?’ [laughs] It's just amazing.”

IFTN: How did Apple get involved with the project and what were the benefits of having such a massive organization like that backing the film compared to previous projects?

Tomm: Yes. They were fairly hands-off, thankfully. They came on after we were already financed and in production as a co-production, so they bought the international rights just at the end of our pre-production process. They had some feedback, but they weren't deeply artistically picky. They just guided us a bit towards the kind of things that were important to keep it perfectly suitable for their platform, and then we kicked into gear.

“The partnership was only kicked into gear the last few months because it had been planning a lot of publicity. I guess if it wasn't COVID times, there would be a more physical promotion, but a lot of their focus is online, and they have a massive reach. The amount of views that the trailer had just a couple of days after it had been released is massively due to the fact that Apple is part of it. It's kind of fun and weird that financial news will talk about Wolfwalkers because it's to do with Apple and they're the third biggest company in the world or something crazy.

“The actual people working in there are lovely, they are creative people as well. We know Tara Sorensen the Head of Kids Programming since we worked with her on a TV show when she was in Amazon. She's someone who really engaged in children's animation, children's entertainment, she understands the whole thing, and then she's built a team around her of amazing publicity, marketing, all that kind of thing. It's exciting that we're able to go bigger than we've ever gone before. So going out on an equal footing with any of the stuff from Netflix or Disney or Sony this year is massive.”

IFTN: What are your thoughts on the current state of animation and independent mainstream cinema? Are there any trends that you're particularly excited about?

Tomm: “Cinema, is hardly worth talking about; animation didn't get released unless it was a blockbuster before and now nothing is getting released. What's exciting is really streaming services, because they're actually fighting with each other and they're able to target niche audiences. You can have something like The Midnight Gospel. Some mad trippy philosophical series on something like Netflix; I just can't imagine a broadcaster making that before, Maybe Adult Swim or something. Every type of animation that's currently in production, it's like there's hand-drawn animation happening, stop-motion happening, and all that, the CG is pushing into different directions. It's quite exciting.

“Like Into the Spiderverse for the first time was a big success with a major character, major property, but was really experimental visually. So that has opened the doors for a lot more experimentation even within mainstream animation. I haven't seen it yet, but the buzz on Pixar's Soul is that it's really visually and thematically experimental and adventurous, which is exciting. It’s an amazing time in animation, I think, personally.

Ross: In Irish animation, there seem to be studios opening up every year as well and it's actually hard to find Irish people applying for jobs here in animation. It just seems like when we left college, we were given the choice of either getting into the computer games industry in England or to find another job in a different industry. Whereas now, people are coming out of college and they can almost pick which studio to go and work with.”

Tomm: “Hard to believe someone as talented as Ross was working in a box factory for a while after college.” [laughs]

Ross: I miss those days in the box factory. I got to drive a forklift. It was really cool.”

IFTN: Are there any particular live-action films over the last couple of years that have really inspired you and what do you feel that live-action can learn from animation to add to it?

Tomm: It's a great question. I always loved Wes Anderson's films and he plays in both animation and live-action. His live-action is like animation. I just like his whole aesthetic. He's got a picture book aesthetic that I really like and he has the visual language that's more like an illustration than normal cinematography. He tells the story with where things are arranged and how they are arranged and how they are placed in the screen and colors. He's a very painterly director and he works with cinematographers and the team that obviously boosts a lot of stuff.”

Ross: You can see some of the compositions that we plan are similar in a visually aesthetic way. A lot of central parallel lines, balanced pictures. I think he's been an inspiration for nearly, it would be 10, 15 years.”

Tomm: We had the Wes Anderson appreciation society. I made a little Wes Anderson badge for myself and Adrian and Lily, they were background artists on The Secret of Kells, and they made these little, very Wes Anderson-esque club badges.” [laughs]

IFTN: We're often very much our own worst critics in a sense. What would each of your approaches be to constructive criticism and inward reflection after a project?

Ross: Well, constructive criticism is always good. I think the danger is that you try and change your style to suit other people's tastes, which is counterproductive. Whether you're an illustrator or an animator or anything like that, you should be happy with your own style and you should be proud of it. Really the way to develop as an artist, I feel, is to learn skills. Whether it's representational drawing or life-drawing or painting or anything like that, there are skills that are universal.

“If someone is trying to draw a manga, a comic or anime or a Cartoon Saloon style, or trying to change their personal style to fit another studio or a certain genre, then that can be counterproductive. I think when we see portfolios, we can sometimes see if people are tailoring their style to suit that studio style, whereas some of the more successful interns and applicants to jobs that we've had in the last couple of years are ones where they have a really unique personal style. It shows that they're thinking about design and thinking about being original and thinking about being unique. That's what gets their foot in the door.”

IFTN: Tom, what would your advice be on that front?

Tomm: From when I look back on directing, I think the main skill is emotional intelligence. So much of it is interacting with other artists and making sure that you're inspiring them or that you're giving them the freedom that they can bring something of themselves too, without going too far from what you're doing. I think directing is hugely about getting the best out of people and knowing when you've asked too much or if there's not more, if it couldn't be better.

“I always used to say, it's like County Hurling, you have your team and you have to get the best out of it. You just have your team. They're the people that make movies. We direct them and guide them, but it's theirs as much as ours. You have to keep them all on the same path and we keep them motivated. I don't think I've ever finished garnering and learning. Maybe if I worked really hard someday, I'll be satisfied with myself as a craftsperson, but I can't imagine ever coming to a point where I feel, ‘All right, I know everything there is to know about directing people and helping them grow as artists.’ I think that's continuous.”

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