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Interviews

Sergio Pablos Talks About His Stunning Hand-Drawn Project ‘Klaus’ [Exclusive]

Animator and director Sergio Pablos has unveiled the breathtaking teaser for his hand-drawn project Klaus:

No, that’s not a typo: hand-drawn.

You could be forgiven for thinking the character animation was modeled and animated with CGI software because Klaus has the polished sheen of the latest big-budget studio CGI epic. But watch again, and the enduring organic charm of hand-drawn animation is evident throughout.

Pablos, of course, knows a thing or two about drawn animation. An accomplished animation master who participated in the 1990s Disney renaissance, he animated on films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules, before supervising Tantor in Tarzan and Dr. Doppler in Treasure Planet.

After the hand-drawn feature animation industry collapsed stateside, he moved back to his home country of Spain where he launched his own company Animagic (today, known as SPA Studios). His company has racked up an impressive list of credits, providing pre-production and production support to feature productions, but Pablos’s biggest claim to fame is originating the concept for the blockbuster Illumination franchise Despicable Me.

With Klaus, Sergio Pablos has created a potential game-changer by applying the latest digital technology to a traditional approach, and, in the process, redefining what a hand-drawn feature could look like. Pablos is keeping his proprietary process under wraps for the moment—the project is still in active development and seeking financing—but he corresponded exclusively with Cartoon Brew via email over the weekend to fill in other details about the project.

Sergio Pablos.
Sergio Pablos.

CARTOON BREW: Tell me a little bit about the background of Klaus. How did the project start?

SERGIO PABLOS: Well, you may be aware that I’ve spent the last few years developing and participating in CGI feature films. I have no complaints there: it’s been a blast and I’m very grateful for everything I learned. Seeing Despicable Me grow into what it is today has been a true joy and one of my proudest achievements.

But like many of us, I miss the freedom and spontaneity of traditional animation. Don’t get me wrong, I love CGI when it’s well made. But there’s no denying that there’s a unique quality to hand-crafted animation when done by a great artist.

So I asked myself, What would a traditionally animated film have to be to be relevant today? I resolved that it came down to two things: visually, we had to move the medium forward instead of taking refuge in nostalgia; and, from a narrative point of view, we had to open up to other kinds of stories: as a matter of fact, it was precisely about finding the kind of story that would benefit from the traditional medium. From this exercise, Klaus was born.

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CARTOON BREW: You released the teaser today. What stage is the project at?

SERGIO PABLOS: We’ve been lucky enough to find support to complete development and are currently seeking investing, co-production, and distribution partners.

CARTOON BREW: Disney, among other studios, has been exploring the use of non-photorealistic rendering CGI styles with Paperman and Feast. You’ve come at it from the other side—giving hand-drawn animation the smoothness and volume of a CGI production yet with mouth shapes and other elements that retain a distinctly hand-drawn feel. What do you see as the benefits, both artistic or commercial, of pushing hand-drawn animation into a space where it more closely resembles CG?

SERGIO PABLOS: Here’s how I look at it: What we set off to do was to overcome some of the technical limitations that traditional animation had. We focused on organic, volumetric lighting, and texturing. If the end result ends up looking to some like CGI, that’s an unintentional side effect. The goal was to develop tools that eventually allowed us to put any visual development style on the screen. It seems like most films’ looks are very standardized, and we’re hoping to overcome that way of thinking. We’re just getting started, but the possibilities are very exciting. And, if your intention is to put something that feels hand-crafted on the screen, there’s no shorter path than starting from a hand-crafted medium.

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CARTOON BREW: How much more complicated is the pipeline to produce this type of animation compared to a standard hand-drawn film, and what kind of budget is required?

SERGIO PABLOS: Well, we’re obviously adding a couple of items to the 2D pipeline. But then, the standard 2D pipeline is much simpler than that of a mainstream CGI film. Also, the next stage of R&D will focus on improving the tools and optimizing the process, so I’m fairly certain that it will be a pretty small impact by the time we’re done.

CARTOON BREW: Can you talk about your approach/process to lighting and texturing the piece and the type of challenges presented to achieve this look?

