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If you’re a diehard fan of rotoscope animation like Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, Gerald Potterton’s Heavy Metal, and Bakshi and Frank Frazetta’s Fire and Ice, then Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s The Spine of Night is the throwback film for you.
Done in painstaking rotoscope animation — a mostly bygone technique that involves filming first in live-action and then animating over that footage, frame by tedious frame — The Spine of Night’s eon-spanning story was a labor of love for the filmmakers; it took them nearly seven years to complete. Early on, the uber-violent fantasy epic was shot with mostly unknown actors, who had little to no stunt training. Only later during the process did it attract Hollywood talents like Lucy Lawless (Xena: Warrior Princess), Richard E. Grant (Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker), Patton Oswalt (Marvel's M.O.D.O.K.), Betty Gabriel (Get Out), and Joe Manganiello (True Blood).
As Lawless tells SYFY WIRE, adding in voiceover to previously delivered lines was a unique challenge, but one that adds to the “uncanny” feel of this unique film, where she plays Tzod, a “graceless shamaness,” who “comes to fight for environmental justice.” Which is “a little bit like me really,” says Lawless. “She’s a wonderful, elemental medicine woman who finds herself in the fight of her life.”
The hard fantasy, dark-versus-light fight in the movie is both a quirky and violent one, as it takes a trip across all sorts of fantastical ages. But as Lawless says, it may be “just weird enough to catch on.”
In our interview, Lawless reveals why she believed in the film enough to go against her representation’s advice, and why you may want to take a puff or two before enjoying The Spine of Night.
How would you describe this film?
It’s a little bit Back to the Future... a strange, dark little jewel of a movie that started out as a labor of love. I think it’s a Gen Z treasure, because they’re discovering this really old mode of storytelling, with this very simple kind of cartooning which reminds me of my childhood, but it’s got modern themes in it, and it’s just weird enough to catch on.
Your character, for lack of a better word, serves as a bit of a spine for the other anthological segments of the film, yeah?
Yes, it’s definitely her journey — well, the Earth’s journey — on her back. It’s the story of environmental justice, and it sort of all relies on her journey.
How did the rotoscoped style affect your part of the process in bringing this film to life?
Oh my god, it’s so mad. But that was part of the reason that I wanted to do it. It was so weird that I was like, “I’ve got to help these people get this made.” And I could see it was a labor of love. [Philip Gelatt] got what actors he could find from local amateur actors, and they built it around their idea of what a stunt fight would look like... a slightly declamatory style. So what seems like a deficit may turn out to be the magic secret sauce that makes it go, that makes it kind of cult-worthy. Because it’s peculiar as all get out, man. If you did the stunting, as per any stunt fight I’ve ever been in in my life, it would be so usual, it would be so pedestrian. But because of the way they did it, using amateur actors and people who I’m gathering never did a stunt in their lives before, it just has this really uncanny feel. And it makes it more violent than traditional stunt work.
And as for the acting, it’s quite challenging for us as actors, to change the way you spin the line to fit somebody else’s mouth movements. So again, it adds to this slight uncanny experience as the audience. So I always admonish people to go light up a big doobie and go enjoy it.
How is this process different from usual vocal work?
Our voices had to match somebody else’s mouth movements, somebody else’s interpretation of the line. Which has never happened. So I did [the] Minions [sequel], which comes out in I think July of next year, and they are building the mouth around you. Like, they’re filming you and making sure the mouth of the character matches yours. But not with Spine of Night, they didn’t have the time, or the money. They had to do it in a very organic style, as it went into production, which was years in the making. So those characters, those young actors, would have gone from being like 16 to 23 or something, and then we Hollywood actors come in and re-voice them. So the trick is to make that organic, and try to take the audience on a journey, when you’re being asked to do something quite unnatural.
How does this compare to the Xena brand of fantasy?
Thematically, Xena was always fighting for the greater good. She and Gabrielle were always about the greater good, the greater good. Whereas for Tzod, that character, I don’t think she thinks of all that, she just thinks in terms of health and survival, of the well being of the Earth… not even about her [own] survival. She does the right thing, but I don’t think she bothers having insight about it, she just lives to serve the Earth.
And she doesn’t get cold apparently, as she doesn’t seem to own any pants.
She doesn’t get cold! She eats a lot of carbs. [Laughs.]
My reps were really quite resistant and didn’t want me to be seen that way. I said, “What are you talking about, she’s great! I’m doing it.”
Why didn’t they want you to be seen this way?
They had some weirdo deal that you can’t play a cartoon character, that somehow that’s gonna rub off badly on you, and I’m like, “I don’t care.”
What were they worried about precisely?
That I’d be playing a heavyset, naked lady swinging her boobs around in the snow. But I wanted to be a part of it, and so I did it.
The Spine of Night opens in theaters and on demand on Oct. 29.