The Spine of Night, now streaming on Shudder, is a forward-looking retro fantasy. Shot with the rotoscope animation technique most associated with Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings and Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal, it captures a world in ecological danger because of the greed of powerful men. Lucy Lawless plays the shamaness Tzod, whose magical powers are rooted in the blue flowers which grow in her enchanted swamp, Bastal.
Also starring Richard E. Grant, Patton Oswalt, Betty Gabriel, and Joe Manganiello, The Spine of Night is an adult cartoon with responsible themes. Barbarians and librarians vie for power while necromancers try to restore balance to a bent and broken world. Time flies by with nods to Ridley Scott’s Legend and John Boorman’s Excalibur, if fed through the meat grinder of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead.
In their first collaboration, animator Morgan Galen King (Exordium, Max Thrust), and filmmaker Philip Gelatt (Love, Death + Robots, Europa Report) merge hallucinogenic cult classics with modern sensibilities in a full-frontal assault of brutal nostalgia. The filmmaking duo spoke with Den of Geek about the art of rotoscoping, the blood rites of Bastal, and how far Lucy Lawless and Joe Manganiello will go to contort themselves into animated characters.
DEN OF GEEK: I wanted to start with something straight from the film: Did you get the blood you required?
Morgan Galen King: I think so. I think we’ve acquired enough blood for future rituals.
Philip Gelatt: Hope so, that was the whole point, right?
Did you do any research into blood magic?
Morgan Galen King: Not specifically. I think it’s more how it’s been distilled through fantasy and horror for my lifetime. But I didn’t look into any real-world blood rituals, although now that you mentioned it, I think maybe I should.
Philip Gelatt: Same here, it comes from years and years of consuming dark fiction, but also just a general morbid interest in the history of mankind, and the many things that mankind gets up to and, to continue the gruesome metaphor, got put through a meat grinder and came out with the types of evil magic that happened in the film.
Was Spine of Night conceived as a rotoscope-heavy film?
Morgan Galen King: Yeah. I think from the very beginning, we thought that it would be rotoscoped. We both grew up with that era of Ralph Bakshi and Heavy Metal. When we were envisioning: “what this would look like,” I think it was almost assumed. I honestly don’t think we ever even considered it in another style. It was so baked in.
Philip Gelatt: I think there was a brief moment, I’m going to say maybe about 30 minutes, when we had discussed the idea of maybe farming out the different pieces to different animation studios. But as I say, it was about 30 minutes in the course of seven years, so rotoscoping was always a part of it. As Morgan was saying, rotoscope and adult fantasy are inextricably linked in both of our minds, to do it in any other style would have made it something else.
How much of this is shot live action, and what is it shot over?
Morgan Galen King: Pretty much anything that involves humans on screen we filmed motion reference.
Phil rented this amazing warehouse in Rhode Island. We had an area rug on the floor and just filmed everyone doing all the things from the script and the storyboards in live action. It’s really useful on an animation level, because you’re able to have, pretty much, a full cut of the film before you even begin drawing anything. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re editing after you’ve already started animating, because it takes about a day per second to draw it. You want the tightest possible edit you can get, and having a full live action thing is pretty amazing for that.
I think a lot of people assume rotoscoping is like tracing the action because you could conceptualize that. But in reality, or at least the way we’re doing it, we did it by hand in Photoshop, the lines don’t exist on people. They’re more for timing, more for like proportion, and to retain the human quality of the characters. But once you get into the process, the live action stuff disappears pretty quickly because it’s all animated, especially once you’re doing gore.
Philip Gelatt: Or things like spaceships or horses. We didn’t we did not bring a horse into the warehouse, sadly. Next time, we’ll have a horse. I want to point out that our full-length live action of the film is utterly ridiculous to watch. I still think it’s brilliant. I think Morgan still thinks it’s brilliant. But we, very early in the process, showed it to some sympathetic eyes. And we’re like, “You can see the movie, right?” And they’re: “Yeah, yeah, sure.” When, really, it’s just a bunch of people in weird costumes with cardboard swords, running around and delivering fantasy dialogue, utterly incomprehensible to anybody except for us.
Was Betty Gabriel the only voice actor who was specifically filmed for rotoscoping?
Morgan Galen King: Yes, of the headline cast, she was the only one who was there. It was pretty amazing, actually. She came and joined us before Get Out. She came straight out of school because we filmed this so long ago. She was there as the motion reference and then came back. Although Jordan Douglas Smith, who plays Ghal-Sur, and Malcolm Mills, who plays Uruq, both came back and redid their vocals. It turns out recording in a warehouse without an audio engineer really left it up to us. And we did not do a great job.
