Spirit Untamed – An epic adventure from DreamWorks Animation

Spirit Untamed is the next chapter in DreamWorks Animation’s beloved franchise that began in 2002 with the Oscar-nominated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and includes an Emmy-winning TV series.

An epic adventure about a headstrong girl longing for a place to belong who discovers a kindred spirit when her life intersects with a wild horse, Spirit Untamed is the next chapter in the beloved story.

Wild buckskin mustang stallion Spirit was introduced to audiences in 2002, they were captivated by the film’s stunning visuals and its powerful narrative. DreamWorks knew that there would be more to explore with Spirit’s story, and in 2017, audiences were reintroduced to Spirit in Netflix’s TV series Spirit Riding Free. President of DreamWorks Animation Margie Cohn thought it was the perfect opportunity to reach young female audiences.

Margie Cohn

“This audience was starved for stories of friendship and bravery where girls could be smart, and where they could do the right thing and that’s how they triumphed. It was also abundantly clear that girls and horses have this eternal relationship where a horse isn’t just a pet, but a best friend. The story of Lucky and Spirit is an inspiring one that shows that with your best friend by your side, you can be unstoppable.”

The TV show debuted to critical and commercial acclaim, winning a Daytime Emmy Award in 2019 and garnering a large and growing fanbase. Audiences loved the story of Lucky and Spirit and the friendships that Lucky formed with her two best friends, Pru and Abigail. So, the idea to continue the franchise with a new original feature film presented the studio with the perfect opportunity to explore those relationships more thoroughly, while adding layers of fun, thrills and emotional depth. Spirit Untamed was born.

“There were several ideas about what the movie could be, but I was always interested in the film being centred on the origination story of Lucky and Spirit,” says producer Karen Foster. “I also thought it was important to incorporate a father-daughter conflict right off the bat because it would create more of an emotional arc for, not only the characters but the story in its entirety.”

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Aury Wallington

When it came to the script, Aury Wallington, the creator of Netflix’s Spirit Riding Free, was a natural choice. “Aury wrote the film’s first draft, which served as a great foundation for the film,” Foster says. “As the story artists were developing the various scenes, Kristin Hahn came on board to help us deepen the emotional story and strengthen the structure of the film, while Aury continued to ensure that the script and the dialogue stayed within the universe of the Spirit franchise.”

Wallington tapped into her deep knowledge of the Spirit world to draft a great adventure tale. She felt a strong connection to the Spirit characters and was excited to help continue their stories. “I’m thrilled to have had a part in bringing the magic of Spirit back to the big screen, where its message of friendship and empowerment can reach a new generation,” Wallington says.

Aury Wallington (Screenplay by) is the creator, showrunner and executive producer of Spirit Riding Free, which ran for 52 episodes on Netflix. Her other writing credits include Gravity Falls, Heroes, Veronica Mars, Sex and the City, and the Nickelodeon movie Jinxed. She is currently developing shows for Disney+ and HBO Max.

After graduating from USC Film School, Kristin Hahn (Screenplay by) co-directed, wrote and produced the documentary feature, Anthem. Hahn also co-wrote the companion book, Anthem: An American Road Story, and In Search of Grace–is an exploration of religious/spiritual practices in America as a layperson’s guide to comparative religion. Following the publication of Grace, Hahn formed Plan B Entertainment with Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, where she originated and supervised a large slate of pictures, including A Mighty Heart (dir. Michael Winterbottom), The Time Traveler’s Wife (dir. Robert Schwentke) for which Hahn served as co-producer, and the Academy Award-winning The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese), for which Hahn served as executive producer.  Most recently, Hahn adapted the Jerry Spinelli novel, Stargirl for Disney+, which she also produced under her Hahnscape Entertainment banner alongside Gotham Entertainment. Hahn also adapted the New York Times best-selling novel, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, which she also produced and which stars Danielle MacDonald and Aniston.

Kristin Hahn

“This is a story that comes from an existing cast of characters and a preexisting world and tone,” director Elaine Bogan says. “The biggest monsters were already tackled. We already knew what the tone was; we knew the characters and their personalities. Our biggest job was taking them from one end of a character arc to another. Something that I was excited to explore thematically was the idea of embracing change as an opportunity to grow and become a stronger person.”

“When I first signed on to the project, I was nervous that because I knew so much about horses—their personalities, their demeanour and facial expressions—my knowledge would dampen the creativity of the crew when we got to animation,” Bogan says. “I was conscious not to think with the mindset of, ‘Oh, a horse would never do that.’ I didn’t want that voice to take over what was meant to be an entertaining, fun, inventive and creative project. So, aside from being wildly creative, Ennio brought his outside-the-box approach and his wonderful personal perspectives to the film. He was the non-horse voice to bring that creativity and invention into the horse world, which helped me to not get locked into that voice in my head.”

Elaine Bogan

After receiving her bachelors in classical animation at Sheridan College, Elaine Bogan (Director) found her home in story, which has translated into a challenging and successful career. Bogan has been a story artist with DreamWorks Animation since 2005 on a wide range of feature films and television series, and began directing for the studio in 2011. Bogan became DreamWorks Television’s first female director while working on the series Dragons: Riders of Berk. Her debut episode was nominated for a 2014 Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Directing in an Animated Television/Broadcast Production. She went on to direct episodes of the Emmy-nominated Trollhunters and 3Below, both part of Guillermo del Toro’s Tales of Arcadia trilogy. 

Co-director Ennio Torresan, Jr. and Bogan have similar storytelling sensibilities, they also come from different artistic backgrounds and would be able to bring their unique strengths to the table.

