Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s The Spine of Night is an impassioned tribute to adult animation, dark fantasy, and truly ambitious genre epics of the type all too rarely seen on the silver screen.
“One thing is certain about The Spine of Night: this is a labor of bone-shattered, triptacular love, “I said in my review. “The new rotoscope-animated feature—a clearly adoring homage to Ralph Bakshi, Heavy Metal, and 1980s dark fantasy—was created over a span of seven years by a minuscule team of animators digitally painting frame-by-frame with the oversight of directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King. It’s a deathly earnest film––like George Lucas-caliber earnest––guts-filled with capital-L lore, grim violence, artful nudity, and portentous monologues––not-always-convincingly delivered by a vocal cast that includes Lucy Lawless and Patton Oswalt––that never dare consciously wink at the intrinsic camp of its culty-retro throwback venue. “
As the film arrives in theaters and on VOD, We were able to chat with Gelatt and King about their inspirations, the long development process of an independent animated feature, and the future of the medium.
The Film Stage: What were your biggest reference points in terms of visuals and story? You’ve mentioned Ralph Bakshi, which is definitely visible. Did any real-life occult beliefs and rituals inspire the ones portrayed in the film?
Morgan Galen King: Well, for influences, for sure, Ralph Bakshi and Heavy Metal and a lot of the rotoscoping of the late 70s and early 80s. You know, I grew up on all that and I have a lot of respect for that. I think the project was born out of wanting to see something more along those lines back in the world. But as far as actual rituals, I don’t think it’s anything more than maybe what’s been distilled into our brains through pop culture. I can’t think of one in particular. Phil?
Philip Gelatt: Gee, I was gonna say I think I was sort of steeped in horror fiction in general, and I think that inevitably leads to an interest in the occult, broadly speaking. So while I wouldn’t say there were any specific rituals we were thinking of, you spend enough time reading about, I don’t know, Aleister Crowley or John Dee or something and eventually you get the idea of how occult rituals are supposed to work. We just sort of took the form and adapted it to the fantasy world we were creating… I think, unless there’s some specific ritual I’m forgetting which we put into the movie, which would be very occult in and of itself. If we put one in there, and then forgot it was there.
MGK: I do think there was a little bit of, like, when you first meet the villain at the beginning of the first Dark Tower book and he’s eating this psychedelic poison weed… When we were watching [our film] at Telluride the other day, I hadn’t seen it in a while, and I was struck by how much Ghal-Sur eating the bloom really reminded me of [that].
The film seems to embrace an aesthetic very characteristically associated with the 1980s and late 70s. What do you think, if anything, defines the cultural products of that era that we aren’t seeing today? What about the fantasy genre in particular do you think has changed?
MGK: Well in terms of, like, the animation, so little independent feature-length animation has existed in the years since then. That was sort of like the last big push of small teams doing weird stories for adults––at least in the West. I mean, anime blew up, and Disney stopped trying to reach weirder audiences after The Black Cauldron flopped. Major animation trends, and certainly features, drifted away from that sort of experimentation and, ah, non-boardroom-approved [content in] film.
I think [that period] was a really interesting era where you had, like, Don Bluth really taking a shot at the Disney crown, and Bakshi was making all sorts of experimental films in and out of the more straightforward fantasy stuff like Fire and Ice. It felt like it was an era where it was really possible for independent filmmakers to make weird genre films. I think the production costs and how you would stage a smaller independent project informs a lot of aesthetic decisions and genre decisions. I love all of those decisions. I love how scrappy Bakshi’s stuff is! I think things do seem more and more homogenized as you move into the 90s. There are very, very few independent animated features that ever get made, and certainly not anymore, so that’s something I’d really like to see modern technology do. I think looking back through the last era when that was really thriving, and the aesthetics of that era––like the very human and adult-signifying qualities of rotoscoping––I hope we’ll see more of that as the technology to do the whole thing with smaller teams and lower budgets becomes possible.
And you think it’s heading in that direction of being more affordable and more accessible?
MGK: I think so, yeah. Or at least I think there’s an audience that is eager to see more weird stuff. We’ve been watching creators on Youtube make increasingly experimental and unique projects, with higher and higher budgets––or looking higher and higher budget, even if they’re not. We didn’t use any automation tools, but there’s so much coming down the pipe, with deepfake stuff and a lot of AI animation software. None of it looks hand-drawn yet, but I think it’s getting there and it’s only a matter of time. I imagine after a solid decade of almost every blockbuster being motion-captured to the degree that hardly anything onscreen is real except the actor’s head, if that, that motion capture and AI-enhanced animation will be a thing that people experiment in more. I don’t think anyone should probably do it by hand again, unless they’re really really masochistic. Even just in rotoscoping––the style he uses is entirely different, but Joel Haver is very popular on the Internet with younger people than me, and he’s embracing all sorts of rotoscoping-style stuff for comedic effect, even if it’s not quite the same thing. There’s a lot of fans of that, and I think we’ll see more and more.
Spine of Night packs a story of epic scope––a really exceptional number of characters, settings and events, all set across a huge span of time––into just 90 minutes. Did you ever consider developing the project as something like a TV series, for Adult Swim or anything like that?
MGK: No, not really. I think we always wanted to do a feature pretty much from the beginning. I’ve always really liked this sort of structure, an elliptical style of storytelling. If you look at one of the books we referenced quite a bit when talking about the film, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is a 70s sci-fi classic [first published in 1959], it does a similar thing. You get glimpses into events that are interconnected and inform each other, but a chapter will end and all of a sudden you’re three to four hundred years into the future – and it does that as its core structure. I just always thought that was a really fascinating way to try to explain and reveal a world without giving you the full genealogy and chronology of every single fantasy event that happens. I like the wonder and imagination it asks of the audience to fill in the missing pieces.
PG: Yeah, I’m a big fan of fantasy that gives the reader or the viewer a space to imagine for themselves. I think this structure, while it’s asking a lot of the audience in terms of catching up with the movie, also affords the viewer a place to imagine what’s happening offscreen without us always explaining what’s happening in a canonical way. I’m always excited by projects that invite viewers to lean in and find themselves in the story. This is a pretty extreme example of that, I think, but it’s the kind of fantasy I love. I like to be thrown in the deep end and have to, you know, find my way.
MGK: It’s interactive, I think, for myself as an audience member, when there’s something to imagine or something to speculate about. A lot of longer-form, modern storytelling in genre film doesn’t get to do it quite that much. I always think about how, when I was really young and watching Star Wars for the first time, before there were any sequels or any expanded universe, and every character in the cantina on Tatooine was completely mysterious. You had no idea who any of them were, where they came from––you didn’t even know who Jabba the Hutt was, he was just someone mentioned. As I got older and they started filling in the gaps, I feel like that mystery was sort of sapped out of it––the wonder I draw from fantasy.
The Spine of Night is now in theaters and on VOD.