The Seven Year Etch: The Spine of Night Directors on Their Epic Quest for SXSW Success

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Ahead of The Spine of Night’s premiere as a SXSW Film Midnighter, Letterboxd’s animation correspondent Kambole Campbell caught up with directors Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt for a lengthy chat about rotoscoping, “mac’n’cheese” comfort films, cult 80s movie Heavy Metal, and “fuckin’ Akira.

The Spine of Night will thrill those who, like its directors, grew up absorbing the independent and adult-oriented animations of Ralph Bakshi and his cohorts. Visually and narratively recalling the graphic sword-and-sorcery, pulp fantasy tales of the esteemed director of animation, The Spine of Night spins a bloody yarn across the ages as generations of heroes oppose a corrupt sorcerer. The voice cast includes Lucy Lawless, Richard E. Grant, Get Out’s Betty Gabriel, Joe Mangianello and Patton Oswalt. 

Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt made their film over seven years using rotoscoping. Traditionally done by shooting scenes in live action and tracing over them, frame by frame, onto animation cels, it’s a technique that both captures the nuances of human motion as well as the gruesome effect of melting faces (which it does often).

Congrats on premiering your film at SXSW! How do you feel about it?

Morgan Galen King: I’d consider it the best possible outcome. I have a background with a record label. With all my bands, the end of the road for them was always getting to play SXSW. And so I think I still hold that as the festival of all festivals, even though, you know, there’s a lot of other great genre film festivals. I guess it’s the one I dreamed of. And I can’t imagine being in a different section than the Midnight one.

Philip Gelatt: I can’t imagine what other section of the festival would have us to be honest—and I’m happy to be in it. I’m excited about it, too. I guess it’s a little weird, that virtual aspect of it. But I’m trying to lean into the newness of it. 

I was really struck by your use of rotoscoping, which is such a meticulous process. What drew you to this method? 

MGK: It was definitely the thing we were going to do from the very beginning. When I made the transition into doing animation, I started there. I was like, ’how do I recreate the look of the Ralph Bakshi films, or parts of Heavy Metal and all of those films from I loved when I was growing up?’ There was almost never a question that it would be anything else; there’s a very specific vibe that those films have that we wanted this to have.

So it wasn’t so much that the concept came before the technique, but it kind of just had to be realized that way for you. Yeah, that’s so nice. Speaking of Ralph Bakshi, I did feel a lot of Fire and Ice in the movement and the direction of this. What was it about that style that appealed? 

MGK: I was growing up in the exact window where this sort of aesthetic was prevalent, even bleeding into children’s animation like He-Man and Thundarr the Barbarian and stuff—that late 70s to late 1984-ish window. The sense of human physicality always appealed to me, like there’s just something about [Bakshi] using all the imagination of animation but constraining it a little to human limits. While animation often bridges that gap, I think this does it in a way that I think other forms of cartooning and animation don’t. 

PG: [Rotoscoping] is a technique that I think exists between real cartoony-cartooning and then live action. And for this project, and this is true of Fire and Ice, it grounds the fantasy with a sense of tangibility.

The bodies in your film, instead of being stretched or bent for emphasis in a way that a lot of animation does, they just straight-up break.

PG: Or burn or melt.

How did you reconcile those two things: both very realistically capturing the human body and then also smashing it to pieces? 

MGK: So the question is, how many people do we actually kill? Don’t go digging up any landfills! Anyway, there’s not quite as much video referencing as people tend to think rotoscoping has, although there’s a lot of AI-driven stuff that’s happening, too, in terms of motion capture. We did it in a really traditional way, while drawing on a computer—mostly keyframe animation with onion skins

So we switch from people being this video version that we’re referring to, to being the purely animated gore version, with these totally imagined elements. Those and the video reference elements are kind of just all existing in the same space at the same time.

What did you find challenging about the process?

MGK: It turns out, it takes a really long time! I did several short films, but you know, the longest one of those took ten months. I told Phil the story the other day, but when, right when we were about a year into the process, I went to a coffee shop with my wife. We were waiting in line for our order, and there’s a library of books on the wall, with one that has a history of animation techniques. I thought “Oh, this will be fun”, and I flipped to see if there’s a rotoscope section. And the first sentence was, “I wouldn’t recommend rotoscoping a feature length film unless you’re looking for a prison sentence”. And I was like, “oh, that’s a really funny book” [mimes putting a book away]. 