SERGIO PABLOS: I can’t go into too much detail, but I can tell you that no geometry is involved, that the end result depends greatly on the artistic ability of the creators, and that it mostly takes place during the later stages of production, which means that it does not affect the way in which traditional animators work.

CARTOON BREW: How many animators were involved in making the piece? And do you (and others at your studio) still animate on paper or do you draw everything digitally?

SERGIO PABLOS: We had some friends around the world chip in with a few shots, but it’s mostly the work on two animators. Most of the animation was done digitally on TVPaint.

To learn more about Klaus and SPA Studios, make sure to attend Pablos’s talk at Annecy later this month.

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  • My hats off to Sergio and his crew. This is, hands-down, the best piece of animation I have seen since my days at Disney (and then some)! If the story is good, this could be the film to have the major studios stand up and take notice again in the “dead” art form of traditional animation. Go SPA!

    • Kevin

      I am waiting patiently for the inevitable Bancroft Bros Podcast w/ Sergio! ;)

  • Wow, it’s got the charm of hand-drawn with the cinematic scope of 3D, love it! I look forward to hearing more about both the process and the project.

  • Vanessa Flores

    Disney can suck it. I always thought Paperman was too smooth to resemble hand drawn animation, as gorgeous as it was. But I don’t see them doing that for a whole feature film. I hope and pray Pablos can get this done because it looks stunningly beautiful and it’s be a shame for this to go under…

  • Marc Hendry

    It makes me so happy to see the medium take steps forward. I’m really enjoying seeing these highly-skilled animators step out of the mainstream and take advantage of the new techniques, even though the commercial landscape looks a bit bleak.

  • Nikolas

    Hello, it’s Dr. Delbert Doppler. Mannerisms, timing, movement, even the voice is quite similar. Doppler (who was animated by Pablos) will always remain one of the best-animated characters in a Disney 2D feature. I recall that Pablos won an Annie Award for his work on Doppler.

    This clip has beautiful animation, backgrounds and lightning. Absolutely stunning looking. Some cute gags, too. However, I can honestly say I don’t find the character very compelling (as presented in the clip). Yeah, this looks fantastic, but I sure they can punch up the concept/story into something more interesting. This reminds me of The Boxtrolls, which looked great visually but was extremely uninteresting story-wise.

    • Ravlic

      Agreed on Doppler, I absolutely adored how well-animated he was, he had such recognizable neurotic movements. The animation of the mailman is so similar I wondered if the animator used Doppler for reference (before I read that it’s the same guy).
      But yeah, we’ll see about the story.

  • GML49

    Fantastic piece of work! Please let this make its way to the big screen. And please let 2d make the comeback it so deserves.

  • OtherDan

    LOVE IT!! The idea of making the software work for you vs. being a slave to it, is great! Will Sergio need artists if it becomes a feature film?

  • GW

    I’m impressed. The main character’s head reminds me of Jeremy from Zits. Looking at this reminds you that the distinction between mediums is as much a product of stylistic formalities as it is visual possibility. Or at least until you start needing individual hairs. I’ve seen 2D animation that’s highly rendered before but none that looks quite like this.

    The plot itself seems somewhat interesting. It’s difficult to say at this point because after all, it’s just a teaser. This is one of my most anticipated movies now behind Beast of Burden and My Little World.

  • Sebastian Sandberg

    That is the best-looking 2D-animated sequence I’ve ever seen.

    I know that sounds like a hyperbolic statement, given the vast 80+ years of feature animation out there…. But none of them ever had such a smooth painted look to them while retaining a fluid sense of movement at the same time.

    • Jamie

      The only other films I can think of that had a fully detailed “animated painting” style, such as Aleksander Petrov’s work, or maybe the Soviet short “Polygon/The Shooting Range”, but this new short is something else entirely…if you took a frame you’d think it was the “concept art” (which is usually gorgeous) for a scene in a typical Disney feature, that’s how good it looks.

  • Callum

    Will this be released in theatres?

  • Steven Bowser

    I hope they find their funding, and that people will respond to the film as positively as all of us animation geeks have. The look really is breathtaking, but the most important thing is that the story and characters seem really fun and interesting. Great job, guys.

  • jthomasc

    Careful, I might start dreaming again.

