Some would call rotoscoping a niche form of animation. These types of movies/television shows are few and far between, but directors Richard Linklater and Ralph Bakshi have pulled the trigger on this amazing visual aid. It’s no surprise that more filmmakers are using this style to tell compelling stories and directors Morgan King and Philip Gelatt are two who see it for its artful use in The Spine of Night. The film has many elements that go hand and hand in the adult animated science fantasy genre that cinephile’s love and appreciation.
Starring Lucy Lawless, Betty Gabriel, Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, and Joe Manganiello the hyper violet movie goes on a journey in a fantasy world, with a mixture of sci-fi and philosophy. The rotoscoping tech used to convey this helps cranks the visuals to an 11 when it counts and gives the viewer an eye-pleasing show.
I was able to speak with King and Gelatt at this year’s SXSW about their animation process, working with comedian Patton Oswalt, a catastrophic event during production, and what’s in store for the up-and-coming filmmakers.
So, I will start by mentioning the first thing that I noticed about The Spine of Night is that it uses rotoscoping technology to tell the story and I’m a huge fan of that–Waking Life, Scanner Darkly, and Undone. Why did you guys decide to use that type of animation?
Morgan King: I think from the very beginning that we always envisioned it to be sort of in the lineage of the old Ralph Bakshi films. Like Fire and Ice and The Lord of the Rings and then sections of Heavy Metal–the last one in particular. So, I think that really influenced–the last section of Heavy Metal. I should clarify, not Heavy Metal 2000, we’re all pretending that one didn’t exist.
Philip and I had a collective laugh at Morgan’s last comment. That was a really bad movie.
Morgan King: I think we always thought we wanted [The Spine of Night] to be part of that aesthetic. And so from the very beginning, I mean, I think we envisioned this as that style of animation. I just like it, personally. I think there’s a weight to the humanness of it that more traditional cartooning doesn’t have.
Philip Gelatt: I mean it’s an animation technique that I love and it feels like a particularly good way to me to tell a fantasy story, but still have a visual style that feels grounded in a physical reality. It’s a weird technique, but I love it. I think it’s perfectly suited to the material.
Were there any difficulties in the shooting of The Spine of Night or anything hard for the animation process?
Morgan King: I mean, we did it in a really traditional way, or at least as much of a traditional way you can do drawing on a computer now. I looked back at some of the old special features as to how Ralph Bakshi did it in a warehouse. They didn’t do it with a green screen. It was all done and with natural lighting. And so when we went to do it, we pretty much recreated that. We, Philip, rented a warehouse in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. We just got everyone in there with some lights and some props. I mean the hard part was that it’s just a really time-consuming process if you do it by hand. So, the shooting was the best month of my life. It was like being at camp. It was amazing. It was everyone just running around with cardboard weapons and foam armor and having an absolute blast. It was fun, but that the animation then took seven years to do because it’s a very arduous process. I would say that was the challenge.
Rotoscoping any length of cinema can be a tasking activity for any production. There is some phenomenal scene of animation that pushes the limit of this style. I was surprised to hear that the most difficult scene Morgan and Philip completed was something completely unexpected.
There were a couple of scenes where a lot was going on. Is there a particular scene that stands out in your mind that was the hardest to put together during the animation process?
Philip Gelatt: Oh, I have one that will probably be a little bit different than Morgan’s. So, when we were shooting the live-action reference–I should say there are a lot of big scenes where there’s a lot going on. To me, the hardest to figure out–if we had what we needed–was the sequence with the wagon moving through the crowd, right. Because it was all very hard to understand. We didn’t have background paintings yet and we sort of had a general idea of how it was going to work. When we were shooting that, I was definitely like, “Oh, I think we have enough to make this work, but it’s, it’s going to be weird.” I think we did make it work and there are a couple of instances, I can think of, where the translation from live-action to animation was a little bit like diving blind. That’s not a phrase, but you know what I mean. Driving blind! That’s it. Not diving. Driving.
(Laughing) Yeah, diving blind. That’s kind of scary too.
Philip Gelatt: Morgan might have some that are from an animation perspective, purely, that were difficult.
