In 2004, Sergio Pablo founded The SPA Studios—a boutique animation studio in Madrid—with the goal of transforming the service operation into a production facility, all its own. “We’ve developed some properties that got acquired and produced elsewhere, like Despicable Me or Smallfoot,” Pablos tells Deadline, “but the goal was always to try and make a film ourselves.” 15 years later, the studio’s CEO achieved this goal with Klaus, the first original animated feature to be distributed by Netflix.
Marking Pablos’ directorial debut, the Christmas comedy centers on Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a postman shipped out to a frozen island above the Arctic Circle, after earning a reputation as the postal academy’s worst student. While in Smeerensburg—a town possessed of two bizarre, feuding clans—Jesper discovers and aims to befriend Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a mysterious carpenter who lives in solitude, crafting toys by hand in his cabin.
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Coming to Pablos around 2010, Klaus was inspired by the slew of origin stories coming out at this time. “Everybody was getting an origin story, right?” the director says. “And I said, ‘What an interesting storytelling exercise, to take a character that’s well-established, and maybe outdated, and bring it to today’s audiences”
Creating a list of characters, historical and fictional, that might be suited to such a film, Pablos toyed with names like Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Dracula before landing on Santa Claus. “I didn’t really have much interest in that, because it felt like it would be a very sappy story, at first glance, but I just kept coming back to it. Like, ‘There’s no widely accepted origin story for Santa. That would be definitely an interesting exercise,’” Pablos shares. “So, I took it upon myself to try and find an angle to make it interesting.”
In the first-time director’s mind, Klaus was a film that called for its own singular aesthetic. Leaning into the look and feel of traditional 2D animation, Pablos developed tools and techniques that brought a new degree of sophistication to this medium—one that most film studios have left behind.
DEADLINE: How did you flesh out the story of Klaus, and find a way into the mythology of Santa Claus that felt fresh?
SERGIO PABLOS: I find that I arrived at a lot of the creative solutions through logic. I tried to ask logical questions, and then check if they actually excited me on a more visceral level. So I thought, If Santa is a symbol for altruism, and giving without expecting anything in return, it’s probably better to come up with another main character who needs to learn that lesson—someone who’s not focused on altruism, but is quite egotistical, and self-centered, and pampered. That’s where I found the Jesper character, who needed to somehow get letters going for his own benefit, could be the right counterpart.
There’s always that element that arrives at a certain point as the element of irony. That’s usually where the story clicks for me, when I find the irony in it, and the irony in this was, “What if everything that’s good about Santa Claus came about through the actions of the most reprehensible character you can imagine?” So, that’s where Jesper came about, in the irony that without intending to do any good, he actually provokes good.
Then, when it came to the setting, I thought, well, historically, Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the fourth century, and that’s not really what we imagine, when we think of Santa Claus. We really are more focused on the Scandinavian-influenced version of Santa Claus—the reindeer, and the clothing, and all that. So, I started thinking about what the best way to do it would be, and we set it in the 1800s. I think Dickens had a lot to do with that. Historically, it’s completely inaccurate, but it just felt right.
Then, we looked for a location for it, and I realized in my research that every Scandinavian country claims to be the home of Santa Claus. So, I said, “Alright, let’s not be specific. Let’s create a fictional location.” I tracked down possible locations, and found out that there used to be a whaling post, I think in Finland, called Meerenberg. It’s kind of a place of legend, and it doesn’t exist anymore, but I thought, What an interesting way to try and make a fictional location. It needed to appear specific, but in the end it’s all made up. We just wanted to create a believable world.
DEADLINE: How did you arrive at an aesthetic for Smeerensburg and its characters? What inspired the idea that this frozen island would be home to two warring families?
PABLOS: We knew [Klaus was] a story of transformation. “So, if we want to end up with a town that’s basically the ultimate Dickens Christmas town, let’s go to the far opposite of that. Let’s create this bleak, gray place where everybody hates everybody.”
