Artist and animator Christopher Auchter speaks with GidGalang Kuuyas Naay students about his award-winning short film, The The Mountain of SGaana. (Andrew Hudson/Haida Gwaii Observer)

Animating history: Auchter to remake documentary film 50 years after historic pole-raising

Documentary re-make follows success of animated short film

Before diving to save the sea hunter Naa-Naa Simgat from a supernatural killer whale, Kuuga Kuns drops a Haida anchor made of gold.

The golden anchor is one of many details that animator Christopher Auchter spoke about while presenting his award-winning short film, The Mountain of Saana, to audiences here on Haida Gwaii. It was a part of Haida culture that he happened to learn while making the film.

“That’s really what the story is about,” he said, speaking to students at GidG̱alang Ḵuuyas Naay on Feb. 8.

“It’s really knowing your stories, and how that makes you feel more grounded.”

The Mountain of SGaana (Trailer) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

While only 10 minutes long, The Mountain of Saana is a richly woven story. Even with the latest tech and help from a team of artists at the National Film Board, it took Auchter a full two years to make.

At the high school, Auchter showed students some of his hand-drawn character sketches, storyboards, and the 3D-printed character models he made in the early going to get to know the characters.

Kuuga Kuns, a storyteller who is also the hero in Auchter’s telling of the Naa-Naa Simgat story, wears a Chilkat-style robe with an open mouth on the front. In one early sketch, Naa-Naa Simgat balances two huge baskets of octopus and halibut with ease.

All the characters changed over time. At first, Auchter drew the skipper of the Silver Shadow to look much like his own grandfather, who piloted the real-life salmon troller. Later he drew him to look more like the young couple.

Auchter’s Killer Whale Woman was partly inspired by a photo of a very frustrated pro tennis player, plus a happy accident by his son.

“I got up to get a snack and when I came back my son, who was maybe three years old, had jumped on my computer and starting painting my character all black,” he said.

“I came back and went, ‘Oh! That looks really cool.’”

After seeing how the film shifted from having dialogue to none, and the layer-by-layer jumps from rough sketch to basic animation, to sound, music, effects and lighting, it’s easy to understand why animation can take so longs.

READ MORE: Haida animator wins first festival award for The Mountain of SG̱aana

But while Mountain of Saana fans may have to wait a while yet for another animated film, Auchter’s next project is due out next year.

Called This is the Time, it is a re-make of a documentary about the 1969 pole-raising in Old Massett. Carved by a young Robert Davidson for the village elders, it was the first totem pole raised in the village since the potlatch ban.

Barbara Wilson was involved in the original filming, which was done on colour film. Auchter said there is about two hours of never-before-seen footage, including flyovers, shots of the old docks and the unpaved streets.

“I’m just getting into an interesting part,” he said. “You see Robert painting some masks and there is this beautiful image that I love — he’s got this black can with ‘Totem Pole Paint’ on it.”

“You know, no totem poles were raised in a generation or more,” he added. “The fact that he would have his totem-pole paint sitting there ready is very iconic.”

READ MORE: Conservators restore Shark House pole, reveal long-hidden mural by Robert Davidson

Auchter said he hopes to do some new audio interviews, and to have the documentary out next year for the 50th anniversary of the pole-raising. Watching the old footage and speaking with his grandmother, who was in Prince Rupert just before, he is learning what it meant.

“They made sure they flew back on the floatplane in time to see the pole going up,” he said. “It was a big moment.”

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Portraits of Kuuga Kuns show her range of emotions, and her lip movements for syncing with her songs. (Image by Christopher Auchter)

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