The Story Of Production breaking tradition icon

The Story Of Production breaking tradition

НазваниеThe Story Of Production breaking tradition
Дата конвертации28.08.2012
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The Story Of Production


DreamWorks Pictures’ newest animated feature, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," goes to show that what is regarded these days as traditional animation is anything but traditional. The advent of the computer in animation has revolutionized the genre, perhaps most notably with the inauguration of entirely computer animated films, like last year’s Academy Award®-winning "Shrek." However, the computer has also had an ever-increasing impact on 2D—or what is known as traditional—animation. The proof of this is the surprising fact that, for all its painterly qualities, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is DreamWorks’ most technologically complex animated film of any kind to date. Nevertheless, while the mouse may have become one of the animators’ most important tools, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg is quick to point out that no computer can, or should, ever replace the hands-on artistry that sets traditional animation apart. "The thing that is unique to traditional animation is what happens when an artist, an animator, gives life to a character with his or her own hand," Katzenberg offers. "There is nothing else like it in the world. It’s like the difference between getting an email and a handwritten note; it’s personal…it’s intimate. It’s a direct creation of life with a pencil on a piece of paper. Computers can’t do that…not yet." That being said, Katzenberg adds, "The computer is not the nemesis of traditional animation. What I wanted to do with this film was to take hand-drawn animation and marry it together with state-of-the-art technology to create a film that is the best of both worlds. I’ve been looking for a word that describes it. I consider it to be almost a reinvention of traditional animation, so I’ve been calling it ‘tradigital.’" "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is by no means the first traditionally animated film to incorporate 3D, or computer animated, elements. However, the film represents such a wholesale marriage of these two techniques, that some of the production team have referred to it as a hybrid form of animation. Specifically with regard to character animation in a 2D film, computer rendering had primarily been relegated to background "extras." Here, even the lead characters, including Spirit, are sometimes computer animated depending on the needs of the shot. In fact, there are perfectly seamless transitions from computer to traditional animation involving a single character in a single scene that no one but a seasoned animator would be able to discern, and even they would be hard-pressed. The primary example of this comes early in the film, as we see the adult Spirit running with his herd. As they run, we are watching 3D animation of not only the herd, but also of Spirit himself.
However, as Spirit separates from his herd and comes up to the crest of the hill, the camera zooms in to circle around him, and we witness, but don’t see, an absolutely imperceptible 2D takeover of the shot. Then, as the camera moves back, there is another takeover, this time 3D, that is equally seamless. That is only one of many examples of the synergistic artistry of computer and traditional animation in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." Whether 2D or 3D, horses are notoriously difficult to draw and even more so to animate, which speaks to why "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is the first animated film to feature a horse as its central character. Adding to the challenge, the horses in the film do not talk. "We wanted to break all the rules, beginning with the fact that the movie is told through the eyes of a horse, and the horse doesn’t talk. No animals in the movie talk," Katzenberg points out. The decision to have the horses not speak was made early in the production. Director Kelly Asbury recalls, "We realized that the minute you have a horse speak, it’s a comedy. You just can’t take a talking horse seriously; it was comical no matter what we did. So, the choice was to make the animals more natural and allow them to act through the animation." Despite there being no spoken dialogue between the animals in the movie, and not much more on the part of the few human characters, there was still a screenplay, written by John Fusco. Producer Mireille Soria remarks, "John was ideal for this project because not only has he written movies about the Old West, but he also owns mustangs and is an honorary member of the Oglala-Lakota Tribe." Soria goes on to explain that, with his background and knowledge of the subject at hand, Fusco took an unusual approach. "He did an outline first, which is perfectly normal, but he then wrote a novella instead of a script, which really worked to capture the majesty of the Old West and the theme of what freedom is about. It had a more poetic feeling than a script, and his descriptions were very informative to the artists. So, even though he wasn’t writing much dialogue, per se, John was integral to the process." John Fusco relates that until he got the call from DreamWorks, he had never had much of an interest in writing for animation. "Then they gave me this one sentence to describe ‘Spirit’: ‘It’s the story of the American West, told from the point of view of the horse.’ I said, ‘When do I start?’" That simple sentence sparked a revelation for the writer. "We’ve heard stories of how the West was won or lost, depending on the human perspective. But, undoubtedly, one of the most pivotal players in the drama that was the American West was the horse, and it’s never been told through their eyes. It was an inspiration and a challenge." Fusco, who was further inspired by the 22 mustangs living on his New England farm, continues, "From that basic description, I took Spirit on a journey from his life on the open plains to captivity with the Cavalry to the world of the Native Americans. This horse brings us through some of the salient changes in the Old West leading to the coming of the railroad and what was considered really to be the last free days of the frontier. But it has themes that resonate today—particularly at this time in our history—about never letting anyone break your spirit." Director Lorna Cook agrees, "I always thought this movie had themes that were strong, regardless of time or place. But now, more than ever, the value of freedom and our connections to home and those we love… What could be more important?"


