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Writing it was hard enough, telling the story of the old American West from a horse’s point of view (and the horses don’t talk), but the toughest challenge in animation history was animating these much loved animals convincingly and faithfully. The filmmakers explain how they galloped into animation history. 

Despite there being no spoken dialogue between the animals in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and not much more on the part of the few human characters, there was still a screenplay, written by John Fusco. Producer Mireille Soria remarks, “John was ideal for this project because not only has he written movies about the Old West, but he also owns mustangs and is an honorary member of the Oglala-Lakota Tribe.”

Soria goes on to explain that, with his background and knowledge of the subject at hand, Fusco took an unusual approach. “He did an outline first, which is perfectly normal, but he then wrote a novella instead of a script, which really worked to capture the majesty of the Old West and the theme of what freedom is about. It had a more poetic feeling than a script, and his descriptions were very informative to the artists. So, even though he wasn’t writing much dialogue, per se, John was integral to the process.”

"the story of the American West, told from the point of view of the horse"

John Fusco says that until he got the call from DreamWorks, he had never had much of an interest in writing for animation. “Then they gave me this one sentence to describe ‘Spirit’: ‘It’s the story of the American West, told from the point of view of the horse.’ I said, ‘When do I start?’”

That simple sentence sparked a revelation for the writer. And triggered one of the biggest challenges in animation history.

“Horses are among the most beloved and beautiful creatures on the planet,” says DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg, “and I think there is a connection that we as human beings have had with horses, going back thousands of years. For all of those reasons, I loved the idea of an animated movie about horses, but I know that there is no animal more difficult to animate.”

There are several elements that have primarily kept horses off the drawing boards of animators. They have a long, inflexible spine, a defined musculature seen in their every movement, and a wide range of gaits. Their faces pose another kind of challenge, characterized by an elongated muzzle, with the eyes set high and wide, and the mouth set low. Understanding the problems, Katzenberg knew that when he told the animation team “horses,” he was throwing down the gauntlet. But he also knew who would be the first to pick it up.

“If you were to name the greatest animators working today, James Baxter would be one of them,” Katzenberg says. “I went to him and said, ‘James, I want to give you a challenge.’ Right from the start, he was so enthusiastic about the idea. He led the charge and rallied the rest of the animators, who, together, set an extraordinary benchmark for what could be achieved.”

"I suddenly realized how little I knew"

The senior supervising animator for the character of Spirit, Baxter admits that his initial enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the reality of the task ahead. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken on a picture. I literally spent the first few weeks with my door shut, telling everyone, ‘Go away; I’ve got to concentrate.’ It was quite daunting because when I first started to draw horses, I suddenly realized how little I knew.”

What the animators didn’t know, they were about to learn. The entire animation team began an intensive crash course in equine anatomy, movement, locomotion and behavior. With the Los Angeles Equestrian Center conveniently located within a mile of the DreamWorks animation campus, the animators spent hours upon hours studying and sketching real horses. Much of the time was spent observing a magnificent buckskin-colored mustang stallion, which served as the real-life model for Spirit.

The animators also benefited enormously from the expertise of two of the horse world’s most respected authorities, Dr. Deb Bennett and Dr. Stuart Sumida, who served as the film’s horse consultants. 

The consultants engaged the animators in a multi-pronged training program, teaching them about horses from the inside out. The lectures might have left the animators wondering if what had appeared challenging was closer to impossible. Aside from the fact that horses have that long, rigid spine, other parts of their anatomy are almost always moving, from the long neck that bends and swings, to the tail that flicks and swishes, to the ears that pivot to capture sound, to the lips that serve as their “hands.”

Putting it all in motion, the animation team was educated about the varying gaits of a horse, beginning with a walk and accelerating to a trot, a canter, and a full gallop. More than just the speed, they had to learn the individual components of each gait, not to mention the emotions behind them. For example, the frolicking gallop of a horse at play is entirely different from a gallop instigated by fear.

"To depict motion, animators often use a technique called “squash and stretch.”

