Until the moment I shake hands with Sergio Pablos I realise I’ve subconsciously been expecting to meet Gru. And for a moment I’m disappointed he looks nothing like his most famous and beloved lead character; the bald, pointy-nosed evil villain-turned-family man who stars in Pablos’ billion-dollar animated film franchise Despicable Me. Nor does he succumb to the irresistible urge to refer to the team at his Madrid studio as “Minions” (at least not in front of the press). In fact, for someone who has not only enjoyed phenomenal success in his field – Despicable Me being the highest-grossing animated film franchise in box office history (yes, above Toy Story) – and made it there creating mainly bad guys, he is a warm, quiet and friendly person.
This all probably contributed to why Netflix has taken a colossal bet on him and his studios to create the service’s first animated feature film, a Christmas movie no less, which attempts to tell the origin story of the big man himself: Santa Claus. It’s brave. And braver still, the Spanish director and his team have chosen to step away from CGI – which currently dominates the mainstream animated world – and use traditional 2D animated techniques, with the addition of an innovative stage in the process that gives the 2D artwork the quality of lighting and shading afforded by 3D animation. The film has been causing quite a stir in the animation community in the run-up to its release due to this new method, mainly because every frame of the film looks like concept artwork, beautifully handcrafted in ink and paint, with the characters and background scenery apparently seamless.
Pablos’ background is in traditional animation, having worked on Disney classics such as Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan, and like most traditionalists, Pablos always wished the final film could stay visually closer to its concept paintings. “We all had similar experiences of looking at development artwork and being so inspired by the individual sensibilities of every artist,” he remembers. “We were always asking ‘why can’t the film look like that? Just put that on the screen.’ Usually these drawings are only for inspiration, and once they get put through the machinery of the animation pipeline, 2D or 3D, they end up on the other side looking like something we’ve already seen. Things tend to standardise. With Klaus we wanted the final picture to feel like development art in motion. If you’re going to end up with something that feels handcrafted, you’re better off starting with a handcrafted medium, and that’s what we did.”
SPA (Sergio Pablos Animation) Studios made this happen by adding a new step to the traditional animation process. Production for Klaus followed a traditional 2D animation pipeline, starting with rough sketches, which are cleaned up before adding ink and paint. Then in lighting, where traditional animation would have painted shadows in the background but characters would simply be flat cells placed on top, Klaus’ animators used technology which gave them artistic license to control the lighting on the character they were animating. Whereas character lighting was purely limited by technology in the past, and would simply take too long to do by hand, this development adds a new dimension to time-tested techniques, wherein each artist decides how to light their work, for example, how much glint to put in Klaus’ eyes.
Pablos continues: “In traditional animation, if you wanted lush backgrounds you couldn’t have lush characters because that would be insanity. You’d have to produce every frame with super elaborate, painterly looking characters. So we had to develop tools that allowed us to do that.” The result, he says, is something that is more artistically authentic. “To me, the charm of traditional animation is that there’s a certain level of imperfection. We took that imperfection, which is always in the drawing, to how we light the characters. So it’s no longer standardised but an artistic choice. And that’s why it feels handmade. Handmade means not perfect.”
Recruiting animators for Klaus proved challenging due to it being a pioneering technical approach, so SPA sent out tests for potential animators to do. “We had to advertise it without giving away how it’s done, or knowing really what we were looking for,” laughs production designer Marcin Jakubowski. Applicants were given an image showing a character’s hand and an arrow showing the direction of the light, then left to interpret the image how they saw fit. “We were trying to see their sensibility, whether they understood the volume from the flat drawing. In 2D animation you have to come up with a lot of graphic solutions and make some artistic decisions just to make it readable and interesting – you’re not replicating reality.” Artists were then hired based on their ability to make these choices, not just in artworking, but also lighting their work.
Together with the hand-drawn and painted artwork, the lighting is what gives this film its unique aesthetic. Fellow production designer Szymon Biernacki explains that “lighting and atmosphere is an integral part of storytelling,” and the environment in Klaus, like the characters, goes through a transformation and a story arc. The film follows Jesper, a spoilt rich kid (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) living in an opulent mansion, doing nothing for anyone but himself. His father runs the postal service, and to teach him the value of money and hard work, ships him off to set up a post office in Smeerensburg, a lawless, ramshackle town in remote Northern Scandinavia. On arrival he meets the townspeople, a population of pure miscreants split into two feuding families, who spend their days fighting and finding new and horrid ways to torment each other. We travel alongside Jesper, from his vivid, bright, resplendent home to the dark and gloomy town, and feel the stark contrast in worlds through the immersive atmosphere the animators have depicted.
