"It was originally an idea of Jeffrey Katzenberg's to make a film about horses, and then John Fusco, our scriptwriter, was brought on," recalls Kelly Asbury, the film's director. "[Fusco] did sort of a first half screenplay which really has served as the structure of the film. The general structure has been there for a long time. Themes and characters have come and gone, characters have been taken in and taken out and tried. But the basic [idea] about the horse learning about the world of man has been there all along. And my co-director, Lorna Cook has been there from the beginning and she was instrumental in the early development stages. I came on about a year into it, and we had another two and a half years of storyboarding to do, so really on all these films there's such a collaboration that it's hard to pinpoint any one individual anymore. It really turns into a very big ensemble effort."
As Asbury says, the film is about horses. Specifically, SPIRIT is about the title steed, a wild horse in the Old West who is taken by man away from his herd and sold to the cavalry. The horse learns about mankind through these experiences, eventually finding itself a part of an Indian village. But the stallion's one true goal is to return to its herd. Interestingly, a decision was made early on in the film to avoid having "talking horses" in the picture.
"What we Mister Ed territory," says Asbury. "We're just so conditioned I think, and the way a horse's head is situated, with the eyes so far from the mouth, it's comical really no matter what you do. So we chose to give the horse a little dignity and rely on the visual performance that the animators are able to imbue into the character."
Most animated films rely on talking animals as a matter of course, but SPIRIT is clearly a different kind of movie than your run of the mill, geared-towards-the-kids picture. But seeing as much as Spirit is the main character, the hero of the film, there had to be some attempt to express the horse's thoughts and feelings.
"We do have a small amount of narration in the film and we do have a song score by Bryan Adams which helps us with the thinking process and the emotional process of the horse," says Asbury. "But a lot of the actual acting we did visually, much like in [a] silent film."
The inclusion of Adams in the film makes sense, since not only has the former pop star handled film music before, but it's also become a trend in recent years to give a single recording artist the reigns, so to speak, of an entire animated feature's soundtrack (a la Phil Collins with Disney's TARZAN).
But to get back to that question about CG animation's recent success versus classic animation, Asbury reveals that he has worked in both. While SPIRIT marks his debut as a feature director, his extensive background as a storyboard artist has permitted him the opportunity to work on films like CHICKEN RUN, SHREK, and THE PRINCE OF EGYPT. He sees no real difference between the two mediums; in fact, he thinks they should be used together to complement each other, as was done in SPIRIT.
"It's the same process," he says. "It's all a really organic, visual writing process. It really begins with the script and then most of the revisions and the re-shoots, because we have to plan these movies before we actually make them, are done on the storyboard/story-reel phase of the film. I would say that the CGI work in [SPIRIT] really enhanced everything that you're seeing. The beautiful, traditional animation done by the animators is still there, but we were able to do things with the camera, and we were able to do large amounts of characters in one scene with the help of the computer. It's truly a combination of the two worlds coming together."