The first and perhaps most daunting challenge in making the film came with the title: "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"—a stallion being, by definition, a horse. "Horses are among the most beloved and beautiful creatures on the planet," Katzenberg says, "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, but I know there is no animal more difficult to animate." There are several elements that have kept horses primarily off the drawing boards of animators. They have a long, inflexible spine, 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 problems, Katzenberg knew that when he told the animation team "horses," he was throwing down the gauntlet. But he also knew who would be the first to pick it up. "If you were to name the greatest animators working today, James Baxter would be one of them," Katzenberg states. "I went to him and said, ‘James, I want to give you a challenge.’ Right from the start, he was so enthusiastic about the idea. He led the charge and rallied the rest of the animators, and together they set an extraordinary benchmark for what could be achieved." The senior supervising animator for the character of Spirit, Baxter admits that his initial enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the reality of the task ahead. "It was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken on a picture. 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." What the animators didn’t know, they were about to learn. The entire animation team began an intensive crash course in equine anatomy, movement, locomotion and behavior. With the Los Angeles Equestrian Center conveniently located within a mile of the DreamWorks animation campus, the animators spent hours upon hours studying and sketching real horses. Much of the time was spent observing a magnificent buckskin-colored mustang stallion, which served as the real-life model for Spirit. The animators also benefited enormously from the expertise of two of the horse world’s most respected authorities, Dr. Deb Bennett and Dr. Stuart Sumida, who served as the film’s horse consultants. The consultants engaged the animators in a multi-pronged training program, teaching them about horses from the inside out. The lectures might have left the animators wondering if what had appeared challenging was closer to impossible. Aside from the fact that horses have that long, rigid spine, other parts of their anatomy are almost always moving, from the long neck that bends and swings, to the tail that flicks and swishes, to the ears that pivot to capture sound, to the lips that serve as their "hands." Putting it all in motion, the animation team was educated about the varying gaits of a horse, beginning with a walk and accelerating to a trot, a canter, and a full gallop. More than just the speed, they had to learn the individual components of each gait, not to mention the emotions behind them. For example, the frolicking gallop of a horse at play is entirely different from a gallop instigated by fear. To depict motion, animators often use a technique called "squash and stretch." "In cartoon terms, it is when you deform an object, squashing it down or stretching it out, depending on how it’s moving," Baxter explains. "The more ‘cartoony’ the project, the more extreme you can get with it, but the more realistic the project, the more subtle it has to be. We did use squash and stretch on the horses, but it is very contained and in very specific parts of their bodies—it’s in the shoulders, it’s in the fetlocks… It is there, but it’s subtle and hidden." To Drs. Bennett and Sumida, it was especially important to pass on to the animators a healthy respect for the intelligence and complex emotional lives of horses. "Horses are actually really smart and very curious, and they have the range of emotions and feelings that you would expect of any intelligent animal," Sumida says. "Horses are also extremely honest," Bennett adds. "What I mean by that is they do have ways of transmitting what is going on inside and how they are about to react, so it was important that the animators be able to ‘read’ a horse and then put that information on the screen." That ability was key to James Baxter and the team working on the character of Spirit, who is in virtually every scene in the movie and whose emotions run the gamut from the joy of freedom, to the desperation of capture, to his defiance of being broken. Baxter notes that Spirit’s name was his first inspiration. "We set out to create a horse that felt indomitable. He’s extremely proud and very brave, and his desire for freedom overcomes everything. At the heart of the character is a spirit that cannot be broken." Though the supporting equine cast had considerably less screen time, conveying their thoughts and emotions was equally challenging for William Salazar, the supervising animator for the character of Rain, the paint mare who becomes Spirit’s love interest, and Sylvain DeBoissy, the supervising animator for Spirit’s mother