Interview Transcript

Ali Bannister

Q: How did you come to work on ‘War Horse’?

A: I went to my mum and dad’s house one weekend and their neighbours had some friends down to try out a horse for their son. And I went with them to be a sort of crash test dummy, to check that the horse was safe, and I was talking to the dad, Gary Thompkins, and it turns out he was one of the art directors on Harry Potter. And so I showed him some of my drawings and he said, ‘Oh, it’s such a shame that we didn’t meet you weeks ago because I’m working on Spielberg’s version of War Horse’. And, obviously, I love the book and was so excited that they were making a film of the book but didn’t think anything more of it. Then I got a phone call the next morning to say that Rick Carter, who is a production designer who’s won an Oscar for his work on Avatar, has seen your website and can you come in for a meeting tomorrow and I don’t get a lot of phone calls like that.

So, I went to the meeting and was talking to Rick about how horses show expression and how to capture that expression and he liked some of the examples of my work and he explained a couple of scenes in the film, or one scene in the film, where one of the characters is sketching the horse and he said, ‘we’ve had some other artists in and they’ve spent some time drawing the horses, and the guy from the art department, Jack Dudman, has also done some sketches but can we scan some of your sketch books and send them along with the other artists’ work to Spielberg?’ And luckily, he liked my work and I had a chance to produce more drawings to be considered to go into the film.

But while I was there, on that first day, I ended up in one of the production meetings where they were trying to decide the markings of Joey and they said is that something I can help with? And I said yes, because I produce digital mock-ups first to show my clients anyway and so produced various different designs of how Joey’s head marking could look. Based on the book, and my own ideas and direction from Spielberg, and he chose one that he liked and we made a few little tweaks and then they said to me, ‘now that we’ve got an approved design, could you go down and oversee that being put onto the horses?’ And so, I went down and I was working with some of the girls from the equine hair and make up team and that became a more hands-on role and became a full time role and ended up as head of that department for the duration of the film.


Q: How did you go about making healthy horses look as though they had been in a war?

A: We did a lot of testing as to how to make healthy horses look as if they’ve been at war. For a start, we had to dull down the shine from the coats and so we would have dust powders to do that and we had three different shades of mud that we would use. The darker shades we would use to darken down the areas where horses might have hollows and to just hint at the shadows that sticking out ribs would create and things like that.


Q: What do you think it is about horses, and about Joey in particular, that really captures people’s imaginations?

A: I think, for me, they’re so strong and powerful and yet so very gentle as well, and, for me as well, when I was little, being able to get on a horse and go and ride it somewhere at the age where you couldn’t drive, but you can get to places on horses. But I think it’s the fact that they want to do anything for us at all, that you can build up a real partnership with a real bond that enriches both of you.

I think it’s his sheer determination. The fact that he’ll overcome every difficulty and I think, sometimes, that the most courageous thing you can do is just to keep going. And I think they say that ‘true bravery isn’t not being scared, it’s being scared but not letting that stop you’.


Dave Naprous

Q: Could you explain how the cast and crew worked with the horses on the set?

A: This film was very important for Stephen to try and get a definite bond between all the characters that play with Joey, ‘cause he’s an actor. He’s not on his own, going through his own little world. He has to interact with all these people but still keep him a horse without making him too humanised which was great for us to work with. And we worked with Bobby, who was horse master at the time and I worked along side him, and we built up. We had quite a few Joeys for different parts, different ages and we built up time before we went and prepared them, we built them up. The actors came in; Jeremy came in very early on so he would practise with us and when we’re training during the day he would spend all day there, you know, ten hours, when we’re with different horses. A horse would do a certain amount of work then he’d go and relax and then we’d bring another one out and he was there all the time and it was great, because he’d learnt to interact and actually work with the horses instead of just turning up on the day.

So we had a great pool of people to work from who understand horses, understand the film industry and we tried to give Stephen what he wanted.


Q: How important was it that the horses were well cared for?

A: They are what is representing us when we’re on set so we have to look after them and we have to try and get a performance out of them. Bobby worked very closely as well with the American Humane Society. Everything was broken down, everything was sent back to America to approve. We had barbed wire that would break, it was safe, it wasn’t even wire itself it was lots of different combinations of it. So, safety-wise for the horse, it’s paramount ‘cause you’re bringing them to the set so you have to make sure they’re happy and well looked after. It’s not an actor who’s looking for a job; you’re bringing them there. But they have to enjoy it otherwise there’s no point in being there and you can’t get the performance out of them.

They were number one, they were well looked after. Probably had bigger tents and trailers than the actors.


Q: How do you think the audience will respond to the horses on screen?

A: When you see the play, you forget the puppet. I think when you see the film, you forget he’s a horse; he becomes part of the film. You know, you’re rooting for him, you’re wanting him to do things, you want him to survive. You think, ‘Oh no, he’s in trouble again. How’s he going to get out of it?’ So this film is brilliant. What Stephen’s given us the opportunity to do on this film is make it interesting for the people who just like horses to watch. And also, if you’re just a horse person, just to see the scope of what we’ve done on this film will be fantastic. So, the people who have great knowledge of horses to the people who just like seeing them on TV will appreciate it the same, I think.