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Klaus director pushed past the limitations of traditional animation

Sergio Pablos’s lush Santa origin story is now on Netflix

jesper and klaus arguing about something Netflix
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

The new film Klaus is a first for Netflix, and a long-awaited return for the medium: departing from the styles of Pixar, Dreamworks, and Disney, it’s entirely 2D animated. But Klaus doesn’t look like the traditionally animated movies of the past either.

Director Sergio Pablos, an animator well known for devising the story of Despicable Me, imagined Klaus as a more traditional animated feature that incorporated technology normally used for CG features. Specifically, the film makes use of volumetric lighting and texturing, which contributes to a lush, storybook look.

The film is a Santa origin story, told from the point-of-view of Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a spoiled postal-academy student, who’s sent to the desolate Northern town of Smeerensburg in order to establish a postal service. He soon realizes the inhabitants of Smeerensburg are embroiled in a bitter, generational feud and aren’t too keen on sending each other letters. After crossing paths with the hermit-like woodcutter, Klaus (J.K. Simmons), Jesper implements a system where the children of Smeerensburg write letters asking for toys, and Klaus delivers. The secular Christmas is born.

In a phone interview, Pablos told Polygon about imagining a Santa origin story, picking up where traditional animation left off, and what the future of his medium holds.

alva and jesper paint a toy carousel Image: SPA Animation/Netflix

Polygon: Klaus stands out from other Santa-centered Christmas movies in that the explanation isn’t magical — the reindeer don’t actually fly, for starters. Why choose to root the story in reality?

Sergio Pablos: That’s what made it interesting to me actually. I thought that was the irony of it. I love a story that has a bit of a cynical element to it to begin with, but it leads unexpectedly to an honest truth. I really liked the idea of removing all magic from all these little snippets of origin stories of Santa Claus and saying, well how fun could it be if all the things you expect to just be there because of magic actually had a grounded, somewhat cynical origin story that actually led to some truth. I always say that I always find the story when I find the irony. These ideas could be floating around waiting for an angle until I go, well what if all that’s good about Santa came about through the actions of the worst human being I can conceive of. That would make it interesting. The irony is something that I look for all the time.

How did you land on a mailman as your main character?

It actually used to be a poor chimney sweep, that was the original story. Then I realized that it didn’t quite take us there. We needed someone who was a bit more selfish, someone who needed to learn the lesson of altruism. So this morally reprehensible man with a very selfish goal to get letters was what the story needed to move forward. Basically, this guy had to con or scam a whole town into getting his own selfish way. That was the necessary step for ihm to realize, to turn his selfish means into altruistic means. Also, the mail serves as a metaphor for communication in the film too, so it really helps.

Was the setting of Smeerensburg inspired by anything in the real world?

Well the town of Smeerenburg — that’s Smeerenburg without the [second] ‘s’ — actually does, well did, exist. In my research, I found a list of the northernmost human settlements in history. And one of them was Smeerenburg. It was up in Scandinavia, I think it was Norway. It used to be a very prosperous whaling post back in the 1600s. I like my films to have certain roots in plausible reality. Now the place is a pile of rocks and does not exist anymore. It’s a bit of a thing of legend for Scandinavian culture. So I thought, well let me kind of misspell it on purpose, but I’d still like to have that grounded sense of a plot. Plus, there was something about the word “smeer” that made the name sound interesting to me.

Where did the idea for the Sámi people as Santa’s helpers come from?

We were basically making a list of all the things that make up Santa’s legend. So like flying reindeer, going down the chimney, the stockings, and all that stuff. One of them was like, well there is going to be a point where we’re going to show the prototype of Santa’s workshop. But we don’t have elves. What do we get?

So I did my research and I found out about the Sámi. I thought, well if we go on this stream of “kindness is contagious,” [Klaus and Jesper] deliver this toy to this little Sámi girl and in exchange the Sámi come back and help them, that would actually fit in very well with that central message. We would not show them as elves, but they would still be in the burgeoning workshop.

Jesper sits with Margu, a little Sámi girl Netflix

Not only that, but Margu was one of the main characters in the film. Margu is a little Sámi girl and she was essential in Jesper’s transformation. At one point in the film, I realized they shouldn’t speak English. They were written in English at first and I realized, oh actually this works so much better if they speak only Sámi. So we actually had to go and find a little Sámi girl who could perform. And we found Neda [Labba] all the way up in Tromsø, Norway. I went up there to record her and my relationship with her was very similar to that with Jesper and Margu, because she doesn’t speak English, I don’t speak Sámi. So we had to do this whole recording session through translation and mimicry. I brought a lot of that with me when we started doing those conversations between Margu and Jesper that are so central to the story.