and the rest of the Cimarron herd. Every thought and feeling held by the horses had to be communicated entirely through body language and facial expressions. Kristof Serrand, the film’s animation supervisor, comments, "When you have an actor’s voice to work with, you have a starting point for your character. But when your character doesn’t talk, you have to do everything in pantomime, which is a huge challenge, and even more so when you can’t at least use hands for expression. Horses don’t have hands, they have hooves, so even our gestures were limited." For any character, but especially for one who doesn’t speak, an animator also relies heavily on eyes and eyebrows to express emotions. However, horses don’t have what we would call eyebrows and their eyes are located to the sides of their head, so you don’t typically look into both eyes at the same time. Taking a little bit of equine creative license, the animators moved the horses’ eyes slightly forward and gave them more white around the irises, as well as defined eyebrows. Nevertheless, when the consultants finally got to see the animated horses on the screen, they could not have been more pleased. "They got it right," Bennett confirms. The same attention to detail was paid to things heard but not seen. The horse sounds heard in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" are authentic. Supervising editor Nick Fletcher and sound designer and supervising sound editor Tim Chau visited stables to record a wide variety of neighs, whinnies and other horse sounds, which would allow them to give the lead horses distinct voices. They then looked to director Lorna Cook to match those sounds to the right character in the right context. "Lorna Cook has had so much experience with horses, it was almost like she had an innate understanding of what they were saying," Fletcher says. "She would tell us which sounds to use where, and we in turn gave that information to the animators, so they could animate to those sounds." Cook responds, "We knew we had to replace conventional dialogue with its equine counterpart, so it was important to find the appropriate tone to articulate what the horses were saying without words as we understand them."


Horse sounds notwithstanding, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" was filmed for all intents and purposes as a silent movie, with the narration, music and songs being recorded after the animation was completed. "We set out to tell the story visually," Kelly Asbury offers. "The small amount of narration or dialogue coming from any of the characters was carefully selected for key moments in the film to support the story, in much the same way that onscreen placards did in the days of silent movies." Mireille Soria adds, "Practically speaking, the narration was intended to clarify basic plot elements. From a creative standpoint, it helped us to show Spirit’s personality, his wit, his sense of humor." Actor Matt Damon provides the first-person narrative voice for the character of Spirit at pivotal points in the story. Damon says that seeing the finished animation was instrumental in his decision to do the project when Jeffrey Katzenberg first approached him to come on board. "Jeffrey called and said he had an animated movie he’d like for me to see and maybe take part in," Damon recalls. "I walked in, sat down, and was totally blown away. There was so much to the animation and to the character that was already there on the screen. I told him I’d love to be a part of it." Katzenberg remarks, "We felt incredibly lucky that we were able to have an actor of the calibre of Matt Damon do the narration in ‘Spirit.’ I can’t tell you how much he added to those moments when we hear Spirit’s thoughts in the movie. He brought a dynamic to this character that is just priceless." "Matt brought an energy and a youthful vitality to the narration that was so important to the character of Spirit," Asbury agrees. "It was a long search to find the right voice, and when we finally found him, there was Matt Damon, and he was Spirit; it was uncanny how well his voice fit the part. Then, working with him, he’s just a consummate professional. You can’t ask for someone more open to suggestions and direction. He made the recording sessions so much fun, we hated to see them end." Having come into the production so close to its completion, Damon was grateful for the filmmakers’ insights into his part. "They had such a great understanding of the movie and what Spirit should sound like to match the attitude and emotions they’d already animated into every scene. It really made my job easier to come in just before the finish line and be surrounded by people who had been working on the film for so long and were so driven and passionate," the actor affirms. "It was also beautifully written; it had such a poetic quality," Damon continues. "I think they found the right balance: using narration when necessary, but not over-talking…letting most of the shots speak for