Last week, the filmmaking duo of Philip Gelat and Morgan Galen King celebrated the world premiere at SXSW 2021 of their epic animated feature The Spine of Night, which immerses viewers in a brutal world filled with magic, monsters, and men who are hellbent on abusing the powers of nature for their own personal gain. Evoking the classic animated works of Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, The Spine of Night feels exactly like the type of film you’d watch late at night with a group of friends after playing D&D and you just needed one more hit of fantasy world-building to cap off the whole evening.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with both King and Gelatt about the long road they traveled together while making The Spine of Night, why rotoscoping animation was the only style they ever entertained while making this film, their stellar voice cast which includes the likes of Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt, Richard Grant, Betty Gabriel, and Joe Manganiello, and more.
Great to speak with you, guys. I’d love to start off talking about how this project came together, in terms of the story and building this world and everything like that. There are so many moving parts to this project, I am just in awe of what you’ve both managed to create here. How long were you working on this?
Morgan Galen King: I've been working in this setting for about a decade now. I grew up with the Ralph Bakshi films and Heavy Metal and all of those films that this definitely calls back to. When I wanted to learn how to reverse engineer that process so that I could pursue films in this style, I needed a setting to start with. So, the setting just grew out of needing a vehicle to learn the technique. And I think it came together really for the Exordium short film that I did in 2013 that Phil ultimately saw and then approached me about trying to figure out how we could expand on that and grow it into a larger narrative.
I’m so glad you mentioned Ralph Bakshi movies, because this really reminded me of his Lord of the Rings, as both are so rich in their mythologies. This was just so enthralling from a storytelling perspective, but I’m sure navigating all these story elements had to be a bit challenging as well.
Morgan Galen King: Because the rotoscoping process is pretty slow, I had a lot of time to think about just what each little detail in the film could be. I would make tiny Easter eggs just for myself that link this and the short film in very small ways. I've always had a real interest in that kind of world that feels like it evokes a much bigger story than we're actually showing. There's the book, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which does a similar thing where you see the echoes of one small moment play out over a very large expanse of time. I just find that a really fascinating structure to hang a narrative on because it leaves so many gaps that the viewer can fill in, in the process.
Philip Gelatt: Fantasy fiction in general is my favorite genre, but it is something that is a little bit tricky. I love to be presented with a world that I can put my imagination into, but I don't necessarily love to have to read an index and an appendix and a family tree and all that stuff. My favorite fantasy worlds feel like a blend of talking and surrealist fiction almost, and they also don't show you everything, right? Like they give you an opportunity to put your own imagination into the story and to wonder to yourself, “What happened to that character? How did that character come to be in this circumstance when we meet him?”
So when we were writing the story, that was massively exciting to me, just because I like the idea of giving the audience just enough to get to pull them into the world and then send them out to wonder exactly what you were saying. I want viewers to be like, “I want to know more about that character. I want to know more about that location.”
Morgan, you mention doing rotoscoping for The Spine of Night. Was there something in particular about this style that you felt really lent itself to this world as opposed to other styles of animation?
Morgan Galen King: Fundamentally, I wanted it to feel like films like Fire and Ice and Heavy Metal, because I feel like you almost can't tell a fantasy story that's trying to evoke those feelings in a different style. This is a style that leaned more heavily into cartooning and less humanly proportioned people, and it feels like it grounds the low fantasy, semi-realistic fantasy that benefits from having a style that really looks and feels like people. But then also, I think the hand-drawn quality of it is really important, too. A lot of new technology, like motion tracking, exists now that we did not use here. It's not that it doesn't look like you can get great results with it, but there's a very specific frame-by-frame animation, rotoscope feeling that those old films have, and the magic of those movies to me dictates that we had to do it the hard way for The Spine of Night.
Let’s discuss the voice cast you used here because, first of all, Lucy Lawless is amazing. And then you have people like Patton Oswalt, Joe Manganiello, Larry Fessenden, and Richard Grant, who was just phenomenal in this. I also love that you guys use Betty Gabriel because her work in the Blumhouse movies has been fun to watch. What was the process like working with your voice actors, in terms of bringing these characters to life?
Philip Gelatt: I'm so glad you singled out Betty. Betty is unique in our cast in that she was in the warehouse where we shot the live-action reference, so we actually got her right after she graduated from Julliard many, many years ago. She literally got on a train from New York and came to our studio to do this weird thing with us and then went off to be in those Blumhouse movies. So we've known Betty for a long time and she's so good. Everybody else were all uniformly amazing to work with and they gave us amazing performances, too. They all came when the animation was almost finished. We went out and cast them and I don't really know what to say about any of them except they're all great and were so much fun to work with.
I will say that we tried to approach people who we thought would get the project. Like, clearly Joe is active with the D&D community and he loves fantasy fiction and that kind of stuff. Same with Patton, who is very upfront about his nerdier interests. So that was fine. We just wanted to bring them on and have them say, “Look at this crazy project. I'm so excited to be a part of it.” If I’m being honest, I was intimidated by all of them. In particular, Lucy, because she's so iconic and so badass, but she was fantastic. A lot of these roles were recorded during COVID, so I've never actually met most of these people in person. But when I met Lucy on a Zoom call, it was clear that she had deeply read the script and really thought largely and deeply about this world and her character. It was just an amazing experience and Lucy brought so much to the party. I cannot speak highly enough about our entire cast, and about Lucy in particular.
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[Photo Credits: Above photo of Philip Gelatt courtesy of Gorgonaut Pictures / Yellow Veil Pictures. Above photo of Morgan Galen King courtesy of Charles Lavoie / Gorgonaut Pictures / Yellow Veil Pictures.]