Klaus: the birth of the 2D animated Netflix movie, which looks like 3D

The latest masterpiece of Spanish director Sergio Pablos merges traditional hand-drawing with an innovative technology purposely created for this film


Klaus is the latest, much awaited animated feature, internationally released on Netflix on 15th November 2019.

The high anticipation for the first original cartoon produced by the American streaming platform can be explained not only by its Christmas setting or by its starry cast (which, in the English-language version, includes Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones and JK Simmons).

In fact, the guarantee behind this production lies in the name of its creator, Spanish animator Sergio Pablos, who has reached world-wide reputation by creating the Despicable Me franchise.

Pablos started working on this project in 2010, and already during the early stages he made a risky yet unconventional decision, both from an artistic and from a technical point of view: to use 2D animation and hand drawing. Which, he thought, would perfectly complement the nostalgia of his story, revolving around the origin of Santa Claus.


A whole new idea in the 2D world

Anyway, his traditional techniques couldn’t ignore the modern, cutting-edge technologies which nowadays govern the animation movie industry.

“I wanted to demolish the limitations that we traditionally had with 2D animation”, the director recently said to the befores & afters website, during the VIEW Conference in Turin.

“I always knew there was someone out there who had a solution for this. I needed to find that person.

I spent months reaching out to different programmers and developers.

I found there were a lot of semi-automated attempts at doing it, but they didn’t tend to give you that control”.

Then Pablos discovered he already had the right person for this difficult task right in his SPA Studios: “One of my employees, Marcin Jakubowski, who at the time was a concept artist, was looking over my shoulder saying, ‘Hmm…give me a try’.

And then he comes back and says, ‘I think I figured this out.’ He sent me a bunch of images of cubes and spheres overlapping.

I said, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to learn from this!’

He said, ‘Give me something to try it on. So I said, ‘Well, the simplest thing I can think of is a head turn.’

So I sent him an animated head turn – about 16 frames – and he brought back this thing that looked 3D”.

The Spanish artist was immediately stunned, but understandably still not at all convinced: “I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure how you’re doing this, but let me give you something more complex.’ So I gave him a walk cycle, and he knocks it out of the park.

Then I said, ‘I’m going to give you an actual shot, where a character walks into a room and there’s a different set of lights. If you pull it off, the question is, is this something you can do, because you’re a freakin’ mad-genius or can we actually teach other people to do this, too?’ The irony was, I was reaching out to people in the US and Canada and Australia and the guy who had the solution was in the next room”.

So, one of the brilliant alchemists in his lab had discovered the philosophers’ stone Sergio Pablos was looking for: a tool, especially developed for this task, able to effectively layer in light and shadow on 2D-animated drawings, to provide for an almost volumetric appearance.

An innovative, almost unbelievable process, which though at the beginning was very long to deploy.


Prodution solutions for Klaus

In order to adopt it in a true animated feature, SPA Studios had to arrange a partnership with Les Films Du Poisson Rouge, thus merging Jakubowski’s recipe with the proprietary solutions of the French studio, which had already been developing tools for 3D and 2D for a long time.

“Les Films Du Poisson Rouge”, Pablos adds, “figured out how to derive a tracking system from drawn lines. Not just vector drawn lines, but even bitmap lines. What came out of the partnership was this insanely intuitive tool that works in real-time and it allows artists to do an amazing amount of work in not much time. We called the tool Klaus Light and Shadow”.

The last ingredient which gave shape to Klaus was created by Toon Boom: from Storyboard Pro, which was used for storyboarding, to Toon Boom Harmony, around which the whole pipeline was built, from layout to anymation.

Everthing was hand-drawn frame by frame on tablets, like the old days.


The process, step by step

After drawing they would then go to ink and paint: “We had a color bible for the whole film and we also had a color script, which didn’t have quite every shot in the film but I would say at least a shot out of every four”, the Spanish director explains.

“We needed to have a lighting reference that was very cohesive so that both the background painters that were working on the backgrounds and the lighters on the characters were drawing from the same source. The lighting process was essentially about breaking down the lighting of a scene in a convincing way, the same way that concept artists do every day. We’d introduce up to eight layers of lighting, and each one of those layers would have a set of shapes that the artist would create underneath the layer for the shot. Then you merge them”.

Texturing also turned out to be very different from what it normally looks like in modern 3D animation: “After lighting, there’s another step which we call ‘texturing’. But it’s not the texturing you know from 3D. It’s another tool from Les Films Du Poisson Rouge and it’s called M.O.E. It allows you to pick any painterly style like wash, watercolor or oil, and decide the behavior and size of the strokes and apply it to the image. We just wanted a certain level of grain because that’s the same style as the background. It’s very subtle – you almost have to squint your eyes to see it. What it does is, this grain actually travels with the character. Then all those elements go to compositing. Comp decides how much of the texture we apply to each of the shapes”.

But the 3D component played a significant role in the production of Klaus, as well: “We did many 3D elements in Maya. Sometimes elements, like the reindeer, were in 3D and sometimes they were 2D. I would say to my 3D team, ‘Can the rig do this?’ And they would say yes, or no, or say it’s easier to do in 2D. Sometimes we would animate the reindeer in 2D but the fur would look wrong, so we would just take the fur out and we would paint on top of that”.

The innovative approach chosen by Sergio Pablos for his latest masterpiece has created an actual new tool for his artists: “Using it was a joy for them to work on”, he concludes.

“It was actually hard to get them to stop going too far because they could easily keep adding bells and whistles to the animation. It came to a point where you had to go, ‘Well, that’s a bit much’”.

If you think that, at the beginning, this looked like an impossible mission…