The eyes have it

Svend Rothmann Bonde and Maria Pareja on animating the wolves in Wolfwalkers

by Jennie Kermode

Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh Óg Mactíre (voiced by Eva Whittaker) in wolf form.
Robyn Goodfellowe (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and Mebh Óg Mactíre (voiced by Eva Whittaker) in wolf form. Photo: Apple TV+

The third film in the Celtic trilogy which also includes The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart’s Wolfwalkers tells the tale of an English girl who travels to Ireland with her father during the Cromwell era. He’s there to hunt wolves. She wants to become a hunter too, but after befriending a shape shifting wolfwalker, she comes to see the animals in a very different way.

Robyn meets a wolf
Robyn meets a wolf Photo: Apple TV+

Wolfwalkers has received several nominations for Best Animated Film this awards season, most notably from the Golden Globes, which won’t surprise anyone who has seen it. It stands out from the crowd because it mostly uses traditional 2D animation, but its beautiful imagery, inspired by traditional Celtic art, really makes an impression. I was delighted to get the chance to talk to rough animation supervisor Svend Rothmann Bonde and production designer and co-art director Maria Pareja about their work on the film.

Images of wolves, I noted, date all the way back to prehistoric art. They’re the bad guys in many an animated film, so how did this film’s creators set about making theirs distinctive, and how did they achieve the balance between scariness and sympathy on which the story depends?

“Well, you know, when, when we were started exploring with the movement of the wolves, it was it was a tricky, tricky thing to get right,” says Svende. “Because as you're saying, you know, we needed to make them scary. And at the same time, we needed them to feel like they were the good guys of the film. And, and I think it makes sense, you know, because nature is beautiful, it's gorgeous, but it's also very dangerous.

Wolfwalkers poster
Wolfwalkers poster Photo: Apple TV+

“So I think there was that balance between the wolves seeming threatening, and then they would go in another sequence and become like little wolf, like little dog puppies. And I think there was a lot of thought going into how we could have that balance work.

“So you really are terrified. You know what, at least you believe the characters are terrified of them. And I think it was good in the beginning of the film, to have that sequence where you establish that you know, that that the wolves are scary, you know, like, it makes sense why the townspeople want to do what they want, but there's more to the story than just you know, this scary, scary face.”

He’s referring to a sequence in which Robyn, who has sneaked into the woods to try and help her father, finds herself surrounded by snarling beasts. Even after they are driven off, we see their eyes glinting among the dark trees, as if they’re just waiting for their chance to eat her up.

“I think the fact that they change the eyes every time that they go from good to bad, it also helps a lot,” says Maria. “I feel like every time that they have the glowing eyes, they immediately look way more scary. And then as soon as they come back to their like, normal eyes, they look like super goofy and very nice and playful and everything. But I think that that helps a lot, that contrast.”

Wolfwalkers is currently available to watch on Apple TV+.

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