For seven years, Morgan Galen King was vigilant about not updating his Windows PC. From 2014 onward, he skipped every prompt on his work computer, attempting to preserve the Photoshop and Premiere tools he had built to animate his ultra-violent high-fantasy film, The Spine of Night. He was rotoscoping the entire thing, drawing over live-action scenes, frame-by-frame, until they came to life under his stylus.
King was working alongside co-writer and co-director Philip Gelatt, and a small team of accomplices. The project consisted of thousands of live, hand-drawn layers and a batch of custom software tools, all of which worked specifically with the version of Windows on King’s computer in 2014.
“I had been very meticulous to not update anything, which was hard for such a long production cycle,” King said. “Seven years is a long time to not update your software.”
And then, just as King was preparing to export the final cut of The Spine of Night for its debut at SXSW 2021, his PC received seven years of updates.
“It was the absolute deadline coming up,” King said. “I went to bed, I came back and Windows had updated itself.”
He couldn’t even open the project. His PC no longer recognized the video card Premiere used to run the bulk of the film’s effects. There was a solution, but like every other step in The Spine of Night’s production, it was incredibly tedious.
“I had to get in there and as it was trying to load, before it failed, export each section as an individual project, so that I could slowly piece it back together,” King said.
Gelatt, King’s co-conspirator on The Spine of Night, added, “It was arduous.”
It took about two weeks to rebuild The Spine of Night this way. But, they did it. The movie is an official selection of the SXSW 2021 Film Festival, debuting on Thursday night. It stars a handful of heavy hitters in the voice cast, including Betty Gabriel, Richard E. Grant, Lucy Lawless, Patton Oswalt and Joe Manganiello.
The Spine of Night is a violent and trippy epic inspired by 1981’s Heavy Metal and the works of classic animators Ralph Bakshi (the director of the 1978 Lord of the Rings movie) and Frank Frazetta (the veritable godfather of fantasy art). Bakshi and Frazetta famously collaborated on the 1983 film Fire and Ice, using rotoscoping for the animation.
Fire and Ice was a crucial touchstone for King and Gelatt in the creation of The Spine of Night. In fact, it’s the main reason King built so many custom Premiere and Photoshop tools to get the job done.
“I looked at the special features of Bakshi's Fire and Ice DVD,” King said. “I think it's the only place where I've really seen anyone showing how they used to do it. I kind of just reverse engineered that, as best as I could, for drawing on a computer.”
The rotoscope process involves filming scenes with actual people and then tracing over those frames one at a time. When done right, it results in fluid, lifelike movements, while allowing animators to sketch in all the wild characters and impossible actions they want.
For The Spine of Night, King and Gelatt filmed the motion reference in a warehouse in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in March 2014. Only one of the big-name actors in the voice cast actually performed in that warehouse: Betty Gabriel, who was fresh out of drama school at the time (“and so great to work with,” Gelatt said). She would go on to become a star of Get Out and multiple Blumhouse projects.
“A green-screen studio would have been ideal, but we just had the white walls and wooden floors of this place, and we dragged in lights and fans to blow the hair around, and tried to get everyone to mimic the actions that we needed, in live action, as best as they could,” King said.