Brad Bird was in one of the earliest graduating classes of the animation program at California Institute of the Arts.
Like many CalArts graduates, he found work at the Walt Disney Studios animating on several films. However, his very vocal disenchantment with the direction of the animation department led to him being let go and he found work on many other projects – from Family Dog to The Simpsons before finally directing his first animated feature film The Iron Giant (1999).
However, things might have been different if he had gotten to direct his first animated feature film that he wrote that was based on Will Eisner’s famous The Spirit newspaper comic strip.
In a 2005 interview, Bird recalled, “The Spirit is the only comic-book crime fighter I would say I know well. I got interested in that because I was interested in movies. I read an interview somewhere with a film director that I liked [who] talked about The Spirit being ‘cinematic’. So I started to read it, and I thought, ‘Wow! 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.”
Iconic cartoonist and writer Eisner created the unusual blue-masked crime fighting vigilante of Central City in June 1940 for a Sunday comic supplement for newspapers. The character was the inspiration for the 2008 Frank Miller film but had previously appeared in a 1987 made-for-television movie starring Sam J. Jones (who had earlier portrayed Flash Gordon in a 1980 film).
The character appeared briefly in a 1948 television series produced by Alan R. Cartoun Associates for a local Chicago television station consisting of panels from the comic appearing on the screen with local voice actors reading the speech balloons. The 1987 picture disc Ev’ry Little Bug included some sound clips from this show.
In 1989 Edgewood Motion Picture and VideoProduction did a short film adaptation of The Spirit story 10 Minutes from 1949 and there was a 1994 Brazilian film entitled Geraldo Voador (Flying Gerhard) based on a 1948 story.
It was Bird’s plan to rescue animation by creating a new studio called Visions Animation + Filmworks and steal some of his former CalArts’ friends now working at Disney as the core. There were several secret meetings with some of these animators to get them excited about this plan. Some weren’t.
Bird thought big and was only interested in pitching the idea of The Spirit animated feature to George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz.
An excited Bird wrote to filmmaker Steven Spielberg on April 11, 1980:
“This is the rough reel I talked to you about. Myself and a few others spent about five months on it, in our spare time. It is very rough due to the cost of animation, therefore we had to make a few concessions.
“We all feel that animation is the pits right now and that nobody has done anything for the past twenty years in character animation that’s decent. We all work in the industry as ‘professionals’ but we have never worked on anything that we would consider ‘professional’.
“We have many projects which we are aching to do (a few which are shown here) and are waiting for the chance. As far as The Spirit is concerned, the author (Will Eisner) of the work stopped the sale of the property to television so he could see what we could come up with. We think it could make a great feature cartoon. Thanks for your time.”
Kurtz who at the time had produced the movie American Graffiti and the first two Star Wars movies was also a huge comic book fan and was interested. After seeing the trailer, he decided to option rights to The Spirit. Kurtz, Bird and Steven Paul Leiva who had come on board to help pitch the project had two meetings with Will Eisner in New York.
Eisner was intially intrigued but hesitant as he always assumed the character would be done in live action. However, he soon became convinced and agreed. Bird moved up to Kurtz’s offices at Kinetographics in Marin County to work on the screenplay. He was joined by Jerry Rees who had just finished his work on Tron (1982). Kurtz was working on other projects as well including an animated feature to be based on cartoonist Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip.
The biggest stumbling block was finding the financing. As Levia remembered, “Well, it was the 80s. The death of Disney animation was being predicted daily. Most non-Disney animated features in production tended to be pastel kiddie toy movies like The Care Bears Movie. And we had a sexy superhero noir film of action and adventure, thrills and humor, featuring beautifully illustrated humans and not one talking animal. Eventually, we lost the option to the film rights.”
However, the impressive sample reel set in 1940 still exists today and shows what might have been.
Leiva stated, “It quickly told the origin of The Spirit and displayed clearly the tone of the proposed film. 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.”
Jerry Rees remembered, “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 (Saref) and The Spirit meet at the door: ‘I’m a private detective,’ ‘How private?’ And the line, ‘To Denny Colt—may he… stay dead’ was performed by Brad.”
John Musker recalled: “The trailer contains animation by Brad Bird, Jerry Rees, and myself although there may have been a few others. I can’t really remember. I do know Jerry did the beautifully drawn scenes of the girl behind the door, the Spirit speaking to her, and the scene of him dangling from the El tracks.
“Brad did, among others, I believe, the Ebony scene, and the Spirit musing about his name and playing with a paper airplane (a very ‘Brad’ scene in using more naturalistic acting, but still drawn in a caricatured style.) I animated the two scenes of Commissioner Dolan and the brief Spirit scene between (redrawn in part by Jerry.)
“Glen Keane did cool model sheet poses of various characters. I also storyboarded two complete sequences. One involved the Spirit meeting up with the Bacall-esque femme fatale Sand Saref in a smoky nightclub. The other was a jewelry store heist engineered by Sand. The jewelry store owner was a caricature of Eric Larson, our mentor, and one of Disney’s Nine Old Men.
“The sequences had a lot of sharp cinematic staging input from Brad and Jerry, two staging maestros. The project was done on our own time and it was fun. Script by Brad. I had been a big fan of Eisner and The Spirit and also thought it would make a great hand drawn animated feature.
“Computer generated animated features didn’t exist in 1980. Brad wanted to build Fleischer-style dioramas to use as backgrounds combined with hand drawn animation so he could get swooping live action-type cinematography. Ahh…what might have been.”