- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

The title character of the new animated feature "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" alludes to a sire, but this father figureis never seen.
I can assign the paternity with precision after meeting the film's co-directors, Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, during their recent promotional tour to Washington with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the executive who supervises animated production for DreamWorks Pictures..
"It came from Jeffrey," Miss Cook says, accounting for the origins of the "Spirit" pretext. "He said, 'I want to make a movie about a horse.'"
So it came to pass, about four years later, with the help of a screenplay entrusted to John Fusco, who doubles as a rancher and horse owner. A substantial crew of animators and designers needed to please Mr. Asbury and Miss Cook on one hand and Mr. Katzenberg and co-producer Mireille Soria on the other.
The filmmakers also were attempting a blend of traditional, painterly celluloid animation with computer graphic imagery that would be as seamless as possible. That achievement probably is the single most impressive aspect of the movie, which remains on shaky historical and ideological ground while attempting to celebrate Spirit as a buckskin too defiant to be tamed by such interlopers in the American West as the U.S. Cavalry and the transcontinental railroad.
Mr. Katzenberg, who supervised the resurgence of animation at Walt Disney Pictures from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, has coined an unwieldy term, "tradigital," for the mixture of techniques used in "Spirit." Nevertheless, the methodology probably anticipates an illustrative synthesis that will influence the look of animated features for several years.
"Let's talk about 'Spirit,'" Mr. Katzenberg enthuses while holding court at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. "I'm happy to call attention to some of the things that seem to me watershed moments in animation. I'll give you all the elements that went into the stew, if you will."
First, having supervised "The Lion King" at Disney, Mr. Katzenberg began to reflect sometime in 1997-98 that "King" was a few years old and no pending animated features appeared to have animal protagonists. Some had humans, including "Mulan" and "Tarzan" at Disney, projects begun by Mr. Katzenberg before he left to form DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Others had toy protagonists, courtesy of Pixar, which had begun collaborating with Disney during the Katzenberg tenure. And there were insects, courtesy of both Pixar and DreamWorks, whose "Antz" seemed to do a little poaching on "A Bug's Life."
Mr. Katzenberg must function in a continuum that has him preoccupied with animated productions that will take three or four years to complete. "I realized that by 2002, it would be almost a decade since 'Lion King,'" he says. "I asked myself, 'Are we missing a big opportunity here?' After all, some of the most popular and beloved of animated movies have been fables told through creatures. So that was the first impulse.
"Next, I think horses are about the most beautiful creatures on this planet. Have you ever had the chance to look into the eyes of a horse? It's a very soulful thing. There's a similar sense of nobility in the eyes of a lion. I took that opportunity once, although you do it with a little more apprehension."
Mr. Katzenberg also recalls a boyhood fondness for Jack London's "Call of the Wild" and an admiration for the risk-taking elements in Kevin Costner's Western epic "Dances With Wolves." He credits the latter for providing part of the argument against letting horses speak dialogue.
Another part of the argument dated back to "Mr. Ed" and such Disney cartoon nags as Horace Horsecollar and Widowmaker, the knowing mount of Pecos Bill. Narration would carry a substantial storytelling burden in "Spirit," which might have light moments but that the filmmakers would not want mistaken for a slapstick fable. Mr. Katzenberg also envisioned the movie as a musical fable in which the principal characters never would sing, paving the way for an atmospheric-thematic song score by Bryan Adams.
"Finally," Mr. Katzenberg says, "I wanted to tell a story about adversity, which we deal with every day of our lives. I realized that many things that define me and that made me my strongest derived from how I had responded to adversity. That's true of all of us. There's a reward on the other side if you approach trouble courageously. I wanted to say that."
Mr. Katzenberg insists that he does not mean the adversity he encountered when leaving Disney say, when attempting to hold former mentor Michael Eisner to a just settlement in a court proceeding that vindicated Mr. Katzenberg.
"There are chapters in the movie that I regard as analogous to my life," he says, "but don't jump to the conclusion that they involve the Disney years. I've had somebody try and put a saddle on my back, try and ride me. Believe it or not, all those equivalent experiences happened much earlier in my life. By the time I got to Disney, I was in my 40s, and we're all pretty well defined by that point."
While encouraging the "Spirit" project, Mr. Katzenberg also urged everyone involved to think of the Bruce Willis character in "Die Hard" so in a manner of speaking, "Spirit" has two daddies.
"Think of it," Mr. Katzenberg says excitedly. "The guy is unstoppable no matter what happens to him. He can walk across glass in his bare feet and still have a wisecrack. For a long time, I used the nickname 'Die Horse' for Spirit. I made the animators watch the first 'Die Hard' movie time and again. I kept reminding them, whatever happens, don't let the horse get down or lose heart."
Mr. Asbury and Miss Cook are veterans of the Disney and Don Bluth animation studios who eventually joined Mr. Katzenberg at DreamWorks and collaborated on story development for "The Prince of Egypt." Asked about the blending of cel and computer animation, Mr. Asbury says: "We wanted to bridge that gap. For a while, it was clear where one technique ended and the newer one was inserted. Suddenly, the camera seemed to be doing things it hadn't been. We tried to be more judicious. We like to believe we're state-of-the-art in both methods."
Miss Cook points out that computers have been essential animation tools for many years. "It's just recently that people have begun to acknowledge that the whole process, and the whole range of artistry available to illustrators, can be enhanced with computer animation," she says.
"We're not limited because of them. For example, we wanted an elegant creature in Spirit, but not limited in how expressive he could be. There is a purity about 2-D animation that is absolutely lovely. Knowing that somebody drew that character makes a difference. There's an organic feeling about it. Jeffrey likens it to the difference between a handwritten letter and an e-mail."
The idea throughout this production was to maximize the situations in which 2-D and 3-D animators would be collaborating on scenes rather than working apart.
"Some shots simply work better because CGI can handle complex movements," Miss Cook says. "It's really easier when you have to animate the herds, for instance. It allows us to have a lot of freedom. We love the way that a 2-D horse can become a 3-D horse and then switch back again when it seems appropriate."
Mr. Asbury attempts to define the state of their art. "Digital technology is at the point right now where if you elect a photorealistic look, animators can come pretty close," he says. "That trend will continue to advance, no question about it. But the basic artistic choice in this film was to get a traditional animation look with a combination of techniques. Therefore, we used the computer only where it could help us. We could have chosen to make the film look more realistic, but eventually you'd reach the point where the question would arise, 'Why not make it as a live-action film?' It's all artistic choices. You have to know what it is you want and then apply your resources in an appropriate way."
Mr. Asbury singles out water effects as a good example of illustrative blending. "Computers will give you photorealistic rivers and waterfalls," he says, "but we wanted to pull back from that. So foam and other elements that make up our water scenes are still hand-illustrated. We wanted to protect the feeling of a Western painting. We made a conscious choice to retain a sense of the human hand, the paintbrush. Could we achieve that sense with a computer? I think it's still debatable. But it was never a consideration. We were using computer animation for other things."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide