The acclaimed Gkids release, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, produced by Salma Hayek and overseen by Roger Allers, offers a who’s who of animation directors for what I call a philosophical Fantasia: 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)
I spoke with Gratz (“On Work”), Moore (“On Love”), Paley (“On Children”), and Plympton (“Eating & Drinking”) about incorporating their iconic styles into a larger fabric based on Gilbran’s poetry. It wasn’t easy for these very independent artists but it was fulfilling. The result, as Allers suggests, is like viewing an animated art gallery: Gratz, the Oscar-winning clay painter, intertwines hands, bodies, and the cosmos, the twice Oscar-nominated Moore brings Gustav Klimt paintings to life; Paley morphs tiles in a beautiful kaleidoscope; and Plympton adds a sense of the surreal and the sacred to his inspired work.
“I chose ‘Work’ because it was the closest to the life of an animator, and in my research of Kahlil Gibran, I discovered that he was a fine artist before he was a writer,” Gratz explained. “So whenever possible, I tried to incorporate his images and some of his figures of women. That probably stems in part from my doing Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, which turned me on to portraits of other people’s work. I work directly in front of the camera with regular kids’ modeling clay and then I thin it out and finger paint with a tool when I need a hard edge. It’s a continunous forward process. In a lot of ways, we were ahead of Roger in terms of the animation and he made his animation work with ours too. Sometimes when I couldn’t come up with something appropriate, I went off into abstraction, which is always a nice fall back.”
For Moore, it especially difficult since he was in the midst of making Song of the Sea and because he rejected his initial concepts (Gaelic and Islamic calligraphy) to try something completely different. “We mixed up North African mosaics with Gustav Klimt and added in a little of our own style,” Moore said. “The first pass at the storyboards was a bit too much like a Hallmark greeting card version of love. As Roger said, we left out all the pain and anguish, which is in the poetry.
“We had to dig a bit deeper into our experiences more and came up with a very simple narrative of the two characters that you see in the [poem]. And after the animatic was done, it flipped into the production model of Song of the Sea. We initially thought we’d hand-draw a few of the elements (flowers opening, fish in a stream), but it was too much work. So we used the same [toon-shaded approach] for Song of the Sea for some of the underwater fish. We put bones into the rigs and animated them very simply. That way we were able to pull off that big ending where there’s not much distinction between background and animation where the two human characters are hand-animated.”