Book Review: The Art of Wolfwalkers

Authors: Charles Solomon

Publication Date: 2020

Publisher: Abrams

Pages: 224 pages

Hello again, everyone! It has been over a year now since my last book review and, honestly, I miss writing them. They’re always among my more popular posts – probably because they don’t take several days to read – and as work on The Incredibles review slowly progresses, this seemed like the perfect time to do another one. August is always a hectic month for me at work, but this one has been particularly gruelling due to staffing shortages, so while I will certainly do my best to get the next film review out before the end of the month, I suspect there might be a delay. Since I don’t want the month to end with no post (I’ve always managed at least one every month since starting this blog), I’m preparing this now – just in case.

One of the few bright spots of 2020, for me, was seeing the magnificent Cartoon Saloon feature Wolfwalkers on the big screen, so naturally when I saw there was an accompanying art book, it went straight to the top of my Christmas wish list. Even better, it’s by Charles Solomon, one of the best art book authors in the biz whose work I have discussed many times before, so I knew I was in for a treat with this one. The book also features a foreword by master animator James Baxter (who proudly points out his contribution of two shots for the film) and an afterword by the film’s directors, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart. For this volume, Solomon uses the standard landscape format of most modern art books and packs it full of gorgeous concept art, storyboards and photos, but what I really love is the way he allows the filmmakers to speak for themselves throughout much of the book, keeping to the background and simply contextualising and organising their anecdotes. Solomon’s work is always thorough, detailed and full of respect for the medium of animation, so I’m deeply glad that Cartoon Saloon were able to secure him to write about this beautiful film.

Solomon #13

The book opens with a short chapter entitled “Inspiration: Shape-Shifters in Ireland”, which tells of the origins of the myth which Wolfwalkers is based on. Specifically, Mebh and Robyn’s transformations borrow from the story of the Werewolves of Ossory, which various medieval Irish, English and Norse works considered to be descendants of a legendary figure named Laignech Fáelad, the progenitor of the kings of the medieval Irish kingdom of Ossory. The chapter also features a fascinating spread of historical artwork and shots from studio field trips, all of which helped to inspire the team during pre-production.

Next comes one of the meatier chapters, simply entitled “Story”, where we learn more about the project’s origins. Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart were childhood friends and had already worked together as sequence directors on Roger Allers’ 2014 film The Prophet, so they had a strong rapport. Writer Will Collins, meanwhile, had joined the studio a while back for Song of the Sea (2014) after first seeing Cartoon Saloon’s YouTube trailer for The Secret of Kells (2009) and becoming interested in their storytelling approach. As Solomon shows us, Collins and the directors shared a lot of the same sensibilities, wanting Wolfwalkers to be about “animal rights, wilderness, freedom and oppression {and} folktales”, among other things – they had a lot to say in this story. Stewart explains how they zeroed in on Oliver Cromwell as the “natural bad guy” of mid-seventeenth century Ireland and delved into his doctrines to get a better understanding of what motivated him, combining his extreme Puritanical views with the Ossory-inspired story to create a natural conflict. Assistant director Mark Mullery worked to be the group’s “tiebreaker”, offering an opinion or a final decision whenever the two directors disagreed on a particular point.

Quoting further from the filmmakers, Solomon covers the development of the storyboards and the animatic, then wraps up by discussing how the film’s setting was tied into real history, giving the film a rather bittersweet ending (as of course, the real wolves of Ireland were pushed to extinction not long after this time period). We then have a fine selection of concept art, directors’ notes and actual storyboards to close the chapter.

One of the more visual chapters covers “Characters” and includes a discussion of the gendered aspect of the story, as Robyn originally started as a male character before the directors decided her struggle would make more sense for a girl. Solomon discusses the casting and quotes the directors’ own explanations of the relationships between the different characters, particularly focusing on how Robyn relates to her father, Bill, and to Mebh. However, the focus of this chapter is mainly fabulous concept art – it’s always fun to see how differently the characters could have ended up looking.

The chapter on “Direction” opens with a great sentence from Solomon which neatly sums up how big of a job directing is: “The director of an animated feature must possess the tact of an ambassador, a miniaturist’s eye for detail, the endurance of a marathon runner, a general’s ability to rally the troops, and the patience of Job”. I enjoyed the insight into animation direction as distinct from general film direction, as it’s not an aspect of the process that I’ve seen discussed much in other art books. Solomon and the team explain the way the directorial duo worked; how different tasks were taken up by those best suited to them, and the role Mark Mullery played in supporting Moore and Stewart. The chapter also highlights the increasingly important role of the editors in this digital era, which for this film were Darragh Byrne, Richie Cody and Darren T. Holmes. As is common in animation, a portion of the work was outsourced abroad to Studio 352 in Luxembourg and to Fost Studio (a spinoff of Folivari) in Paris, but less common was the interruption caused by the outbreak of a pandemic; the chapter closes with an explanation of the effect this had on production, which was, luckily, nearing completion by then.

Solomon #15

Now we come to one of my favourite sections, “Design”, which is divided up by location. Maria Pareja was both the film’s production designer and one of its art directors alongside Moore and Stewart, so Solomon duly spends some time exploring her art style and explaining her techniques, noting the harmony needed in shot composition to give the film a cohesive aesthetic. She seems to have been the Cartoon Saloon equivalent of Mary Blair on this film, imprinting the design with her own unique flair. Another talented artist, Alice Dieudonné, created the film’s colour script, a key part of most animated features’ development that’s rather like a more mood-focused storyboard, and we also hear from some of the character designers about the importance of strong graphic design and, once again, consistency.

