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The Black Stallion

…because as legendary critics like Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael pointed out, it’s not just a movie for kids. "The Black Stallion" is a great example of how the technical aspects of filmmaking contribute to the narrative. With very little dialogue, the film tells its story visually through stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Sound designer Alan Splet also used imaginative recording techniques to capture the horse’s noises, making the animal into the film’s most compelling character.


The Black Stallion - learning to ride


Director Peter Weir on Sound Designer Alan Splet


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In the spirit of Pixar and Steven Spielberg, "The Black Stallion" is a G-rated kids movie really intended for adults. Director Caroll Ballard was friends with Francis Ford Coppola (the film’s producer) at UCLA, and joined Coppola in the New Hollywood movement along with the likes of Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. While there were no defining principles for the New Hollywood filmmakers, their main goal was to tell complex, sophisticated stories that balanced cinematic traditions and contemporary innovation. With very little dialogue in the first half, the film uses the visual storytelling techniques of classic silent film with full color images and advanced sound effects. Interestingly, Ballard used a more improvisational style while filming on the set. "The Black Stallion" depicts a familiar narrative about a shipwrecked boy, but overcomes the obvious clichés by focusing on the unique relationship the boy forges with the title animal. The film also deals with serious themes of loss and loneliness, while never resorting to the type of cheap emotional gimmicks we expect from a lot of family films. Melissa Mathison, one of the screenwriters of "The Black Stallion," would actually go on to write another classic children’s film that is better appreciated as an adult, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," which also explores a young boy’s attempt to deal with grief through his relationship to another (non-human) being. Ultimately, "The Black Stallion" proves that storytellers do not have to dumb down the material for a younger audience.

As a largely visual film, "The Black Stallion" relies heavily on the excellent work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. While contemporary audiences might be more interested to know that Deschanel is Zooey and Emily’s dad, he is also one of the most highly regarded cinematographers still working in Hollywood today. On "The Black Stallion," he films the horse both in thrilling motion and in more intimate close shots meant to convey the animal’s “character” as it bonds with the young boy. In a pivotal scene, he frames both the horse and the boy in a long, extended shot as they cautiously approach one another, allowing the momentum to build in the shot. Deschanel is also very precise in his use of lighting throughout the film, whether drawing on natural sunlight by filming at the so-called “magic hour” in the island scenes or muted artificial lighting for interiors such as those on the ship before the wreck. When scouting the exterior locations, Deschanel and Ballard carefully studied how the light changed depending on the time of day and angle of the camera. Interestingly, Deschanel credits the famous sunset scenes with the rigorous production schedule, as they essentially filmed in their locations until they ran out of light.

Because the film features so little dialogue in the first 45 minutes, the sound design plays a pivotal role in portraying characters and developing the story. The pioneering sound technician Alan Splet positioned his microphones all around the horse to capture a complete audio portrait of what essentially amounts to a lead character with no speaking lines. For the racing scenes towards the end of the film, Splet actually recorded from the underbelly of the horse to capture a realistic sound effect as opposed to a stock “clip-clop” noise. His sound design was so groundbreaking at the time that the Academy actually awarded him a special Oscar for technical achievement; however, his failure to show up at the ceremony made him the target of host Johnny Carson’s jokes due to Splet’s relative anonymity compared to other famous no-shows like Marlon Brando. Interestingly, Splet’s work on "The Black Stallion" actually proves the value of a talented below-the-line crew, as the sound in the film arguably lends more to the story’s central relationship of the boy and the horse than any other element.


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