"Spirit" presentation art drawn by Jerry Rees. (via) "Spirit" presentation art drawn by Jerry Rees. (via)
Feature Film

Long-Lost Pencil Test Trailer for Brad Bird’s ‘The Spirit’ Revealed

"Spirit" presentation art drawn by Jerry Rees. (via)
“Spirit” presentation art drawn by Jerry Rees. (via)

Previously presumed lost to time, the black and white pencil test trailer for Brad Bird’s long-gestating but unrealized project The Spirit, dating back to the early 1980s, has emerged from suspended animation and found its way onto YouTube at last.

Animation publicist-turned-producer Steven Paul Leiva uploaded the video yesterday, encouraged by a journalist writing about the Spirit saga for Italian-language website Fumettologica and acknowledging it as “a small piece of animation history.”

Bird and his fellow ex-CalArts students had produced the test over five months. Leiva first saw it in 1980; you can see it now.

Leiva mentioned the pencil test in his 2008 piece about the ill-fated project for the L.A. Times. (The VHS was in deep storage until relatively recently.) In the piece, he recounted the attempts of Brad Bird, John Lasseter, John Musker, Jerry Rees, himself, and others to get Will Eisner’s comic book vigilante onto the screen in what he believed would have been a groundbreaking animated feature film and “possibly the first $100 million-grossing animated feature.”

The pencil test mock trailer was brilliant. Not only in its form and execution — it quickly told the origin of The Spirit and displayed clearly the tone of the proposed film — but it was the finest human character animation I had ever seen. Like Eisner, it was fluid and full of personality, each bit of movement communicating exactly what needed to be said about the characters and the situations they were in. It was not stiff and unreal like Saturday morning limited human character animation, nor weirdly “real” like rotoscoped human animation. It was exaggerated, pushed, caricatured movement that seemed perfectly real, or, better said, perfectly true. It was the best example I could imagine of a point I had been making to anyone who would listen, that good character animation was not a graphic art, but a performance art. It was great acting expressing a range of emotions.

A piece of concept art for the "Spirit" project drawn by Jerry Rees. (via)
A piece of concept art for the “Spirit” project drawn by Jerry Rees. (via)

In an interview in 2005, three years before Frank Miller’s stylized live-action The Spirit flopped at the box office, Bird described his enthusiasm for the source material.

It was cinematic. I loved the angles, the use of shadow, and the fact that its characters were expressive; they didn’t have the rigid facial expressions normally associated with superhero comics. It was kind of cartoony, especially in the years 1946, ’47, ’48. Eisner also had all the draftsmanship chops. They were like short stories; often the Spirit only came in at the beginning or the end. I liked that; I felt like it was weird and unpredictable and interesting. So I got all the reprints of The Spirit I could lay my hands on.

Bird regretfully acknowledged that The Spirit’s time had probably passed, however, after the wake of CG.

I blew a lot of energy and time on it, and I kind of think in my mind it should always be a hand-drawn thing, and right now, Hollywood idiocy being what it is, that’s considered the kiss of death. I don’t think you could get any money for a big animated feature if you insisted on it being hand-drawn. For whatever reasons, people perceive CG as being the magic thing that will turn any bad idea good. Maybe five years from now they’ll realize that any medium is fine if the characters draw you in and the story is well told.

"Spirit" concept art by Jerry Rees. (via)
“Spirit” concept art by Jerry Rees. (via)

UPDATE: Andrea Fiamma, the Italian journalist who sparked the hunt for this trailer, shares this message from animator Jerry Rees about the trailer:

“The Spirit himself was voiced by one of our animator friends named Randy Cook. He recently did some major work on in-camera forced perspective illusions for the Lord of the Rings films. I had fun animating to his voice for the moment in the trailer when Sand and The Spirit meet at the door: ‘What do you want?,’ ‘I’m a private detective,’ ‘How private?,’ And the line, ‘To Denny Colt—may he… stay dead’ was performed by Brad.”

  • Bird should reconsider. I bet that by employing the same techniques of Disney’s Paper and Feat, an animated Spirit movie would be a winner.

    • Mesterius

      Correction: Hollywood executives should reconsider. If it was up to Brad, this film would have been made more than 30 years ago.

