Guillermo del Toro talks with ‘Wolfwalkers’ directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart about their red-hot Oscar contender

Who knew that Oscar-winning Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) is actually a quarter Irish?  He revealed that fact chatting during an American Cinematheque Zoom conversation with Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, the Irish filmmakers of the Oscar-contender “Wolfwalkers,” which is streaming on Apple TV+.

“On my mother’s side, in the 1840s, a bunch of rowdy Irish guys came to fight on the side of Mexico…” “And stayed,” noted Stewart. “Ireland is so small Guillermo that we might be related. You never knew.” “We’re more than likely related,” quipped Moore. The first time he went to Dublin, the filmmaker noted, he felt he could live there. “We entered a pub and in ten minutes, we were drinking and talking with the locals, merrily and openly. I felt at home. And as you may or may not know, Celtic design and lore has had huge [influence in my] work. I’ve been decorating my characters with Celtic signs and the mythology is influential for me.”

And Irish mythology has been at the core of Moore and Stewart’s company, Cartoon Saloon. Their first two Oscar-nominated animated films — 2009’s “The Secret of Kells” and 2014’s “Song of the Sea” — and “Wolfwalkers” are steeped in Celtic mythology.

“Wolfwalkers,” which won Best Animated Feature from both L.A. and New York Film Critics groups and is nominated for a Golden Globe, is set in 1650 Ireland and revolves around the feisty young Robyn, who has moved with her widower master hunter father Bill from England to Ireland to work for the ruthless Lord Protector. The Oliver Cromwell-inspired villain wants her father to get rid of all the wolves in the forest so he can expand. When Robyn sneaks out of the village one day, she meets Mebh, feral girl her own age from whom she learns the magic and the myth of the Wolfwalkers.

Del Toro, who is making a stop-motion animated film of “Pinocchio” for Netflix, regrets that most of the feature animation today has “gone into 3D, into CG.” But not Cartoon Saloon. Their films have embraced the hand-drawn aesthetic. “In ‘Wolfwalkers’ you have not only homed your sense of design…you still follow the rules of animation beautifully. It’s extremely hard what you guys did. Extremely hard.”

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The type of animation Cartoon Saloon is often referred to as “2D,” a term Del Toro, Moore and Stewart despise. “It’s not 2D,” said Moore.  “It’s a hand drawn aesthetic. It’s an illustrative look, but it’s not 2D. It’s kind of playing with the all the D’s you possibly can. One of the most interesting choices in the film is to make the human world exist in a flat plain,’ noted Del Toro. “Every time you see the town in a wide shot, it’s basically flat. There’s a clear choice in the movie to represent the human world by straight lines and the nature world by curves.”

Because both Stewart and Moore are artists and visually minded, as soon as they talk about a scene or environment, they get those ideas down on paper. ‘So, I think as soon as the plot started to become clear, we started becoming aware that there were two very contrasting worlds-the oppressive kind of authoritarian construct of the time,” said Stewart.  “And then there’s the wild, free instinctive world of the forest and the Wolfwalkers.  So, really had to just use all our visual language and tools and techniques and try and reinforce those visually.”

The town is a maze for Robyn. She feels trapped. “We show the town always with a down shot,” said Stewart. “We try not to show any sky. So that it always feels that Robyn is trapped by those walls and by these houses. And then out in the forest, it’s like a breath of fresh air. There are curves. There are very deep canvases. It’s very wild and instinctive. Even the way it’s colored, it’s very impressionistic. There are huge areas of detail. There are worlds to get lost in.”

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Stewart added that when he and Moore researched the puritan background of Oliver Cromwell, the more it became clear to them that the world was an absolute patriarchy. Women were punished for speaking out of turn or declared a witch and burned if they acted slightly out of the norm. “Women had no agency,” he noted. “It became really apparent that with Robyn as a little girl and that the future Bill had intended for her was no future at all. When she meets Mebh, she sees her exact counterpart, a young girl living so freely and so instinctively….” And Robyn realizes “either I love this life within a Puritan world where I am being told what to do all the time or I live freely with the wolves and make my own decisions.”

With “Wolfwalkers,” the filmmakers wanted it to be as collaborative as possible “because I think we were used to a much more kind of formulaic pipeline in ono the other films,” said Stewart. “We’re both getting on now. We’re in our forties and we’re a little bit tired of our own style and our own ideas a little bit in that we know exactly how we would draw a character, how we would frame a shot. We’ve been positive toward people coming from colleges with lots of motivation and enthusiasm and ideas and all that energy that that brings.”

Before storyboarding begins, said Moore, they do “thumbnails across the whole script just to get down how we would do it, so we have something to start with. But what’s been really lovely, and I think that’s loosened us up the most over the years in the studio is that we’ve got a bigger team of people we trust. And I love the mix, as Ross says, of young people who came straight from college with all that enthusiasm we had 20 years ago, and they would take ideas we had and go further with it.”

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