themselves." Although Damon had worked in animation before, he found doing narration to be an entirely different discipline because, as he notes, "there’s always the question of exactly to whom are you talking, which we discussed a lot. Eventually, we all agreed that we wanted to give this feeling of telling stories around the campfire, so I thought about my young nephew and took the approach of telling him the story. In fact, the message of this movie is something we can be proud of sharing with children without talking down to them. It also works on another level for adults. It’s a celebration of life that takes us back to a time before we paved over half of North America—when there was this beautiful land with horses running free—and we can revel in it." While the filmmakers use limited narration to communicate what Spirit is thinking, what he is feeling is expressed throughout the film in songs by Bryan Adams and music by Hans Zimmer. "The songs are the emotional voice of Spirit," Asbury says. "Bryan Adams has a very emotional, heartfelt singing style, which is appropriate for this because the songs tell the story from Spirit’s heart. In that way, Bryan is the heart of the film." Adams says, "Basically, what we were trying to create was a musical, with the songs expressing the emotions of a horse. But the story was completed before the music, so the songs had to be very specific, which was exceptionally challenging for me as a songwriter. As a singer, my role was being a storyteller, trying to bring Spirit’s emotions to life through my voice." "Bryan is an incredibly gifted singer and songwriter," Katzenberg states. "He’s written some of the most memorably beautiful, soulful songs…but at the same time, he’s always been a rock-and- -roller, and with that comes a little bit of that bad boy spirit. We needed that for our Spirit—the kind of tough, raw quality that is so distinctive to Bryan’s voice. Somehow that voice and the character on the screen were a perfect fit." The film also reunited Katzenberg with composer Hans Zimmer, the man the producer calls, "without question, one of the greatest collaborators I’ve had making animated movies over the years." Zimmer won an Oscar® for his first collaboration with Katzenberg, "The Lion King," and has since scored both of DreamWorks’ traditionally animated releases, "The Prince of Egypt" and "The Road to El Dorado." However, his music had never been as integral to the story as it is in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." "This is very different from, say, ‘The Lion King,’ where everybody got to speak, and the songs were written long before the movie was even put into production," Zimmer reveals. "Jeffrey called me up and said, ‘I want to make a movie about a horse in the Wild West…oh, and by the way, the horse won’t speak.’ That’s the great thing about working with Jeffrey; he’s someone who can keep up with me on these crazy adventures. Why get up in the morning unless you can have an adventure? In a funny way, for the first time on an animated film, I am a voice, which is a fascinating thing for me." "What Hans has done throughout the movie is create themes that evoke the emotion of the story," Soria says. "There is the homeland theme, the mother’s theme, the love theme… Hans helps to tell the story with these musical phrases." The score and songs are inseparable in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," as the music of one often becomes the melody of the other. Zimmer and Adams, on the other hand, were often separated by time and distance, with Zimmer in Los Angeles and Adams on tour, so they had to adopt a rather unusual writing method. "We wrote mostly over the telephone, using our answering machines to record," Zimmer laughs. "If Bryan had a good lyric, he’d speak it into my machine, or I’d call and play a tune into his. It was a completely crazy way to write, but so much fun." The first song resulting from that unique collaboration was "I Will Always Return," which bookends the film and serves as its main theme throughout. "That is a song that resonated for all of us," Lorna Cook comments. "It’s just steeped in emotion. Anyone who has been far away from home and has finally returned can relate to it." Zimmer adds, "What instantly comes across in that song is the sense of belonging, the sense of family. It says that no matter how far we go, there is a place to come back to if we just persevere. It could be metaphoric; it could just be in our dreams and in our hearts, or it could be for real." Though "I Will Always Return" was the first song written, the song we first hear sung in the movie is "Here I Am," which introduces us to Spirit as a newborn colt and takes us through his formative years. "What’s so great about that song is that it encompasses what we were trying to get across about Spirit and the homeland," Soria remarks. "It’s Spirit’s joie de vivre, his wonderment of the world, his love for his home… We see it in the animation, but the song takes it