  • Tre

    Best of luck to Sergio and all the team on this project. Already love the look of this. :D

  • quasimike

    First off…this is stunning work. I agree with those who are saying that this is perhaps the best hand-drawn animation in decades, if not ever. I’ve watched it several times already, and still can’t get past how fluid everything is. I can’t recall anything that even comes close to it. Such beautiful eye-candy as well (I want to take the shot of him pushing his carriage up the snow-covered hill and frame it, and then hang it in the Louvre!) I am certain that this will find distribution…it deserves to be fought over. If the story is as strong as the animation, then Sergio and his crew are looking to be a sure thing for all the major awards.

  • Carolyn Bates

    Gorgeous, Sergio!

  • Kyle_Maloney

    Holy moly. Its like the hand drawn version of paperman, but in color. I’ve never seen shading quite like that applied to hand drawn animation

  • Jenny Sherman

    I want to cry it is so beautiful.

    • AnimatedMadness

      I know the feeling. I’ve dreamed about animation like this since I was a kid. It’s pure eye candy!

  • Brian Mitchell

    Amazing work. Jaw droppingly beautiful. Amazing to me to say that it took someone outside of the Disney Organization to advance the art of 2d to this level. Disney should have been on the forefront of developing this.

    • Norcol

      It actually took someone that the Disney Organization foolhardily let go. Not since Disney kicked itself for passing on “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and created Touchstone have such events taken place.

      • Dave

        Norcol – I don’t think Sergio was let go by Disney. He, like some other top talent (Ken Duncan, Glen Keane, to name just a few of the more well-known examples) left Disney of his own volition to pursue his own projects. Now, maybe you could make the case that Disney didn’t try hard enough to keep him, but he seems to have known what he was doing when he walked out of that place ( in 2003 Disney was not a happy place to be , believe me).

  • Santiago Casares

    Besides the amazing animation, the story presented is very engaging (specially for a teaser)… C’mon, a postman trying to work in the same town as Santa Claus!? Brilliant!

  • William Bradford

    Excuse me while I salivate

  • FM Hansen

    This is great news all the way around and
    further proof that CG is just a tool. Great for lot of things, but comes
    up a little short against the human touch of 2D in other places.
    I love how Sergio continues to forge ahead and
    push animation, seeing opportunities where so many of us don’t. I’d almost
    go to Annecy just to hear & see his talk!

    • Miss Cephalopod

      Well, CG is a tool just like a pencil is. The human touch doesn’t come from the pencil, it comes from the human using it.

  • I love that Cartoon Brew is continually posting more and more 2D animation articles. That’s what animation truly is and the way it should be (in my opinion at least). I’ve seen both sides of the card and as frustrating it is to render something, it is not as breathtaking or impressive as something actually drawn.

  • Sant

    “So I asked myself, What would a traditionally animated film have to be to be relevant today? I resolved that it came down to two things: visually, we had to move the medium forward instead of taking refuge in nostalgia… What we set off to do was to overcome some of the technical limitations that traditional animation had. We focused on organic, volumetric lighting, and texturing. If the end result ends up looking to some like CGI, that’s an unintentional side effect. The goal was to develop tools that eventually allowed us to put any visual development style on the screen…”

    This guy is on to something….

    • Brian Mitchell

      The key for 2d animation to be relevant today is simple….1) a great story, well told …2) good entertainment value and 3) engaging characters. The rest will take care of itself.

  • Midnightink

    Amazing. Really looking forward to seeing the finished product.

  • Ravlic

    My first thought upon seeing the main character was “huh this mailman moves exactly like Dr. Doppler”, turns out I was right on the money.
    I’ve been waiting for an animated film like this for a long time and always wondered why no-one bothered to do it with today’s technology. Heck, I still wonder why big studios don’t bother with 2D considering how much cheaper it is. Still, two animators working on this seems like a crazy notion considering the quality of this, like, I really have no idea how they manage to do it.

  • Gerard de Souza

    But (to my eye) I don’t think the character animation looks 3d CG as in a model/puppet. It looks like drawn in which they’ve figured out how to consistently paint to create the illusion of 3d solidity with a graphic 2d clarity; something they’ve strived for since Snow White. It’s not a new desire. It really feels like a moving illustration.
    In fairness, Paperman and Feast look great but it seems like goofy process to base 3d models…on drawings….to make them look like drawings again.

