Carefully timed swings of the blade...

Pre-production starts. Costumes are being constructed. Weapons are being forged in that particular rotoscope way. Actors are being cast. Storyboards are being drawn. Things are moving and becoming real.

But the script is still there.

And it ends up reading and re-read constantly throughout pre-production. It gets assessed  in new lights, from just about every angle possible. Because of this constant reappraisal, ideas for further script changes begin to occur

This is a process every film goes through. If a script is structurally solid, these ideas aren’t huge ones. No one says “Hey! We should probably completely change the middle act of the film.”

Mostly these ideas are small. Some of them absurdly small. Little dialogue tweaks. Further details of action that can help clarify intention. Small moments that you hope might end up being the most special moments in the thing.

The polishes on Spine of Night were largely of this nature. Things so small that perhaps the audience won’t catch them, but if they do they’ll be rewarded with further insight into the world being presented.

An example: Late in our film a religion is presented to the audience as motivation for an entire nation’s action. The idea occurred in pre-production that that religion's underpinnings should be setup much earlier in the film and they should be introduced as a kind of myth that would only later acquire the force of religion. 

So we found the space inside an existing conversation for a brief mention of it. Just a small kernel, that, one hopes, a careful viewer will notice.  

Another of our polishes involved whittling back a scene. 

How long can a necromancer, blood drunk and raging, stand on a cathedral tower cursing the world? I’d like think “forever” but the answer is actually more like “for about five lines of dialogue otherwise it starts to feel ridiculous.”

Sometimes polishes involve a bit of fear and handwringing. The biggest polish decision involved re-writing the very first dialogue exchange in the film so that it more directly referenced events at the very end of the film. Things in the world of The Spine of Night are often cyclical. 

This was the most delicate polish as it involved subtly exploring the central magical element in the story. We’ll talk more about magic in the film later, but suffice it to say we wanted to treat it in a certain way.

This polish also occurred the night before shooting. Not a lot of time to make sure it was just right and not bringing unwanted implications with it.

... there was also the little matter of the lead character who was killed in earlier drafts but, because of how the casting process worked out, ended up living in the film. 

Mostly pretty small stuff but in the best films small stuff matters as much as the big stuff. 

And then, of course, the polishing continues as you’re shooting, as you’re cutting, and, for this film, as you’re animating.

The polishing never ends, basically, until a film is out. And even then, some people keep polishing, for better or worse (… looking at you, Lucas).

Next week! This film’s an anthology film. What’s the deal with that?


The tome is written...

Going from an outline to a script is an arduous process.  It involves taking story beats out of the general (“An awesome scene goes here!”) and into the specific (“What the hell does 'awesome' mean here?!”)

It also means dragging characters who were merely archetypes in the outline out of the ether and down to earth. Each one has to speak with a distinctive, specific voice. Each one has to act with emotional logic. Each one has to feel alive and true. 

The best films hum with a kind of precious narrative life. A solid script is a first exhalation of that breath.

Scripting’s a bit like constructing a golem. You understand the form of what you're after, but getting the construction right is a delicate and mysterious process. Patch it together wrong, best case scenario nobody can stand to look at it without getting sick, worst cast scenario it comes to life, tries to rip you apart and you end up haunted by it till the end of your days. 

Many times in developing a script, a screenwriter is performing this delicate act of alchemy alone. For The Spine of Night, Morgan and I worked together.

Some writing teams will sit in the same room and throttle a story together till it's beautifully dead and done.

For us, the process involved smacking drafts of the script back and forth till it was thoroughly beaten and bloodied and no longer able to get up and try to escape.

Yes, writing is, in my view, a violent process.

All total, the script underwent four full drafts. That's a very small number as far as screenwriting goes. We owe a lot of that to the strength of the underlying structure of the thing. More on that some other time. 

The draft progression went roughly like this:

Draft One: A skeleton, roughy lashed together.