We had several versions of the feuding clans, and how we would go about it. We ended up simplifying it into just two clans, and played around with the ‘Why,’ the reason for their hatred for each other, and we actually found that the most interesting version of it was because of tradition. Because they’ve always done that. We modeled these clans after a bunch of hooligans—like, soccer hooligans—because there’s no rhyme or reason to what they do. They just hate each other, but they don’t really have an origin story, other than, “We were born here; therefore, we hate them.” For a time, there was an origin story—a spark that initiated that—and we realized we were actually better off saying, “They’re so absurd, they don’t even know why they fight. They just know that they define themselves by their hatred of each other.”
Then, you’ll notice that we used color and light to the full extent here. We started with the bleakest palette that you can imagine, and gradually brought color and light into the town. Everything in the film—characters and locations—had to go through a transformation, so we carefully crafted that, to make sure that it was psychologically following the plot of the film.
DEADLINE: With Klaus, you sought the essence of traditional 2D animation, while innovating within the medium. Why was this important to you?
PABLOS: I worked for many years at Disney as a traditional animator, and I never completely bought the reasons why most of the studios abandoned traditional animation. I did not agree with a lot of the reasoning—like, “Audiences don’t want that anymore.” It’s like, “Audiences do not ask for things, they react to things. If we put something in front of them that’s engaging, they will react positively.” So, I was looking for the kind of film that would lend itself to be better told in traditional animation, but I did not want to lean on nostalgia alone. I knew, because I’d done it, that there were many technical limitations to 2D animation, when you compare it to CGI, and I wanted to say, “Well, we need to expand our toolbox. We need to be able to use lighting to its full extent.”
Traditionally in 2D animation, characters and backgrounds are treated very differently, because they’re done in very different techniques, so they don’t quite match. The characters look like stickers in front of backgrounds. [Our] goal was to try and make it look like a storybook come to life, so we had to integrate the hand-drawn elements and the CGI elements, in a way that it felt like they all came from the same hand.
We had to develop a few tools. Our technical partners in France brought some amazing tools into the mix; we also had a lot of help from our technological partners, in Toon Boom. So, in the end, we were able to put tools in the hands of artists—not automatic systems, but artists who knew how to paint light, and who would make judgment calls as they went. If you gave the same shot to two different artists, you would get different results, because they’re using their own ability, and I loved the idea [of extending] that imperfection of the human hand, all the way through the lighting stage. Because that’s the level where the charm of traditional animation is. It took a while to figure it out, but once we got it, every day, we were impressed by the results. Like, “Oh, we can do that, too?” It’s been an ever-growing process, but it’s been super satisfying to see.
People usually get very confused by it. They don’t know if it’s CGI made to look like 2D, or what it is, but the intent was not to imitate CGI. The intent was to have the same freedom as CGI, when it comes to using light as a storytelling tool. We didn’t do it just to be fancy; it’s been a very important tool in our storytelling.
DEADLINE: Klaus marks your feature directorial debut. Was there a big learning curve in bringing the film to life?
PABLOS: Well, I felt like I had to learn a whole new profession every month. Like, I did not intend to take over the writing. We had super talented writers to begin with, Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney; they helped me find the tone of the film, and helped make very important connections, which were priceless. But at one point, before actors got involved, we ran out of money for writers, so I had to take over. I fooled myself into thinking I was doing kind of a punch-up pass, when in fact, it was very clearly a rewrite. Every time I went back, it seemed like it was very purposeful—“I’ve just got to fix that part”—but it just kept going. And in the end, I realized, “Okay, I guess I’m writing this thing now.” So, leaning very heavily on Zach and Jim’s foundation, I kept on going.
I think that’s what I’m most proud of, is that I held my own as a writer, even though I’d never done it before. But it was definitely a learning curve, and it was particularly challenging because we had a tight schedule, and I had to be delivering a script while we were making the movie. So, the overlapping of figuring the movie out, while making the movie, was particularly tough. I also had to do a lot of storyboarding, which I wasn’t planning on doing, but it seemed like the only way to get us there in time. Storyboarding was not my strength before this, so I had to be patient. I guess I had to be a jack-of-all-trades throughout.
We knew there were going to be problems, because every movie has to find its own place. I’m very familiar with the process, but this was particularly condensed, so we were trying to stay ahead of what we knew was coming, all the time. But all in all, what’s great about it is, I feel I’m a lot stronger in all those fields that I would consider myself very weak in, when we started this process. So hopefully, that will serve me well next time.
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