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.
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.
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.”