I know, I know. Talking about Christmas right after Halloween, our most sacred of holidays, is usually looked down upon, but hear me out. KLAUS is not your typical holiday fare. The film, which is based on a fictional origin story of how Santa Claus came to be, is not only one of the best Christmas films I’ve seen, but it also incorporated some unsettling and creepy imagery that’s woven throughout the gorgeous animation style and holiday cheer.
KLAUS features the voice acting of J.K. Simmons (Klaus), Jason Schwartzman (Jesper), Rashida Jones (Alva), and Joan Cusack (Mrs. Krum) and is co-written and directed by Sergio Pablos, a former Disney animator. For the release of his directorial debut, I had the chance to speak with Sergio about his animated feature where he discussed everything from the style of 2D animation used, the reasoning for the dark imagery, and how the origin of Klaus came to be.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today! Can you talk a bit about how you came up with this incredible origin story for KLAUS?
Sergio Pablos: It was back in 2010 and I noticed a slew of origin stories in the cinema. If you remember, Jason (Friday the 13th) was getting an origin story, Hannibal Lecter was getting an origin story, everybody was getting an origin story (laughs). I thought it would be interesting to take a character that was already well established and update all of its lore and mythology. I made a list of possible fictional or historical characters that could lend themselves to it – you could find names like Napolean, Dracula, or Joan of Arc – and I landed on Santa. At first, it didn’t grab me, it felt like a very sappy story, but I just kept going back to it. I did some research and I found out there is a historical origin story, a religious origin story, with many different traditions from every different country, but there’s not one widely accepted origin story for Santa Claus. I thought it would be an interesting thing to try if I could find the angle. The angle was to not make Santa Claus the main character but instead, make him more of a symbol for altruism and then find another main character that had to learn that lesson. That’s where Jesper the postman was born.
Looking over your list of accomplishments, you worked as an animator on iconic films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tarzan. During that time, did you know that you wanted to be a director as well?
Sergio Pablos: In a way, it kind of fell in my lap. I was always curious about directing, but it wasn’t until I finished my several years of working at Disney studios where I got to work on those classic 2D animated features. Around that time was when I had decided to return home to Spain but also, it was pretty much the end of 2D animation as we knew it. So clearly I had to make a change – I could either get myself educated in new technology and stay an animator or I could explore my second love which had always been storytelling, I chose to do the latter. I spent a fair amount of years training myself and understanding filmmaking better because being an animator only teaches you a small part of what makes a film. I set myself for failure, I should say, cause that’s the only way you learn. I did several ideas for films that didn’t get picked up or go anywhere but I always made sure to try and learn something from each of those failures and kept trying. The first one that actually did land was Despicable Me, that’s the first time that I thought I might know what I’m doing when it comes to figuring out what to look for in a story, but I still was not in any way ready to actually direct a film. I just kept packing on and being opened to learning new things, like writing, storyboarding, things that I normally couldn’t do before. I’m not saying I’m fearless, I had a lot of fear going through this, but I try not to limit myself by saying, “Oh, that’s too hard, let’s not do that.”
Speaking of the 2D animation, the style used in KLAUS is breathtaking. Can you elaborate on how that was achieved?
Sergio Pablos: We basically took everything great about traditional animation that we knew we shouldn’t mess with and we respected it. When we landed on how we have traditionally been handling light in traditional animation, we realized there was quite a gross limitation in that. The characters never quite felt like they belonged in their surroundings. The backgrounds were painted with different techniques than the characters so they never felt like they belonged in the same world. So we said okay, we can actually make it so we can have the light effect the background and the characters in the same way. We arrived at an absolute integration so that it felt like everything on the screen was painted by the same hand. We tried to arrive at a place where you feel like you are watching a storybook in motion. Some people get it confused with CGI because the only way they have seen volumetric lighting has been through CGI. The truth is, this new lighting system is trying to have the same philosophy as the rest of the 2D pipeline, there’s nothing automatic about the ability to paint light on moving images in front of artists who already know how to pain light. You would need a skillset for the painter to be able to use this tool. We partnered up with a studio in France, called Les films du Poisson Rouge, who has been developing these great tools. They had already developed a system for an original proof of concept teaser that we did but we needed to actually revamp it to be able to use in production. These guys came in with tools that made the system fly in a way that showed it would be more expensive and time-consuming to have done it the old way, where we used to draw shadows on characters.
When it comes to the imagery, I was surprised to see so much of it was creepy, at least in the beginning. What dictated having those unsettling but funny moments, such as the two women carrying a possible dead body, into the film?
Sergio Pablos: It’s funny, but when we started the story we didn’t know if we were going too far; however, in the middle of the film we realized that [the town of Smeerensburg] had to become the ultimate Christmas town, so how far away did we have to get from that to achieve it. It’s funny because we never thought [some of that footage] was going to fly but they were okay with it and it was fine because, I think, the tone was still funny. Those two ladies carrying the body made several appearances in the original draft. One of my favorite jobs that were cut from the film was at one point they were using the postal service to mail the body, but that one, unfortunately, needed to go (laughs).
Lastly, can you talk about the casting process and going about filling the various roles?
Sergio Pablos: It was a blessing. The first one that got cast was Klaus. The casting directors gave seven names for review to see if I would be okay with any of those. On top of the list, it said J.K. Simmons and I never looked at any other [names]. I said if you can get J.K. then we are done with that. They sent the script to him and he said yes and I was on Cloud 9. Then Rashida [Jones] came on-board and she’s great – I mean not only is she a great performer but she’s a writer. A first time writer who is speaking in English, which is not his native tongue, can definitely use the help of another writer, so she was a godsend. We had the most complex task with Jason [Schwartzman] because the character is morally very reprehensible but likable to the audience, which is very hard to do. Jason came in and started trying different things. He came up with that sweet spot where you can have a character that’s quite flawed and yet likable to the audience. And that little girl Neda Margrethe Labba, who plays Margu, she holds her own incredibly well against the moguls.
KLAUS will be available to stream on Netflix on November 15 and you can read our review of it here.