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SXSW: 'The Spine of Night' plunges Lucy Lawless into a hyperviolent, rotoscoped fantasy

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Lucy Lawless provides the voice for the sorceress Tzod in "The Spine of Night."

In "The Spine of Night," Lucy Lawless plays a swamp witch fighting the forces of darkness, Richard E. Grant guards a mystical power source for generations and Patton Oswalt reigns over a medieval wasteland as a tyrant lord. It's one of the most star-studded movies in this year's South by Southwest Film Festival program. You'll never see those actor's faces in this gruesome fantasy epic, though.

This year's fest is all-virtual, dubbed SXSW Online and running March 16-20, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, Austin packs in the celebrities every March, as big names pound the red carpet to promote studio flicks at the Paramount Theatre. There aren't any press lines at SXSW Online, obviously, and this year's slate is packed with fewer Hollywood tentpoles, but just as much exciting indie fare.

"The Spine of Night," a rotoscoped animation epic about different characters fighting a magical evil across time, includes the voices of genre talents like Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess"), Grant ("Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"), Oswalt (a standup comedian with too many nerdy roles to mention), Joe Manganiello ("True Blood") and Betty Gabriel ("Get Out").

More:Here's what to watch at SXSW Film 2021, the fest's first online edition

Did we mention it's gruesome? The film is a hyperviolent, operatic saga drawing inspiration from the cult-classic work of animator Ralph Bakshi and illustrator Frank Frazetta. The rotoscoping technique — or animating over live-action footage — adds an uncanny layer of pseudo-reality, too.

We caught up with directors and writers Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King about "The Spine of Night," which makes its world premiere on March 18 as part of SXSW Online. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

American-Statesman: What were some of your notable reference points in creating the concept?

Morgan Galen King: It's pretty undeniable for us that Ralph Bakshi was a huge influence. I grew up on a lot of his late '70s and early '80s films. "Lord of the Rings" and "Fire and Ice" were the two visual touchstones we were really looking at for this project. Structurally, I read (sci-fi novel) "A Canticle for Leibowitz" as a kid. The time-spanning concept of that has always been something I was really excited to explore.

Philip Gelatt: We definitely wanted to make fantasy that felt more, well, I guess I would call it sword and sandal, or sword and sorcery, depending on how you define these things. By that, I mean a little bit more on the low-fantasy scale of things, a little bit more "Conan the Barbarian," a little bit less Tolkien. We don't have elves and dwarves and dragons and that kind of thing.

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Why rotoscoping for this project, instead of doing a more traditional kind of animation? 

King: This style, I loved it so much when I was younger. The parts of "Heavy Metal" that are rotoscoped, obviously, the Bakshi stuff, when A-ha's "Take On Me" video was popular — it was all sort of that era where there's a lot of Western rotoscoping that was going on, and it clearly fell out of favor. Or I would say, maybe the amount of time it takes to do it became not conducive to a lot of animation workflows. But I always loved the look of it. I know it's not everybody's cup of tea, but I've always really found the ability to make very human characters in a fictional world to be really cool. 

For this particular film, were the voice actors doing the physical performances used in the rotoscoping process?

King: It's sort of a hybrid. We had long, long ago imagined that we were going to cast the roles with the physical actors doing the voice roles. Several of them, ultimately, also (did) the voice roles. But we had also re-recorded the audio, because the live audio we got on set, although I think was an ambitious experiment, was not up to snuff for what we wanted to the end product to be. ... I think of the top line cast, it was Betty Gabriel, she did her character straight through.

I was excited to see Betty Gabriel's name on the list.

Gelatt: She's fantastic. We shot with her — I mean, not to give away how long this movie took — but we shot with her before she was in "Get Out." So, it takes awhile, rotoscoping, as Morgan referenced. (laughs) She's so immensely talented.

Phae, performed by "Get Out" actress Betty Gabriel in a rotoscoped role, is one of the heroic women of "The Spine of Night."

How long has this project been works? 

Gelatt: I can tell you that on the day that we premiere, the 18th of March, that is almost exactly seven years after when we started shooting the live action reference. Almost to the day. ... It has been a Herculean task, certainly. But I think we also always knew that it would be. I mean, I don't think one sets out to make a hard-R, very naked, very violent, rotoscoped fantasy film without some acknowledging that it's gonna take quite some time to actually get it made.

King: We were one year into this project, and I went to a coffee shop that had a bookshelf. And on the shelf, they had like an introduction to styles of animating (book). ... I got to the section on rotoscoping, and I wish I could remember who wrote this book, but the the author said, "I don't recommend starting a feature length rotoscope project unless you're serving a long prison sentence." (laughs) And I've thought of that the entire time.

You've got some really beloved character actors from the genre film world participating in this. How did some of those folks get involved?

Gelatt: After we were near completed (with) animation, we endeavored to do the voice casting. We really just approached people we thought would like the project. So Joe Manganiello was the first one, the first of the bigger names, to come on and do a voice. We approached him just because we know that he loves (Dungeons and Dragons) and fantasy stuff. That part that he plays seems perfect for him. Same with Patton, same process for all of them, ultimately. We just said, "Hey, we've made this crazy thing. We think you'd be perfect for this part. Would you come and be in our violent fantasy?" Luckily, they said yes. 

There's no mistaking Patton Oswalt's voice as Lord Pyrantin in "The Spine of Night," premiering as part of SXSW Online on March 18.

One thing I noticed in the film that I really appreciated was how the most heroic characters of the different segments were women. It felt like a really cool thing that you don't always see in fantasy-driven works. Was that a conscious choice, to have female perspectives up front narratively?

King: From from the inception ... when I was working on characters and sketching out what I wanted to do. One of the sort of conservative shortcomings I think of when I think of fantasy as a genre ... there (are) a lot of women in "Princess Leia in Jabba's palace" kind of armor. You know, I love Frazetta, but that sort of imagery of fantasy women feels retrograde (in) a sense. I consciously wanted to not do that.

I think we wanted to try to retain the sort of the elemental nudity of the human form throughout the film in a way that wasn't constantly objectified. ... I ran everything past my wife to make sure, like a stamp of approval. And trying to tell these stories from a more female perspective just seemed like such a creatively fertile way to engage with this kind of story, and I hope that comes across.

More SXSW Film

Find our story about Guy Clark documentary "Without Getting Killed or Caught," which premieres on March 18 as part of SXSW Online, in Friday's Austin360.