The design for the town channels Sleepy Hollow, one of the production team’s core inspirations for the scenery, as well as abandoned whaling stations in Greenland. “They’re desaturated, there’s a lot of decay, and they have a lot of interesting structures built for the whaling industry,” explains Biernacki. “We wanted something that felt like a medieval town. So we took the small chocolate-box houses you see in Scandinavia and kind-of stuck one on top of the other, and distorted it, to build an Icelandic town on steroids. Then applied the abandoned look of those whaling stations.”
“It’s aggressive and unpleasant,” continues Jakubowski. “It doesn’t blend into the environment. Everything’s really tall and pointy, lots of triangles and rhomboids. We exaggerated these shapes to make it feel like a hostile, unwelcoming place. To subconsciously give a feeling that if you touch it you might hurt yourself. Plus, if you invert a triangle and put it on its point, it’s unstable. It’s a graphic solution to make it feel unsafe.”
The main character, Jesper, is Pablos’ latest bad guy. His previous work often saw him in the bad guy department, working on Hades in Hercules and Frollo in Hunchback, but in Klaus his leading man (Jesper) is less evil, more insufferable. Though Pablos has also created an entire town full of bad eggs in the Smeerensburg population. “Yeah I’ve done a few bad guys,” he admits. “I think it’s a bit of a cheat because it’s so much easier to tell a story arc for a character who’s full of flaws. It’s so difficult to make the straight man interesting. It’s much more fun to make that journey from bad to good. Gru definitely had that and Jesper to a different extent has it too.” One of the funniest characters in the town is a brilliantly creepy little girl akin to a Nightmare Before Christmas character, which Pablos thought might be a step too far for his client. “That’s my kind of humour but I wasn’t sure if Netflix was going to buy it. But she quickly became everyone’s favourite. If they end up making toys, an alarm clock with the little girl stabbing the snowman is happening, I’m sure.”
While Jesper is inherently flawed, his counterpart is Klaus (voiced by J.K. Simmons) – a mysterious loner who lives in a cabin deep in the woods. On a mission to persuade the stubborn townspeople to start sending letters, Jesper’s desperation draws him to Klaus’ cabin, where a foreboding figure wielding an axe turns out to be a kind and generous, yet deeply sad and lonely man – not the jolly Santa anyone will be expecting. He too goes on a story arc that, in turn, tells the story of how Santa became the legend we know, and from the beginning, he is the symbol of altruism and the spark for Jesper’s transformation.
How the legend is formed follows Pablos’ resolute ban on magic to explain anything (but for a nebulous flurry of otherworldly snow). This is one of this film’s strongest comic devices, and truly sets it apart from most other Christmas films. It all begins when Jesper shows Klaus a note written by one of the town’s children, and in return, Klaus sends a toy to him. Jesper spots an opportunity to benefit himself and his struggling post office, so spreads the rumour in the town that letters equal presents. From there, the stories we all know about Santa are explained one by one in a mundanely pragmatic fashion, without a hint of magical ambiguity. He starts to use reindeer because the presents get too heavy. Jesper makes up the idea of a “naughty list” to stop a ten-year-old boy throwing snowballs at him. And the sleigh doesn’t actually fly (at least, not in the beginning) it just crashes spectacularly, when a child happens to be looking out their window to see it soaring through the sky. Even Klaus’ red suit is simply part of his unwitting inclusion in the local Sámi tribe – for which Pablos visited a real Sámi town, and went to the great lengths of sending every design for the costumes to the Sámi people to check authenticity.
Pablos’ ethos was to treat the story of Santa Claus with respect, the film paying tribute to the legend and its billions of believers. “Like if you show a Star Wars fan the Millennium Falcon,” he explains. “I think for children who know about all those things, to see them planted in the film, they feel privy to it. They’re in on the joke. It’s not realistic, but it’s plausible, and that has immediate comedy.” It also gives the film a point of difference from sugary holiday movies. “I like to put in a bit of teeth. Even though in the end it’s the sweetest story you could imagine, it’s more fun when you have a little irony.”
Far from destroying the magic of Christmas, the tiny sprinkling of magic that does arise is subtle, just slightly out of reach, and therefore infinitely more powerful. “We don’t want to spoil the meaning of the story. But the logic was – and this is not a spoiler – if we’re going to tell the origin story of Santa, you’re gonna walk into the film knowing how it ends,” says Pablos. “But we still have to make it in a way you weren’t expecting. So this person who’s presented as a man, Klaus, will eventually become Santa Claus, and to show how that happens and why it happens, we tried to find the best, most emotional way to put it on the screen. The magic would only take full effect in that transition from man to legend. So in the end, it was better to just make a film about two guys delivering presents to kids.”