Interview: Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart talk Wolfwalkers, Cartoon Saloon and Apple TV+
Ivan Radford | On 24, Oct 2020
Say the words “Cartoon Saloon” to any film fan and their ears will prick up. After Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells and The Breadwinner, not to mention Puffin Rock, the Irish studio has established itself as vital, distinctive voice in animation, standing shoulder to shoulder with Studio Ghibli and Disney.
This autumn, the studio returns with Wolfwalkers, one of its most personal and enchanting stories yet. Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the 17th-century story is once again rooted in Irish folklore. Set in Kilkenny during the occupation by Oliver Cromwell’s forces, it follows Robyn, a young apprentice hunter whose father, Bill, is hired to wipe out the last of the wolf pack in the woods surrounding the town. In the forest, she meets the free-spirited Mebh, a girl from a mysterious tribe rumoured to have the ability to transform into wolves by night. As they search for Mebh’s missing mother, Robyn uncovers a secret that turns her seemingly simple world upside down, leading to a magical tale of friendship and understanding.
After premiering at the London Film Festival (read our five-star review here), the film hits UK cinemas on Monday 26th October, before arriving on Apple TV+ worldwide on 11th December.
We sat down with Moore and Stewart to talk about the making of their environmental fable, changing the gender of their main character, and working with Apple TV+ and Netflix.
Cartoon Saloon almost has a brand now, and not just because the studio seems incapable of making a bad film – are you conscious of that when you’re thinking about your next project?
Tomm Moore: Oh, we’re very capable, but we do have an amazing team. I’m definitely getting to a point where I’m not afraid that it’s gonna look bad. But I don’t like to think “Cartoon Saloon”. I think the films I’ve either directed or co-directed definitely all fit together. And I think they’re definitely exploring themes that at each point have been very meaningful to me and my co-directing partners. But there are other projects Cartoon Saloon does, and I think we try and do everything to the same level. But the criteria by which we judge things is more just “Are we excited about this?” – you know, we don’t judge it by anything else, it’s just like “Is this a project that we really want to get our teeth into as a studio?”
Ross Stewart: I’d say like a “non-Cartoon Saloon project”, like one that wouldn’t seem to fit would probably be one that doesn’t have like a, you know, heart or message or something that is just like, a cheap way to make money.
TM: The worst thing would be to try and take on something that was just, you knew at the outset was a way to like, you know, advertise toys or something. I had so much admiration for The LEGO Movie, because I was totally cynical, going “This is just crap, this is just going to try and sell LEGO”. And I think that what the guys did was they found a way in that was really about creativity and childhood, and it was really positive, you know, and I, my hat goes off to people who can do that, because there’s directors in the industry who can take any project, and make it, you know, and have a lot more heart than it might seem on the surface. But for me, and for most of my collaborators, I think we need to have something at the beginning that we can really grab on to and feel like, this is something that would be better to be in the world than not to be in the world.
“I just want to draw the characters until I think I’ve met them”
How did you approach directing together on this? When did you decide you would co-direct?
TM: From the beginning.
RS: Yeah. We were at a story workshop up in Dublin. And over lunch, we just kind of threw together like a very, very rough little concept of an idea. And I found a piece of paper from that lunch a couple of weeks ago. And what was fascinating is that some of the core elements of that first idea 7 years ago still ended up on screen. You know, like it went through lots and lots of changes, but there were still some core elements that managed to last the whole way through. Tomm and myself have been friends for a long time. And we tested the waters co-directing on The Prophet, we did a short segment we co-directed on that. So we kind of knew that it should work. In theory.
TM: I’d worked so closely with Ross on a lot of projects in the studio, probably most notably he was art director on The Secret of Kells. So I kind of knew there was a lot that Ross could bring to Wolfwalkers and that it would be kind of a relief for me to have a partner in crime. I kind of wanted this film to be even more collaborative than previous films had been, like we talked about earlier that we had a lot of trust in the artists that we gathered around us. And we felt like, okay, we’re co directors and Ross will focus hugely on certain aspects of the production, like say, the backgrounds and the art direction, because that was his strength. I’d work with the animators a little bit more. We come together on the story, we come together on the music, but felt that we could divide and conquer and get to a point where we were able to empower our teams to bring a lot to us, because we’ve been through the trenches enough.
“Everything just made much more sense with her as a girl”
That piece of paper from 7 years ago – what’s on it? Just words? Or do you automatically start thinking visually?
