Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King worked for almost a decade to bring us the Ultra-violent, epic fantasy The Spine of Night!
The Spine of Night stars an all-star cast of Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Lucy Lawless (“Xena: Warrior Princess”), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Betty Gabriel (Get Out) and Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”). The film was co-written and co-directed by Philip and Morgan.
Synopsis: In The Spine of Night, ancient dark magic falls into sinister hands and unleashes ages of suffering onto mankind. A group of heroes from different eras and cultures must band together in order to defeat it at all costs.
Check out my interview with Morgan and Phillip!
You both co-wrote and co-directed this film, what sparked this collaboration?
Morgan: Well, I have been doing short films in my room in Philly for a couple of years, and then the third one was reasonably well received. It made it around some nerdier internet channels back in 2013, and then made it into Phil’s hands.
Philip: Yeah, so I saw the short film that Morgan is talking about, called Exordium, and it really is the beginning of our collaboration, both in terms of how we met each other because I saw it and loved it and I sent Morgan a message that was like, ‘Okay, this is my favorite thing that I’ve seen all year, let’s work on something together.’ And also because the feature is basically based on that short film. That’s really how it came together, to make this. thing.
So this film is based off of that one?
Morgan: We wanted to expand that world, like we didn’t want to just recapitulate the exact same thing, but-
Philip: Yeah, it’s not directly based on that, well, I guess we do sort of retell the story of the short film, but it’s very much just an expansion of that and telling more stories in the same world that the short film is based in.
I gotcha. Was the short film animated as well?
Morgan: It was, yes. Each of the short films is advancing the style closer and closer to getting to the look from Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice, that was my target. And so, we’ve refined the process over each iteration, but it’s all animated in an increasingly similar style to what you see.
This film was animated in a rotoscope style, what exactly does that mean?
Morgan: Well, it’s sort of come to mean different things over time, but the core idea is that you are working with animated elements overtop of live action references. So it’s sort of the precursor to the sort of motion captures that are used for everything. It’s a very old style, like you can see it in some of the early Disney films, like Snow White is rotoscope. So it’s been around forever… So, the general idea for what we were doing, is we would film actors and then use their motion as a reference for the animation. So it’s not quite motion capture, it’s a lot closer to traditional animation than that, but it lets you keep the proportions and weird live action performance ticks of humans in a way that is distinct from a cartoon that has no basis, no human form. But, like, in modern stuff, the lightsabers in Star Wars are all also rotoscoped.
Phillip: Yeah, another way to think about it is that we made the film entirely live action first. So we shot it all live action in a warehouse with actors, and then cut that into a very weird looking live action version of the movie, and then that live action movie was used to animate. They would take a live action frame and draw on top of it, using it as reference. And that would create the animation.
How long did this whole process take if you filmed it like live action first and then animated it?
Morgan: A long time. We started filming in early 2014 and by the middle of 2014, we started animating. So the animation itself took a solid seven years. It is not a fast process.
One thing that I am very confused about is how do you direct an animated film? Is it similar to directing live action?
Philip: It varies based on the type of animation. For rotoscope animation, the answer is that the direction process is kind of similar to live action in that we did have sort of a traditional live action process where we had actors, we had a script, we went into our warehouse and we set up a camera and we filmed it. And then once it enters the animation phase, the direction is, I guess more of what you might consider like production design work, where you’re making sure that the backgrounds are how they should be and you’re making sure what the angles should be and those types of things. And then, once again, at the very end, when we added our final voice cast, it again became a little bit more like traditional direction where you’re directing those actors who are providing the voices for the characters that have now been animated… If you can follow that (laughs). But, I mean, for other animation, it’s a little bit different than that but for this one, it does sort of replicate the live action process.
Did you both animate as well?
Morgan: Yeah, I was the lead animator and I probably drew 50% of the film by myself. And we had three other animators, but only two at a time, so it’s a very small team compared to what it would have been when, like with the films, we’re referencing from the late 70s and early 80s where they’d have 75 or 100. Very small, but it was very hands-on for me.
Philip: I can’t draw at all, so I didn’t do any of that part of it.
I’m always very curious about the titles of films and where they come from. How did The Spine of Night end up as the title?
Morgan: There is the name of an episode of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos,” and I just really big fan of Carl Sagan and the idea was like the Milky Way is the backbone of night and a lot of traditions like, I think it’s South American,with what he’s referring to. He uses it in a context of like, the skeletal structure from which all our new universe and how we comprehend it, is being attached to the big band of stars. And this is imagery that always really stuck with me. And so, it’s been the name of it for forever, like even on the old short films, it was the header on my Google Doc. “The Spine of Night: Exordium” has been there for a long time.
And in addition to this being animated, it’s also an independent film, which is interesting because I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an indie animated film before. Are they rare or am I just missing something?
Philip: Very very very rare. I mean, we’re lucky to have come out of the same year as Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo, which is also an animated film but, I couldn’t tell you the name of another independent animated film that’s come out. I don’t even I mean, can you think of at least one, Morgan, that was an American movie?
Morgan: I mean there’s the Canadian animator, Nick DiLiberto, who has done two features, but neither of them have been released. Yeah, that’s really all I can think of. It’s the cost and the time is something that is outside the possibility, I think, for so many independent filmmakers.
Do you think you would tackle another independent animated film like this?
Morgan: You know, I think we would. When we finished animation in March for the South by Southwest premiere, I was joking, not joking, that maybe I was ready to retire. It was just exhausting. But now that the rest of this year’s past, I’m feeling more invigorated to do it again. I don’t think I would do it so brute force, next time. Hopefully, this will open us up to more animators who are interested in working in this style and more producers who want to pay for more animators to work in this style. So, more like three years and less like seven.
So, what’s next for the both of you? Do you have any projects coming out soon? Are you working on anything?
Morgan: I’ve been writing, doing some outlines and some concept art. Just sort of tinkering. I feel like, for me, I’ll figure out what’s next after this is out in the public for real. But Phil’s got a whole suite of cool things.
Philip: Yeah, so I write for ‘Love, Death and Robots,’ it’s a Netflix show but also an adult animation, and we have a third season coming out next year… and then I do video game writing as well. I’m working on a video game, the game isn’t yet announced so I can’t really say what it’s about but it’s like a existentially horrifying sci-fi game. And then I’ve got another animated show, also unannounced, that would be on one of the other streamers but it’s in the very, very early days for that. I don’t know, what else do I do?
Morgan: I think you said you had a live action thing you’ve written.
Philip: Oh, that is true. There’s also a live action screenplay I wrote, just before COVID, that was supposed to be shot originally at the end of 2019 and then at some point during 2020 and it still hasn’t been shot because of COVID and etc. So, yeah, all kinds of ridiculous genre nonsense for me.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add about The Spine of Night?
Morgan: I’d like people to check it out on all our social media stuff. We’re posting all sorts of things. It’s on all the sites @TheSpineOfNight and at Gorgonaut.net, we have a mailing list. COVID has made booking theatres so complicated, but we should have a theater list pretty soon and with all the places you can rent it. We’ve made the world’s coolest T-shirts and posters, and I say that without getting an ego, because I didn’t make any of them. They’re so good,
Philip: Yeah. I second all of that and I hope people see the movie and even if it’s not for them, I hope they can appreciate what a rare and strange thing it is to see an adult piece of independent American animation. So yeah, I hope you will all check it out, because I think it turned out pretty rad.