to a whole other level." Spirit grows to be the leader of the Cimarron herd and takes on the responsibility to protect them. One night, he hears the music of a harmonica drifting down from the hills, a sound completely foreign to the wild mustang. Looking to see the origin of this mysterious noise, Spirit’s eyes are caught by an unusual light in the distance, and he sets out to investigate it. The light turns out to be a campfire, and Spirit encounters man for the first time. A dramatic chase ensues, and Spirit is finally captured. As he is lassoed and led away, we hear his resolve to fight to regain his freedom in the song "You Can’t Take Me." "That was one of the more difficult songs to write," Adams acknowledges. "This is when Spirit first becomes aware of something bigger and stronger than himself, and he has to try and overcome it, not only physically and emotionally, but spiritually, if you will. He has to grasp that he really is not in control of his destiny at that precise moment, and find an inner strength." Spirit is sold to the Cavalry, where he meets the Colonel who orders his men to "break that horse." One by one, the soldiers try to ride Spirit, who responds with actions that speak louder than words, telling them in no uncertain terms "Get Off of My Back." "This song shows Spirit’s playful side, although he’s not kidding around," Adams offers. "He’s young, he’s cocky, and he wants to make sure everyone knows that no one is going to break him, so I wrote the song ‘Get Off of My Back.’ It’s Spirit saying, ‘You can try to ride me, but you’re not going to. No matter how hard you try, it’s not going to happen. You’re going to end up in the dirt.’" When Spirit finally gets his point across, the Colonel resorts to a different tactic, having Spirit tied to a post with no food or water. At that point, Spirit meets another "two-legged," a young Lakota Indian brave named Little Creek, who, to Spirit’s bewilderment, is also being held captive by the Cavalry. With each other’s help, the pair make a daring escape from the fort, and Little Creek takes Spirit back to his village. There the mustang stallion meets Rain, Little Creek’s beautiful paint mare, and the two horses begin a tentative courtship. But Spirit’s happiness is short-lived. In an attack on the village, Rain is mortally wounded, and soon after, Spirit is recaptured and loaded onto a boxcar on a train bound for points unknown. The recapture does what nothing before could: it breaks the seemingly indomitable will of the fiercely independent stallion. Yet, even in his despair as the train takes him further from home, we hear the beginnings of his rallying cry in the ballad "Sound the Bugle." Kelly Asbury reveals, "Spirit sees a vision of his homeland, his herd and his mother, and it reminds him that he does have something to live for…to keep fighting for. The analogy we make in the song is of a soldier who must stand up for what’s right; he’s fighting a battle, a battle to be free." "‘Sound the Bugle’ is actually one of my favorite songs," says Zimmer. "It conveys in a short amount of time someone being so close to despair and to losing their inner soul completely, and then rising up again to a place where they have more strength and conviction than ever before. I really think it’s an absolute masterpiece." Katzenberg agrees. "It’s a magnificent song, and when Bryan sings it, you can hear his voice breaking; you feel his heart is shattered. The impact of the song is as much the performance as it is the words and melody. For Bryan, it was an extraordinary challenge because on this movie we needed him to be a singer, a songwriter and an actor." A reprise of "I Will Always Return" serves as the finale of the story, but not of the film. Accompanying the end titles are three songs, including "Here I Am," which was performed early in the film, but is now heard with a very different spin. Again sung by Bryan Adams, this entirely different version is produced by multiple—award-winning hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The two other songs showcased in the closing credits are not played during the course of the film, but both reflect relationships that are at the center of its story: "Brothers Under the Sun," in which Bryan Adams sings of the unbreakable bond forged between Spirit and Little Creek, and "Don’t Let Go," Spirit and Rain’s love theme. The only song not sung by Bryan Adams alone, "Don’t Let Go" also features the voice of award-winning singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan. Adams reveals that recording the song had time pressures that had little to do with the film. McLachlan was nine months pregnant and could have gone into labor at any moment. With the prospect of their duo turning into a trio on the spot, Adams laughs, "I was constantly saying, ‘Sarah, please, let’s just finish the next verse.’" Fortunately, Sarah’s new baby cooperated, waiting until two days after they completed the recording to make her entrance into the world.