    I hope this proprietary process is truly something magical that can take drawings and do this.

    • Vanessa Flores

      THIS right here. Paperman and Feast looked TOOOOO smooth to be 2D that it broke the illusion that it was supposed to look 2D. It would’ve helped if they made their lines keep moving jaggedly to get an illusion of moving drawings or at least make it choppy, but it was too CGi looking in the end and it bothered me, even as much as I loved the film… :P

  • So the key to move traditional animation forward nowadays is to make it look nothing like classic traditional animation and style it like CG animation? That might have come off as condescending, but the end result looks really stunning. If these practices are enough to keep the medium relevant in current cinema, then so be it. Might as well take the chance since realism is all in nowadays.

  • Matthew Koh

    Awesome! As someone who does 2D hand drawn animation, this make me wish I want to work on that. Not the shading part, but the process that makes it move.
    Don’t get me wrong, it is still possible to shade every frame if you work really hard. (The Dam Keeper, anyone?)

  • Kudos to the SPA crew..This is to show that there are still lot of things to explore in hand drawn animation just as Mr Glen keane usually mentions.

  • MaskedManAICN

    Great work, hope they can all save 2D movies.

  • Greg Hardin

    Holy crap that was amazing!

  • jhalpernkitcat

    If I’m not mistaken, this movie is about a postman who will eventually be able to set up a successful post office by getting people to write to Santa. If that’s the idea behind it–it’s pretty brilliant-and the animation is awesome.

  • C

    How in the heck. I want to know the workflow behind this so badly.

  • Will Finn

    WOW! Inspired, inspiring and truly masterful. I never thought I’d say something this but this is right up there with PINOCCHIO. I love the characters and storyline too… Tons of humor, charm and caricature. Can’t wait to see more.

  • Chad Townsend

    Watch this on a big screen in HD…. Just Breathtaking.

  • Tomm

    Wow it’s so beautifully animated and rendered , plus the concept seems really strong and commercial , I do think this could be a big hit.
    I wonder what the budget would be and if audiences will know it’s hand drawn or even care ?

    My guess is a great story and a slick style like this will make the actual production method a secondary concern for most people … Which is a good thing.
    Plenty of really informed filmbuffs and animation fans have a hard time understanding the difference between the various techniques these days as they become more and more polished and digitally enhanced anyway .

    With stop motion using 3d printed heads and various compositing tricks and hand drawn or so called “2d” animation using hybrid methods from digitally drawn frame by frame TvPaint animation to rigged paintings in anime studio pro etc , the line between the methods and mediums is blurring more and more.

    I think it’s great that we are on the cusp of seeing more diverse styles on screen in mainstream animation – however they are achieved …

  • jojo

    I sincerely hope that this teaser will give pause to some people in the big animation studios… That would be amazing if the animated films could finally retain the quality and energy of the concept arts on screen… Think about it : http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-7FAuvbOBUzU/UpYODBL1GmI/AAAAAAAAGwU/N1VMVBdUE78/s1600/004-LineUp-50.jpg

  • Bryan Sanders

    He says there’s no geometry, but I’d swear that at least a few of those swinging doors (especially the one with the golden knocker) had a touch of 3D magic going on… (Love that the knocker nearly matches the face of the occupant as well!)

  • Derreck Garcia

    Wow! This not even the middle of the trailer and I love it! The story, the character, but most of all, The. 2D Animation Itself! It has that classic feeling to a modern update. I’m definetely sold for this!

  • Ravlic

    Because Disney is trying to replicate something that is already perfectly done through traditional means for the sole reason that everything needs to be cgi to sell.
    2D on the other hand is trying to go beyond its practical simplicity and look like moving paintings/illustrations. This is also something cgi isn’t particularly good at.

  • Sjase

    I second this, the door and the door knocker scream CG polygons. I am not hating on it, just not buying it. That being said I think the piece looked great and was very charming.