      Also, as nicely as the visual styles of Paperman and Feast* work for those short subjects, I wouldn’t want that technique for an animated “The Spirit” feature by Brad. This film cries out to be classic hand-drawn animation… and by the looks of this test, it would have been GREAT hand-drawn animation.

  • Andrew Chesworth

    Inspiring as hell.

  • Chicken McPhee

    Brad Bird. That man is totally on-par with Spielberg, even would say he’s working hard to surpass him. Can’t wait for Tomorrowland.

  • Santosh OOmmen

    Wow. the script is out there..but a trailer? Can’t wait to see that!

  • Thanks, Cartoon Brew, for letting people know about my posting of “The Spirit” trailer on YouTube. However, just to update you, I haven’t been a producer in film for almost 20 years now, spending my days instead writing. I’ve just published my fifth novel, and I’ve also have a book of essays out on my friend, the late Ray Bradbury. If anybody is interested, you can check them out on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/Steven-Paul-Leiva/e/B001JS27EO/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

  • AmidAmidi

    Wonderful insights, John—thank you for sharing! Those Fleischer-style 3D backgrounds combined with this type of animation would have been something else. Indeed, what might have been.

    • Jules

      The advent of laser cutting 2D animation drawings has recently brought the Fleischer ‘Stereoscopic’ look within much easier reach.

  • brownbox

    The time for handdrawn 2D may have passed.. But a paperman styled handdrawn/3D hybrid could be perfect for this. I’d buy a ticket : D.

  • greg manwaring

    I’ve got my ray gunn scene for the trailer here at home, and have thought about finishing it off. IF we all did that (Darlie?) he could indeed have it completed.

    • Craig Clark

      I’m down for that Greg!

  • Doug

    Long live the pencil (oh and Brad Bird and this crew). This test/trailer made me smile and then sigh.

  • Neal

    Independent release! Fuck Holywood

  • Mesterius

    This is fantastic! Beautiful staging, animation and atmosphere. In the first shot of Denny Colt, I thought he looked just a bit off for some reason, but from the moment we see him with the mask (the mask that his creator originally detested putting on him), he feels like Will Eisner’s The Spirit through and through. And so do Dolan, Ebony and Sand Saref, and even the odd characters appearing only for a second or two. The whole pencil test feels like Eisner’s comic strip come to life. Seriously, this needs to get MADE – now more than ever, to make up for the unsalvageable trainwreck of a movie by Frank Miller. I don’t know to which extent Brad Bird would still be interested in pursuing this project – or how likely it is to happen anyway, seeing as this film really needs to be hand-drawn – but here’s hoping. Brad’s love for Eisner’s masterwork shines through in every frame of this trailer.

  • Seth

    Somebody should Kickstart this!

  • daniel

    Dear mr Musker,

    Do you also have some footage of the animations you made in this kind of setting? so Pre production and things like that? Can you maybe upload it with your commentary? That would be awesome to learn. For animation students and animators world wide.

  • Chicken McPhee

    You gotta factor in Spielberg’s decline, though.

    • Strong Enough

      decline? the man is one of the few directors past 60 who is still making good quality flicks. scorsese as well. Ridley scott on the other hand ….
      i mean even if you believe his last past movies haven’t been that good, Bird hasn’t impacted pop culture or changed the movies the way spielberg has done. I mean Jurassic park. come on!

      Bird is good…great even but spielberg is a movie god.

      • Chicken McPhee

        Yeah, I mean Jurassic Park is a monument, so is Jaws, so is CE3K etc etc. Bird: Incredibles, Ratatouille, Iron Giant and the best Mission Impossible film not to mention some of the best and most classic and time-enduring Simpsons seasons. Granted, it’s not quite JP, Jaws or ROTLA great, but in terms of filmmaking, Bird doesn’t have a misstep, though he does have fewer credits.
        As for Steven still pushing out great flicks, I’ve been dissuaded from seeing War Horse, Lincoln was as dull a film as they come, Crystal Skull was a real boner-killer…War of the Worlds was probably his best in the last decade. Terminal is one of the biggest, most offensive abortions to foreign cultures and beyond that all is gravy, Catch me if you Can, Minority Report, AI, lotsa movies that can stand on their own.
        But that streak at the start – Jaws, CE3K, ROTLA, ETC was never quite as good as that after.

  • Mesterius

    I’m sorry, why would the potential success of this film (had it been made) have prevented Bruce Timm from having a career? Please elaborate.