“Old Kilkenny” is the first location to be discussed, detailing the history of the real town of Kilkenny while reminding the reader that the film version is a fantastical version and not strictly accurate (great section for a history buff like me). “Town Line vs. Forest Line” then breaks down the different design approaches used for the contrasting rectilinear and curvilinear locales, referencing such classics as One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) as sources of inspiration. “The Irish Forest” reminds me of a similar section in Jeff Kurtti’s art book for Tangled (2010), in which the filmmakers describe the lengths they went to in order to properly capture the palette of an Irish forest (many of the artists were from more humid climates) and Solomon provides further historical background on the forest’s dark fate.

Continuing the artistic theme, we come to “Layout and Background”, another sumptuous section on an aspect of animated cinema which I sometimes feel goes underappreciated. Layout supervisor Leo Weiss and lead layout artist Antonia Yordanova (or Gancheva in the book, perhaps she’s gotten married?) discuss scene planning, the creation of their version of Kilkenny, the placement of characters for maximum readability and the preservation of linework in the animation. They also talk more about other sources of inspiration, noting Disney’s Bambi (1942) as a big one, and cover techniques for using layout to direct the viewers’ gaze to the right part of the screen.

Solomon #14

Towards the end of the book, we of course have a chapter on “Animation”. It focuses a lot on the importance of “posing”, a technique for better unifying the many artists’ work by expressing character clearly and consistently. For Wolfwalkers, this process was supervised by Andrzej Radka, while animation supervisor Svend Rothmann Bonde worked to seamlessly coordinate the scene posing and animation departments (Nicolas Debray filled the same role at Studio 352). There’s a lot of talk about the acting skills required of an animator, with different people taking on different scenes according to their specialities in order to maximise the quality of the overall work, and the filmmakers note the importance of keeping each character consistent across different designs – such as when the girls become wolves. The chapter wraps up by lamenting the difficulties posed by animating large crowds, and of combining stylistic choices with proper physics to ensure effects like fire “read” properly on screen.

There is also a short section devoted to the film’s unique effect, dubbed “Wolfvision”, through which Robyn experiences the world as a wolf. This was designed to resemble the way real wolves are believed to see the world, through scent rather than sight, but Moore also cites the backgrounds of Richard Williams’ Oscar-winning short A Christmas Carol (1971) as a key source of inspiration. A technical challenge from start to finish, Wolfvision needed to stand out from the rest of the film and ignite the viewers’ imagination – for any of you who were lucky enough to see it on the big screen, I think you’ll agree that they succeeded admirably.

The penultimate chapter covers “Music”, which for Cartoon Saloon meant a return to trusted collaborators Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kíla. The musicians first came aboard for The Secret of Kells back in 2009 (and Kíla had known the studio heads since 1999), so by the time of Wolfwalkers, they had become integral parts of the production process and were involved from the beginning. Like the artists, the musicians wanted to reflect the dichotomy between the worlds of the town and the forest; Solomon tells how they batted ideas back and forth with the writer and directors, even experimenting with using real medieval instruments before deciding they were too “distracting”. While the orchestra were recorded by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra in Sofia, Kíla were recorded at the Grouse Lodge Studios in Moate, Ireland (the voice cast were also recorded here), which the band described as “enchanted”. Solomon also makes mention of Aurora Aksnes and her wonderful new version of Running With the Wolves, originally released in 2015.

Finally, in keeping with Solomon’s meticulous efforts not to overlook any member of the team, “Putting it Together: The Back End” is devoted to the checking, ink and paint, and compositing departments – led by John R. Walsh, Helga Kristjana Bjarnadóttir and Serge Umé, respectively. Here, he talks about how the advent of digital technology has simplified what remains a highly complicated and time-consuming process, with all three departments keeping in close communication to ensure each was delivering what the others needed. Mark Mullery notes wryly the artists’ tendency towards perfectionism, saying that giving artists limitations can be a good thing in filmmaking. We close this deeply engrossing volume with an afterword from Moore and Stewart (the latter’s words are quite moving), along with the usual bibliography (mostly for the Irish history references) and acknowledgements from the directors (complete with an amusing caricature of the author).

I absolutely adore this one; it’s another valuable addition to any animation lover’s library, because it explores the general process of animated filmmaking within the context of Wolfwalkers’ production, while also offering a glimpse into life at a smaller studio rather than a massive Hollywood conglomerate. Well organised and lavishly illustrated, I highly recommend snapping this one up now before it goes out of print – Charles Solomon never disappoints! There are two other art books available for Cartoon Saloon’s other Irish films, The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, but they’re out of print and difficult to find for a reasonable price. I’m hoping to track down affordable copies in time, so watch this space!

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this long-delayed return to the book reviews. Next time, we’ll be diving into the wonders of The Incredibles to kick off our Pixar season, hopefully around the end of August or early September. Then, I’m planning to cover Over the Garden Wall, followed by WALL-E and Avatar: The Last Airbender as we head into autumn. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!


Buy it on Amazon: – UK – US

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: