Learn the Basics of Animation with the 'Wolfwalkers' Team

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+
Fans of animation can learn from the Oscar-nominated filmmakers of Wolfwalkers!

If you haven't seen Wolfwalkers, you're missing out on some of the most original animation and storytelling of last year.

The movie follows Robyn Goodfellowe, a British girl who moves to Ireland with her father to wipe out the last wolf pack under the orders of Oliver Cromwell. In the woods, Robyn meets Mebh, a girl who lives among wolves. Through Mebh, Robyn learns about the magical Wolfwalkers. and together they rush to save Mebh's mother.

The film's small Irish animation studio, Cartoon Saloon, has been lauded repeatedly for its creative storytelling and animation styles rooted in Celtic folklore. Wolfwalkers is the third and final installment in their "Irish Folklore Trilogy," which also includes the animated marvels The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Each film has garnered an Oscar nomination.

They had about 80 animators working on this project in total.

On March 21, the Oscar-nominated directors of Wolfwalkers, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, held a live master class via Zoom on their tried-and-true animation techniques with some of their animation team from Cartoon Saloon.

Want to know some key animation terms and how to start? Get into their tips below!

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+

Animation basics

Cartoon Studio utilizes hand-drawn animation. What that means is literally every frame is done by hand, each character's movement traced and advanced in individual drawings. Their style tends to be loose and rough, so the lines are not clean or perfect, which is a benefit to beginning animators!

Mebh, for example, is described as "wild and free" so her "jellybean" shape doesn't have to be exact.

In the demonstration, the animators showed how holes in the semi-transparent animation paper allow you to line up the frames and hold them in place. Manually flipping between the pages allows you to check the character's movement.

A film and TV animation team will have a model sheet on hand to show how the character should look consistently across a project.

If you'd like to make your own animation paper, you'll need an animation peg bar and hole punch. Ideally, you'd also have a lightbox underneath for the tracing.

After you do the pencil drawing in the "construction layer," you draw the character again in pen. This is called clean-up.

Different types of pens can add thickness to certain lines to add weight and shadow. This is called line quality.

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+

Character design

Remember, how you draw the characters will reveal details to the audience about the character and their behavior. Animators can evoke different feelings simply by the way things are drawn.

In Mebh's case, she has large, wolflike teeth and dirty feet. Her dress is slightly torn. Her hair flows freely. All of this shows she is a wild child of the woods, a person who doesn't care about the period's conventions. She is also very circular as a character to emphasize her youthfulness.

In comparison, Robyn's character design is very square. Moore showed that her head is a square, and the hood of her cape forms a triangle. This works to show the differences between them, and also the angular design reflects her more uptight, conventional upbringing in England.

But her worldview changes as the film progresses, and the things she cares about change. While at first, her drawn lines are very clean and tight, they become more loose and scratchy (like Mebh's) later in the story.

Even the wolves have character traits! An arched back and raised hackles can convey anger, for example.

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+

Background layout

Don't just start drawing environments for an animated project!

In Stewart's demonstration, he showed how he placed a cut-out drawing of Mebh on a page before he started drawing. He drew an oval shape for her placement and thought about how the environment would look around her.

You must consider how the character will look in the layout as you start. Are you framing them? Are you thinking about scale? If you do a tree, are the leaves a size that your character would be able to pick up? What about birds? You don't want a bird that's almost as big as a small girl.

Also, consider the animation style of the project as a whole. As mentioned, Wolfwalkers is drawn in a very loose and flowing style. Stewart's tree was curved with sweeping branches. The bark he added to the trunk was not straight up and down, either, but had a sort of motion, curling around the tree from left to right.

In this film, the color was done in watercolors then combined with a lined layer in Photoshop.

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+

Get creative!

Try new things and always think about how your art can reflect your story.

Again, in character design, think about how your characters look, and how that reflects their beliefs and upbringing.

If you are contrasting two different groups, how are they different? How are they alike? How can you show that creatively?

Wolfwalkers is a story about nature and how you can embrace it or attempt to tame it. For example, the animators chose to show Cromwell's soldiers as very rigid and exact. In contrast, the pack of wolves often merged into one organic mass and flowed like water through the woods.

'Wolfwalkers'Credit: Apple TV+

How do I become an animator?

If you want to join an animation studio, Moore says, you'll need to prep a portfolio and a showreel of your work. You'll need to focus on a particular discipline and refine your work in that area (background layout, character drawing, etc.).

And keep practicing!

What's next? Learn more about animation

How do you light an animated film? You can also try shooting stop-motion at home. If you're animating characters, what does their walk say about them    

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