RS: Yeah, I’d say so. The page now, there wouldn’t be so many coherent sentences on it, just like a bunch of like, you know, words and that. But one of the things was the idea of where the hunter becomes the hunted – I think that was one of our core elements. And that lasted the whole way through. But I think Tomm and myself, because we have quite visual minds, we would immediately start thinking of images, or maybe scenes or maybe like set points that would be iconic things. So Bill aiming his crossbow at his daughter, that would have been one of the core images that we would have thought up. And so throughout the whole film, there would have been little core images like that, that, that you could latch on.
TM: You’re always looking for an image that’s kind of mythic, I remember hitting on the moment that Bill holds on to Robyn so tight, things like that are really powerful. And definitely, when you’re developing the characters, it’s very early on. For me, I just want to draw the characters until I think I’ve met them, I don’t go too far into the writing process without some concept of what the characters going to look like. We experimented a lot with Mebh to find her and when we found her it kind of solidified. And when Robyn changed gender early on, we already had a design for her as a boy. And we had a script. And it was kind of a bit painful to consider changing, but once we found a design for her as a girl, it was like, “Ah, this makes so much more sense.”
What fed into that decision to make Robyn a girl?
TM: A number of things like we knew that the focus kept on drifting towards the dad, and a little boy in that scenario was just like a mini version of Bill, you know, what society expected of him. Everything was kind of doubled. Whereas if the dad was also pushing against what Robyn wanted to do, what was expected of her as a girl in society and how trapped she would be, everything just made much more sense with her as a girl – it was such an obvious thing to do. But again, we had to write a full drafted script and design the character and everything before getting to that point.
RS: If Robyn as a little boy had been saying, “Oh, I want to be a hunter, just like my dad,” society would have gone, “Yeah, OK, great.” Whereas as a girl, she’s immediately not allowed to. And I think another strong thing as well is that like, when Robyn meets Mebh and sees that Mebh leads such a free life and does whatever she wants, it gives her more of an idea that she can be like this other girl. It gives her much more of a direct comparison.
“I was really inspired by The Tale of the Princess Kaguya…”
The visual differences between the two, the way Mebh’s world is scratch, curvy and natural and Kilkenny is angular, how early on do you start aiming for that contrast?
TM: That was really an expansion and stuff, like Ross did concepts for Song of the Sea where Adrian, who was the art director on Song of the Sea, always drew with a pen, but in Ross’s concepts, he used a pencil and watercolours for the forest and stuff. So we decided on Song of the Sea to have a difference like that – we drew the forest a little bit softer, with pencil and watercolour. That was a subtle, subtle thing in Song of the Sea, but Ross and I discussed it and agreed to go as far as we could with that in Wolfwalkers. I remember it being one of the things that excited me about doing the project was pushing the hand-drawn animation as far as possible. I was really inspired by The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which came out at the same time as Song of the Sea, and it really showed me we could go much further.
RS: Yeah, because we have two contrasting worlds in the story. So like, the visuals have to try and amplify that and serve that as best as possible. So if the forest can be as wild and as free and as organic and chaotic as possible. And then the town is rigid and as cage-like as possible, then it’s only going to help you know, like even if it’s at a subconscious level.
“We used VR and built it in 3D… then printed that out as a guide”
The “Wolfvision” sequences, when we see the world through a wolf’s perspective with these colourful bursts of senses, are stunning – it’s almost 3D…?
TM: That was the real challenge – to go into something more 3D, which was the opposite of what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, and still have it feel hand-drawn.I was over in Greece at a festival and it hit me that I’d always admired the Paper Panther studio, a tiny little studio in Dublin. And there were these guys who were always using the best of modern technology and the best of old stuff. So they were doing like, you know, paint on glass animation and cut-paper animation. They’d done a couple of episodes of a series that we were doing of Irish language songs and we asked Eimhin [McNamara], one of the founders of paper punter, to help us come up with how we bridge this gap. And he and Ross and I sort of had an idea, like, we knew we needed a limited palette, because it was the canine worldview, we knew the senses were going to be the thing, but Eimhin really took it to another level. And what he did was, yeah, he literally built stuff in 3D – he used VR and built it in 3D, but very crudely, very loosely. And then he printed that out as a guide. He had a team of people because it was three minutes of animation that took the entire three years of production to produce, because they printed the 3D frame by frame, and then put a page over that in a lightbox and draw the forest over and over again, frame by frame. So the camera was flying through a hand-drawn forest, not a CG model.
