Elaine Bogan was always an animator and a storyteller. Now, 16 years after joining DreamWorks Animation as a storyboard artist, she’s directing her first feature, Spirit Untamed, in theaters June 4. The animated film follows a headstrong young girl named Lucky Prescott, who moves to a sleepy frontier town, where she’s forced to build a new life. It’s also where she meets a wild mustang named Spirit who will change her path. The film stars Isabela Merced, Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, Eiza González and more.
From the moment Elaine read the script, the project seemed like kismet. “I remember the very first day I got a call to see if I’d be interested in the Spirit movie,” she says. “I was sitting in my car in the parking lot at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, just having finished riding my horse. And I was like, ‘Okay, well, I can’t just say no. The timing just seems weird.’”
As a woman, as a horseback rider, as a storyteller, Elaine felt she could relate to the script on a deep level and tell an authentic, believable story. “Right away, it had everything that I wanted as a director for my first role because I feel like, if you can connect to the material, you’ve done the hardest part,” she says. “Now it’s just the challenge of learning how to direct a movie.”
Elaine began riding horses when she was 9 years old and, aside from a brief interlude in her teenage years, has kept going since. When she moved to L.A., she discovered the Equestrian Center, where she now rides an 8-year-old horse named Ziggy Stardust. “I moved right into the middle of Los Feliz, the Hollywood area, and it was just chaos,” she says. “And I was undertaking this insanely big career that was just starting out. It was intimidating. I was terrified, but having the escape to go and hang out with horses forced me to come back down and remember being calm.”
Elaine remains in awe of the unspoken bond and mutual respect that can build between humans and these “intimidating, yet extremely emotional and caring” animals. “If you give them kindness, they give it back, which is one of my favorite things about them,” she says.” It felt impossible to verbalize the complexities of these animals to the Spirit Untamed crew, so Elaine decided to show them instead. “I took them to the Equestrian Center and had them walk around and interact with the horses. I feel like that was one of the crucial things in order for us to infuse a sense of reality and believability, even in the animation and in the design and a lot of the acting.” The team learned about anatomy and behavior from the experts, then went back and wove them into Lucky Prescott’s story.
At home at DreamWorks
By Elaine’s account, her artistic journey began at 4 or 5 years old, growing up with an artist father and a slapstick hilarious mother. Elaine would come up with stories and write them into handmade books, illustrating every page. Her mom would help sew the pages together. “I was always in this home that completely encouraged and supported creativity,” Elaine says. “I think, because of that, I was never set up with any sort of limitations based on how hard it might be to become an artist for a career.” With that, she attended animation school at Sheridan College in Canada and began working at DreamWorks as a story artist trainee in 2005. “It felt like that same supportive environment was just following me everywhere I went, because now I was at this place DreamWorks, immediately working under all of my heroes from animation,” she says. Despite working in a male-dominated field, Elaine found herself learning from producers like Karen Foster and Bonnie Arnold and working with director Lorna Cook, who co-helmed the original Oscar-nominated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
“Having this creative support behind me, I was set up with the perspective that I could do whatever I wanted to and grow as far as I wanted to grow.” —Elaine Bogan
Elaine has stayed at DreamWorks since. Still, she couldn’t have predicted the ways in which the work would evolve. “When I first started as a story artist, we were drawing with Sharpie markers on little story pads of paper and pinning them up on the wall to pitch our sequences,” she says. “But now, we draw it in Photoshop and we pitch on a screen in front of the room. The physical aspect of the job has completely changed.”
She couldn’t have predicted she’d be directing her own movie either. “I was always so wrapped up in learning the craft of storytelling,” she says. “Just the art of animation takes thousands of hours to learn and master, and I’m still not quite there yet. So I was always very much just nose to the paper, learn everything you can.” This slowly transitioned into a leadership role, where, after six years as a story artist, Elaine was offered the opportunity to direct for the company’s TV studio, DreamWorks Animation Television. “I jumped at it because I had been storyboarding for quite a while. As a story artist, particularly on a feature, you only really ever experience that one little department. You don’t get a chance often to pull back the curtain and see everything that goes on behind making an entire movie.”