    • Dave

      Some of you people act like blending CG elements with Hand Drawn animation is something new, or that it sort of smacks of “cheating” (because animating props and vehicles in CG is not “pure” hand-drawn animation ?) , but blending CG with hand drawn has been common since the late 80’s (starting with “The Great Mouse Detective”) . Why are you nitpicking on this point ?

  • Metlow Rovenstein

    This teaser looks impressive! I like the forward thinking that Mr. Pablos is applying to handrawn animation. Hopefully, this becomes a critial and financial hit, in the fashion of Toy Story and Terminator.

  • Metlow Rovenstein

    Agreed. In addition to being promoted well, handrawn animated films need compelling stories to go with them, to secure financial, as well as critical, success.

  • Paul

    Agreed. This is 2D character work of the highest order, but there’s absolutely some 3D assist in sets. Makes sense to do it that way

  • Sergio Pablos

    Hey, guys. Thanks for the overwhelming support.

    I thought I should jump in to clarify a couple of things. Yes, the doors and wagon are CGI. Sorry if that was confusing. The process we are talking about has to do more with the character’s treatment. Sorry if that was confusing.

    Ans also, I agree with the comments stating that it will all amount to nothing unless we have a strong story. Believe me when I tell you that we did not disregard that part of it.

    Again, thanks and fingers crossed.

    • Tim Bahrij

      The visual quality was stunning, don’t get me wrong, but what I was left thinking about when the trailer had finished was the story!! Really interesting premise. Best of luck with it

    • AnimatedMadness

      Sergio! I LOVED this peice! I’ve watched it like 20 times in the past 24 hours! The major movie studios would be complete nincompoops to not finance what looks to be a masterpiece! You have truly brought an illustration to life with what looks like a brilliant story! Walt himself would be proud!

      And if for some newfangled reason the studios don’t wanna finance this obviously amazing work, put it on kickstarter! I will happily throw my money at it!

  • Matt

    Amazing work! Nice to see 2d being pushed in new ways. This was the direction I was hoping that Princess and the Frog would of taken and in some ways we did do that (lots of CG in that film that no one even notices). While at Disney we used a great tool to light our characters in Shake but it came later in the production so was not pushed to its max. I am guessing that is how the postman is being lit as well in a similar way but with after effects etc. The setup is great as far as story, it doesn’t give too much away and is intriguing at the same time.

  • Uli Meyer

    Wow, this looks truly amazing and I wish Sergio all the best of luck with his project.
    On another note I find it very amusing that in order to improve the chances of getting a 2D film into production, it is made to look like 3D. Audiences couldn’t care less how the 3D look is achieved and if 3D is what the market wants, neither should the money people. So this might actually have a chance. Fingers crossed.

  • Hey Now

    This looks AMAZING, no doubt. But let’s be honest here: the excitement here really boils down to, “Hey, we can make hand-drawn animation look like something it’s not!” (Even when that wasn’t Sergio’s intention.) It’s disheartening that this could potentially save 2D, not because the general public suddenly has a renewed interest in the beauty an uniqueness of 2D animation, but because we can now ‘trick’ them into thinking it’s CG, which is all anyone pays money to see anymore.

    • Sergio Pablos

      I understand that logic, but I honestly don’t look at it that way.

      To me, what we collectively think of as “the 2D look” is nothing but a compendium of all the technical limitations the medium had when we pretty much abandoned it in the late 90s.

      You seem to think that volume and complex lighting are a property of CGI. I’m trying to demonstrate that’s not necesarilty the case.

      Please understand that I’m neither trying to “get back at CGI”, nor imitating it in hopes to sneak a 2D film past the investors: I’m simply presenting what I hope will be a strong story through the visuals that will best serve that story.

      I was expecting the discussion would revolve around the new look for traditional animation, but I really wish we could see past that and judge this simply as an animated film. After all, isn’t this what we’ve been asking audiences to do?

    • Ravlic

      I honestly don’t see this as cg at all. It’s more like a moving illustration, it’s just that people automatically associate any detailed look with cg because 2D animation has always had to be limited in regards to certain things such as lighting or textures. If I look at a detailed semi-realistic illustration, I am not going to immediately think it’s done in Maya just because it’s not as 2D as, say, a drawing of Snoopy.

