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Spirit: A Longshot Or A Sure Bet?

J. Paul Peszko looks at the risks that DreamWorks conquered by bringing Spirit to the screen.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is proof that design by committee can result in a thoroughbred -- not a camel. All Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron images are  & © 2002 DreamWorks LLC.

You have probably heard that joke about the definition of a camel. It is a horse that has been designed by committee. Since film is a collaborative art, most movies are put together by committee. This is even truer in feature animation, where you not only have a director but usually co-directors and a team of artists to design and animate each character. So, given the squabbling that goes on in a committee and the intrinsic problems with animating horses, one might have expected DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron to turn out looking like a double-humped dromedary, but far from it. Magnificent in scope, this DreamWorks offering for the hectic Memorial Day weekend (May 25 - 27 in the U.S.) is an animated version of an epic Western that features nearly photo-realistic horses set amid panoramic vistas of the Old West.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron features stunning panoramic vistas of the Old West.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is the adventurous tale of a wild mustang stallion and his journey through the untamed American wilderness of the 1800s, where he encounters the unrelenting drive of westward expansion. As far as animated features are concerned, Spirit is a genuine thoroughbred, not at all the turkey that some might expect given its broad scope and problematic nature. How come? The answer in two words: Jeffrey Katzenberg.

peszkospirit03.jpg Left to right: directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, singer/songwriter Bryan Adams, producers Jeffrey Katzenberg and Mireille Soria flank Donner, the real-life mustang which served as the artists' model for Spirit. All photos courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

A Horse? Of Course!

Katzenberg was the guiding light behind the committee of DreamWorks artists who created and produced this traditionally animated feature. From the very start, Katzenberg understood two important points: first, the challenge that he and his team at DreamWorks faced and, second, his audience. Nearly every young person loves horses, especially a stallion with a spirit that cannot be broken despite action-packed travails with the U.S. Cavalry and the builders of the intercontinental railroad.

"Horses are among the most beloved and beautiful creatures on the planet," Katzenberg stated in an interview, "and I think there is a connection that we as human beings have had with horses, going back thousands of years. For all of those reasons, I loved the idea of an animated movie about horses."

Katzenberg loved the idea so much that he postponed an anticipated Fall, 2001 release, opting for this Memorial Day weekend when Spirit will square off against the likes of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Spider-Man. A more cautious studio executive would cringe at the thought. But to hear Katzenberg tell it, he has a sure bet. "It has been made literally for every audience, every age group," Katzenberg said of Spirit. "Every human will be able to see it after they've seen Spider-Man and Star Wars."

But will they? Katzenberg's certainly banking that they will. From the start, he knew what he wanted: "The story of the American West told from the point of view of the horse." At the same time, he realized that he was throwing down the gauntlet to his animation team. "I know that there is no animal more difficult to animate," he says.

The Most Difficult of Creatures

The challenge according to Dr. Stuart Sumida, a paleontologist who specializes in vertebrate anatomy, is that horses have long, inflexible spines, a defined musculature seen in their every movement, and a wide range of gaits. Their faces pose another kind of challenge, characterized by an elongated muzzle, with the eyes set high and wide, and the mouth set low.

Understanding the challenge ahead of him, Katzenberg knew he needed a great jockey, not just a good one, to ride Spirit home. So, he selected James Baxter, whose animations include Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Rafiki in The Lion King, Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tulio in The Road to El Dorado and Moses in The Prince of Egypt.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever undertaken on a picture," Baxter admits. "I literally spent the first few weeks with my door shut, telling everyone, 'Go away; I've got to concentrate.' It was quite daunting because when I first started to draw horses, I suddenly realized how little I knew."

In order to educate his animators, Katzenberg arranged for Sumida and Dr. Deb Bennett, another renowned horse expert, to serve as the film's consultants. Then DreamWorks purchased a Kiger mustang stallion named "Donner" to serve as the model for the horse, Spirit. Kiger mustangs are noteworthy because they are a wild breed with genetic traits that can be traced back to the breeds brought over by the Spaniards centuries ago.

This began an intensive crash course in equine anatomy, movement, locomotion and behavior at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, a short drive from DreamWorks' animation campus. Here, the animators spent a great deal of time sketching and videotaping horses, particularly Donner.

Production designer Kathy Altieri (far right) and art directors Luc Desmarchelier (left) and Ron Lukas sketch the unique rock formations of Monument Valley, which served as the site of the cavalry fort in the movie.

"Horses are notoriously difficult to draw, and a lot of people know how they look and move, so it's obvious if you make a mistake," says Baxter. "There were times when someone would animate something that was a little too much like a dog. They would do a bit of action and it would look like a dog playing with something, not a horse."

The other nagging problem was giving the animated horse the power to perform the actions called for in the script such as leaping across a high canyon. "Trying to create some of the actions in the movie and give them enough power was tricky," Baxter states. So, the challenge became how to make the horse look realistic and at the same time animate it. "I tended to simplify and boil down his anatomy into component parts, which would be easily followed by a large group of people and make it so that everyone could draw him satisfactorily and move him around. It's not like we put every single muscle in there, but we had to understand the basics of where they all were."

