The writer-director details why hand-drawn animation was the best choice for Netflix’s BAFTA nominated animated feature.
Klaus is a beautiful, magical story, and it has the real possibility of crashing the Best Animated Feature category this season. It debuted quietly in early November, but it has gained a lot of adoration in the few weeks since its release. Everything has an origin story, so why not tell the real story of the man who brings us presents every year? Writer-director Sergio Pablos immerses us in a world we only think we know, and his film is one of the most striking of the year.
The majority of the animated films that are released now are computer animated, so it’s refreshing to see the craft of a hand-drawn film. The lighting and the production design give Klaus a timeless storybook quality that only enhances your curiosity and Pablos was eager to tell the story that way. Klaus doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before, so it’s no surprise that the film picked up two nominations from the Visual Effects Society.
While the commercial machine of Christmas can feel overwhelming and, sometimes, empty, Klaus is tender and lovingly told. It gives you refuge from the cold and warms with the spirit of a repaired heart.
Awards Daily: Why tell this origin story?
Sergio Pablos: Well, there’s been a lot of attempts to give Santa an origin story, but I never saw one that tried to explain it from the human perspective. I was very interested in finding a way to represent the Christmas Spirit while removing the element of magic from it as much as possible. I mean, Santa is a magical being, of course, and magic does play a part in our story, but I thought it could be more poignant to offer a plausible explanation of how all these traditions started form the actions of regular people, and only incorporate the magic when absolutely necessary.
AD: It’s always so refreshing to see a traditionally drawn animated film, and you’ve worked with computer animation before. Was the storybook quality to Klaus the main reason you wanted to not have it animated by computers?
SP: I had been looking for a story that would lend itself to being told in traditional animation for a while. For me, it needed to be the kind of story that would actually benefit from that medium, and when the idea for Klaus came along, I felt that it was the right choice. There are things that 3D animation is undeniably better at, but there are also things you can only do with hand-drawn animation, and we leaned heavily on those for this film. The “storybook” feel is one of them, but there’s an overall charm to something that feels hand-crafted, and you can certainly try to replicate that with CGI, but the shorter path is just to do it hand-crafted.
AD: The lighting of the film is absolutely stunning–it gives it such a rounded, warm quality in some scenes. In others, Klaus feels like a black-and-white film. Can you tell me about how succinct you had to be in order to create such a visually distinctive place?
SP: Klaus is a story about transformation. Every character and location in the film goes through an arc, and the town of Smeerensburg had to undergo a transformation as well. Design is a big part of it, but lighting is where we focused on the most. Starting with a very desaturated palette to represent the bleakness of the place in the beginning, our production designers carefully crafted an evolving lighting scheme that would best support the evolution of the characters and story. The new techniques that were developed for applying light on hand-drawn characters would only have been eye candy if we did not use them to their full potential as a story-telling tool.
AD: The fighting in Smeerensberg has a real Hatfields & McCoys feel to it. What was the inspiration for them?
SP: I did research the mechanics of feuds as I was crafting the story, and the Hatfields and McCoys kept popping up, but there are many others in History and literature. For a while, I was convinced that there had to be a backstory to their rivalry, and there were a few attempts to include this in early drafts. But eventually, I came to realize that highlighting the absurdity of their motivations served our story best. “We fight because we have always fought” was actually a much more accurate caricature of reality, and we can see plenty of examples of that reasoning everywhere, from politics to sports fanatics.
AD: You’ve said that you wanted the characters to be able to communicate through body language, and I love how Jesper moves. Why is that so important to you?
SP: I started my career as an animator, and for many years I studied performance and non-verbal communication in order to try and make the acting in my characters more believable. Eventually, I came to understand that it is what’s not said that often matters the most. “Show, don’t tell”, as it’s often said. So I endeavored to remove any information for the dialogue that could be conveyed through non-verbal acting. This was an added complication for our animators, who often had the extra burden of communicating essential plot points through subtext in their acting choices. I strongly believe that the audience is more engaged in this kind of story-telling, because you’re asking them to connect the dots and figure out the actual message.
AD: What do you miss about hand drawn animated films? Do you think there will ever see a renaissance of that style?
SP: I have nothing against CGI. In fact, some of my favorite films were done that way. But there’s a certain type of artistic mindset that some people have, myself included. Those are artists who need a direct connection to their art. Draftsmen. Painters. Designers. And these people play an important part in CG films too, of course. But then, their work goes through a transformation. It gets put through the 3D pipeline and all those little things that made their work unique gets washed away somehow. Traditional animation allows for the work of those artists to be put directly on the screen. All those unique choices, personal judgement calls and (most definitely) the mistakes are right there for you to see, and that has an undeniable charm. I think we’re already seeing that renaissance. More companies are producing 2D film and shows, more students are choosing to specialize in hand-drawn techniques. I hope that Klaus helps to showcase the potential of this artform and others will jump on board as well.
AD: You once said that the best advice for young students trying to get into 2D animation is to not be afraid. With Klaus being your directorial debut, what advice did you have to give yourself?
The very same one. Fear is a big part of it. After many years of trying to get a film made, I finally found myself at the helm of my film, supported by an incredible studio that trusted my choices, and surrounded by the most talented team of artists I’ve ever worked with. It was all there. But, what if I was not up to the challenge? What if, after all that work, I’m the weak link in that chain? Fear is always going to be there, but you can’t let it stop you from giving it your best.
Klaus is streaming now on Netlix..