Roger Allers chuckled when I suggested that The Prophet is a philosophical Fantasia. It’s what he had in mind: an exquisite tapestry of different looks and moods based on the acclaimed book by the Lebanese poet, featuring segments from Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea), Joan Gratz (Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase), Bill Plympton (Cheatin’), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat), Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (“Firebird Suite” in Fantasia 2000), Michal Socha (Chick), and Mohammed Harib (Freej). The Prophet premieres June 15th at Annecy (ahead of its Aug. 7 release in LA and NY from Gkids), and I got the lowdown from Allers (The Lion King), who oversaw the project with producer Salma Hayek-Pinault, and wrote and directed the framing story revolving around a mischievous young girl (Quvenzhané Wallis), her mother (Hayek-Pinault), and a political prisoner (Liam Neeson) acting as a stand-in for Gibran and a lead-in to the animated poems.
Bill Desowitz: Did you jump at this immediately?
Roger Allers: Yes, we all knew that it was a wee bit risky and I didn’t have a clue how to adapt his book. It’s so slim in terms of story. I just knew I wanted to do it.
BD: It’s perfect for animation with such visual opportunity.
RA: That was the whole hope that since they have a visual component that it would lead young minds through the poems in a very easy way. And it’s exciting to have all these people take a crack at it with their own unique viewpoint.
BD: Who was already attached when you came on board?
RA: When I joined on, I knew they had attached Tomm Moore and that was a thrill for me because I was such a fan of Secret of Kells. And they approached Bill Plympton and Joan Gratz. And then I came in and had some requests too. I was very happy to bring on Michal Socha and the Brizzi brothers. And what’s really crazy is that I have worked around them all these years [at Disney and Sony]. But they happened to be in town when we developing and they said they could give us three months because now they live in Paris. So I got them started and they decided to continue with me when they went back to Paris. We were sending stuff back and forth.
It’s really funny: they would video themselves pitching their storyboards and send them to me online. Those are worth their weight in gold. They almost storyboarded the whole framing story (there was some by Will Finn) and a lot of advanced design work. And then after they finished the storyboarding I asked if they’d do a poem (“On Death”) and they were actually keeping themselves from asking me.
BD: So how did this work?
RA: It all happened at the same time and most of this was directed over skype. And the animation studio that did the framing story was up in Vancouver. And it was still a mystery way into production how these things were going to turn out and how I was going to blend it.
BD: Let’s begin with the framing story.
RA: Well, there’s drama behind this story. We started off doing it 2D, hand-animated, because they asked me what I would like to do and I thought I would love to do that again. So we started off doing that with a company based in Canada but got into trouble. We got behind schedule and over budget and knew we couldn’t finish the movie within the parameters that we were contracted to do. So we shifted gears to do it CG to get it done on time and on budget. So that was a hard transition because we did not change the style. we were still going to use all the same backgrounds that had been created. So we achieved a different technique to achieve the same look and that was tricky trying to build CG models that could look like the graphic ones. But this toon shading is something I had not been familiar with before so that was also another leap of faith in how it was going to look. I approve the animation in the 3D model form and then it would go through this toon shading process where it would get flattened out and the program would delinate the edges with line work.
BD: So let’s jump into the poems. Tell us about Moore’s “On Love.”
RA: I love Tomm’s style and he was overlapping with Song of the Sea. And so far people have really responded to those [Gustav] Klimt images. It’s a stylized design but also in movement: pieces are moving and turning. It’s really quite beautiful. I find it kind of dreamy. I think he stayed very true to his own style while at the same time sampling from other styles like Klimt and elements of Islamic design like tiles.
BD: Michal Socha’s “On Freedom.”
RA: He works in CG but his technique creates this look that’s like pastel drawings. And I love his shapes — they’re so dynamic. The interesting thing about Michal’s poem is he had so visualized it right from the beginning that we actually knew what we were going to have at the end. And his little sketches were so eloquent that it really became what he proposed. I love his accidental textures — or at least they appear accidental, this flaking and spattering. I think that one is such a work of poetry.
BD: Joan Gratz’s “On Work.”
RA: Of course, she has her very dynamic technique where she works in clay and it looks like moving paintings. Incredibly labor-intensive, for one. But hers is, I think, the longest piece.
BD: Nina Paley’s “On Children.”
RA: She incorporated some of those Islamic designs as well. And then she turned them into animated cycles like Islamic tiles morphing into different Islamic tiles. And she has her very identifiable puppet-like animation. Very stylized and those always a slightly wry sense of humor at work underneath.
BD: Which brings us to Bill Plympton’s “On Eating & Drinking.”
RA: His humor is so overt and so bawdy, and what was interesting — because he’s an unusual choice, I think, for a very devout poetic work — is that he produces something with his signature that also has a sense of the sacred in it. I know his first child was born while working on this and I know getting tapped into his own circle of life came out in his work.
BD: Joann Sfar’s “On Marriage.”
RA: It’s certainly a little different than The Rabbi’s Cat but related and the color palette is very moody. It expresses some very personal story either about his parents or his grandparents upon them meeting each other.
BD: Mohammed Harib’s “On Good & Evil.”
RA: I love the parts where the pigment trails off like the character of the bird: it flies off into the woods and leaves a dissolving trail, as though someone were painting it on wet paper. It’s really an interesting technique.
BD: And the Brizzi brothers’ “On Death.”
RA: All-hand rendered, every frame. Sort of like The Man Who Planted Trees. So labor-intensive but so beautiful. The texture and their imagery, so poetic. They’re so deep and this was a poem that really required it. I’m so excited for all of us to be together in the same movie. It reaches beyond the divides of nation and religion and brings people together.
BD: And what was it like working with Hayek?
RA: Well, Salma is a whirlwind. She has so many things going on all over the world and knows how to get things done. She was quite the force in getting things done on this movie. She drew so many people into this project: Yo Yo Ma and Gabriel Yared, who gave their music to this and I think the music is stunning. Many of the voice actors that she reached out to: Alfred Molina and Liam Neeson. And, of course, her own contribution as a lively voice, and she brought with it all of her depth of feeling as a mother to the role. She has a daughter who is about the same age as the girl who is our character. So the movie was very personal for her, especially because her grandfather is Lebanese, and she really brought her passion to it.
BD: And what does this mean to you?
RA: It’s a display of what artists can do in animation and use their imaginations in different ways. And I hope it gets people excited about that. Of course, we all love going to see an animated film with a good story and has a good look, but I hope it exposes people to a broader range of technique and style and vision. It’s a little like going to a gallery.