Platypus Animation, a studio based in Guadalajara, Mexico, focuses on creating short 2d pieces for publicity campaigns at home and abroad. Los Lobos (Wolves), a live-action/animation hybrid drama about two Mexican children who migrate to the U.S. with their mother, is the first feature film they’ve ever worked on. The film premiered at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the grand prix in the Generation Kplus competition for younger audiences.
The film’s director Samuel Kishi Leopo, who also co-founded Platypus, was always certain he wanted to introduce animation into the mostly live-action narrative. Kishi conducted rehearsals at the animation studio with the two young brothers who star in the movie, Max and Leo Nájar Márquez (aged eight and five respectively; the characters they play are also called Max and Leo).
The story intercuts between the boys’ reality in Albuquerque, New Mexico and segments featuring their animated alter egos, two small wolves. According to Thalia Machuca, the film’s producer and studio co-founder, “Animation in the film has the function of giving life to the kids’ imagination and expresses everything they are feeling as they try to understand this new world they are in. It helps us get into their heads and have more empathy for them.”
To begin with, the young actors were asked to draw these creatures. These sessions gave the animation team first-hand access to their uninhibited artistic sensibilities. “We as adults wouldn’t have imagined the wolves in that way,” said Paula Quintanar, animation coordinator and storyboard artist, of the colorful designs they turned in.
Ezequiel Garibay and Alonso Navarro, animation co-directors, then used those drawings as the basis for the childlike aesthetic of the characters that made it to the screen. Some modifications were made to facilitate the animation and preserve consistency, while minimizing the execution time. Artists at Platypus differentiated the wolves’ shapes without altering their essence: one became a circle and the other a square.
Originally, Kishi and the team had planned to create four animated segments, but in the end only three were completed. The first one uses as a canvas one of the walls in the small apartment where Max and Leo spend most of their time. This moment acts as the entry point from the live-action footage into the animated world. While the crew at Platypus worked on the designs, the director shot with the actors.
In the main narrative, the mother encounters paper fliers while she’s looking for employment. She brings them home, and after she reprimands Max and Leo for drawing on the wall, they draw on the fliers instead. The remaining two animated segments, as well as the fourth that was cut, are rendered as if drawn on tattered paper. As a result, there are no landscapes or intricate backgrounds.
The scrapped sequence would have shown the wolves fighting monsters from the realm of reality. The villains in this battle would have been elements from those fliers, like a refrigerator from a repair shop ad or a disembodied torso from a promotion for Oaxaca-styles massages. They would have confronted a chihuahua from a “missing dog” ad.
This sequence was abandoned, since it felt too similar to another scene that did make the final cut, in which the wolves fight monkeys. This confrontation mimics the violence and crime that surround the kids in reality: their bare-bones abode is located in a marginalized neighborhood.
The touching third segment sees the wolf siblings grappling with their complicated feelings about their mother, who has brought them to a foreign land for a better life but has to leave them alone all day while she works. By shortening and simplifying some of the animated scenes, the crew strengthened the kids’ emotional progression.
The visual development team generated the fliers we see on the community board, with the telephone numbers of people looking for their pet or offering services. “We tried to emulate as best as possible the fusion between the kids’ reality and their imagination through these tangible elements and the animation,” added Roberto Miller, background designer.
One challenge for both the animation and live-action teams was to create the illusion that the drawings were really on the wall or fliers. This influenced things like the animation team’s use of color and the finishing of their lines. They kept in constant contact with the director and his team during the shoot.
“The information we got from the live-action set helped us decide what actions the animated characters would do,” explained Machuca. “The layout stage was of crucial importance for us right before we started animating, because it allowed us to think carefully about the characters’ movements, the amount of shots, and the difficulty and complexity of each of them, as well as the limited amount of screen time we had to get that across.”
Initially the team did tests on TVPaint and considered using it because its brushes and bitmap seemed more attuned to the nature of the project. However, the studio’s entire pipeline exists on Toon Boom. Ultimately, it was easier to adapt brushes on Toon Boom than to move the production to TVPaint. Even earlier in the process, the artists attempted to use actual paper and crayons to get real textures, but the costs forced them to opt for the digital option.
Another challenge was to render the images such that they appeared to be crafted by children, without deviating from basic animation parameters and making things too rough. Part of the solution was using double exposures to simulate line movement when the characters were motionless.
“Every two frames we would redraw the shot so that the line would appear as if it were jumping,” said Navarro, the animation co-director. “When the characters are moving there’s no need to redraw it because we are making it jump through action, but when they were static we would redraw to create that effect. Later in the process I learned that there’s a plugin in Toon Boom that does that automatically.”
“To help myself get into that headspace [of childlike drawing],” added Garibay, “I unearthed an old box of my own childhood drawings that my mother keeps as a treasure, and I spent hours observing the logic and characteristics of those drawings to connect with the old me. Besides being a fun experience, doing this helped me loosen up my hand when drawing the characters and the world in the animation.”
Around 15 people at Platypus — virtually the entire studio — lent their talents to Los Lobos, covering everything from the storyboards and animatic to the character design, color, cleanup, animation, and compositing. Platypus was also in charge of the film’s animated credit sequences.
Other recent projects include contributing animation to the “Untold” series of promo spots for Disney+, where notable personalities recall memorable anecdotes related to their creative work. Platypus is the first Latin American studio hired to work for the recently launched streaming platform. Last year, they also produced a video tribute for the Guadalajara International Film Festival based on the work of Mexican animation figure Jorge Gutierrez.