klaus featurette

Most Christmas movies that include Santa Claus focus on the magic of the character and the holiday spirit. But much like the zombie movie, there’s only so much still left to do with the character that hasn’t been done to death before. However, the past couple of years have given us a badass, tattooed warrior Santa in the criminally underseen Rise of the Guardians, as well as a reinterpretation of Santa as an immortal medieval warrior in Grant Morrison’s Game of Thrones-but-with-superheroes comic book series, Klaus

Now we get Klaus (no relation to the comic), an animated film from Despicable Me-creator Sergio Pablos, which takes a grounded and realistic approach to the Santa Claus mythos in a film that’s both entertaining, sweet, and funny.

Klaus also pushes the animation medium forward in a way that brings to mind last year’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. At a time when 3D CGI dominates the animated film market in the US, mostly due to Disney and Pixar, Klaus challenges what we think 2D animation can do.

A Christmas Story

Klaus follows postman Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a spoiled rich kid who may remind you of Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove who is sent off to the remote Scandinavian island town of Smeerensburg, which hasn’t sent or received mail in years. The reason? Its citizens are involved in a centuries-old clannish civil war where two rival families keep destroying each other’s property in ridiculously cartoony ways. Jesper finds a solution to his problem when he convinces the town’s kids to send letters to a reclusive, burly craftsman (J.K. Simmons) whose house is full of toys he wants to give the kids. 

And so, the legend of Santa Claus begins. Klaus uses hilarious and clever ways to explain the practical reasons why Jesper and the toymaker would use reindeer instead of horses to pull their carriage, while at the same time playing with kids’ imaginations and why they’d think they saw a man on a sleigh pulled by reindeer fly off into the night.

“We worked a lot on deciding what parts of the Santa story to show in the movie,” Klaus director Sergio Pablos told /Film over the phone. “We looked only at the elements that are widely accepted around the globe. Many countries have different versions of Santa Claus, so we wanted to show a version that would translate everywhere.” 

Welcome to Smeerensburg

From the moment Jesper gets off the boat and steps into Smeerensburg, the film instantly transports you to a cold, grey Scandinavian fisher town. It’s a setting that fits not only the story, but the Scandinavian focus Klaus gives to the characters. It helps that Smeerensburg is 100% real. “Smeerenburg without the second ‘s’ actually existed,” Pablos said. “It was a very prosperous whaling past back in the 1600s, but now it’s more of a legend in Scandinavian culture.”

But maybe the biggest and most significative change Klaus does to the Santa mythos is how it explains Santa’s workshop and his worker elves. In the film, Jesper meets a little girl named Margu, who (like every other kid in town) wants a toy, but she can’t communicate with Jesper. The reason is that Margu is a Sámi, which is the indigenous people native to Scandinavia, and who are still facing prejudice today. 

“Early on we ran into the problem of how to explain Santa’s workshop,” Pablos explained. “We don’t haven magic, we don’t have elves, but we still need to have a workshop with people who represent Santa’s workshop. So we decided that Margu would be a catalyst for Jesper to take a good look at himself in the mirror and make some changes. From there I realized that it’d be stronger if Margo and Jesper spoke different languages, so we actually had to go and find a little Sámi girl who could perform, because we wanted the Sámi to be represented as faithfully as possible. We eventually found Neda Labba when we travelled to Tromsø, Norway where we worked with the Raindeer Sámi, who catch and release the herd every year, as they have for centuries. As we recorded Neda I found my relationship with her was very similar to that of Jesper and Margu, because she didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Sámi, so we did the recording session through translation and mimicry.”

Eventually, the rest of Margu’s family joins Klaus in making the toys in his workshop, even contributing to the iconic Santa look by giving him traditional Sámi clothes. “I realized in my research that the Sámi were a big influence on the Santa outfit, and even the sleigh, so it just made sense to add them to the origin story.”

Picking up where animation left off

The first time we saw a teaser for Klaus was way back in 2015 from a proof of concept, which immediately prompted a lot of surprised reactions from people who wouldn’t believe the film was hand-drawn and not CGI. Indeed, the film challenges what we think is possible from hand-drawn 2D animation in the same way Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse blew everyone’s expectations away.

Right from the start, Klaus’ unique animation style brings to mind the character design of Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which was inspired by concept art made by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. Klaus foregoes the wide, round character designs with soft edges for a crooked, spindly art style that resembles a kid’s storybook. 

“The goal was to make it look like one of those gorgeous visual development illustrations that you see in those ‘The Art Of’ books after a film comes out,” Pablos said. “We’re used to seeing those illustrations as part of the early production stages in a film, before they get washed away during the production, so I wanted to keep that style.”

Of course, the art style is just part of what made Klaus special. Despite being animated in 2D, the film has the depth you’d find in 3D animated films. It turns out, the solution was to add a method that already exists, just not in 2D animation.

“We essentially kept the same pipeline [the process of making an animated project] we use for traditionally animation all the way from storyboarding to ink and paint,” Pablos explained. “But then we reached a point where we decided to include a department that didn’t exist in 2D animation before: the lighting department. We realized that the best people who know how to paint light are visual development artists or concept artists. They normally paint digitally in photoshop, but they know how light works from a physical point of view, how light travels and is reflected in different surfaces. From there we reached out to a company called Les Films du Poisson Rouge, in France, and they provided a tool that would allow the artists to actually draw and paint the light on top of moving images, as opposed to place sources of light to create the right mood.”

The other aspect that made Klaus stand out is the texture of the film. As Sergio Pablos puts it, its all about tracking the drawing while adding textures on top of it to make it look like it was all painted by one single hand, instead of several artists with different views and opinions. The result is a movie that uses the latest technology to bring back the oldest style of animation, and it pays off in the biggest animated surprise of the film.

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