The show runners behind DreamWorks’ new series for Netflix bring a widescreen, Western look to new toon adventures for a girl and her horse. By Tom McLean.
There’s no denying that meaningful bonds can be formed in an instant — love at first sight, a horse perfectly matched with its rider, or an artist bringing to life a story they’ve long dreamed of creating.
The latter two are particularly apropos in the case of Spirit Riding Free, DreamWorks Animation Television’s new series based on the studio’s 2002 feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and its show runners, Aury Wallington and Jim Schumann.
“My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with horse stories,” says Wallington, who launched her TV writing career as a script coordinator on HBO’s Sex and the City. “I certainly loved the shows that I grew up with, which were more of the Mork & Mindy, Facts of Life sort of things, but I always dreamed about having a show that encompassed those stories from the books that I loved so much about adventure and freedom.”
That opportunity finally came to pass for Wallington, who’s also written for shows such as Heroes and Gravity Falls, when a series based on Spirit was on the table during a meeting with DreamWorks Animation Television.
“It instantly caught me because the thought of having a chance to tell that story, to make the show that 9-year-old me would have gone bananas over, was really irresistible,” says Wallington.
The writing appealed to veteran animation writer, director and producer Jim Schumann. He was working with DreamWorks Animation TV on a project that didn’t come together when he read Wallington’s pilot script. “It’s the reason I took the gig,” he says. “I could see it. I knew what it was going to look like. The characters were genuine. The story was genuine. It was exciting.”
Arriving with six episodes May 5 on Netf- lix, Spirit Riding Free tells the tale of a gutsy 12-year-old girl named Lucky, who meets a resilient mustang named Spirit — the offspring of the feature film version — when her family settles out west in the 1890s. With her two new best friends — and their horses — by her side, Lucky explores a new world of freedom and adventure.
The show features the voices of Amber Montana ( The Haunted Hathaways), Sydney Park ( Instant Mom) and Bailey Gambertoglio ( Bubble Guppies).
Following Its Own Path Wallington’s vision for the show was unusual for animation in several ways. The horses, for example, are not anthropomorphized either in their actions or via narration, as the film did. There also are no magical or fantasy elements, and the stories and characters are grounded in a very realistic and genuine way.
This gave Schumann and the show’s crew the chance to experiment with unusual looks and techniques.
“Me and (art director) Ellen Jin were influenced by stuff that was coming out of Europe, like the Netherlands,” he says. “We wanted the show to be big. We wanted to shoot it like a Western — big and wide — and use the frame.”
That ambition was not lost on the crew, which rose to the unusual challenges Spirit Riding Free presented.
“When we started, we knew it was going to be a tough show, but everybody on this show has bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Schumann. “There’s a level of commitment to this show that I haven’t experienced a lot in other shows. On a lot of other shows, it’s just a gig, but here everybody is just so committed because we kind of know we’re doing something special.”
For the lighting, Schumann turned the stan- dard approach for TV a little to the right. “Most CG shows have what’s called 12 noon lighting, where everything is above the head, and then there’s supplementary lighting,” he says. “We put our our lighting at 2 o’clock, sort of like late afternoon, so we get some really nice shadows.”
The look also led to a shading style and a cinematic look. “It’s not like a classic toon shading, but more of a hybrid,” says Schumann. “We also used a lot of 2D elements in the artwork and on the sets and stuff, so it gives us a really striking look to the show.” Grounded and Accessible The look also is designed to play to the strengths of the writing. “It’s set in 1890, but we didn’t want the period details to in any way weigh the show down or stand as a barrier that would make it less accessible to the audi- ence,” says Wallington. “So we’re trying to do a contemporary show in a historical setting and the look of the show helps give us this flavor of the period, the Old West, with the long shadows, the fadedout color in certain places and the vibrant colors in other places.”
As for the animation, which is being done by Technicolor in India, horses are a real challenge to get right. Schumann says they pulled a lot of reference from the Spirit feature as well as other reference on how horses walk, gallop and run. The goal was to ensure the horses’ personalities came through without doing anything that looks unreal or takes the audience out of the realistic elements.
Wallington says it’s been fun to write for animation, which required a bit of a learning curve to understand what could and couldn’t be done easily in CG.