Though the narration and songs came late in the production, the minimal human dialogue in the film had to be recorded early on by the actors so the character animators would be able to "lip-synch" their animation to the voices. In "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" the main human characters are Little Creek, a young Lakota brave who comes to befriend Spirit, and an unyielding Cavalry Colonel, who is determined to break Spirit. Asbury observes, "The Colonel personifies the winning of the West; Little Creek personifies living in and being part of the West, not conquering it. Those are the two dimensions of the human world that Spirit encounters." Lorna Cook adds, "The Colonel is a hardcore military man who sees the West as something to be broken, and he’s the guy to do it—whether it’s the land, the Indians, or the horses, they all fall under the same category for him. Yet, the Colonel does turn out to be a more complex person than he first appears at the outset. On the other hand, Little Creek is in some regards the human counterpart to Spirit, in that he is also taken captive and his life is forever changed by the arrival of the Cavalry. Still, his friendship with Spirit is hard won, but once it’s won, they will go to the ends of the earth for each other." "Little Creek and Spirit are two similar facets of the unsettled West," says Daniel Studi, the young Native American actor who is the voice of Little Creek. "Here is this powerful horse who cannot be tamed and this young Indian who’s wild and full of fight. They end up stuck in the same position, both captives, and have to come together for their mutual well-being." Though Studi is actually of Cherokee descent, he grew up learning the ways of all the Native American tribes, so he was able to give valuable input into the mannerisms and language of his character. "Daniel brought great authenticity to the role of Little Creek," Mireille Soria states. "He helped us to shape the character and he was a real inspiration to Pres." Pres is Pres Romanillos, the supervising animator for Little Creek, who agrees with Soria, saying, "When I first met Daniel, he was exactly how I’d envisioned Little Creek. He had this aura of confidence about him and a strong presence, so he could be convincing as a young warrior. At the same time, he had the character’s sensitivity. There’s a scene where Little Creek is comforting Rain after she’s been injured, and Daniel brought tears to everyone’s eyes with his reading." Studi could relate to the bond between Little Creek and Rain, noting, "I grew up around horses and on horses, and my horse from when I was a kid was like my best friend. I also knew horses that were like Spirit—raw animal—and I always respected them to the utmost. Some things aren’t meant to be conquered." In addition to Daniel Studi, the production was able to take advantage of two other major resources for information about the language and ways of the Lakota Indians. The first was screenwriter John Fusco. An adopted member of a Lakota family on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Fusco is well-versed in their native language, so the dialect we hear in the Lakota village is authentic. Ironically, the other resource was James Cromwell, the veteran actor providing the voice of the Cavalry Colonel who becomes a formidable adversary to both Little Creek and Spirit. Cromwell not only has strong ties to the Lakota Indians, he has also become a vegan and an animal rights advocate on the heels of his Oscar®-nominated role in the beloved hit "Babe." Consequently, in real life, Cromwell’s sympathies would be decidedly with the horse and the Native American. Those sympathies led to some viable questions on the part of the actor. Soria says, "James definitely had some concerns about playing the bad guy in this because he is involved in the Native American community and wanted to make sure we weren’t portraying them in a bad light. I asked him to come to DreamWorks so I could show him what we were doing with the movie. Afterwards, he said, ‘I see where you’re going; it’s wonderful. I want to do it.’ It ended up being great working with him. He’s a wonderful actor." "He brought a level of stern, ‘gonna tame the West’ authority to the character, which worked extremely well," Cook notes. It also worked well for Fabio Lignini, the supervising animator for the Colonel, who was able to draw on Cromwell’s performance in animating the character. Cromwell thoroughly enjoyed finding the voice of the Colonel, who, he says, "reminds me of my father, although my father was a wonderful horseman. Like the Colonel, he was still and self-contained, yet somewhat ferocious. At least, I experienced him as ferocious," Cromwell adds, smiling. The actor had no trouble reading into his character. "I think the Colonel is indicative of the breed at that particular time," Cromwell comments. "They believed in a manifest destiny, the conquest of the West, and that all the people and creatures living on it ultimately would be subdued. The Colonel is hard-edged and full of himself, but he gets his comeuppance from a horse. What I especially liked is that the character has an arc, that he actually learns something from his encounter with this creature and becomes a little more compassionate. I hope that carries over to the audience, that they go away from the film saying, ‘What happened to all those horses? Are there any wild mustangs left? Are they protected? Is there anything I can do to see that they are?’" John Fusco shares Cromwell’s wish. "The mustang is America’s first horse, and it’s really worth preserving. Horses shouldn’t have to be great jumpers or racers or do something for the benefit of humans. There is a real value in having wild horses running free, and I hope the movie helps people realize that."


