Inside the Look of 'Wolfwalkers' with Sandra Andersen

Plus: the animation stories of the week, a moving short film and more.

Welcome to the Animation Obsessive newsletter! We’re glad to have you.

This week, we’re speaking with Sandra Andersen of Cartoon Saloon about her time on Wolfwalkers. Her work was integral to the film’s rich design — she finalized characters, drew model sheets and served as the lead posing artist. Andersen tells us how it all came together.

After that, stick around for the week’s top animation news, buried treasure on Tubi and a highlight from the world of Chinese independent animation. Let’s not waste any more time — here we go!

Sandra Andersen on Wolfwalkers

By now, Wolfwalkers needs no introduction. It’s become a hit for Cartoon Saloon, the plucky Irish studio with five Oscar nominations to its name. And the hype keeps building. The film won big at the Annies this week, continuing its impressive streak.

Wolfwalkers owes a lot of its wide appeal to its immaculate design — especially where the characters are concerned. Robyn and Mebh are Cartoon Saloon’s most charming heroes, blending heavy stylization with the appeal of classic cartoons. A whole team of artists made this design possible, and we reached out to one of them.

Sandra Andersen is a Danish artist and a long-time Cartoon Saloon member — a veteran from Song of the Sea, Puffin Rock, The Breadwinner and more. She’s been rising through the ranks for years, ever since co-founder Tomm Moore noticed her skill.

Even a quick flip through The Art of Wolfwalkers shows that Andersen was an important force in the film’s final design. Her model sheets bring the characters to life, coalescing the best of the earlier concept art. But her work as a posing artist was no less crucial. In a Cartoon Saloon project, every angle matters.

Below, Andersen explains the pipeline that Cartoon Saloon used to make the characters in Wolfwalkers look right. As you’ll see, the studio deployed its full bag of tricks to make these abstract characters feel like people. (Our conversation has been edited for formatting, flow and clarity.)

Animation Obsessive: You’re quoted in the artbook as saying, “We want to keep what looks best. For the wolves, instead of turning the designs around all the time, we pushed for certain angles that looked the best. Same for the human characters.” Could you offer some examples of how this philosophy affected the film?

Sandra Andersen: The challenge with stylized, graphic characters is that you don’t want them to move like cutouts on the screen. You need to be able to turn them around. However, due to the stylization, a lot of angles simply look off and awkward. There’s an art to choosing angles that make the character look lively and appealing, rather than twisting and turning the character like a 3D model.

If you look at traditional animation, characters are usually built up by volumes, which makes it easier to turn them around in animation. This is not the Cartoon Saloon way, as shape and strong designs always come first. It requires a different approach for animators. Some volume is built into the characters, but the artists also have to think in shapes as they draw and animate.

Flipping through the artbook, it’s clear that Mebh and Robyn went through quite a few iterations by the design team. Could you explain some of the thinking that led to your final model sheets and do/don't guides for those characters?

My job as a final designer and model sheet artist was to figure out what it is about the characters that’s important and makes them unique, and then try to break them down for animation. I looked for volume in the shapes so I could make turnarounds and find new angles. I tried to distill what the directors liked about the concept art of the characters, and keep it.

It can be a very technical and analytical process, but, at the same time, you need to keep the appeal of the character. A lot of work goes into the turnaround, and there’s always plenty of back and forth before anything is settled on. During this process, we do more drawings to explore whether or not a character can move around and still look like the same person.

I got a bachelor’s degree in character animation, and that’s what I went into the industry expecting to do. I rarely animate these days, but, thanks to that background, I have a very good idea of what can be animated and what will cause problems.

On Wolfwalkers, I even did a few animation tests of the characters to answer some design questions. I believe it’s useful for anyone who does model sheets to have a basic understanding of animation. Enough to create models that animators can pick up and work with, without too much trouble.

It's also important that the design stays consistent, even though it’s drawn by 30 different artists. This is why we create the do’s and don’ts. Everyone can interpret a design differently, so I learned what the common mistakes were and made do’s and don'ts to provide clear guides to the team.

Alongside your character design and model sheet work on Wolfwalkers, you were the film’s lead posing artist. For readers who may not understand what that means at Cartoon Saloon, could you break down how it helped to define the film’s look?

At Cartoon Saloon, posing is basically a step between the storyboard/animatic and the animation. The posing artist works from storyboards, layouts and any new direction to create a few poses that clearly describe what’s happening in the scene.

Ideally, one posing artist will work on a whole sequence at a time, doing a few character poses in each shot. There need to be enough poses to convey important information and expressions, but not so many as to restrict the scene for the animator. It’s about giving the animator a strong foundation with on-model character drawings to start with, not creating all the key poses for the animation.

The benefit of having one posing artist on one sequence is that they can keep the feel and look consistent, making sure that any emotional arcs and hookups carry through. Posing helps to keep everything more on track.

My work with the character designs and model sheets was beneficial in my role as the posing team lead. This is the third movie I’ve done posing for, the other two being Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Because I worked with the directors to finalize all the details for Wolfwalkers’ character model sheets, I had a good eye for keeping the characters in the movie on style and on model.

It can be difficult for everyone to draw in the same style, but the posing team worked hard to keep it consistent. Cartoon Saloon’s films are very stylized and unique, so having a small team, with a strong understanding of the visual language, is important for solving design problems as they arise. 

Finally, when it comes to fitting characters to what might be called a “Cartoon Saloon style,” what do you consider some of the most important elements and reference points?

A lot of the Cartoon Saloon style comes from the founders of Cartoon Saloon and their sensibilities. I’ve been told the original graphic design took inspiration from the illustrations in the real Book of Kells. However, this was before I started at the studio, so I can’t say for sure what else went into it.