“It didn’t feel different from writing live-action. This is the story I wanted to tell,” she says. “I’ve been lucky in having Jim and the rest of the team, who are so on the ball.”
Both are extremely proud of the results and anxious to see how the show is received. “We probably wouldn’t have been able to make this show at any other studio,” says Schumann. “It’s been a really great experience.” [
The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious in the world and exemplifies in many ways the hierarchy of the overall global movie business. Here, live action rules — directors, actors, cinematographers and their latest artistic works are greeted like royalty. And while animation is not excluded from the festival in any way, the emphasis and majority of interest in the event clearly lies elsewhere, while animation producers and fans prepare to congregate a month later in nearby Annecy for a festival dedicated to toons.
But animation’s presence has been growing in recent years. The competition for the 70th Cannes Film Festival, set to run May 17-28, includes no animated features, but there are a trio of animated shorts — all made by women — that will be in the running in other areas: Pépé le Morse (Grandpa Walrus), directed by Lucrèce Andreae, is in the short film competition, while two student animated films — Léa Krawczyk’s À Perdre Haleine (Breathless) and Imge Özbilge’s Camouflage — grace the Cinéfondation section. Cristian Mungiu is presiding over the jury for both short films and the Cinéfondation.
This year also sees the return of Animation Day in Cannes, an event independent of the festival that spotlights animated projects and presents panels and networking opportunities.
Imge Özbilge was inspired by something she experienced in the increasingly polarized society of Turkey to write Camouflage, which is about a forbidden friendship that blossoms in a city where East meets West.
“Populism is becoming dangerous all over the world and that’s why I believe that we need to stay together even more and talk about these issues,” she says.
Though her travel-loving and artistic parents are from Istanbul, the 29-year-old Özbilge was born in Vienna and spent much of her life in one city or the other. Her childhood love of art lead her to experiment with animation as one of many forms of expression, and she studied animation at KASK in Belgium.
“The reason why I told the story in animation is the freedom you have with animation in creating surreal imagery, which can create multiple meanings,” she says. The film takes the audience to a mysterious and surreal world inspired by Ottoman miniatures and Hieronymus Bosch. “I like to work with sublayers. They leave open space for interpretation and therefore create a connection with the audience.”
Production took about a year, with plenty of advice from her KASK mentor Luc Degryse and her sister and fellow artist, Sine Özbilge.
The images begin as ink on paper, then were scanned into the computer using Photoshop and animated with After Effects.
Surprised by her acceptance into the Cinéfondation, Özbilge next plans to gain some experience in the animation industry and eventually wants to co-direct an animated feature with her sister. [
scatological yet satisfying musical. The year wrapped with a double dose of studios working at their peak, with Sony’s Stuart Little and Pixar’s Toy Story 2 both serving up striking cover images.
The final year of the 20th century, 2000 was a rougher year for animation. High-profile projects that made the cover of Animation Magazine only to overpromise and underdeliver: God, the Devil and Bob, Disney’s Dinosaur, DreamWorks’ Road to El Dorado and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Traditional 2D animation took a big hit with the failure of Fox’s much-hyped sci-fi epic Titan A.E. But all was redeemed by Aardman’s faith in stop-motion — and a good story — with the success of Chicken Run.
The magazine celebrated a more conventional milestone in 2001: its 15th anniversary. In a bit of a throwback move, animators reappeared on the covers, starting with the always-awesome Chuck Jones, who stood in a hole at Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles to plug his Timberwolf web project.
Traditional animation was still going strong, with our 100th issue featuring Craig McCracken and his durable creation, The Powerpuff Girls, by a cover feature on Will Vinton Studios and its 25th anniversary.
Summer brought Shrek into our lives, along with a huge financial boost and much-needed creative momentum for DreamWorks. The industry prepped for the first Animated Feature Oscar race, wondering if it was going to stick around (it has — and how!). The first trophy went to Shrek.
Fall brought with it the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a United We Stand logo appeared on our covers in support.
The year wrapped with Pixar releasing Monsters, Inc., an occasion marked with a clever cover featuring Mike Wazowski and Sully reading a copy of the magazine that had on its cover a photo of director Pete Docter and executive producer John Lasseter.
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