One special character in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is neither horse nor human. It is the landscape of the American West itself, at a time when the frontier was as untamed as the wild mustangs that called it home. Production designer Kathy Altieri offers, "As much as the physical journey, the emotional journey that Spirit makes is echoed in the color and quality of the setting. Each location has its own emotional integrity. What I mean by that is, in designing the look of the film, it was important to reflect the emotions of the story, as well as to honor the beauty and majesty of nature." The progress of civilization has forever changed much of the landscape, so Altieri, art directors Ron Lukas and Luc Desmarchelier, and the filmmakers began their research in books about the Old West. They also watched old movie Westerns and studied the paintings of the great Western artists, like Frederick Remington, Charles M. Russell, Frank Tenney-Johnson and James Reynolds. However, no painting, movie or photograph could be as inspirational to the filmmakers and design team as seeing firsthand the still breathtaking vistas of the West. Together, Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook, Mireille Soria, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Kathy Altieri, Luc Desmarchelier, Ron Lukas and story supervisor Ronnie del Carmen embarked on a whirlwind four-day tour of eight of America’s most treasured national parks and scenic landmarks. The research trip took them to Glacier National Park, National Bison Range, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite National Park. Altieri comments, "You might think nobody in their right mind would do eight national parks in only four days, but I have to say that seeing them in such quick succession had a tremendously powerful impact on all of us. It really hits you in a visceral way—in your heart and in your spirit—that we are surrounded by such phenomenal scenery in this country. Being out there to see the subtleties of color, to breathe the air, to feel the textures… It was so much bigger and grander than anything we’d begun to design that we had to go back and rethink everything." Spirit’s adventures take him across a number of these iconic locations, which might give the impression that these sites are located within running distance of one another. Anyone with a passing knowledge of geography knows this is not the case, but the filmmakers felt they were all integral to depicting the mythic West, mythic being the operative word. Cook notes, "Traveling to all those different places, we were reminded that this is a magnificent country, so in some respects, it was a way for us to honor and to celebrate the grandeur in our own backyard. Geographically, we kind of threw convention out the window. We took the best from nature and gave it our own spin, and ultimately it served the story well." Glacier National Park became the model for Spirit’s homeland. With its magnificent landscape of lush green grass, blue open skies, and rolling hills and valleys, the homeland represents what Altieri calls "horse heaven—a place where a horse can run wild and free." In sharp contrast, the Cavalry fort where Spirit is taken after his capture is located in a re-creation of Monument Valley where the terrain is stark and more angular and you can almost feel the hot, dry, dusty atmosphere. Asbury reflects, "Just imagine what it would be like for this wild stallion, who had only seen green meadows and mountains and flowing streams all his life, to suddenly be taken to a place like that. It would seem like another planet, and that’s how Monument Valley feels if you’ve never been there before." Aspects of both Yosemite National Park and Yellowstone National Park are seen in the Lakota village where Spirit meets Rain. Bryce Canyon, with its unique rock formations towering above narrow winding trails, was the perfect backdrop for the heart-stopping chase, as Spirit runs to escape capture. In every setting, the art department employed an emotional color palette that mirrors the mood of the story. Cool blues and greens were utilized to convey an open feeling of freedom and the joy that comes with it. Muted warm colors, like yellows and browns, were used to suggest an oppressive atmosphere. A lack of color was also employed by the artists for the scene in which Spirit is at his lowest point on the train. All the color has been virtually drained out of the setting, which is cold and snowy and almost devoid of light, with only shadows and shades of gray. From the open prairies and deserts stretching to the horizon, to the majestic mountain ranges, to the vast canyons, the vistas of the American West are, in a word, panoramic. To do them justice on the screen, the filmmakers felt their only choice was to shoot "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" in the wide-screen format Cinemascope®. For the animation team, the decision meant they would be required to produce 40 percent more animation to fill the larger frames. At 24 frames per second, it translated to a great deal of work for both the traditional animators and the digital artists. Ed Leonard, head of technology for DreamWorks Animation, expounds, "Every frame of this movie is touched by digital technology, and because it was done in Cinemascope®, we had to achieve more imagery at a greater resolution. The resulting render requirements were as or more demanding than anything we’ve experienced before." To help meet those demands, DreamWorks developed a special pencil test application called ToonShooterTM. ToonShooterTM. allowed the animators to scan in hand-drawn animation and then combine it with other elements—whether it be other characters, backgrounds or effects—and play it back in real time, and with the fidelity required to see how it would all work together on the big screen. Another