A SHORT HISTORY OF INDIANS in CANADA was my first film in ten years. The film had a highly improbable beginning.
It all started when I attended a presentation at Sheridan by Thomas King, the bestselling author of The Inconvenient Indian, Green Grass, Running Water, and The Back of the Turtle. The Inconvenient Indian, his only nonfiction book, had been chosen as a Sheridan Reads book for November, 2016. I bought it when it was first released in 2012 and hoped to have Mr. King sign it. I was unable to attend his evening presentation due to my class schedule, but the manager of the Indigenous office on campus got me into a writing class that he was lecturing in on the following day. That’s when lightning struck. As he was introduced to me before class started, and informed that I was an animator, Mr. King announced, “I want one of my short stories animated. And since YOU’RE here, I will READ it.”
And so he did. And I sat in the audience thinking in visuals, as he read it. And then said to him afterwards, “I think I can do this.” Mr. King looked doubtful. “I’m not a team player, I work alone.” “Which means I will have to show you everything I do, and have your approval,” I replied. “We will have to have a partnership”.
And so we did. Mr. King rewrote his story as an animation script, adding Coyote (who was not in the original story). This, to me, ‘made’ it an animated story, since the original was told largely through dialogue. I designed the characters in a deliberately dated “Fifties” style, since that is the time the action begins…and continues into the present day. There is a lot of symbolism in the picture in the choices of color, props, and even the sound effects.
While the dialogue was brilliant, there was an awful lot of it, and since now the story was visual, there was a bit of redundancy…you can show, rather than have someone tell, what is going on. A few lines from the story were edited out. Mr. King added a few new ones, including the hilarious last two that, like Coyote, were not in the original story. I staged some of the dialogue as voice over. There is a lengthy montage of stills so that the images do not fight with the dialogue. Mr. King suggested some ‘business’, I suggested other action. He made many changes, all of them good ones, all of them done during story and design. It was a real pleasure working with him.
There were some things I could not show. The “Indians” could not stagger around after they landed, as in the story. And they had to hit the buildings. I was not allowed to stage this off camera. “If you use a knife, it must be sharp!” Mr. King wrote me. I staged the impacts in long shot but they are still disturbing. Sadly, in my film, the “Indians” all appear to be dead, though you can’t be absolutely sure with one of them.
Despite the comical Coyote, I knew I was making a horror movie.
Mr. King asked if he could voice the Doorman. He has a fine voice and is well known for his popular radio show The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour which ran on the CBC for many years. I was delighted to have him play the Coyote as well, including the yips and a fabulous “nyaaaaa” sound! We had a recording session at Sheridan on February 6, 2017, with Paula Laing of the Sheridan Indigenous office voicing Ruby. The remaining two voices were by David Quesnelle, another member of the Sheridan animation faculty, and were recorded on the 15th of February. All of the voice talents were Indigenous or had Indigenous ancestry.
The next most improbable thing to happen to the film was the music. My sister found a score written by our father Melvyn Beiman sometime between 1948 and 1950, when he was still a teenager, on a music scholarship at Drake University. Dad was one of the top English Horn and Oboe players of his generation, but wasn’t really known as a composer. These were definitely student works. My sister sent it to me in December, 2016 just as I was beginning preproduction on the film. She requested that I have it recorded. Another faculty member, Bruno Degzaio, recorded the “Aesop’s Fables” woodwind quintet in early January using an ingenious little computer instrument that perfectly mimicked the sound of the oboe, bassoon, horn, clarinet, and flute. When he delivered the files to me Bruno said “This would make good film music.” “Well, I am making a film. Let’s try it.” And that music fit like a glove. And so two movements were used for the scratch track with minimal edits…and the music stayed in the final picture. It perfectly catches the odd, quirky feeling of much of the action, which was actually timed to it.
Sheridan College approved the film as a co op class and allowed me to hire eight students from our second and third years who would complete 420 hours of paid work study doing layout, backgrounds, and animation. A first year student from out of province was hired as my personal animation assistant since we were both using TV Paint. A Scholarship, Research and Creative Activities grant paid her salary. Those great boiling color effects on Doorman turned out to be very easy to paint, and since there were few animation changes, I was shocked at how fast the film got made. All told, even when you allow that I was teaching for the first four months of the year while simultaneously producing the designs and storyboards the entire five minute production was completed in approximately five months. The students came on board on May 1 and we wrapped on July 12, with the final mix on July 24. Lightning speed for animated films. But then, it’s hand drawn. Although there isn’t a single piece of paper used for the artwork. It’s all digital. There’s even some 3D. But only where it is needed. Why draw a truck when you can build it?
I timed all the action and cut the picture on bar sheets. This proved much more efficient than using exposure sheets, and the design of the barsheet exactly matched the timeline in the animation programs we were using (Toonboom Harmony, Maya and TV Paint.) This sped up the production amazingly. Action slugging and frame counts were on the storyboard as well as the barsheet. Each animator got a copy of the storyboard. My boards are pretty thorough, so the thumbnails were all there ready to go.
So the old and new technologies meshed beautifully. As they should.
I remember sitting there on the first day of production staring at the Cintiq and thinking, “I have never hand drawn an entire animated film digitally, and don’t think I can finish this, I have only been using this program for about ten days.” Another little thought said “Shut up and draw.”
And so I did. In about two weeks’ time, I was going as fast as I ever did on paper, and made corrections very quickly. Complicated level matching was never easier. Buying that program was money well spent.
I wanted a soundtrack of drumming at the end, and Thomas King created a haunting score with an associate mixing the loops. The credits run for an entire minute, but (a) they need to, and (b) the music is so lovely, I didn’t want to cut it.
None of the original music appears in the film’s trailer…I used a generic track. The dialogue and animation is all from the film. I designed the trailer to show you what the film MIGHT be about, without actually giving anything away.
It’s a nice looking film about a horrible subject. I learned a lot about recent Canadian history while making it. The most tragic line in the script is “You’ll never even know the Indians were here”. This is because the Indigenous people had to get out of town by nightfall or be arrested. The whole concept of the Birds flying into the skyscrapers is symbolic of how they were not welcomed when they migrated to the cities in the 1950s (which explains why the design of the film is deliberately in the cartoon style of that decade.) It is a film that does not pull its punches. It is definitely not a cheery animated cartoon, and therefore may not be for everyone. I am proud to have made it and it may very well be the most important film I’ve ever worked on.
A SHORT HISTORY OF INDIANS in CANADA had its world premiere public screening on September 17, 2017, at the Women Over Fifty Film Festival in Brighton, England. Festival Prizes for best in category include a bottle of Mother’s Ruin Gin. I will blog when it’s taken into any others. It’s going to be interesting, as Thomas King wrote me, seeing where this little pony takes us.
Here is a link to Thomas King’s Massey Lecture “The Truth About Stories” where he discusses the origins of A SHORT HISTORY OF INDIANS IN CANADA.