Philip Gelatt: Even with an audio engineer, they would have been like, “don’t film in here.” But yeah, that was fantastic. We’re so lucky to have had her, as Morgan says, early in her career, and she’s just been great to us. I made her redo that audio input, including the first performance, like four or five times. Every time, she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I could do it again.” And then, to be totally honest, when I thought it was gonna be the last time and she heard it, she was like, “no, no, Phil, I can do it, I can give a better performance than that. Let me do it one more time.”
Morgan Galen King: It did get better each time.
Can you tell me a little bit about the voice casting process?
Philip Gelatt: We did things weird, right? On a normal animated film, you would do your voice cast first. They would record, and then the animators would animate to the performance that you’re going to use, with a little bit of leeway. That’s generally how it goes. We did not do that. We filmed all of the live action reference, started the animation, including the lip sync. And then about four or five years into the process of making the film, we reached a point where we decided we needed to cast bigger names.
We sent the film, in its current state, to Lucy Lawless and Joe Manganiello and Patton Oswalt to see if they wanted to do a voice. It is a lengthy process casting big name actors in general, but it was a lengthy process in the middle of an even more lengthy process for us. But it was great, and they were all so enthusiastic about the film. I have to say I was nervous to talk to each of them about it, but each of them really got it, and really responded to the material.
Lucy, in particular, had thought so deeply about her character. She always has to keep her performance as Xena in the back of her mind and put things in relation to that. So, a lot of our conversation was making sure that she didn’t sound too much like a warrior, because she’s not playing a warrior in this film. She’s playing a shaman, for lack of a better term, or a Swamp Witch, which sounds vaguely derogatory, but is, I suppose, what she is.
All of this was done, with the exception of Joe Manganiello, who we recorded in 2019, during COVID. I was sitting here in my office and on Zoom with them, Lucy was in New Zealand, and Richard was in London. And Patten was in Los Angeles. Difficult to do, but not impossible.
Did Lucy Lawless’ management have any problems with the way her character was presented?
Philip Gelatt: Yeah, absolutely. She wanted to take the job, and we knew what she wanted to do, and then one of her reps was like, “Don’t take this job, you don’t want to be seen like that.” And she, to her credit, she’s such a badass Lucy, she’s like, “That’s great. I want to, I don’t mind, this character is amazing. This movie’s fantastic. I don’t mind how that character is drawn.” She’s Lucy Lawless. She does what the fuck she wants, as well she should. She’s earned it.
Part of the nature of what we did, in terms of designing the character that way, is to attempt to bring a more realistic version of the female form into animation than so much of fantasy art. It’s fantasy. I love that so much of it is overly sexualized and titillating about the female figure, which is, again, fine. But it doesn’t all need to be that way. It’s good to push against that sometimes.
Do you remember any direction you gave her, and did she make any really cool faces when she had to do the fight scenes?
Philip Gelatt: I remember talking a bit about trying to figure out, it’s a spoiler but technically speaking, she is sort of dead for part of the film. So, how you can demarcate a difference in the character between her actual life and her resurrected life. How she might bring some sort of subtlety to the difference between those two things was something we talked about quite a bit. Trying to get the cadence of the magic speak.
In terms of her making faces during the combat, I don’t remember but I wouldn’t have been able to tell, because the camera in the soundstage in New Zealand was aimed at her back, so I couldn’t actually see her face.
But I will tell you who did make combat faces: Joe Manganiello. We recorded that live. I was in the actual studio with him when he was doing his part. And he was like, “Oh, this is combat. I’m just going to do some combat sounds.” He was into it in a way that you would want your barbarian warrior to be, swinging an axe around and murdering people. Yeah, so much fun. It’s so great.
Lawless sees herself as a fighter for environmental justice. Did she bring that mindset to the set?
Philip Gelatt: We never talked about it while we were making the film, but we did when we were talking about casting. The main reason you cast Lucy Lawless is because she’s Lucy Lawless. It’s great that she does the environmental stuff but, first and foremost, when you’re making a fantasy film is that she’s Lucy Lawless. But it was a part of the discussion, the things that she cares about so deeply, are a part of the DNA of the film. We knew she would bring that to the role.
Where did you come up with the idea for the magical blue flowers?
Morgan Galen King: I wrote the film on weed, so I think it probably was just thinking about plants. But as it became part of the mythology, it ended up like a surrogate for drugs, but also a surrogate for knowledge. It ended up being a very functional metaphor for talking about the ways knowledge and power is disseminated. And blue flowers are cool.
Philip Gelatt: Sometimes it’s just okay to say a thing looks rad. Yeah.