Morgan King: Yeah, the big challenge I had was anytime there was a group on the screen. When we worked on the Exordium short film, it’s mostly one person or two people on screen at a time. So my thought process about how long each shot would take was sort of grounded in how long Exordium took. And that number scales up exponentially when you all of a sudden have a crowd of people. And we fully animated the background characters. If you look at most animation, they usually just do a small little loop or just freeze the background characters. But I always think that looks really strange with rotoscoping if everyone’s not constantly alive in the animation; because you’re expecting them to move as humans. The amount of work that any shot with a crowd took was just 10 times harder than I thought it was.
I’ve never dabbled in animation, but you wouldn’t think that something that seems so normal would be so difficult to try to complete.
There are certain themes and storytelling mechanisms that align with the adult animated science fantasy genre of the 70s and 80s. I felt it was important to find out the extent of that alignment.
The writing for The Spine of Night would be in the same house as Heavy Metal, Fire and Ice, and even Wizards to some degree. Can you guys go into a little bit more detail as to where the idea of the movie came from?
Morgan King: It’s always tough to sort of figure out how you extract from your own life and experiences and influences exactly where something originates from. I don’t know, it’s like we poured in just everything we knew from two lifetimes of pretty nerdy backgrounds. So there’s tons of Dungeons and Dragons, weird fiction and fantasy, Conan, and all of that sort of just boils down into something. I think we knew that we wanted to work in that sort of low fantasy world. And then it was like, “Well, what do we actually want to say with that? What do we want to talk about? Socially, politically. What themes can we extract from that, that we haven’t really seen before? And then what can we comment on?” So, I think it sort of as a process in that sense.
Philip Gelatt: I always say that I am a fan of the fantasy genre at large, but in this film, in particular, I think we both really wanted to, put a flavor of fantasy that I hadn’t seen a ton of on-screen in a while onto screen. So, as Morgan says, you sort of fill up your creative buckets with all your influences and then you winnow it back a bit to get that flavor that you’re after it.
Comedian Patton Oswalt is known for his standup and comedic roles in film or television. The actor gets a chance to really stretch his nefarious and dramatic capabilities in The Spine of Night.
Patton Oswalt is in this movie for some of the first acts as a villain, which I loved, and I’ve never really seen him play that type of role. It’s like his years of playing D and D kind of led up to this moment. Was Patton also always the first choice to play that character?
When we shot the live-action reference, we did it with motion reference actors. So Patton Oswalt never came to our warehouse to film that part. We had a motion reference actor. And then when we went in to redo the dialogue and rerecord, Patton was the first person we thought of to go to for that part. It’s funny. It seemed obvious to us, although also now that you’re saying it not quite so obvious. The character is sort of–and this sounds terrible cause it sounds like I’m calling Patton these things but he’s not–he’s sort of like simpering.
He has a little bit of what I might consider a normal Patton Oswalt character to him, but then he also is an incredibly sadistic, horrible wannabe king. Which I have to say it was a lot of fun recording Patton doing that stuff because he is very good at it. I thought very good at sounding sadistic. Like simpering and conniving and sadistic.
Morgan King: I think you’d see it too in his standup performance. He’s more outraged at the injustices of things and his characters–when he’s acting–necessarily are. So I’d like to think he’s channeled some of that.
Yeah, like the scene where his character gets his face set on fire it’s really horrifying.
Anybody that has a passing knowledge of the creation of an animated series or movie knows that it can be a long process. There are chances for multiple snags to occur during that process. Philip and Morgan came across one that almost derailed The Spine of Night completely.
So, I heard that you guys almost lost The Spine of Night because of a software update. Can you two go into a little bit more detail about that?
Philip Gelatt: I am so glad that I brought that up in another interview because I really enjoy torturing Morgan.
Morgan King: It was horrible. It’s not like–I mean lost? We would’ve been able to pull out– the files are backed up, but the update broke Premiere entirely. The project has a lot of integrated effects. The files weren’t damaged, but I had no way of opening the project or rendering the project or editing anything, or adding animation. It just was the project broke more than the data. It was horrible because we’re coming up right on the deadline for the festival. We had all of the sales team and the press and everyone was lined up for this moment. And at the absolute worst time, the computer for the first time and the entire process of working on this just failed me. It was nightmarish.
