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.
There are some scenes of characters riding horses or soaring over the city on batlike wings, and for these moments, the actors sat astride yoga balls or balanced on them, belly-down.
“We obviously didn't have horses in the warehouse, and so we had them just galloping as hard as they could on yoga balls,” King said. “This was an absolutely hysterical sight. What an indelible image.”
They edited down the live-action footage, yoga balls and all, and King began rotoscoping on top of the resulting full-length film, using his custom, Bakshi-inspired Adobe tools.
There are existing programs offering AI-assisted rotoscoping, such as EbSynth, but these wouldn’t cut it for The Spine of Night. AI can’t capture the intuitive magic of hand-drawn rotoscoping, King said.
“I think AI doesn't have the ability to discern when to deviate,” he said. “Whereas, for what we were doing, deviating from the video is a very common occurrence. When two people are talking and you're just really focusing on lip sync and eye movement, well, then the video is extremely important for that. But for things like combat, where obviously we're not chopping each other's heads off in the footage, the ability to seamlessly switch from using a video reference to just becoming pure animation — there's a lot of dismemberment in this movie. It was just all pure image. The style needed to be able to switch between those in every single shot, pretty much. It's much more of a traditional frame-by-frame, onion skin situation, than I think AI would have allowed us to do.”
As a result, The Spine of Night took seven years to animate. It seems like it paid off — the film is alive with depth and flow driven by its thick, snakelike animation lines and a timeless story of survival. It’s an instant cult classic with buckets of blood, skeletons, and violent psychedelic imagery, steeped in 1970s high-fantasy nostalgia.
It also feels entirely fresh.
“I love fantasy so much, and I love cheeseball covers with women in scantily clad armor,” Gelatt said. “That's what I grew up with. But when you have an opportunity and you take this much time to make a thing, you really want to make it forward-facing and something that you can be really proud of from any perspective. We definitely had a lot of conversations about just the genre in general, and what you could do to drag it forward to the 21st century.”
The Spine of Night stars a Black woman, something rarely seen in high fantasy, and it doesn’t hyper-sexualize its female characters. It tells the stories of multiple people from various backgrounds fighting for a singular epic cause.
“I think fantasy has such a tendency to be regressive in its gaze,” King said. “You have so much interest in the legacy of kings and their families and the hierarchies and the old gods. ...I think that was something we wanted to sort be like, ‘Well, yeah, but what if we went the other way with that?’”
Gelatt agreed and said, “I'm really into fantasy that hates kings. I like Tolkien and all that stuff, but I always think about Return of the King as a title, and how I just feel like it should be threatening, not happy. I don't want a king. Why would we be excited about that?”
The Spine of Night premieres Thursday evening as part of SXSW 2021, and after that, it should see a wider release. Hopefully soon, for the sake of King’s PC.
“As soon as we get this finally, fully off my computer and into the hands of someone putting it on a Blu-ray, I cannot wait to update literally everything I use and start with a clean slate,” he said.