You started your career out in hand-drawn animation, but then worked on CG movies as the industry pivoted away. What brought you back to hand-drawn?

I don’t think I ever left.

I think I just was looking for a chance to find the right film and the right support to make it. I do believe there are projects that lend themselves more to certain meetings. So whenever I have an idea, I would develop it into like at least a storyline. And then I’ll say, okay, what’s the best medium for this? And the answer often times is CGI. But then sometimes the answer is actually no, you know what? This would be better made in live action. So that goes into that drawer of things I’ll never do!

And then every now and then you have an idea that you go, Oh, you know what actually 2D would be perfect for this. That was the case with Klaus. So that’s why we decided. Every time we make a decision like this — let’s make it 2D — we realize our chances of selling the idea are going down. So we are very much aware of what we’re doing, but we like the idea of taking the risk every now and then. Klaus was the right moment for it.

Does it feel like some bigger animation studios aren’t taking risks when it comes to pushing animation styles forward?

I think they’re taking risks narratively. We’ve seen some interesting stuff, but I think we may have fallen into a bit of a standardized version of CGI, which it doesn’t have to be. It’s good to see things like Spider-Verse, for example, pushing that medium, because to me, every film should be an attempt of doing something different, you know?

I do realize it puts so much more strain on studios. It’s so much easier once they have a first in a franchise that hits. And then you know what the road is ahead. You’re not taking those risks and you know it’s money in the bank. So I understand that. But as a creator myself, I need to be challenged each time. And I know too many friends who produced that first grade hit in a franchise and now they’re condemned to just do sequels for the rest of the career.

You’ve said that this film “picks up” traditional animation where it left off — what does that mean?

Well that’s not really entirely true because 2D is alive and well in Europe and in Japan, I should say. I mean, they’re fantastic movies coming out, all of them. And we need those. We need those independent creator-driven products, but there hasn’t been a Western high-end broad appeal 2D feature in a long time. That’s what I mean when I say that. Because films like Secret of Kells or Long Way North or The Red Turtle are incredible films and I love them. We need to have those films, but they only have so much reach with audiences. They reach a very specialized audience entirely. Right. So, how do you bring high end 2D back to the front lines essentially is my question. Klaus seems like a good opportunity to do that.

But I also was keenly aware that when Disney they tried to revive 2D animation, their angle was to lean heavily on nostalgia. It was more about have you been missing these, than here’s something new. I feel that hurt them in the long run and I think that we didn’t want to fall into that. So we said, okay, let’s see what is intrinsically to 2D animation and what elements of it are not really choices, but technical limitations. I set out to demolish some of the technical limitations as much as we can. Because we’ve had new technology that we haven’t tried to use in 2D, so I was like let’s give it a try and see what happens.

The goal was to keep all that was great about 2D but replace what was not necessarily a choice but a limitation. So it would feel old but new somehow. But there was no attempt ever at making 2D look more like 3D. That was never the attempt. The intention was to make this look like a piece of visual development that you that you would find in an art book for an animated movie, but put it directly onto the screen without getting into the grinder of the usual look.

The sun sets over a rugged northern winter landscape, as seen in Klaus Image: Netflix

Did production time on Klaus take longer than a typical animated movie?

It was very similar. We did add a couple items on top of the traditional to the pipeline. We added a lighting department and a texturing department, which gives that unique look. But at the end those were both fairly manageable and quick. Worst case scenario, it would have been a tedious process frame-by-frame, but it ended up not being that at all. Actually the whole production from the beginner pre-production to delivery took two-and a-half years. So it’s actually very reasonable.

Do you think that streaming services will open up more reach for international animated movies?

I think they have already. I’ve discovered things that I didn’t know existed myself and I thought I was knowledgeable of the medium. Nowhere close to it. So it’s great. I mean, I keep discovering gems I didn’t know about almost every week. So, yeah, I think the streaming service have definitely helped and they will continue to do so because it’s not only about bringing existing content to audiences across the globe, they actually create new content that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

You created the original Despicable Me, and that franchise now has three movies and a spinoff. How does it feel to see those characters — specifically the Minions — all over now?

It’s not that much different from how they feel to you, because I actually was not involved in the film anymore by the time the Minions came into play. I cannot claim ownership of the Minions at all. I set up the basic storyline with Gru and the three little girls, but I left the project before they got into particulars of Minions.

The only difference between how you feel about the Minions and how I feel is that despite my 30 plus year career, the one sketch people ask me to do the most is a Minion. So I actually had to learn to draw Minions, even though I had nothing to do with them!