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Immersed in Movies: 4 Directors Get Animated About ‘The Prophet’

Immersed in Movies: 4 Directors Get Animated About 'The Prophet'

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 FantasiaTomm 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.”

For Paley, her piece was intended to be more abstractly about the art, but the producers requested that she tie it in more directly to the theme of children. The other challenge was that she was suffering from burnout. “So it took a long time to complete because what I really wanted to do was work on my quilting,” she confessed. “Another thing was that my usual working style doesn’t fit the type of elaborate production that this was. I’m used to working by myself so I didn’t know what it was actually going to be until I did it. What was amazing was I did it… I worked with as much art from the [region] as I could… and was happy with the results. One thing about the region that I liked is that it has very flat graphic variants of solid color (reds and blues) with lots of animals and abstract images.”

Meanwhile, Plympton was recruited by producer Ron Senkowski about five years ago, even before the involvement of Hayek and Allers. “I took quotes from the chapter and literally animated those quotes so we could pull those lines out and Liam Neeson could read them [in the wrap-around] and they would match the artwork more directly. 
“I did it pretty quickly in a month or so and there were very few changes in my pencil test so I went right into colored pencil. And I thought it was very appropriate, almost like an Impressionistic painting. I love the surrealism in it. One of the fun things for me was to take, for example, the scene where the farmer is plowing his field behind the horse. And the camera zooms on to his forehead and you see sweat pouring down, and the sweat turns into little streams that becomes a waterfall turning the mill. Also, I liked his philosophy. It was very inspirational. But for me, it’s stream of consciousness storytelling that I like to do.
“One funny thing: I was in Cannes and talking to Roger about how was reinterpreting the book and so maybe a thousand years from now, he will be the Apostle Roger. And when I first met with Ron, I asked where the money’s coming from and he wouldn’t say where but hinted that a lot of Middle East people were excited about it, and said something I’ve never heard before and will probably never hear again: ‘I think we have too much money.'”

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