TM: It’s the craziest thing ever! But as animation geeks, we all just had to bow down in front of Eimhin. And what they were doing was really something – outside of Japan. I don’t think anyone…
RS: Outside of Richard Williams as well. He’s just be like “Yeah, another day in the office!”
Wolfwalkers is an Apple TV+ original film. What was that experience like? Was Apple very hands-off?
TM: Tara Sorensen, who’s the head of the family and kids stuff in Apple, was somebody that we knew and she was one of those kind of executives who are kind of the old BBC commissioning editor types that, you know, they want to make stuff that’s good for kids. She’s doing something with Oliver Jeffers, with Sesame Street, we felt the brand that she’s building for Apple TV+ is very ‘us’, you know, it feels right for us. So yes, she trusted us. And it was great. There wasn’t any real creative interference or anything like that. And they’ve been a big support on the kind of marketing side of things. So it’s been a good partnership so far. I mean, they’re massive, which is a bit scary. But yeah, because we knew Tara we kind of trusted her and it was a boost for the budget and everything you know.
Cartoon Saloon has got My Father’s Dragon with Netflix coming up next. You’re not directing, but can you tell us anything about it?
TM: It’s massive! It’s like three times bigger than Wolfwalkers and Wolfwalkers is huge. It’s like crowds of people and forest jungles full of animals. And I mean, like, the original book is just a jumping off point. What Nora [Twomey] and Meg LeFauve, the writer, have created is epic. It’s exciting to see – and I’m glad I don’t have to do it! But I’m excited to see what they come up with. A lot of our team from Wolfwalkers have moved on to that and I can see them bringing everything they learned on Wolfwalkers to it, so I’m excited for that. We also have a team working on a new movie of Puffin Rock, based on the series that we have on Netflix – it’s like climate change for preschoolers, it’s really interesting, because it’s a little rock where all the puffins lives and it’s getting overcrowded because it’s full of refugee puffins, because the water is rising and there are storms and stuff everywhere. It’s kind of a story that maybe, you know, today’s preschoolers are gonna have to get used to, so it’s a really important movie too.
“Netflix said no to Wolfwalkers early on, and I think they regretted it.”
Netflix has said it’s looking to release 6 animated films a year. Are you excited about the current landscape for animation? Are there more opportunities out there in terms of backing?
TM: Netflix said no to Wolfwalkers early on, and I think they regretted it. Phil Rynda in there is an old friend of mine and he’s always kicking himself about that one! But yeah, I think they changed their policy. I think at the start, they were tentatively dipping their toe in the water. And I think when we pitched Wolfwalkers, they were doing Klaus and doing My Father’s Dragon already, and that was enough. Now it seems like they’re like “Right, let’s go”. I had lunch in there with Phil and while I was having lunch I met like Glen Keane, Jorge Gutierrez, Chris Williams, like all these awesome animators from Disney and DreamWorks, and they’re all at Netflix now. So you get the feeling that they’re really gonna, they’re gonna do some amazing stuff, you know?
And then there’s the reach that goes with that too – you’ve got cinemas as well as Apple TV+ for Wolfwalkers
TM: That was very important for us, because as partners, they agreed to us keeping our old relationships, you know, with the distributors internationally.
“It’s amazing that these streamers are trying lots of different things.”
What’s your perspective on cinemas and online distribution and everything? Has that changed since the coronavirus pandemic?
TM: It’s hard to know, it’s hard to know. The pandemic is one thing that makes you glad that we have the Apple TV+ release, because maybe people won’t be able to see it in cinemas. And I’m glad that streamers are able to show it to like, maybe there might be a few Cartoon Saloon fans somewhere in the middle of Europe or Asia or Australia, and they’ll be able to see it, even if it’s not in a cinema. But on the other hand, what I’m conscious of is that right now, it’s amazing that these streamers are investing in really different things, trying lots of different things. As a cynical old hack in the industry at this stage, I hope that continues and that they don’t suddenly notice that one particular thing works, and then they stop doing the other stuff. I’m excited right now, because we’re in this kind of Precambrian explosion of animation styles. And I hope that evolves into more crazy stuff and, you know, doesn’t go narrow again.
What’s the last thing you watched in lockdown?
TM: I watch Babyteeth the other night, and it broke my heart.
RS: My Octopus Teacher. I liked it.
TM: Yeah, that’s a gorgeous film too.
Wolfwalkers is available on Apple TV+ from 11th December. You can also rent the film for £5 at the Manchester Animation Festival from 15th to 21st November. Click here for more details.