Oscar buzz is rapidly building for Wolfwalkers, the new animated feature from Cartoon Saloon. The Kilkenny studio’s latest, about a 17th-century wolf hunter who has a change of heart, is already regarded as a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature nomination by most Hollywood pundits. But if directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart are excited at the prospect, they’re not letting on.
“We try not to get too caught up in it because you have no control over it,” says Moore. “You know, you put something out there and hope it's good. The Twitter conversation has listed us as a contender quite a bit. You hope you don't break the streak.”
Of course, all three of Cartoon Saloon’s previous features - The Breadwinner, Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells - have been nominated, but 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is an astonishingly impressive piece of work, the studio’s best yet. It also marks a step-up in terms of onscreen action. It’s a busy, stirring, thrilling film that zips along and is full of big ideas.
“It's much more of an action adventure,” agrees Moore. “It's an action adventure involving a whole town full of people, a whole army of soldiers and a whole pack of wolves. So it was a mammoth task in terms of animation and production.
“We use computers to help us in certain ways, but we're still really sticking to drawing the characters. Each character has 12 drawings per second. And we have many, many characters on screen. So it's a mammoth task. We had a team of animators working with us here in Kilkenny, a team in France and in Luxembourg. It was a huge undertaking, and it was more ambitious than we'd ever tried before.”
Set in 17th-century Ireland, the movie tells of Robyn, the daughter of an Englishman sent to Ireland both to rule over the locals and wipe out the wolf population. But when Robyn meets feisty Mebh, who walks and lives with the wolves, she begins to question her family’s intentions.
The historical and political connections are evident, but the film also dips into stories that used to be told locally. “It's folklore that has been a bit forgotten, which is part of the theme,” says Moore. “We wanted to talk about everything that we lose when we lose species and species extinction that's going on around the world.
“There were stories around Kilkenny and Laois of wolves that would help people and people who could turn into wolves. All that's kind of been forgotten, because I think the wolves have been eliminated for so long. And so a story about the time when the wolves are being systematically destroyed seems appropriate to the themes we wanted to explore.
“You had this parallel between a kid coming over from England with her dad, wanting to kill the wolves, and the little girl who's living with the wolves as part of the wolves ecosystem and how those two kids could become friends from such different backgrounds.”
Friends since they were children and long-time collaborators, Moore and Stewart brought their own ideas and skills to the project. Stewart recalls the duo working on the story together for the first four years, with Will Collins the scriptwriter.
"Tomm and myself had a little room where we would do concepts and images that we thought were instrumental moments in the film, and then worked on character designs just to get us really rooted in the idea. We would have been developing the visual style together. So we were very much on the same page, visually, for the entire movie.
“Tomm and myself have known each other since we were eleven, and we're very much into the same things. For the co-directing, Tomm did focus more on animation and character and I focused more on backround painting and colour. So we diverged at a certain point in the middle of production. And then once those departments were wrapping up, we came back in, we were both involved in compositing and editing and effects and all the pre-production as well.”
Moore, who co-founded Cartoon Saloon with Paul Young and Cork-born animator Nora Twomey, says he could never have anticipated that one day it would become a leading force in the animation industry. The five-year plan in the early days was to make a movie and be able to pay the bills, he recalls. Like Stewart, in his teenage years his interest in filmmaking was fostered by Kilkenny-based organisation Young Irish Film Makers.
“I think when we started, we kind of thought that we'd be lucky if we got our film made that we wanted to make. And then we'd all go off and get real jobs as it were. It's been an amazing thing that's just kept on going. It's lovely. And we have people from all over the world working with us now in Kilkenny.
" Ross and me grew up in Kilkenny, there wasn't that many people into cartoons and animation and comics back then. But now we've got about 300 artists from all over the world working with us on different projects.”
In recent years, Ireland has become a large global player in animation, with many animators, having established themselves here or worked in studios abroad, contributing to what has become a strong indigenous industry. Last year animation accounted for almost 50% of all production spending here.
Cartoon Saloon animators are currently working on two high-profile projects. Puffin Rock, the charming and hugely successful series for pre-schoolers on Netflix and RTÉ, is to find new life as a movie. Nora Twomey is directing My Father’s Dragon, a big, ambitious project, for Netflix.
Working remotely during Covid-19 restrictions is very animation friendly, while the disruption of live-action production worldwide this year means that demand for programming from broadcasters and streamers has soared. There’s a sense of possibility and confidence in the air.
“I think when we were growing up, we probably had an idea that we would have had to emigrate,” says Moore. “All of the good artists usually made it in Disney in America or went off and had a good job in a big studio. So I don't think at a young age, we were thinking: ‘Oh, yeah, we'll make our own studio’. But now in Ireland, there are studios popping up everywhere. And it seems to be much more of a post-Celtic Tiger attitude of: ‘I’ll just make my own animation studio and I'll make my own content’.”
- Wolfwalkers is in cinemas from December 2 and on Apple TV from December 11