It isn’t too often that we see 2D-animated movies. Sure, they exist in other countries, but here in the U.S., we indulge in an overabundance of 3D animation. Nothing against that format, but as a lover of 2D, it’s refreshing to see a dip back into the type of animation I grew up watching, and that’s exactly what we got with Klaus.
If you’ll notice, Klaus doesn’t look like your average 2D movie. There’s something…different about it. When I first wrote up a piece on the trailer, I mentioned that it looked like 3D animation stylized to resemble 2D, but was contacted later that day by the studio, who told me it was a hand-drawn film with groundbreaking lighting techniques.
I had a chance to speak with the director of the film, Sergio Pablos (Despicable Me), and in our discussions, we dig deeper into how they achieved this masterful look of the movie.
Oh yeah, and it’s actually a really solid and heartfelt movie too. So I recommend checking it out when it hits Netflix this weekend!
LRM Online: When I first saw the trailer for this movie I was pretty surprise … at first I was half awake because I was in bed, I saw the trailer for it, and I saw it and it was like “oh cool, a 2D animated movie. I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.” And then I looked at it again, I was like wait, that’s not quite 2D. I wasn’t quite sure. And then I was put in touch with you guys and you said, yeah, it’s a 2D movie. And I was completely … my mind was kind of blown because it looks like some interesting sort of mix between the two, but it is in fact a hand drawn movie. Correct?
Pablos: It is. It is. Very much so. Yes.
LRM Online: What can you tell me about that process and what makes it look so unique compared to any other 2D movie I’ve seen out there?
Pablos: Right. So when we started thinking about how we make this, and that we’re going to do a 2D movie, we’re going to pick up where we left off. But one of the things working at Disney was always interesting to see is that every movie had its own new advancement. They tried to push the medium all the time, you know, so I worked Tarzan and then that’s when we brought in the big canvas, which allowed us to paint directly on 3D backgrounds to make sure that we had the camera freedom.
So every film had its own little innovation. But then it seemed like the only innovation was 3D, and then we stopped pushing innovation in 2D. So I said, well what’s the next step in 2D? And we looked at it closely and we asked the question, what in the 2D pipeline is a result of something that’s intrinsical to the medium, and what is the result of a technical limitation?
And then when we did that, we realized that the handling of lighting and integration of characters and backgrounds were probably the most ready for an update. Because you look at those old 2D films, you’ll see that the characters don’t quite fit into the background. They feel like they are kind of stuck on. They’re not made by the same technique and it shows, right?
LRM Online: Interesting.
Pablos: So we realized that lighting had a lot to do with it, because backgrounds usually are painted with no limitation in terms of how light works. But characters were very limited in that way. So we said, if we could develop a tool that would allow artists to bring that same light into the characters, then we’d be doing something.
So we added two new items into the 2D pipeline. One was lighting, we had a lighting department. And then we had a texture department. The texture department’s job was to make sure the same brush strokes that were used in the backgrounds were also applied to the characters, so they have the same feeling of texture to them, right? For the lighting, one of our production designers, Marcin Jakubowski, who figured out the recipe for it. He realized that the way to go about this was not using any automatic system, but to create a tool that a lot of people who already know how to paint light, to do it on top of moving drawings. So he figured out that system, we used a very rudimentary version of it for the original proof of concept that we put up a few years ago, and then after that we went out to look for improvements to make that system viable for production.
And for that we recruited the help of a studio in England, France, and they develop amazing tools for both 2D and 3D. And they had built all these great tools, including a pretty amazing tracking system that can derive tracking paths from lines, as supposed from texture, like most softwares do. So we merged their tools with Marcin’s recipe, and what ended up, the tool that came out of that was a tool that, basically, people who are concept artists or visual development artists, people who they know the language of painting light, can do the same thing they always do, but now they’re doing it on top of moving images. And it’s extremely versatile. It’s only as good as the artist that’s using it, too. But what I loved about that was that the same imperfection of the human hand that you had in the animation, you also had in the lighting, because these were people making judgment calls as they went along.
So the goal of this was to end up with something that looked like a piece of visual development come to life, or a storybook in motion. And because you’ve never seen realistic lighting in 2D, a lot of people assume it’s 3D. So we understand the confusion, but it’s more of a side effect than what we were going for. We were really hoping to have something that has that handcrafted appeal.
LRM Online: Yeah. I think it definitely does have that. It’s gorgeous to look at every single frame of this thing, so I think you guys definitely succeeded on that level. You’re credited with creating the story for this. Was this story created from the ground up with this new technique in mind or was this something you came to after the fact?
Pablos: No. Story comes first, and then medium is a choice. And we’ll develop a storyline and then I will ask the question, what’s the best medium for this? And oftentimes the answer is, well we should do this in 3D. But every now and then you come across something that goes, you know what? We have to be honest, this would make a better live action film, or sometimes, this will actually make a better 2D film. And it’s entirely subconscious. I am not sure I understand the reasons why that feels right, but Klaus really felt like it would be right for traditional animation. But, yeah, the story was there first.
LRM Online: Right. So how did this story come about? How did you come up with the idea of Klaus?
Pablos: Remember how in around the 2000s there was a slew of origin stories hitting the market? And I mean it’s still happening today, but that’s when it started. And I remember seeing things like Batman Begins and I remember thinking … even like, you know, Hannibal Lecter and Jason are getting origin stories, so everybody’s getting their origin story. I thought it was an interesting storytelling exercise instead of coming up with something that was truly 100% original. What if I take a character that’s already established, and it has this lore or mythology, but I update that character? It sounds like an interesting storytelling exercise. So I made a list of historical or fictional characters that would lend themselves to it, and in that list you could find things like Napoleon or Dracula, Joan of Arc, or whatever. And then I finally landed on Santa Claus and I said, huh. And I moved on.