Torresan, Jr., as it turns out, was looking for his next project and had a strong connection to the franchise. “I was looking for a project that I could be involved in from the beginning—developing the characters, the world they live in, what they want and why we care about them,” Torresan, Jr. says.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Ennio Torresan, Jr. (Co-Director) has won many international awards, including a win at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, for his short film El Macho, which was produced in 1993. Torresan has more than 25 years of experience in animation as a director and as a storyboard artist in many studio productions in Hollywood. Before working at DreamWorks Animation, he worked for HBO Animation from 1996 to 1998 as a director and storyboard artist and designer. He then joined the SpongeBob SquarePants crew as a storyboard director and writer for the first season of the show. He also worked for Disney from 1999 to 2001 on the series Teacher’s Pet, which garnered a Daytime Emmy win. In 2003, Torresan started working for DreamWorks Animation as a story artist for many major animated feature films, including the beloved MadagascarMadagascar Escape 2 AfricaMadagascar 3: Europe’s Most WantedMegamindKung Fu PandaKung Fu Panda 2 and Bee Movie. While at DreamWorks, Torresan headed the story department for the film Turbo, also released in 2013 and afterward, he continued to act as head of story in the animated feature film The Boss Baby, released in March 2017.  Torresan was also the head of story of Everest, an animated feature film released in 2019. He received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 1986 before moving to the United States.

Ennio Torresan, Jr.

The production process of the film was thrown for a loop during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the crew was able to stay positive while working away from the office. “There were no egos to get in the way of creating something beautiful together, and I think that’s a producer’s dream,” Foster says. “But in terms of working from home, we all just figured it out along the way as we went. At one point, Ennio’s internet went down, so he Facetimed me and I held up the phone to my computer as we watched animation dailies and he gave notes. We made it work and we were scrappy, in the best way possible.”

Spirit Riding Free' Comes to Netflix May 5th - AFA: Animation For Adults |  Animation News, Reviews, Articles, Podcasts and More

A Crash Course on Horses: Unique Anatomies and Personalities

It can be difficult to explain to a person who doesn’t work with horses why the connection between humans and horses is so unique, so it was important to Bogan that the film portrayed the horses and the interactions between Spirit and Lucky accurately.

“Horses are such strong and powerful animals, but there can be such a fragility to them,” Bogan says. “They’re defenceless, especially in the environments that they’re living in now. They rely on us to protect them. While I’ve never had an experience with a horse in the wild, I can relate to Lucky’s protectiveness over Spirit.”

Horses are known for being one of the most difficult animals to draw and animate, so Bogan and Torresan, Jr. took their crew on a “field trip” to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

“Before we even got to animation, we wanted the story crew to be exposed to seeing horses’ demeanours, body language and how they move around in real life,” Bogan says. “And you can only truly experience that by seeing it up close. We met with horse trainers who know a lot about the movements, mechanics and body language, but we also had anatomy lectures with Dr Stuart Sumida, a biology professor at California State Univesity, San Bernardino. Dr Sumida knows every animal on the planet, down to the bone, and he gave a lecture series where people could drop in and listen to him talk about the anatomy and history of horse mechanics. It not only helped the animation team, but he also got into behavioural details, which helped the story artists in creating these horses as individual characters.”

Following these lessons, it became more seamless for the crew to create unique characteristics for the horses, and they even designed one of the horses in Spirit’s herd to be based on Bogan’s real-life horse, Ziggy Stardust.

At first, Bogan was wary about allowing her work life to cross over into her personal time with horses. “I was scared worlds would collide,” Bogan says. “My time spent with the quiet nature of horses is one of the only things keeping me sane in the chaos of Los Angeles.”

“Our story’s very theme is ‘Being Fearless.’ Because I was so deeply passionate about connecting with these animals, I pursued it with nothing but my voice, determination, patience, a goal, and—although sometimes it was fake—my confidence. Turns out, those are the exact things that came in handy starting out as a female director in a room full of horses that are seemingly much bigger, louder and stronger. Learning to communicate, bond with, and steer a beast you’ve never experienced before can be terrifying, but with dedication, the journey and reward are nothing but incredible. Merging those two worlds that I was so wary of colliding turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.”

 “Fearless” The Theme’s Meaningful Message

One of the creative ideas that Bogan wanted to incorporate into the film was for the characters to have different iterations of a theme song within the score, and Amie Doherty latched onto the idea. What started as a casual meeting between director and composer quickly turned into what would be the film’s theme song: “Fearless.”

Amie Doherty

“I came onto this project quite early, and ‘Fearless’ was the first thing I worked on,” Doherty says. “Elaine and the filmmakers and I had a long conversation where they told me all their thoughts about what the song should be and described it as a lullaby that Milagro sings to Lucky as a baby. So, I went straight to my piano after we spoke, feeling super inspired by their love for these characters, and within about an hour I had written ‘Fearless,’ and brought it back to the filmmakers, who loved it. Originally, I had intended to just write the melody, and that a lyricist would later come on board, so I just wrote, what I thought at the time were, placeholder lyrics. But everyone loved them and that’s the song you hear in the movie now. The first song I ever wrote! It’s written like a poem with empowering messages about strength, courage, following your heart and being adventurous. I purposefully stayed away from anything superficial with the lyrics because the song was always meant to be purely about a mother passing along her strength to her daughter. I loved how the filmmakers portrayed the female characters as independent, brave and, well, fearless, and I wanted the song to reflect that message.”

Bogan adds: “We wanted ‘Fearless’ to represent the path in which Lucky comes to find herself. After our initial meeting with Amie, we told her not to worry about the lyrics, for now, she could just start with developing the sounds. But then she brought us this demo that just blew us away. The music and lyrics were both beautiful, and the way that ‘Fearless’ is in the final film is the exact way that Amie presented it to us in her first pass.”