It was right, though: an extraordinary amount of man-hours goes into it. We had a team of me and maybe three others at any one time, rotating people. I don’t think we could have possibly worked any faster than we did. It was all day, every day for nearly seven years.

Wow. Quite a small team as well.

PG: Yeah. We tried to make a bigger team, and I think we would have had more success if we were working on this later, because there’s things like Undone and a couple other things doing this traditional kind of rotoscoping. It was hard to find people that both could do the style and also wanted to do the style, right? Because it’s so intensive. That sort of winnowed it down to this core team of four.

I noticed that Betty Gabriel’s character was the only one who had resemblance to their voice performer, and was interested to know what led to that being the case?

MGK: The reason that she looks like that is because she is the only one of our named voice cast that was there when we shot the actual reference footage. So I believe this is true: she literally just graduated from drama school, she got straight on a train and came to us to shoot this crazy fantasy thing. And then went on to be in Get Out and the Blumhouse movies, and then many, many years later came back to redo her audio for us. 

We didn’t drag Lucy Lawless or Patton Oswalt or Joe Manganiello into a warehouse seven years ago to do the motion reference, so the others look different. But [Gabriel] was there and she’s fantastic, I can’t speak highly enough of her. And [she] loves to use a sword. She was like, “oh, man, I want more roles just swinging a sword like this”.

You contrast these very bright neon colors against matte-painted backgrounds. What led you to that specific conflict of color choices?

MGK: I feel like this answer might be pretty in the weeds. One thing I was able to do [with Photoshop] is take the background paintings and basically blur them very heavily, and create a lighting layer that I could then overlay onto the character so that they have a little more integration with it. That freed us up at least to have a wider color palette, because when we colored the characters, we colored them all. The light and their skin tone was the same throughout the whole film, rather than adjusting it based on what we thought the lighting was going to be because we could use the actual colors of the painting to adjust them. I think – I hope—it worked so that these flat-shaded characters could live in this painted world a little more cohesively. 

I think Bakshi couldn’t do, or like, it would have been too time intensive. If you watch behind the scenes footage on Fire and Ice, the painters have different color palettes to do the lighting adjustments for each character, based on the background.

Which of Bakshi’s films do you think are essential viewing? You can only pick one… or maybe two.

MGK: It’s perhaps the one with the least visual correlation to our film, but I think American Pop is his masterpiece. Maybe there’s a bit of baby boomer nostalgia when you watch it now—the music is very classic rock—but it’s just really moving. It’s a generations-spanning, coming-to-America story that feels like it has a The Godfather quality to it. It’s the best balance, I think, between his use of rotoscoping and those exaggerated features that he draws on from his early days of cartooning. They always feel human, but they’re more expressive than almost any of his other films. It’s too bad that one’s not more widely seen, probably for music licensing reasons or something. That’s an incredible film.

PG: I’m going to pick with the asterix that we’ve already discussed Fire and Ice. Also, I am vaguely surprised Morgan didn’t pick Lord of the Rings. This is my way of sneaking other Bakshi titles into the conversation. I’m gonna pick Wizards because I love the backgrounds a lot. I think they were all done by two painters; one of them is Ian Miller, who did early design work for Games Workshop and Warhammer 40,000. He’s one of those deep-nerd artists and he did some really bananas backgrounds for Wizards

There are things that are, let’s just say problematic, about it. But uh, the backgrounds are great. I love that Wizards is this highly specific Ralph Bakshi version of a fantasy world, and I also love that it’s a movie where he totally ran out of money, and then was like, “oh, what if I just put some World War II stock footage in the sky?” instead of something else. He came up with this pretty creative, thematically interesting way to solve his budgetary problem; it’s like, why are there Nazis in the sky firing machine guns?

What film led you to choose animation as a medium to work through?

MGK: It was definitely watching Heavy Metal when I was 12 or so. That was just an absolute lightning bolt of like what the medium could do. It engendered this lifelong love for this psychedelic sort of counterculture, stoner animation. There was no question in my mind that it’d be the style I would work in or the themes I would go for if I was ever lucky enough to get to do it. 