To depict motion, animators often use a technique called “squash and stretch.” “In cartoon terms, it is when you deform an object, squashing it down or stretching it out, depending on how it’s moving,” Baxter explains. “The more ‘cartoony’ the project, the more extreme you can get with it, but the more realistic the project, the more subtle it has to be. We did use squash and stretch on the horses, but it’s very contained and in very specific parts of their bodies—it’s in the shoulders, it’s in the fetlocks… It is there, but it’s subtle and hidden.”

To Drs. Bennett and Sumida, it was especially important to pass on to the animators a healthy respect for the intelligence and complex emotional lives of horses. “Horses are actually really smart and very curious and they have the range of emotions and feelings that you would expect of any intelligent animal,” Sumida says.

“Horses are also extremely honest,” Bennett adds. “What I mean by that is they do have ways of transmitting what is going on inside and how they are about to react, so it was important that the animators be able to ‘read’ a horse and then put that information on the screen.”

That ability was key to James Baxter and the team working on the character of Spirit, who is in virtually every scene in the movie and whose emotions run the gamut from the joy of freedom, to the desperation of capture, to his defiance of being broken. Baxter notes that Spirit’s name was his first inspiration. “We set out to create a horse that felt indomitable. He’s extremely proud and very brave, and his desire for freedom overcomes everything. At the heart of the character is a spirit that cannot be broken.”

Though the supporting equine cast had considerably less screen time, conveying their thoughts and emotions was equally challenging for William Salazar, the supervising animator for the character of Rain, the paint mare who becomes Spirit’s love interest; and Sylvain DeBoissy, the supervising animator for Spirit’s mother, Esperanza, and the rest of the Cimarron herd. Every thought and feeling held by Rain, Esperanza and the other horses had to be communicated entirely through body language and facial expressions.

"when your character doesn’t talk, you have to do everything in pantomime"

Kristof Serrand, the artistic supervisor for all of the character animation in the film, comments, “When you have an actor’s voice to work with, you have a starting point for your character. But when your character doesn’t talk, you have to do everything in pantomime, which is a huge challenge, and even more so when you can’t at least use hands for expression. Horses don’t have hands, they have hooves, so even our gestures were limited.”

For any character, but especially for one who doesn’t speak, an animator also relies heavily on eyes and eyebrows to express emotions. However, horses don’t have what we would call eyebrows and their eyes are located to the sides of their head, so you don’t typically look into both eyes at the same time. Taking a little bit of equine creative license, the animators moved the horses’ eyes slightly forward and gave them more white around the irises, as well as defined eyebrows.

Nevertheless, when the consultants finally got to see the animated horses on the screen, they could not have been more pleased. “They got it right,” Bennett confirms.

The same attention to detail was applied to things heard, but not seen. The horse sounds heard in “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” are authentic. Supervising editor Nick Fletcher and sound designer and supervising sound editor Tim Chau visited stables to record a wide variety of neighs, whinnies and other horse sounds, which would allow them to give the lead horses distinct voices. They then looked to director Lorna Cook to match those sounds to the right character in the right context.

“Lorna Cook has had so much experience with horses, it was almost like she had an innate understanding of what they were saying,” Fletcher says. “She would tell us which sounds to use where, and we in turn gave that information to the animators, so they could animate to those sounds.”

Cook responds, “We knew we had to replace conventional dialogue with its equine counterpart, so it was important to find the appropriate tone to articulate what the horses were saying without words as we understand them.”

"was filmed for all intents and purposes as a silent movie"

Horse sounds notwithstanding, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” was filmed for all intents and purposes as a silent movie, with the narration, music and songs being recorded after the animation was completed. 

“We set out to tell the story visually,” Asbury offers. “The small amount of narration or dialogue coming from any of the characters was carefully selected for key moments in the film to support the story, in much the same way that onscreen placards did in the days of silent movies.” 

Soria adds, “Practically speaking, the narration was intended to clarify basic plot elements. From a creative standpoint, it helped us to show Spirit’s personality, his wit, his sense of humor.”

Published June 20, 2002

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