There are some recurring elements, especially the use of straights vs. curves and designing characters using strong shapes. A common misunderstanding is that we only work in shapes. I always make sure to have enough form in the designs that they can animate. Without the form, the characters become cutout-like and lose a lot of their life and appeal.

Even so, each movie has its own language within the “universal style.” A quick line-up of all the characters makes this quite clear. With each Cartoon Saloon project, as with any animated project, you have to understand and study the unique approach to the style, and learn to follow it.

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We’d like to thank Sandra Andersen for taking time out of her schedule to chat with us. You can see more of her art on Twitter (@Drulidoodles). She’s already been hard at work on Cartoon Saloon’s next feature, My Father’s Dragon, set to debut on Netflix in 2021.

Headlines of the week

Soul and Wolfwalkers sweep the Annie Awards

On Friday, the Annie Awards took place via livestream. The night’s biggest winner was Soul, which took “Best Feature” and six other awards. But Wolfwalkers was close behind, picking up five prizes. That pattern may find itself repeating at the Oscars next week — Soul is the favorite, but Wolfwalkers remains surprisingly competitive.

A few other interesting winners were Shooom’s Odyssey and Magic Light’s The Snail and the Whale, the latter of which made the Oscar shortlist this year. Meanwhile, Cartoon Saloon brought home “Best Sponsored” for an ambitious Greenpeace spot, and Bruce W. Smith, Willie Ito and the late Sue Nichols won Winsor McCay Awards for lifetime achievement. You can catch the full list of Annie winners on Animation Scoop.

Cartoon Network returns to shorts

More than a decade has passed since Cartoon Network last spearheaded a dedicated program for short cartoons. That’s now changed with the Thursday announcement of Cartoon Cartoons, the company’s latest push to find new talent. Per Animation Scoop, a “creative council” will oversee the project — Katie Rice, Aminder Dhaliwal, Manny Hernandez and Pete Browngardt.

Back in the 1990s, the Cartoon Network program What a Cartoon! spawned everything from The Powerpuff Girls to Dexter’s Laboratory to Family Guy. The channel made a troubled attempt to repeat that success in the late 2000s with The Cartoonstitute, which was canceled before it officially aired. Even then, the pilots developed for it led to hits like Regular Show and Uncle Grandpa. We’ll be watching for more news on this one.

Koji Yamamura completes new film

Koji Yamamura, one of Japan’s leading independent animators, has completed a new film called Polar Bear Bears Boredom. It’s scheduled to debut this month.

Stylistically, Polar Bear draws from the ancient Japanese Scrolls of Frolicking Animals. Yamamura applies this look to a humorous visual poem about “various sea animals' thoughts and life,” focused on the bored polar bear from the title. He reportedly animated the seven-minute project himself — you can see it in motion via the trailer.

Yamamura is probably best known for A Country Doctor and the Oscar-nominated Mt. Head. Much of his older work is available in restored quality on his YouTube channel. (Just this week, he added a 4K version of his early film Japanese-English Pictionary.) He plans to debut a new feature film, Dozens of Norths, soon. It was first announced as A Dozen Norths last year — Yamamura informed us of the title change this January.

What’s streaming (on Tubi)

Tubi is a free service without a massive name. Still, it’s moved aggressively this year. It recently signed Shout! Factory and started streaming Millennium Actress, Long Way North and a gorgeous remaster of The Last Unicorn. Deep cuts like Brazil’s Tito and the Birds and Britain’s devastating Plague Dogs have turned up as well, alongside non-Shout! titles like The Iron Giant.

There’s more buried in Tubi’s catalog. Away is an acclaimed one-man feature from Latvia, while Adama is the affecting, all-ages tale of a West African child in the First World War. You’ll also find two stop-motion films crafted by masters in their home countries, but billed as mockbusters in America — Toys in the Attic by Czech filmmaker Jiří Barta and Seven Seas Pirates by Uruguay’s Walter Tournier.

Tubi is a lot to sift through, and its animation collection is very spotty. That said, it’s one to keep an eye on — especially for a service without a login requirement.

Indie spotlight — My Milk Cup Cow

Modern Chinese animation is tricky to write about. The industry has two sides — megahits like Ne Zha that break Pixar and Disney records at the box office, and indie projects praised in Europe but largely unknown in China. My Milk Cup Cow, named the best student film at Stuttgart 2015, falls into the latter camp.

My Milk Cup Cow is the moving story of a little girl and her single father in 1980s China. They struggle with money, living in a small apartment. The film’s title comes from one of the many fanciful lies the father tells his daughter — that there’s a cow taking a shower in her milk cup, and she’ll see it if she drinks fast enough. Director Yantong Zhu borrowed that story, and many others, from her own childhood.

The film has a fleshy, rustic style that recalls Koji Yamamura’s Mt. Head. And that makes sense. Zhu found Mt. Head online when she was younger, and loved it so much that she went to study animation under Yamamura at the Tokyo University of the Arts. (Yamamura is connected to China himself, having traveled to Shanghai with Japanese-English Pictionary for a festival in 1989.) My Milk Cup Cow was Zhu’s graduate project.

Zhu hasn’t debuted a new film in a few years, but she’s still fighting for indie animation in her country. She’s the artistic director of Feinaki Beijing Animation Week — the festival that’s raising the profile of Chinese underground animation. It’s important work. Per the local site 163, Feinaki usually has to show graduate films. Most indie animators in China can’t find the support to continue after school.

You’ll find My Milk Cup Cow on Zhu’s Vimeo channel below:

Until next week!