PG: Seeing Akira for the first time was a huge thing for me. I remember specifically going into Suncoast Video. It was a mall store where you could go in and buy VHS tapes. And at a certain point in maybe 1992 they suddenly had an anime section and it was like, Bubblegum Crisis, and Ranma ½, and then fuckin’—pardon my French—Akira. I was like, “Hello, what’s this?” I don’t remember anything about why I bought that VHS tape. But I totally bought it and totally watched it and you know, I don’t need to tell anybody that Akira is amazing. 

Many of us have not been in the movie theater for a long time. Akira was playing, this was four or five months ago, I was like, ’oh, our movie theater’s open. I wonder what the hell they’re playing?’. I looked it up and they were playing Akira! So the only movie I have seen in the theaters during the pandemic is that. I was the only human being in there and it was the perfect way to watch that movie.

MGK: Curiously enough, the last film I saw in the theater was a midnight screening of Heavy Metal before everything shut down.

I was about to ask what your comfort films are, but the answers seem apparent.

MGK: I mean, Heavy Metal is for sure one, but if I had to pick one that was just an absolute bowl of macaroni and cheese on a rainy day, it would be Army of Darkness. I’ve seen that movie more than probably any other.

PG: I feel like a ’comfort movie’ is like a movie you put on as like, background noise. But my pick would be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, speaking of ultraviolent movies. It’s one of the only movies that I’ve ever in my adult life put on like back-to-back. I was like, ’let’s run it one more time’. Some might say it’s too violent. But you know what? Dennis Hopper with two chainsaws.

I imagine that you’ve been doing a lot of research in the process of making The Spine of Night. Was there anything that you came across that blew you away during that process?

MGK: On YouTube now, they have archives of Soviet animation from like the 1950s to the 80s, and Vladimir Tarasov, his entire filmography is psychedelic, philosophical, just absolutely amazing. All of that was stuff I had never heard of, or encountered before. He’s definitely one that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in looking into some weird corners of the medium.

PG: My two are from a slightly different perspective. Morgan recommended [them and] I watched both of them in our search for a style to do something in the future that would be easier. So one is Belladonna of Sadness, which I think is pretty widely seen at this point, but I had never seen before a couple years ago. The other one is Angel’s Egg. That movie is 100% my fantasy jam. It’s so surreal, and dark and odd. I couldn’t believe I’d never seen it before. 

Do you have a favorite film that has come out in the past year? If you want to challenge yourself, no animation.

MGK: Let me think last year, let me just have a little peek over at my Letterboxd

PG:  Yeah, I was gonna say I’m gonna open it like a cheat sheet.

MGK: Oh, you know what? I don’t even have to look. I’m confident that my highest rated film is Last and First Men. I thought that was just absolutely tremendous. It’s so engrossing and the tone it sets is almost overwhelming. It seems so simple. To describe it to someone: it’s a 100 year old story being read very slowly over drone music and some very neat architectural photography. But watching it, I was floored.

PG: I’m going to go with The Nest. An upper middle class family falling apart is very much my jam, and I love Carrie Coon. I loved her in season three of Fargo, so it was fun to see her do something else entirely. And you know, get to be at the centre of a big-budget drama.

To continue the note you’re on with the Vladimir Tarasov films, what would you suggest to someone looking to take a deeper dive into the history of animation? Although I suppose that might have been your answer, so this question is a little bit unfair!

MGK: The history of animation is so rich, it explodes out into so many different styles and genres. I guess sort of keeping it in the realm of the psychedelic 70s, there’s things like the René Laloux films, that some of the Heavy Metal people worked on, like Gandahar and Time Masters. I saw that Son of the White Mare is getting a new Blu-ray release next month. That is amazing.

I spoke with Marcell Jankovics recently and, well, the man does not waste words.

MGK: I could probably learn something from that. I mean, I could easily just rattle off things that I love all day. I was trying to think of one other thing that people might not have seen. Jan Švankmajer, his son Václav did a stop-motion fantasy film—to my knowledge it only has like 79 views logged on Letterboxd, which is a travesty. It’s called The Torchbearer, and it’s very Dark Souls, Angel’s Egg-ish. It’s just as good as his father’s work, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more! That is a really underseen film that is simply really, really good.

You’re gonna get those numbers up!

MGK: Do it for Švankmajer! He’s earned it.