Sketch to Spielberg

A chance encounter led artist Ali Bannister on the journey of a lifetime, working as an equine artistic adviser on the Hollywood adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. We talked to her about her love of horses, heart thumping moments on set and working with the world’s greatest film director - Steven Spielberg.

Imagine you are living your normal life in the English countryside one minute and the next you are called into a meeting that will open the door to working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. That is exactly what happened to artist Ali Bannister.

A passionate animal lover with an exceptional talent for mastering the character and intricate nuances of her subjects, Ali’s horse portraiture caught the eye of art director Gary Tomkins, who had worked on the Harry Potter films, during a visit to her parents’ home. Within days, Ali was travelling to London to meet with esteemed Hollywood production designer and Oscar-winning art director Rick Carter, who just happened to be working on the adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse with a certain Steven Spielberg.

“It was completely surreal,” Ali explains. “One minute, I was sketching some horses, and the next, they were being scanned and sent to Steven Spielberg in LA! I thought I would be travelling back home to Gloucestershire after a couple of hours, but things just took off from there.”

Spielberg was so impressed with Ali’s drawings, or to quote him directly, “I really love your drawings,” that she was commissioned for the iconic sketch immortalized by Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nicholls in the film. She later joined the production team as equine artistic adviser, leading a team of hair stylists and makeup artists responsible for preparing up to thirteen horses to resemble Morpurgo’s ‘Joey’, the story’s main protagonist.

Ali explains, “These were incredibly skilled people, but it became clear quite quickly that many of them didn’t have experience with horses. I worked hard to help them read the animals’ body language to keep them safe and the horses happy. I also created pocket-sized anatomy references for accuracy when the horses were being prepped for scenes”.

“I really love your drawings” – Steven Spielberg

Attention to detail

During peak filming times, Ali worked with a crew of twenty-six hair and make-up artists to ensure continuity was achieved from shot to shot. “The attention to detail was incredible, from the dust to blood and manes to markings – we even had to hand source and mix our mud to ensure it was the perfect shade and tone on each horse for every scene,” says Ali.

Ali was also gifted with a unique insight into the mechanics of producing a World War I biopic, where the horses took centre stage. Vegetable dye was used to minimise risk to the horses, and some of the more harrowing scenes portraying injuries were created using prosthetic trickery and specially designed plastic barbed wire, perforated at intervals so that it had a low breaking strain. Prepping 200 horses to look as if they’d been in the trenches was no mean feat, but the cavalry scenes will stay with Ali forever.

“Our military adviser explained that you would feel a cavalry charge before you saw one, which is absolutely the case. Hearing the shout of ‘CHARGE!’ and feeling the pounding of hooves vibrating through the ground was a visceral, heart-thumping experience – it brought tears to my eyes.”

These were long days, often with limited sleep over months of filming, but Ali became an invaluable asset to the film crew. As Rick Carter said at the time, “There are probably only five people in the world who could have done what you did on this film, Ali.”

A lifelong love of horses meant that not only was Ali able to capture the essence of Joey in the sketches that she produced (modelled on the horses she worked with), but she gained respect and admiration from the actors too. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch were both extremely complimentary of her drawings; Benedict even described them as ‘exquisite’. Ali enjoyed seeing the actors’ riding progress and learning from others on set, but it is the bonds she forged with the horses that clearly stand out.

Joey takes centre stage once again

During the film’s premiere in Leicester Square, Ali was once again called on to perfect the ‘Joey’ look as he greeted the throngs of fans. “I wasn’t dressed up smartly as I had been working with the horses, so for my one and only red carpet appearance, I emerged behind Spielberg in my scruffs. I was so much more focussed on how our ‘Joey’ was looking – and only one of us really needed to look good.” Joey took centre stage once again.

Ali recalls, “Even though the horses were carefully trained to desensitise them to unusual sounds and activity, I was concerned about how the general public would react, but as soon as ‘Joey’ arrived on the red carpet, a gentle and respectful hush descended. It was magical and moving.” For Ali, the premiere marked her experience coming full circle and, while saying goodbye to the horses was emotional, she was happy to return to the relative calm of rural Gloucestershire.

“It took me time to readjust,” she says. “I struggled with my sleep for a while and would often leap out of bed in the middle of the night to avoid being in an imagined shot!”

Today, while her War Horse experience remains a fond memory, Ali is much happier at home, using her artistic talents to bring animals to life for others. “I truly believe that animals can fill a void in people’s lives – I guess my work is an example of art imitating life,” Ali concludes. A poignant observation considering her invaluable work with Spielberg is the perfect example of delivering just that to movie fans worldwide.

For more information on Ali’s work, including private commissions visit:

Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch were both extremely complimentary of her drawings, Benedict even described them as ‘exquisite’