Director Roger Allers reflects on his own challenging journey bringing the famous book of poetry to the big screen.
One of the biggest challenges in Hollywood is trying to bring a unique vision to the screen – especially with animation. In spite of all the diversity we’ve seen over the years, animation is still widely regarded as children’s fare and any deviation from the time-tested formula for box office success is met with resistance. In other words, if a film doesn’t come from one of the major studios complete with promotional tie-ins, why bother - It’ll never get on your average audience member’s radar. Leave it to a heralded Disney veteran to try and turn the tide with an ambitious film about life, death and love that aims to strike a chord with audiences of all ages and backgrounds.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, adapted from the Lebanese philosopher’s beloved 1923 book of the same name, is the tale of one enlightened man’s journey towards freedom, punctuated by poetic vignettes in a variety of styles from some the most celebrated animators working today, including Bill Plympton (Cheatin’) and Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells). Roger Allers, who contributed to The Little Mermaid and Aladdin before co-directing The Lion King, has spent the last few years steering the project towards completion in spite of the major obstacles that popped up along the way.
“When I had the chance to work on this, I thought, ‘Oh wow – this is a gift from the universe!’” he says, recalling the 2011 email that invited him on board. “Bonnie Arnold, who is the producer of the How to Train Your Dragon movies, knew me from Disney and had sent me an email. It arrived at the beginning of the Thanksgiving weekend, which is a four-day weekend, so I didn’t read it until the last day. I was so excited that I was nervous someone else had agreed to do it in the meantime.”
His enthusiastic response stemmed from fond memories of his first encounter with the text. “I had been given the book in college and had a really profound experience one evening reading it with a friend. I don’t even know what you’d call it,” he says with a pause. “I’ve sort of referred to it as ‘Satori’, where in Japanese Zen the master comes along and bumps you on the side of the head and you shift. In that moment, I felt this amazing connectedness to everything. That sounds so simple and so ‘60s but truly it’s been very meaningful to me and I’ve carried that feeling with me all my life.”
He was quick to realize that the original tale would need to be fleshed out if it was going to work as a film. “It’s such a slim story,” Allers notes. “It’s basically about this guy who for some reason has not been able to leave this place, which isn’t even described, until one morning when he looks out his window and sees a ship. He knows that ship’s going to take him away, and then on his walk to the harbor, he sees people and they go ‘Oh you’re going away? Well, talk to us about blank and talk to us about blank.’ And that’s about it,” he laughs.
“It’s hard to have a central character who doesn’t go through much of a change. I racked my brains for a while trying to think how he could change, but it was really awkward because you basically want him to have this wisdom all along the way.” Producer Salma Hayek (Frida) made the suggestion of giving the emotional arc of the film to a younger character and things began to snap into place. “I know one of Salma’s big motives for making this movie was to make the book and the film accessible to people of all ages,” the director remarks. “It’s a challenge because the poems are immediately thought of as ‘child’s fare.’ I had the mother character originally in mind and was working with that when Salma suggested having a child as well and it made a lot more sense. A child gives you a lot more movement and a fresh palette upon which to layer the colors and meanings of Gibran’s poems.”
The final film sees young willful Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her mother Kamila (Hayek) accompany Mustafa (Liam Neeson) on his journey to the aforementioned ship as he imparts wisdom to his admirers. This central storyline is brought to life through the unexpected combination of CG animated characters and watercolor backdrops – a solution to a time crunch that nearly derailed the film entirely. “We discovered that we were in trouble in terms of getting everything finished and on budget,” Allers explains. “It was pretty scary.” Though the original intent had been to use hand-drawn animation throughout, Allers realized too late that, as he puts it, “there wasn’t enough of it that was done, which was why we got into trouble. Part of that was just because of the realities of the way they had organized it. It was mostly done through people throughout the world and it just wasn’t happening quickly enough.”
With no way to get the international backers to agree to extend the two-year production schedule, the director passed some of the hand-drawn work over to CG animators and tried to find a happy medium. “I did not want to change the style of the movie and neither did anyone else,” Allers continues. “Then, someone at Bardel in Vancouver – the studio that did all the animation of this new iteration – suggested Toon Shading, which is a process by which the CG animation is flattened back out and then the computer recognizes the edges and assigns them a line rather than shading them. After seeing an example, we thought it could work so we went for it. It was a leap of faith.”
To keep an organic feel to the newly rendered characters, Allers brought in a team of traditional animators to touch up the final product. “I’d worked with Nik Ranieri at Disney for years so he headed up a crew that went back in and finessed and added little details like wrinkles or things that could get lost in the translation,” Allers notes. Overall, in spite of the stress caused by the change in plans, the director is pleased with the end result. “I have to say that I was so impressed by everybody up at Bardel. I know most of them came from a television animation background and you watch the film and it’s not bouncy, simple or even action-oriented animation. It’s mostly dialogue, so there are rather subtle emotions going on and these guys really rose to the challenge,” he says.
It’s in the film’s visualizations of Gibran’s poetry, though, that The Prophet truly takes flight. “We asked these people to participate because of their unique approaches to animation,” Allers explains of the assembled talent. “Some people changed up what they usually do, like the Brizzi brothers. They have certainly done traditional animation with flat color but for the Death poem they used some soft colored pencils and heavily rendered every frame. That’s a lot of work, so they surprised me in terms of their technique, but they didn’t surprise me in that I knew I could count on them to produce something really beautiful and sensitive.”
After selecting which poems best fit into the overall narrative of the picture, Allers largely left it up to the animators to interpret Gibran’s words as they saw fit. He notes, “They would send in a filmed storyboard and I had the chance to give some notes, but I really refrained from giving too many. What was so exciting about the project was that all these people were going to bring their own vision to each section and I think that’s the strength of it.”
“Poland’s Michal Socha, who did the Freedom poem, uses CG in such an interesting way,” Allers continues. “It’s really gritty. It’s so full of texture it feels like a pastel drawing but the whole thing is CGI and you can really see how he’s pushing the boundaries.” Joan C. Gratz’s segment, meanwhile, uses an under-the-camera technique to explore the theme of Work. “She takes colored clay, mixes it and applies it with her finger. It’s painted on glass and then shot and added to and added to and added to. It keeps building and evolving, so there’s no going back,” the director explains.
Ultimately, the big question is whether or not this Fantasia-like combination of poetry and art will attract the attention of Joe Public. Bolstered by positive reviews following screenings at TIFF and Cannes, Allers has faith that it will appeal to our evolving cultural sensibilities and tastes. “You can just see how people respond to things that pop up on the net. People are always looking for something visually interesting that will delight their eye. I think mostly it’s the distributors who get a little nervous because they don’t know how to present it. What do you call it? It doesn’t have a name!” he laughs knowingly. “Honestly, I just love this movie because of the philosophy behind it and I’m very excited to put that out there in the world as something that can be a good influence. It’s also exciting as a showcase for different approaches to animation, though, and I hope a lot of people get to see it and appreciate how diverse animation can be.”
-- Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is now playing in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and numerous other cities. For more information, visit www.gibransprophetmovie.com.