  • The way I see it, 3D is digital stop motion, sculpture, and the eye see it like that. 2D is drawn and its language it’s completely different, no matter the level of shading. I like some 3d movies but I love good drawings and good smooth 2d animarion. I guess many feel the same with this.

  • Chicken McPhee

    Stellar work. Let’s hope this raises eyebrows overseas and the slave drivers (Disney & Co) will take notice and get jealous.

  • Just amazing! So great to see 2D traditional animation looking so good. It definitely has the 2D feeling with the 3D effect and texturing. I wonder how the general public would respond to that, it certainly has the more sophisticated look that is attracting more audiences these days. That combined with a strong story could have a great impact. It also gives a variety in the look since most 3D films from the majors are looking alike. I wonder if some of the new light shading effects of the new Toonboom Harmony v12 was used in the teaser.

  • James Madiosn

    Looking at the techniques of “Klaus” and Bill Plympton’s “Cheatin'” hand drawn animation is in good hands. (Those students from Gobelins are great too)

  • Elizabeth Collyer

    “HAND-DRAWN”… Also naration is good!

  • Brian Mitchell

    There’s merit to both so I don’t believe it’s an insult to great 3d animation.
    3d has proved itself as an animation powerhouse. That’s not going away anytime soon. But Let’s face it; hand drawn animation was dumped by the major film studios and that’s the medium that has received no respect. Disney, for years has profited off of their classic films and continue to do so. Once, 3d animation came into being, they were very eager to close down the studio.
    I believe what’s important is that we realize that there’s a place for 2d animation and by having it evolve and to marry it with 3d technology only helps both mediums move to a better place.

  • Vanessa Flores

    As far as I know, this is 3D imitating 2D, correct? If so, this has done a much better AND convincing job of showing that than Paperman or Feast did. I knew from the movements that those two were really in computer and it bugged me cuz they could’ve made the characters a bit choppy. They moved too smooth. This teaser convinced me more, and, actually made me confused whether or not it was really 2D or 3D imitating 2D remarkably.

    Point is, I don’t like how Disney shows off what they do when they don’t even do much. They could do that Paperman technique in a feature film, but as far as I know, they’re not going with that anytime soon, which makes the experimentality of it all just pointless. :P Just sayin.

  • Vanessa Flores

    I mean, also since Blue Sky is ahead of the game with the “3D looking like 2D” thing with their Peanuts film. It’s believable that it could be 2D, but it’s really 3D. And what is Disney still doing? The same old thing. They don’t care. As long as nostalgic people and children love their bland stories, they don’t have to do much. :P

  • Nanna Stahlschmidt

    wow you sir are amazing! this is truly something i look forward too – I am studying to become an animator myself, and what a pleasure it is to see someone using 2D animation instead of 3D. I wish you good luck in the process of making this :)

  • Sean Bodkin

    Really amazing stuff. Work like this makes me more hopeful than anything else that traditional 2D might return to features alongside 3D and hybrid animation.

  • Fraser MacLean

    Sergio – this is absolutely stunning – and every aspect of the animation is beautiful, no matter which end of the technical stick people grab at to try and make sense of the solidity in the shading. The exhaustive, frame-by-frame tone matte and rim light techniques that Chris Knott pioneered (with amazing support from other Dick Williams-era artists and technicians such as John Leatherbarrow) for “Roger Rabbit” have often mistakenly been assumed to be the work of some mysterious machine at ILM – where all the EFX elements, drawn on paper, traced to cel and shot on 35mm in Camden, went to be composted – but they were, in fact, the work of a small army of animators, matte and roto artists (the much missed Annie Elvin inlcuded), line testers and camera operators. It doesn’t matter what tool kits you guys are using now – you have succeeded beautifully in taking the whole idea of hand-drawn animation “lighting” to another level, since the goal here is to place these magnificent solid characters within the theatrical depth of the stunning sets and locations, rather than “camouflage” them in a world of real live actors. May you get whatever funding, encouragement and support you need to see the project through to completion – and to a well-deserved long run at the international box office. Go, SPA…..!!

  • Fantino

    It’s beautiful! Hope this means the return of hand-drawn animation and finally puts an end to Disney’s efforts to make CGI look like traditional animation. Not a fan of Feast you should know. I liked Paperman, though.