Santa's story on screen: Why Netflix decided to make 'Klaus' its first animated movie

Spanish filmmaker Sergio Pablos explains why he chose to take a risk and make a 2D festive film about the origins of Father Christmas

‘Klaus’ tells an origin story of Santa Claus. Netflix
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Writer and director Sergio Pablos is well aware of how corny Klaus could have been. The Spanish filmmaker dreamt up an idea for an origin story for Santa Claus, and after modelling the film on Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman reboot, Pablos and his crew even joked that they should have called it Santa Begins,

But Pablos tells The National that even though there were already several origin movies on Santa, he always felt there was "room for one more". Pablos was also intent on making Klaus more interesting and compelling than those that had come before.

Rather than focusing on Santa himself, Klaus revolves around the "selfish postman" Jesper, who learns a lesson in altruism after being banished to the frozen island of Smeerensburg, above the Arctic Circle, for being the worst pupil in postal academy history.

That's where Jesper meets a mysterious and disgruntled toymaker named Klaus and a community that won't even exchange pleasantries, let alone letters. However, after Jesper strikes up a friendship with Klaus and Smeerensburg's only teacher, Alva, a magical new tradition is created that soon starts to catch on across the world.

Why 2D animation, though?

Pablos started working on Klaus in 2010. It was during these early stages that he made the decision to use 2D animation, as he realised that approach would perfectly complement the nostalgia of his story. However, he also knew using such an old-school style would be risky. He chose to embrace his fears. "What's the point in doing this, being a filmmaker, if we don't take the risk and do something crazy?"

By 2015, Pablos had written a first draft and also made a two-minute piece that showcased exactly what he would do with Klaus, which he then presented to studios in the hope of securing financing to take the project forward. But rather than being deterred by the animation style, the director discovered that studios were instead put off by the idea of trying to make a Christmas movie.

"Studios didn't want to compete in the crowded market around that time," Pablos says. "I was completely surprised. It turns out that studios think, 'Well, Disney own Christmas. So we're not going to go up against whatever they're releasing.'"

Netflix to the rescue

Pablos spent the next few months struggling to find a home for Klaus. That was until Netflix came to the rescue, even though the streaming company had never made an animated movie before. It turned out that Netflix only decided to pursue and then finance Klaus because the company was "looking for Christmas content". 

It was a match made in cinematic heaven, as Pablos says Netflix gave the filmmaker and his crew everything they wanted. This included plenty of freedom because, unlike Disney or other animation studios may have done, Netflix didn't force Pablos to adhere to studio notes at all.

“We were given notes,” says Pablos. “But we were free to ignore all of them. Netflix always reminded us, ‘This is your film. You’re free to make your film.’”

Pablos and his team still ran into the same problems that blight almost every animated film production, as they struggled with certain visuals and had to change elements of the story midway through production. However, Netflix trusted them to right these wrongs, which meant these alterations were likely figured out much more quickly than they would have been at any other major animation studio.

The power of the streamer

The rise and rise of Netflix meant that Pablos didn't have any problems acquiring a star-studded cast, either. With the help of casting directors Matthew Jon Beck and Micah Dahlberg, Pablos was able to get Jason Schwartzman to voice Jesper, Oscar winner J K Simmons to voice Klaus and cast Rashida Jones as Alva, while the ensemble was rounded out by stars such as Joan Cusack and Will Sasso.

Pablos says he was delighted that these acting talents wanted to lend their voices to Klaus, with Jones and Schwartzman really proving their worth when they arrived to record their dialogue. As the renowned writer of Celeste and Jesse Forever and the Black Mirror episode Nosedive, Jones suggested various areas in which the script could be improved and even helped Pablos rewrite it. Far from being precious about his material, Pablos says he encouraged Jones to work her magic, particularly because this was his first screenplay. He also wrote it in English, which isn't his first language.

Meanwhile, Schwartzman helped to hone and evolve Jesper, opening Pablos's eyes to who the character should be and finding the sweet spot that meant he could be flawed and even a little bit irritating, while still being incredibly likable and engaging.

Filmmaker Sergio Pablos used 2D animation to give his film a sense of nostalgia. Netflix

Embracing traditional storytelling

But for Pablos, the real achievement of Klaus is how he and his team embraced a "traditional style" of storytelling and used it to create something that feels unique when compared to other animated movies. "My favourite moments are where we manage to convey something visually without the use of dialogue," explains Pablos. He says he was always looking to create emotionally driven scenes that connected with viewers "straight to the heart and not through the brain". 

Netflix appears to be rather happy with what Pablos has delivered with Klaus, too, releasing the film into theatres that will allow it to be considered for the Best Animated Feature prize at next year's Academy Awards. During the past two years, Pablos has also watched as the streaming company fully embraced animation.

"When we were making their first animated film we saw a huge department emerge," he says. "There are like 20 other projects behind us now. So without knowing how, we are now spearheading a slate that wasn't there before. We feel privileged to be at the forefront of it."

Klaus is streaming on Netflix now