That’s not what I thought I was looking for at the time, but it just stuck with me enough to make me do some research and figure out is there really a canon version of Santa’s origin story? And you know, what I found was there were many different explanations; there was the religious one, the historical ones in many traditions from every country, but I thought there was room for one more. And I thought, if I do this in a way that instead of, you know, owning the magic from the front, what if we tell a story by removing the magic as much as we can and make it only a part of, basically, save the end of this movie for where the magic begins.
LRM Online: Right.
Pablos: And they loved that idea of telling a somewhat cynical story about all the good that if Santa Claus came through the actions of the worst human being I can conceive of, right? So that’s what made me want to tell the story.
LRM Online: And what was it about this story that made you decide to use the animation technique that you went with?
Pablos: Like I said, a lot of it is subconscious. A lot of it is just a gut feeling. But I do think that if you have a story that has a nostalgic component to it, then you’re not in a bad place by using a nostalgic medium to aid that. Because they marry well. They also, I think, if a story has an organic component to it, and the subject matter, the organic medium of hand drawn animation lends itself to it, you know? But at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s a logical decision. A lot of it is just like, it just feels right.
LRM Online: Right. Were there any particular story difficulties you had with creating this one?
Pablos: Yeah, there was a lot. There was a lot. I mean, look, we are trying to make a prequel to your Santa and we’re trying to not mess with anybody’s beliefs or traditions. So we’re basically saying, we need to end this film where your Santa begins, whatever your experience is, so let’s try not to ever meddle with anybody’s beliefs or lecture anybody. It’s a story about basically the Christmas spirit, and we tried to condense it into “kindness is contagious” as the main message, right?
LRM Online: Right.
Pablos: So making sure that we honor all those traditions while laying Santa down at your feet at the end of it in a way that was satisfying and surprising was the big challenge. Because when you have an origin story, we have the problem that you know … the audience knows where the story’s going to go. So you need to find a way to get them there in a surprising way. So that was a big challenge.
LRM Online: How did the movie end up on Netflix?
Pablos: It went everywhere. We pitched this movie pretty much everywhere that would have us. But we discovered, to our surprise, that the big hurdle was not that it was a 2D movie, but that it was a Christmas movie. And we did not anticipate that. But all of a sudden we realized people were very wary of coming out in theaters in the busy Christmas season against all the big ones. So we’re finding a lot of people would say, we love the story, but we’re not going to compete in that market. And then we found when we got to Netflix it was pretty much the opposite. They were actually looking for Christmas content, so it was a great fit.
LRM Online: Right. So I see that the movie has been submitted for the Oscars, and this is particularly a competitive year. What other movie would you say you are most nervous about going up against in the animation department?
Pablos: I’m not nervous. Whatever will be, will be. But I think I was definitely impressed by Toy Story 4.
LRM Online: Mmm, for sure. Yeah.
Pablos: Right. I think there was a huge accomplishment to, still, after three movies, find a compelling angle to tell another chapter. And I think they succeeded beautifully.
LRM Online: Right. I have a question about, there is this particular group of native people in the movie that you have who end up being sort of the basis for the elves, it seems. What language were they speaking?
Pablos: Those are Sámi. When I did my research and I was, you know, I was noticing that a lot of the traditional Santa outfit and the reindeers and the sleighs clearly have a lot of influence from the Sámi people. And I was like, well I wonder how that got mixed up. But I thought, let me do some more research on that and I realized … I actually took a trip to Tromso, Norway and I spent some time with the Sámi. And I learned a few things about both the reindeers and their style of living and they really inspire me to want to make them a bigger part. That’s why Margo, the little Sámi girl played a bigger part in the film. I really thought it was very fitting. But yeah, I needed a prototype of a Santa workshop populated by someone who were not elves. And it really seemed right that the Sámi would play a part in that. I felt right that they would come in and help after you the act of kindness from the main character.
LRM Online: What’s one thing that you would want people to know about this movie before watching it, if anything?
Pablos: I actually think there’s a value in people watching it without knowing anything about it. Because one of the things that I really enjoyed when we’re doing our focus group screenings, there were a lot of kids that came in and they have no idea where they’re going to watch. And it was great to watch them figure it out. And I read some of the notes from the kids, the questionnaires that they had to fill after watching the film, and there were a few notes that said, like, what do you like most about the film? And they would say that it turned out to be about Santa. They loved that experience of figuring it out. So I actually think there’s nothing in particular I’d like you to know coming in. I think it’s actually better watched without much warning.
LRM Online: Right. Yeah, I completely get it. So what’s coming up next for you? Do you have your next project in the works?
Pablos: Yeah, I have a couple ideas. They’re both traditionally animated because we find that there’s a lot more to explore in this area. But I do want to make sure that each film is a completely different visual experience in terms of tone and style. I don’t know what will end up being, but it’s definitely going to be very different from Klaus.
LRM Online: Okay. And one last question here. What was the last movie that you saw in theaters?
Pablos: Last movie I saw in theaters must have been … Let me think. God, I’m drawing a blank. Animated, or otherwise? Does it matter?
LRM Online: It doesn’t matter.
Pablos: It may have been Spider-Man: Homecoming. Yeah. I’m late to the Marvel thing. Really late. People spoil these things for me all the time.
LRM Online: Oh, that’s a bummer.
Pablos: I have kids, you know, so I don’t really have all the say in what I watch anymore, you know?
LRM Online: Right, right. I totally get that.
Again, Klaus hits Netflix this weekend!
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