Directing the DreamWorks Dragons (based on the How to Train Your Dragon film) and Trollhunters series changed that. “Not only was I seeing behind the curtain, but I had to be a leader in every single department all of a sudden,” she says. The fast pace and repetition that come with directing episodes for television gave Elaine a firm grasp on the technical aspects of leading an animation team. “Without any of that, I wouldn’t have been able to jump into a feature with any sort of confidence that we were going to make it out alive,” she says.
Still, there would be a learning curve. “When you’re working as a team of directors under the creators of the show, it’s much more about creating episodes with a continuity that feel the same as that leader’s voice. For instance, Guillermo del Toro was our leader for Trollhunters. We all had to gather together and help him create his vision.” That’s the biggest difference between television and a first feature, she explains. “Now, I have to be that strong voice and lead a team of people to create a continuity and a story that feels like it has a drive and one vision.”
Animating a movie from home
According to Elaine, Spirit Untamed is largely based on the Spirit Riding Free television series, rather than the original Spirit film. As such, the project meant diving deeper into emotional storylines and identifying cinematic arcs for the characters from the show’s pilot episode. It also meant developing a more immersive style worthy of the big screen. “Because we were coming from a really successful TV franchise, part of the challenge was staying within that same world, but developing a look and a style that felt cinematic enough with enough scope for a giant 50-foot theater screen.”
The team added more depth and color to the environmental designs—Elaine and production designer Paul Duncan were largely inspired by each other’s vacation photos from Europe and across U.S. national parks—and went into greater detail with each character. “The hair in this movie, with all these horses, was one of the craziest undertakings we ever had,” Elaine says. “There are 20 horses onscreen sometimes, with manes and tails flowing in the wind, and then all the girls and their very unique hairstyles. It took a lot of research and development and testing. Hopefully it doesn’t look as difficult as it was.”
And for the horses, Elaine wanted to remain faithful to the original James Baxter designs from the first movie. “The Spirit horse in our movie isn’t the same horse as the one in the first film,” Elaine says. “It’s thought of to be the next generation, or grandson, of Spirit. We wanted to stay true to that lineage, so we based the designs on a lot of the elements of the first movie and revamped them a little bit to fit into that same world.”
Aside from the usual challenges of directing a first feature, Elaine had to deal with overseeing a cast and crew during an unprecedented pandemic. By the time stay-at-home orders began in March 2020, the team had finished only four voice records—out of 50. “We knew we had quite an interesting challenge coming up,” Elaine says. “Not only am I here trying to figure out how to direct my first feature film and relying on the support of the people around me… Now, they’re no longer around me. They’re on FaceTime call and we’re all in our living rooms. Now we’re all figuring out how to direct a feature from our home.”
Voice records—which usually come before animation so that animators can match performances and body language precisely—were the trickiest parts to lock in remotely. In order to meet deadlines, the team had to continue animating, even if they didn’t have theater-quality voices to illustrate to yet. “Our actors were literally building little soundproof bunkers with blankets in their walk-in closets and sending us rough voice records for us to animate to,” Elaine says. What this meant was that about 70% of what you hear in the final film was ADR, or re-recorded after the fact. “Once the recording studios started opening back up again safely, the actors would come in and then try to match a new audio-quality performance to the animation that was already done, which isn’t an ideal situation, but it was just what we had to do to get the job done.”
Elaine talks about the whole process—the ups and downs, the hours spent, the re-records—with an ease and a calmness that feels similar to how she describes her experience around horses. Maybe coming face-to-face with a stallion isn’t all that different from coming to direct your first feature. “These animals can be terrifying and really intimidating,” she says. “They’re huge. But it’s just about finding that confidence and that stillness.”
All photos courtesy of Dreamworks Animation.