Much easier said than done. In some cases there are only two or three lines delineating one body part from another. "True," Baxter says, "but you have to know what's there in order to put that line in the right place."

Spirit features a lot of action and dramatic events.

No Mr. Ed Here

Beyond the challenge of drawing horses accurately, the animators had to create a horse who could communicate with the audience through expressions and body language, since none of the animals in the film speak.

This is a point of contention if not controversy. The question is: did Katzenberg intend the horses to be silent from the outset as he claims, or did his team of animators only later realize that Katzenberg's epic Western was in danger of becoming a real joke?

For his part, Katzenberg insists that he never intended for the horses to speak. "We wanted to tell a story that was an emotional journey, as opposed to an irreverent comedy," Katzenberg explains. "The moment that decision was made that we wanted to tell that kind of a story, as soon as you see a horse talk, it's Mr. Ed, and it didn't work. We never even tried it because in our mind it just suddenly made the movie undramatic."

Eyebrows and large, visible eyes were key to making Spirit's emotions clear to the viewer.

According to screenwriter, John Fusco, however, he was two years into a script, which had all the animals talking before he was asked to write voice-over narration instead. "We started out with all dialogue, and then having Jeffrey [Katzenberg] say, 'How about no dialogue?'"

Frustrating? "It's been four and a half years and started off with talking horses and no talking humans," Fusco says. "We followed that direction for two years or so until we had storyboards and sketches to put up and animated sketches with the dialogue working. It was kind of a group feeling that once the horses start talking, it breaks the spell, and we're exploring some more realistic themes of the Old West."

Was it a committee decision in the end or had Katzenberg conceived the project from "day one," as he says with no talking horses?

James Baxter, who was specifically responsible for animating Spirit, the lead character, tries to give some insight as to why there may have been a discrepancy between what Katzenberg claims and what screenwriter Fusco first wrote. "It's very difficult to write a screenplay where nobody talks. It's like writing a short story. For a screenwriter that is incredibly difficult to do. So, I think even at that early stage, they [the co-producers and co-directors] knew that wasn't right [animal dialogue], but they had to go through that process to get the storyboard together."

Kelly Asbury (left) and Lorna Cook.

Kelly Asbury, who co-directed Spirit along with 25-year veteran animator, Lorna Cook, adds, "The process of animation is a little hard to explain. We use a script, and the script is very important to the structure of the story and the contents of the scenes. When we storyboard these films, we use the dialogue to help us in the storyboard phase to know what the scene is about. As we slowly develop it, that dialogue comes and goes. The dialogue in his [Fusco's] script was the jump-off point. I guess that's how to put it. We even had a lot more narration at one point, but it started going away, too. We wanted to be visual about it."

"Jeffrey [Katzenberg] asked me to overwrite narration on every scene, to really have Spirit tell his story and deliver his perspective on everything. We would use that to inform songs," says Fusco. "That's something Jeffrey always wanted to do -- to have a musical narrative going on -- and cut back just to the essence of the narration. But it evolves. These artists are working in one direction for two years, and then guess what? No talking animals. We're going this way."

Asbury's co-director, Lorna Cook, adds, "I think we were looking to do something that had some sophistication. To give a creature like a horse the kind of dignity that it needed to have, [no animal dialogue] was a very natural decision."

Fusco, whose credits include Young Guns, Young Guns II, The Babe and Thunderheart, all live-action features, says that he began with a few pages of notes from Katzenberg, which pointed him in an Animal Farm direction. "I think that's how Jeffrey saw it up front and then we sort of went through the discovery process together. I wrote a short novel. It started as a treatment and then it went off and off. Then Jeffrey said, 'Go wild! Do what you want.' I wrote some songs. I don't know if he ever appreciated that. I turned it in and he was really excited. He said, 'Now you've got my mind working.'"

In what way, was Fusco's original script like Orwell's Animal Farm? "The horses were very representative of different cultures and ideas in the West. The buffalo had their story, the cavalry horses had theirs. It was darker -- a lot of darker shades, and everyone was really excited about that."

Getting Spirit Onto The Screen

After two years of storyboarding talking animals, Katzenberg's no talking animals dictum had little effect on the animators. "Pantomime characters have always been a part of animation," James Baxter states. "For example, Dumbo doesn't talk. So, it's nothing new in those terms. It's the same as any actor having to do a mute character. You use your body language and the rest of it. All we did this time was to do that through a horse's body."

The baby colt Spirit is protected by his mother.

"I think that's really something we tried to discover in the boarding process," explains Lorna Cook of capturing human pathos and drama through the horses' bodies. "That's where we could create the movie first. And create a kind of visual blue print for the film before we actually started animating it. So a lot of the business, a lot of the way Spirit or the other characters acted or behaved was found by boarding out the sequences and having them very specific. That served as a guide for the animators, and then the animators were able to take it way, way beyond. But we talked about his personality a great deal, and we watched the horse [Donner] that was the model for this film and tried to pick up nuances and little behavioral things that would make the character more rich."