It was like a week of not sleeping and finding there’s no solution. It was so deeply messed up that it was just like, “I’d wake up, I’d open the project, it would freeze. I’d wake up and open the project and it would freeze.” And then trying to figure out exactly what in this whole chain of stuff–it was full of custom “pipelines”. So there’s no tech support anywhere available for fixing our very specific, weird problem. I was like, “It’s just on me. This entire thing, people waiting on me to fix this.” I’m just sitting here in the dark, in the winter and in this pandemic, and I’m like, “I’ve got to fix this or the world is over.” So, it was a real long dark night of the soul, but we got it in the end.
Philip Gelatt: I like to feel that it had to happen, right? I don’t really believe in fates or gods or something, but I feel like it just was inevitable that at any critical moment, given the length of time. It had to happen at a critical moment, something would break. It was just always going to happen whether for this or for the next thing. So now we’re past it. So I’m able to be happy about it and enjoy Morgan reliving it. But it was rough. It was a rough spot of time.
Yeah, it shows that Morgan doesn’t crack under pressure, especially with something like that. If I lose my cell phone, I’m in the corner rocking back and forth going, “What happened, what happened?”
Morgan King: My wife could tell that the air in the apartment had changed. The whole vibe was like, “I could not fail in this moment because everyone was depending on me.” It was a real hurdle. But now, whatever. This computer can catch on fire and I think it would be okay.
The Spine of Night shows a promising career in animation from directors Morgan King and Philip Gelatt. The question of whether the two would still stay in that genre or even use rotoscoping in the foreseeable was something that weighed on me.
Since you guys have worked in animation and you’re using this rotoscope technology, are you two planning to use it again in any future projects?
Morgan King: I love the aesthetic and I think if we ever tried to do anything else in this setting, it probably should draw very heavily on that. I want to retain that look. I think I do not have another seven years at a desk in me for one project. So we’re going to have to find a way to work a little smarter and see if we can use all the new emergent technology that’s happening right now to inform it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice a very specific look that I like but can be done in a less, incredibly labor-intensive way. I hope so, but we’ll see.
Philip Gelatt: I mean, exactly what Morgan said. I love all different styles of animation. I certainly think I will continue to work in animation and with Morgan as well, but it will be finding–we’re going to have to evolve the style or evolve the workflow or figure out a way to do it. Hopefully both smarter and faster and in a way that is still more interesting–that’s the ideal world. You take it and you turn it to something even better than it was before and figure out an easier way to do it. So knock on wood. We’ll be able to figure it out.
Do you guys have anything else coming down the pipeline?
Morgan King: I have been taking a real break.
(Laughing) Oh absolutely.
Morgan King: I owe my wife so many road trips and so many holidays that were eaten up in the long process of this. So I’m just trying to hang out, catch up on some video games, just take it real easy, but I mean, we’re always throwing around ideas for fun things. So, I’m sure something will shake out.
Philip Gelatt: I write for Netflix’s Love Death and Robots. So the next season of that will be out sometime this year. That’s the next thing for me. Also very adult animation, but have a very, very different style.
Are David Fincher and Tim Miller still attached to the second season?
Philip Gelatt: For Love Death and robots? Oh yeah, certainly. Yeah, definitely.
Has there been any news if The Spine of Night is going to be released anytime soon?
Philip Gelatt: Well, we’re working on it. I guarantee that people will be able to see it hopefully sometime soon, but we can’t say any more than that. We’ll see a release for sure.
I hope so. I showed my friend a trailer for The Spine of Night cause she likes weird stuff like that and she’s totally about it. I love the film, it’s really great. I’m hoping it’ll be a success for you guys, especially for Morgan. All the hard work you put into it, man, they really need to be knocking on your door for that.
Morgan King: Oh, man. Well, thank you so much. It’s so exciting to get to finally talk about it with people after so many years of just keeping it hidden in my apartment.
No news yet when The Spine of Night will be released for the general audience but stayed tuned to ScreeGeek when that news drops.