Silence may surprise moviegoers

Thursday, May 23, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- The silence of the title character in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" may surprise moviegoers used to animated movies in which even the most realistic-looking beasts exchanged witty banter.

But makers of the film, which focuses on the life of a mustang in the Old West, are betting that audiences won't mind a non-speaking animal hero.

"The minute a horse talks, it's comedy," co-director Kelly Asbury said. "We decided this character needed more dignity than that. There are so many animated features with talking and singing animals, and people may expect that. But we wanted to try something a little different."

The DreamWorks SKG project contrasts with the legacy of talking cartoon animals in Disney films such as "Lady and the Tramp," "Oliver & Company," "The Lion King" and "Dinosaur."

"Spirit" has more in common with the live-action 1979 drama "The Black Stallion" and the 1988 French film "The Bear," both of which focused more on real animals than on their human co-stars.

Apart from occasional voice-over narration, "Spirit" communicates thoughts and emotion only in real horse noises.

The filmmakers believed that the whinnies and snorts made by human voice actors sounded too phony, so sound designer Tim Chau was dispatched to stables outside Los Angeles to gather real horse sounds that could be inserted as "dialogue."

He spent nearly a year and a half collecting a library of thousands of sniffs, grunts, groans, sighs, shakes, licks, brays and ululations that were used to express everything from melancholy to defiance to joy.

"It's like a language almost," Chau said. "There's nothing better than the character of the real horse sound. It's the weight and size of the animal, something that gives their vocals added depth."

He found that different animal sounds could change the tone of some scenes, such as when Spirit, captured by U.S. Cavalry soldiers, is tied to some posts as a blacksmith attempts to brand and horseshoe him.

"The filmmakers wanted to make sure it didn't seem cruel," Chau said. "They wanted to inject some humor into that moment."

So Chau tweaked a staccato horse grumble he had recorded and used it to suggest a kind of "horse chuckle" after Spirit repeatedly knocks the blacksmith around.

"That gave Spirit some cocky attitude," Chau said.

The hardest part was simply gathering the wide variety of sounds, he said.

"Any time you work with an animal, you don't know what you're going to get. It depends on the mood of the animal," Chau said. "It's not like going out and recording the sounds of a BMW, where you can get it starting and stopping and you know you'll get what you need."

To guide the animators, screenwriter John Fusco wrote a lot of narration in the screenplay, most of it never used in the film. "It would have broken the spell, and we were going for something much more realistic," Fusco said. "We didn't want to anthropomorphize the character."

Actor Matt Damon provides what little narration remained, and songs performed by Bryan Adams -- with titles such as "Get Off My Back" and "This is Where I Belong" -- also are meant to help communicate the horse's feelings.

Spirit and the other horses also have been given more obviously expressive faces and eyebrows than real horses have.

But the filmmakers didn't want Spirit to become to horses what Scooby-Doo was to dogs.

"We needed to have the horse emote, but set parameters that would keep it naturalistic," said co-director Lorna Cook. "We tried not to make him broad and cartoony."

"The most important thing was just making Spirit's motivation clear," added Asbury. "He can't talk, but you have to make sure there's no ambiguity or confusion about what he thinks or feels."

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