"There are a lot of human emotions coming through a horse's body," James Baxter adds. "It's not as if we're doing a realistic interpretation of a horse. Otherwise, we'd just shoot it live-action. So, that was the challenge to find a way to portray more human emotions along with more equine ones."

Animators have usually avoided horse characters because the distance between their eyes and mouths makes their expressions hard to read. In order to help Spirit emote, certain changes had to be made. "It was a real challenge to give Spirit a face that could display readable emotions," Baxter says. "We did some design tricks, shifting his eyes a little further forward on the head, so you can see both eyes more readily, which makes his expressions easier to read. And we gave him nice big eyebrows -- which horses don't have."

The "Voices" of Spirit

Last year it was rumored that Bryan Adams, who wrote the lyrics for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, was being brought in to narrate Spirit as well. Later, DreamWorks officially announced that Matt Damon would do the narration. Today, DreamWorks contends that Damon was their top choice. Then how come a teaser trailer was released in Canada, which actually had Bryan Adams doing voice-overs for Spirit?

"It was temporary scratch dialogue that we used but it was never the permanent one," co-director Asbury insists. "Matt Damon was the final narrator we decided on period. Once we heard it that was it."

While no longer the narrator, singer/songwriter Bryan Adams is definitely the voice of Spirit through the soundtrack.

"We are usually given a list of names, of possibilities of whom might work with that particular role," Cook discloses. "And we just go ahead and listen one by one to each one of those voices to see who can best facilitate that character."

Asbury agrees, "Really, it's a matter of holding that character design up and listening to what voice should be coming out of that character. It takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of listening to takes from other characters in other films to finally reach that point."

While Robert Redford was mentioned at one point as being in line for narration, the team chose Damon because, "When we met him and talked to him he is Spirit," Cook says. "He's got so much vitality and youthful quality to his voice. It was that voice quality we were going for."

"We spent four years trying to find the perfect voice that could capture a spirited, heroic character," said Katzenberg. "Matt had everything we hoped for, a genuine enthusiasm for life that comes through melodically in his voice."

But don't feel sorry for Bryan Adams. He was chosen to write the lyrics and perform the soundtrack album over names like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon. He is teamed with veteran scorer Hans Zimmer, who did the score for The Lion King and The Prince of Egypt among a host of other features. It is very possible that the album may draw an even older audience to the feature and enhance subsequent video sales, not to mention grabbing some gold or platinum on its own.

A Different Point of View

The other point of contention is the political correctness of the story, where Native Americans are nearly deified while the cavalry, railroads and westward expansion in general are vilified. But in the early versions of the story, the differences were not so pronounced.

According to Fusco, "This colonel is really Custer and was called Custer in my early drafts, and we portrayed the Washington River massacre. So, I wasn't trying to portray the Seventh Cavalry as good guys. Let's portray Custer and the Seventh as they were, and the Native American stuff I portrayed not so lily white. I spent a lot of time in the Lakota world. I speak the language and was adopted into a family there. So, I showed other characters [Native American] who were more brutal with the horses because that existed too. It was a real survival world, and I wanted to get all that stuff. There were more gray areas in the original. But as it found its way, it became what it wanted to be, and I'm not going to argue animation with Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. It's ultimately going to reach young people, and maybe light a fuse for them and get them interested in the West."

Sweeping Seemless Scope

On the technical side, this was the first animated feature for DreamWorks in Cinemascope. Making the most of the larger aspect ratio, the artists quickly adapted and took full advantage of the format.

"You know, very quickly into it, we realized it's all about picture making," Kelly Asbury notes, "and we have such a team of artists that we knew we wanted to take advantage of the big horizontal scope and thrust of it. Horses are natural for that, trains are natural for that, and the vast vistas are natural for that. So, what we thought to be a challenge in the beginning actually turned out to be an asset."

Another technical note, the animators used Maya software with a Linux platform. Why Linux and not Microsoft? "To dramatically reduce costs was one of the big motivating factors in moving animators to Linux," says head of technology Ed Leonard. "But, it is our animators' productivity that really counts. Telling the story well, not the underlying technology, is what matters to us. Microsoft software continues to play a key role in our overall business, but Linux is particularly well suited to animation production pipelines.''

Again DreamWorks' has pooled together the right formula. Just try to identify the points where 2D transitions into 3D and vice versa. You may be hard pressed, the blending is that good.

So, now all of the challenges have been met except one. Will Spirit's run to the box office make it all worthwhile? While the risks seem great, Jeffrey Katzenberg has proved time and time again that what counts is the story and emotional tie that the audience feels with the characters. After all the revisions and creative wrangling, the filmmakers have definitely brought Spirit to life.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes feature articles, interviews and reviews for regional publications. He currently has two scripts under option and is working on a feature comedy, in addition to just completing his first novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.