At Large  January 17, 2020  Anna Claire Mauney

How Netflix’s Klaus is Reviving Western Animation

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

When Oscar nominations were announced this week, the team behind Klaus, Netflix’s first original animated movie, gathered to watch while someone filmed from the corner. Sergio Pablos—the founder of SPA Studios who also directed, wrote, voice-acted, and created the original story for the film—sat in the middle of the room.

The video starts just as the nominees for Best Animated Feature are being announced. When Klaus is read, the room erupts into celebration. There’s screaming, hugging, and lots of running around.

The film has also been nominated for seven Annie Awards and generally promises to stand out this award season. And that’s because of its radically modern take on traditional animation, made possible by 15 years of trial and error and SPA’s unusual willingness to get creative.

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

While traditional animation is still used in smaller projects throughout the world and by studios based in Europe and Japan, large-scale Western films have not used hand-drawn animation since the ‘90s. As a result, 2D animation tools have barely evolved over the last twenty to thirty years. 

The team at SPA knew they wanted to change this before the story for Klaus was conceived and spent a lot of time thinking about the limitations of hand-drawn animation. 

If you look closely at any hand-drawn animated feature, you’ll notice the backgrounds are beautifully painted while the characters are flat and stylistically incongruent. “The innovation was focused mainly on how to integrate characters into the World seamlessly,” says Sergio Pablos. “And that—we discovered—had a lot to do with how we used light and texture.” 

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

Ultimately this mandated the creation of technology to facilitate the application of light and texture to hand-drawn frames. Pablos spent months reaching out to people across the industry, searching for someone with a solution.
In the end, the “recipe” for a lighting tool came from a Production Designer already at SPA, Marcin Jakubowki. With the help of proprietary tools developed by Les Films de Poisson Rouge, KLaS (Klaus Light and Shadow) was born.

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

Essentially, it is a tool digital artists can use to “design the character lighting scheme for each shot based on existing Color Keys,” says Pablos. In other words, information regarding the look of color and materials in certain light, something already compiled to inform backgrounds, can be extended to the foreground via KlaS.

A “texturing” tool called M.O.E. was also developed by Les Films de Poisson Rouge. Pablos describes it as, “an added layer that broke up the smooth gradients and added a bit of grit, giving it a more hand-crafted look.”

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

If you examine a frame closely, this is what you see. Once you zoom out, the effect becomes a subtle yet impactful glow or blended quality that feels painterly. At times, especially when combined with a dramatic use of lighting, the film becomes like a moving Baroque painting. Pablos hopes these advancements in technology and SPA’s general willingness to experiment rather than play it safe will make a big impact on the animation industry going forward.

While the film is widely praised for its artistry, the filmmakers’ keen awareness of and dedication to getting the most out of a medium is what truly sets this film apart. Pablos has frequently stated that the team spent a lot of time looking for the right story for this new version of hand-drawn animation.

courtesy netflix

Klaus production still

When asked what made Klaus ‘right,’ he initially responds, “it’s hard to say.” He goes on to mention nostalgia and organic subject matter but eventually circles back to the following point, “it’s more of a gut feeling.” 

At the end of the day, he says, “it does not matter how you manage to get an audience engaged as long as you do engage them. 2D, 3D, Stop Motion… It doesn’t matter. A good story and strong artistry is what does it.”

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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