Tell me about working with Peter Scott Avella and how the music came together.
Philip Gelatt: Peter was, I guess I would call him the lead composer because he did the biggest pieces. I knew he was a composer. I knew he was into weird fiction and Lovecraft stuff, and he was in a metal band. I also knew that he did, and I don’t mean this in an offensive way, really cheesy commercial music. This says to me that he’s able to evoke emotion, because that’s what that job is, evoking emotion quickly in a commercial. When you pair that with an interest in the Lovecraft stuff, it felt to me like a good combination.
We had thought about approaching doom metal bands and making it very much guitar driven, but the deeper we got into it, do you know the subgenre: dungeon synth, synth composers who were into D and D? We ended up working with a lot of composers who self-identify as dungeon synth.
Morgan Galen King: We got to work with a lot of very cool people. Marissa Nadler, who does Gothic folk music, came on to do a piece during the meditative part with the young lovers and the ruins. Ice Dragon has worked with me on a bunch of these projects over the years, they actually cameo as extras in the film as mob people who become very dead in the middle of it. They wrote the final piece that plays during the credits.
So, it was the musicians that you’re chopping in half?
Morgan Galen King: Yes, about half the band and their wives all show up in the big courtyard massacre in the second chapter of the film.
This was a seven-year project. How much of Spine of Night went into Love, Death + Robots?
Philip Gelatt: Specifically, not very much, but the idea of doing genre animation for adults did. The big idea is: we’re gonna make something like Heavy Metal. And then it branched off into two different pieces. But, other than me, there’s not a lot of DNA between them.
Besides looking back at Bakshi’s work or Heavy Metal, do you also go back to things like the color scenes in Phantom of the Opera, the silent movie?
Morgan Galen King: There’s the story-within-a-story that was told in silhouettes in The Spine of Night. We really struggled for a long time about how to visualize that. For that one in particular, I looked back at Lotte Reiniger’s work with paper cutout animation. It’s all up on The Criterion Channel, if anybody hasn’t seen it. It’s amazing what she was able to do. I think you could see hints of Metropolis. There’s certainly a lot of older films, and I’d love to keep working with that stuff, stylistically. I’ve been fantasizing about doing Shadow Plays, and black and white with color washes like a lot of older, silent era films.
Philip Gelatt: I love any filmmaker, like the guys that do the Lovecraft adaptations, that tries to replicate the style of the time when the stories are written. I love old movie techniques. Even in this film, we were looking at a style of moviemaking that people didn’t really make anymore, and then tried to just drag it forward with the rotoscoping.
I personally like Bakshi’s more urban works. I’m a Fritz the Cat fan. So, besides fantasy and horror, what genres do you think would benefit from rotoscoping?
Morgan Galen King: I mean, there’s so much about the body I think, which is such a big part of what makes rotoscoping really interesting. Taking what we recognize as the physical limitations of the human body and putting them in a non-real situation. I feel like you could explore anything with that, besides moving into the magical realism direction. I’ve seen that in romance and I can imagine it in a noir story, where reality becomes increasingly unstable.
Philip Gelatt: My argument would be Biblical Epic. Over COVID I bought the Cecil B. DeMille collection. They’re so lavish and insane. I say biblical epic, specifically, because they often are about the body in a way, but also, it would give you the chance for weird Christian psychedelic visions, like a version of the Christ story by Ralph Bakshi, with a little bit of chemical enhancement.
You create mythology. Do you think fictional mythology like Lovecraft has the same power as the mythologies of actual occult practices?
Morgan Galen King: I don’t want to offend anybody’s occult sensibilities. But so much of the genuineness of faith and belief is on the part of the audience or the practitioner. So, you’re sort of choosing where you want to draw the line, what you do and don’t incorporate into your mythological belief system. We could look at something like Scientology, where we know the author of the book, and how it becomes a thing. So, I think fiction, myth and legend all roll into being valid to the practitioner.
What language is the film based on? Do you have a whole language for it?
Morgan Galen King: I wish we could say it was like Tolkien and we had whole phonetic dictionaries for it. But I think we wanted to evoke the feeling that there was a whole language, a dead language, that they were all tapping into. But we didn’t actually write it out.
What is the language called?
Philip Gelatt: Curse you for asking that question, and me for not having an answer.
Morgan Galen King: The elder tongues can’t be even pronounced.
You’d have to rip out my tongue for me to pronounce it, I understand.
Philip Gelatt: If I could write a whole feature just in made up, guttural, necromancy speak, I would jump at that chance because my favorite part of anything is to make stuff up. It’s so much fun.
The Spine of Night is now streaming on Shudder.