breakthrough was the use of the general operating system Linux to put complex animation software onto commodity Hewlett Packard® PCs instead of having to use a limited number of specialized high-end workstations. That, in turn, put state-of-the-art animation technology directly into the hands of the animators. Soria offers that the advantages of shooting the movie in Cinemascope® far outweighed any added challenges. "We needed a broad canvas to capture the feeling of the West," she states, adding, "not to mention the fact that our main characters are horizontal. To us, this was the only way to go to create this world of romanticized realism for the audience to venture into." At the start of the film, the audience is carried into the world of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" on the wings of an eagle in what the production team dubbed the "Homeland Pan." It is a three-minute camera fly across some of the most recognizable landmarks of the American West in what appears to be one long, continuous shot. Actually comprised of seven separate parts, the sequence features a perfect blending of hand-drawn characters and traditionally painted backdrops with digital environments and CG characters. Digital supervisor Doug Cooper notes, "It may be the largest 3D matte painting that’s ever been done because each element transitions right into the next with no cuts." More than nine months in just the design stage, the Homeland Pan was one of the first sequences to go into production and one of the last to be finished. Achieving the exceedingly complex shot required literally tens of thousands of 2D and 3D elements, including more than 700 traditionally painted backgrounds and more than 2,500 drawings, another 1,800-plus painted elements that were then texture mapped onto 3D geometry to make the virtual sets, and more than 12,000 frames of computer generated elements. There was an average of 30 layers composited to produce any given frame, and the fly-through involved 4,183 final film frames. The result is a remarkable sequence that gives the illusion of one continuous camera move, taking the audience on an epic journey across the American frontier. While the Homeland Pan might have been the most challenging sequence, it was hardly the only one. Two of the most perilous moments for Spirit were also among the most difficult scenes to accomplish. One is called "Saving Rain," when both Spirit and Rain are swept away by the rapids. Both horses are traditionally animated, but they are immersed in 3D water, with 2D splashes added to integrate the horses into the 3D water. The 3D water had to be displaced and react to the horses, while the horses had to interact with the water, leading to what DreamWorks Animation’s head of software Jim Mainard calls "a little bit of a ‘chicken-and-the-egg’ question as to which would be animated first." The solution was to animate the 3D water surface first, utilizing stand-in CG horses that would later be replaced by traditionally animated horses. Computer animated splashes and foam were then added to the water surface to complete the effect of the dangerously swirling rapids. Finally, more traditionally animated splashes were inserted around the horses to tie all the elements of the scene together. Another extremely demanding sequence was the train wreck, when a huge locomotive comes crashing down a hill, coming ever closer to overtaking Spirit who is running for his life. 3D effects supervisor Wendy Rogers notes that the challenges actually began earlier in the scene, when we see the giant team of horses attempting to pull the train up the hill. "It was really tricky because some of the horses are 2D and some are 3D, but they are all tied together with chains and riggings, so you have a combination of elements from two different worlds, which are connected and have to move together." The train is also a hybrid of 2D and 3D animation. While it is being pulled up the hill, it is a traditionally painted element. As it breaks free and careens down the hill, it becomes a computer animated object that creates a computer generated debris field. Dirt and rocks are being hurled in every direction, and trees and buildings are being obliterated, launching giant splinters at Spirit. The locomotive finally explodes in a fireball, igniting a forest fire that threatens to trap the fleeing mustang. "There is something wonderful about the character of Spirit, who can endure so many trials and tribulations and still maintain his strength and courage," Lorna Cook reflects. "He has an extraordinary ability to overcome adversity. I mean, he comes from this ideal place—heaven on Earth for horses—gets captured, and is set on a path he could never have imagined. Sometimes it’s those unexpected things in life that are what teach us. What Spirit goes through is a journey of perseverance, as well as self-discovery." Mireille Soria adds, "In that way, Spirit is a real inspiration because he never forgets who he is or what’s important to him. That is one of the story’s main themes: no matter what happens to you in life, no matter what is thrown at you, if you don’t let it overcome you, it will make you stronger. If you remember who you are, there is a way to triumph." "It’s a multi-themed story," Kelly Asbury remarks. "Love, courage, loyalty to your home and family…they’re all there. But if there is one overriding theme, I think it’s that freedom is everyone’s birthright, and it’s worth fighting for." Jeffrey Katzenberg concludes, "In many ways, it’s very much an allegory for all of us, particularly today when challenges have been put in front of us we never expected. But first and foremost, this is a piece of entertainment. It has everything: adventure, humor, suspense, romance… It’s a classic hero’s journey—the hero just happens to be a horse."


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