Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook for “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”

When DreamWorks unspools its latest animated feature this weekend, it will be the first traditional looking animated feature to premiere in quite some time. A lavish tale of the Wild West seen through the eyes of a powerful, proud Cimarron horse, this beautifully mounted animated tale may look 100% hand-painted, but the use of the computer wasn’t far behind, as Paul Fischer discovered when he spoke to the film’s two directors, Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook:

Question: When Jeffrey Katzenberg came up with this idea, how did you decide that you two become the directors. I mean how does that work?

Cook: Well, I don’t know how he came to that decision. Hopefully it’s because he liked the work I did on Prince of Egypt.

Asbury: Well, we worked together as co-heads of story on Prince of Egypt. We have a very collaborative relationship with Jeffrey and I think he knew that and I think he felt that we were in a place at our careers and had understood the process good enough to give this a try. He gave it to us. He didn’t give it to us in a do or die situation, he gave it to us as a why don’t you see if you like doing this. Try it for a while. See what happens and we stuck with it.

Question: So at which point do you say: Okay we’ll continue doing this?

Asbury: I’ll answer for myself and then Lorna can answer her way. for me, am I having fun. Simple as that. Am I enjoying my job? Do I wake up in the morning and look forward to coming in? And I never had a moment where I didn’t feel that way when I did Spirit. You’re never bored, that’s my criteria. Am I having fun?

Question: Lorna?

Cook: I would say that’s a large part of it and also to challenge myself and see if I could really help bring this movie along where it needed to go. You know kind of a you don’t try you’ll never know kind of situation.

Question: You know, obviously the challenge for making these kinds of movies is to go where no another animated film has gone before because audiences and kids are becoming so much more sophisticated. What do you think you’ve done with Spirit that defines its uniqueness?

Asbury: Well, I think telling any story visually. I think to tell a story that’s animated, that’s not talking, singing animals, that alone sets apart from almost everything that’s been done in America I think for the most part so I think that that was one of the most appealing parts about it was that we’re making a FILM, we’re not necessarily making a cartoon.

Lorna Cook: And doing it again from this character’s point of view which was always, you know, the idea, and the challenge and to create just I think a level of sincerity and believability of who he is and the story.

Question: Where’s the line between realism and I guess surrealism? I don’t know what the opposite is in the case of animation, but you have attempted in this movie elements of realism and I guess a cartoon world. Is that a hard line?

Asbury: It’s a constantly evolving line. It’s a constant process of trial and error. We wanted to create something that had a mythic quality to it, but still was set in sort of a mythic version of the American West with real icons where you recognise Monument Valley, Grand Tetons and Yosemite. They’re all there, but it became sort of this lyrical story that we decided to tell from this horse’s perspective and I think if we stayed in there we kept it surreal to some degree. It’s not realistic, but it’s also not a complete departure. He doesn’t fly and there’s no magic in there; it just kind of happened that way.

Question: Is it a western?

Asbury: I like to think of it as an adventure; I never really thought of it as a western.

Cook: Yeah, it’s set in the time of the west and you know I think that’s about IT as far as classifying it.

Question: The original story that was written, as I understand it, had to do with a kind of an animal farm concept, where you had different sorts of animals viewing the early history of America. Why did you decide to narrow that?

Cook: I think for several reasons. To tell a story in animation where you can only really just use X-amount of minutes to tell, we wanted to be as concise and clear as we could. That’s not to say that we couldn’t have evolved and done a lot of other things; it was a CHOICE to really centre it around the horse, which we kind of found out through trial and error. It became just really his story, but that was a starting point. There were a lot of starting points on this film.

Question: Computers obviously play a large role in getting these films made. When you first started out in this industry, they played a lesser role. Do you ever say to yourself: You know I wish today’s audiences weren’t QUITE so sophisticated?

Asbury: No I don’t. The more you can draw an audience into a film no matter what technology is to get them there, I think it’s enhanced what we’re doing and I welcome it. I think it’s been fantastic.

Question: There’s obviously an illusion that this is a traditional animated film, when in fact it IS an illusion and it’s not a completely traditional animated film. Katzenberg calls it a ‘tradigital’ film.

Lorna Cook: I mean it is taking the very best. I think it’s essentially a 2-D film with the best you can do to enhance it in a 3-D manner, taking advantage of CG animation where we needed to and not doing it for the sake of doing it but doing it because it really served the story and the purpose of telling it. It really helped us tell our story.

Question: Is it easy to collaborate as filmmakers on an animated film? I’ve heard you talking about the 18 meetings a day that you have to attend.

Asbury: You know it’s been such a part of my career from day one that I think what would seem difficult for someone who’s fly-in-the-wall or onlooker, might question how could they possibly do this, but it’s just so much about the way these movies get made that, no it’s not difficult. It’s the process.

Question: What about coming onto a project like this for five years.

Cook: Well, I mean that’s not for the faint of heart and on this film, like many, you constantly have to be there to help each other and refresh each other. After all, let’s face it, it’s a big task, but once you start seeing the film come together and the results of all of this hard work and collaboration, it just energises you.

Asbury: It just fuels you. fortunately, you know, as first time directors, I think I can speak for both of us, we had the opportunity and the great grace of being able to work and direct a film that we enjoyed. We liked the movie. I’m sure at some point in my career I will direct a film that halfway through I realise: Oh my gosh I’ve got a turkey here. We didn’t have that experience on this film. We like the movie.

Question: But with animation if you realise you have a turkey even though you throw all this stuff away and redo it.

Asbury: Well, you hope you can if it’s not too late. It’s not an easy re-shoot situation unless you’re really early in the process. There is a certain point where you’re sort of beyond the point of no return and I’ve worked on films like that. Where I won’t name them, but where you just realised okay this is not going to be what we’d hoped. We didn’t feel that way about Spirit.

Question: I would be personally very distressed if all we ended up with is computer-animated films. Do you foresee that happening? I mean if this movie does not succeed commercially then it won’t help.

Asbury: I think that when the dust settles and the newness of CG films sort of wears off, I think we will see something new. We’ll see a hybrid of the two, because I think ultimately it’s got to be a good story, it can’t all be wacky comedies, and right now that seems to be what’s working in the CG realm. I love CG films. I love the films that have been successful lately. I really do, but ultimately something new is going to have to come about to keep the interest there. There’s got to be a story. Hopefully Spirit will help that and hopefully the films coming out this year will help that.

Question: What is the future for you guys or you just going to completely take a break for a while?

Kelly Asbury: Maybe a little break and then move on. Do other things. We don’t know what yet.

Question: Do you ever initiate projects or wait for someone to do it?

Asbury: Come up with ideas, people talk to us about ideas. In addition, you know ultimately it’s the decision of whatever studio you’re working at what film they want to invest their money in.

Question: When live action directors work on feature films they also look now to DVD. How does that work with animation?

Asbury: We’re starting on it.

Question: And what can you say about the Spirit DVD?

Asbury: They’re just talking to us about it and asking us for ideas on what would you like to see on the DVD.

Question: Well?

Kelly Asbury: We’re not at liberty to say now.

Question: Well, what would you like to see on it?

Kelly Asbury: I’d love to see some behind the scenes stuff. I’d love to see, in an entertaining way, how we make these movies and what goes into doing it and what people appreciate. The great artistry that goes into it is really at every aspect of the filmmaking process.