Dialogue raw. Action raw. Everything raw. Mega-structure is working, but sequence by sequence structure isn't quite there. Characters are sketches, mostly only functional. The world's missing flavor. 

The bones are there, there's some muscle there but we're missing much sinew. 

Draft two: Bulking it up with flesh and organs.

New connective scenes are added, these involves both character moments and plot clarifications. The world is given room to breath. We start to see into the shadows of this place as well as into the everyday of it.

Characters are talking to each other more. Action is bolstered and explored. The skeleton suddenly has a lot of meat on its bones and the organs are all feeling connected.

BUT some parts are feeling just wrong. Everything has gotten a little bloated. There are errors in the way segments are panning out. Some action beats are unclear. Some characters' backstories are ungainly, there dialogue overgrown. The innards and organs are unnecessarily tangled


Draft three: Blades are sharpened and taken to the body of the thing.

Narrative tumors are removed before they can grow; non-essential organs are removed and tossed to the cold ground to be swept away or kept for later reconsideration. A harsh eye is taken to most everything going into this cadaver. 

Then it’s sewn back up with only the best parts still inside. 

At this point, it is very much what we are going to try to shoot. Everything is in the right place. Veins are pumping with blood. It might even be able to walk.

Everyone stands back to admire it.  There’s a moment where it feels like this might be the draft.

But a few days later, questions begin to gnaw at the edges of everyone’s mind. Are we sure? What if it's not quite there yet?

...Could it be better?

Draft four: Skin and details.

We do a read-through of the script. Small things stand out that could be better. Opportunities for improvement are noted and discussed at some length.

This is draft looks hard at every line of dialogue, at every setup and payoff. It's the skin around the thing. The pretty package.  

This is the draft that we walk with into pre-production. Everything in this draft is something that ends up being shot. The golem lives. It doesn't kill anyone. And most people can stand to look hard at it without feeling nauseous. 

But the process wasn’t yet done. Oh no. Because with screenplays and golems, alike, there is always time and room for tinkering. 

Next time! The pains & pleasure of the script polish. 

In this scrawl, a guide forward...

The Spine of Night’s script runs 95 pages. It’s divided into 6 chapters and features roughly 17 speaking roles. Included in its run time are riots, armies,  lovers in peril, assassins, airships, sorcery, cosmic forces and many other surprises. 

So, how does one go about developing a script with that massive a scope? 

For us, it started with Morgan’s outline – The Xord Megascript

This first outline used various ideas, story kernels and images that had been floating around in his mind for some time. Characters sketched and designed years previous were included, locales and ideas from Exordium were brought into play.

He then bolted those together into a rough sketch of what the 6 chapters of this film would be.  A philosophy of the film, in fledgling state, began to emerge. The stream of its narrative began to flow.

From that outline, we started building the thing into a producible screenplay.  An arduous process on any project, more so by the nature of this one. 

More on that process next time!

For now, here are some sample lines from the Xord Megascript outline:

- ... they discuss the limits of death when filtered through the dreams of gods...

- The decapitated head of the god falls through the cosmos...

- … amply psychedelic, but also a terrifying journey from death…

- Beneath the massive library/cathedral is a hidden dungeon that holds him - haggard and aged, nude and mad...

Nude. Mad. 

How-to Rotoscope the Gorgonaut way...

The Spine of Night is a rotoscope animated feature. This means that before animation began, a live action version of the film had to be shot. That footage then is animated over to create the final effect. 

This is an old animation process, and we'll delve further into it on the blog later. 

Does this mean that a full, live-action cut of The Spine of Night exists? Yep. That's exactly what it means. We'll be sharing some video from that on the blog in the coming months.

But for now... here's a behind-the-scenes video showing how the process works for our animators.  

This workflow & process was developed by Gorgonaut lead animator Morgan Galen King.

Featured in the video is actor Jordan Smith portraying a character named Ghal-Sur. More about both of them on the blog soon. 

Music is by the astounding Ice Dragon