VIFF 2017 Interview: THE MOUNTAIN OF SGAANA director Christopher Auchter

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/05/17 03:17:19

"This film has two dimensions. One is the story of a distracted young Indigenous fisherman in the present time who is unengaged with the world around him, until one golden evening he is interrupted by a mysterious Mouse Woman dressed in Haida regalia. This Mouse Woman knits, before his eyes, a blanket with illustrations of an ancient story about a courageous young woman. We then move to the past, where we see the young woman and her lover, a sea hunter, snuggled on a beach. The girl sees a sea otter and asks her lover to get it for her. The hunter grabs his spear and wades into the water but is swallowed by a massive two-finned killer whale that takes him to a supernatural world under the sea, named the Mountain of SGaana. The young woman and two small animal companions set out to sea to find the lost lover." Director Christopher Auchter on THE MOUNTAIN OF SGAANA which screens at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

This is my first film as writer/director and my first experience as such at VIFF. I will proudly be at both screenings! I first went to VIFF as part of a course at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. My teacher Marilyn Cherenko pushed her students to see the festival; we had to watch at least five films. I loved the experience; it was the first film festival I ever attended in my life. I come from Haida Gwaii, and we do not have a theatre anywhere on the islands. We would have to wait six months for new films to come out on video to rent them, and it would mostly be the Hollywood variety. So to see these features told from a new perspective was so fresh for me. That is what I remember most, the unique voices each film had.

How did the whole project come together for you?

The story of Mouse Woman has stayed with me since childhood. On Haida Gwaii, I sat inside a third-grade classroom at Queen Charlotte Elementary Secondary School; it was raining outside, and nearing the end of the day. My substitute teacher was standing at the other end of the classroom reading a story about a tiny Mouse Woman. I could picture this mouse so vividly inside the wall, on the pipes, peeking at us through the vents. I was hanging on every word when the bell rang. I never did get to hear the rest of the story, and my regular teacher had no idea what storybook the sub had been reading. I often think that not knowing the ending, in fact, fuelled my fire for Mouse Woman. Many years later, when I was already an experienced animator, I reached out to Teri Snelgrove, an associate producer at the National Film Board of Canada's BC & Yukon studio, about my interest in creating an animated short film. She set up a late meeting between executive producer Shirley Vercruysse, herself and me. It was a rainy winter day in Vancouver, a day quite similar to the day I had first heard about Mouse Woman, all those years ago. Maybe she was peering through the vents in the walls at the NFB whispering in my ear, helping me knit a good tale and garner interest in the little mouse that wears a Haida hat and has a thing for wool. Mouse Woman, who helps youth get themselves out of trouble with the supernatural beings that dwell in the land of Haida Gwaii.

Early on in the process of writing the story of what would become THE MOUNTAIN OF SGAANA, Teri connected me with accomplished writer Annie Reid. Annie helped me with story writing and offered advice. We made a good team, and she became co-writer on the project. Experienced composer and filmmaker Daniel Janke scored the unique, grounded music of the film and offered calming advice throughout the creation of the short.

It took two years of grit and determination at the NFB studio to finalize the film. What was most remarkable to me was how many collaborators came to the NFB during evenings and weekends to work on my film, while having a day job in the commercial and Hollywood animation industry. I just cannot thank them enough; I appreciate and admire all of them.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge was fitting my story into 10 minutes. I had too much story to tell. I overcame this by spending a lot of time in the animatic stage. Choosing shots that I felt would give the audience the most information.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

It is hard to choose, but one of my favourite parts of the film is when we see Kuuga Kuns travelling in her canoe for the first time. I love so much about this section; the ripple, rain and water FX of Russell Heyman, the moody lighting of Michael Mann, the way sound designer Chris McLaren made the rain sound as if we were inside Kuuga Kuns' head and are wearing a hood as the rain pelts upon us. Mouse Woman depicted through traditional Haida design, framing the shot as if watching over Good For Nothing Marten and Hummingbird, and the singing voice of Kuuga Kuns, by Nikita Toya Auchter.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film!

Toon Boom Harmony was used to create many of the character rigs for the film. Tara Barker headed the team of character and prop builders. She and her team sometimes used sophisticated methods of character rigging that they would refer to as Super Builds. These builds would allow the 2D characters to turn their heads almost like a 3D sculpted character would. It was quite impressive for me to see the results of her builds. Tara Barker, Marco Lii and I used Toon Boom to animate as well.

We used Photoshop for the look and animation of the Supernatural World. Sitji Chou was instrumental in this unique treatment. I wanted a more rough, painterly look to help separate the two worlds. I wanted the audience to know Kuuga Kuns is in a different place. Sitji did a great deal of the animation in this world and most of the painting for the inside of Killer Whale Woman's longhouse. I took on much of the painting outside the longhouse. My inspiration came from stalagmite caves my wife and I visited with her parents in Portugal.

The remainder of the backgrounds were painted using Sketchbook Pro. Sitji and I teamed up for this. I was most impressed with how well Sitji could depict the inside of the fishing-boat cabin. It looks just like the real-life Silver Shadow fishing-boat cabin once looked. The Silver Shadow is the name of my grandfather's fishing boat. I commercial fished with him for seven seasons growing up. Seeing Sitji's paintings of the cabin transported me back in time.

Russell Heyman and his FX team used Toon Boom for their animation. Russell had the hard task of breathing life into the ocean, an essential part of the story. His creativity also shined by adding unique elements, such as the Haida Shark design from Naa-Naa-Simgat's apron that appears when Kuuga Kuns falls into the water after being bumped by Good For Nothing Marten. He also added the ovoid shapes into the exhaled breath of Naa-Naa-Simgat when Killer Whale Woman transforms him during the wedding.

Michael Mann used After Effects to create the lighting and mood of the film. He made everything look like it belonged together and came from the same world. He added the varnish to the film, the pearl finish on a luxury vehicle. Michael made some key suggestions to me that would have me go back to the painting table and rework whole sections of backgrounds to change the mood.

Haida art and design inspired the look of the film. The Haida people have a distinct style of art. I chose this path for a couple of reasons. The story is inspired by a real Haida story, the story of Naa-Naa-Simgat. The second reason is the Haida have an oral history, so stories and knowledge are passed down through the generations, through speaking and teaching, not written words. Telling a Haida story through animation is modern in its own right, but adding the distinct art forms of the Haida to the aesthetics of the film help make it uniquely Haida.

Wow, thanks for such a great and detailed look behind the scenes! What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences here at VIFF?

THE MOUNTAIN OF SGAANA is truly a West Coast story, so I think many patrons of VIFF can relate to it.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I have made this film to share with everyone around the world, but at its heart it is a Haida story, so I would choose to show it on Haida Gwaii because this is the Land of the Haida People, and I would be proud to have it played in these communities. I would also choose Alaska because my Haida people have communities up there as well.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Take some time to figure out what kind of storyteller you want to be. Draw on your own experiences and know that you are interesting and have a unique perspective.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

I'll give you my little movie playlist! KUNG FU HUSTLE, because I love its humour and playfulness. It's like Looney Tunes meets Jackie Chan. WHIPLASH, for its storytelling ability, superb music, and acting performances. SONG OF THE SEA, because it lets us peek into the Celtic world and how they see it. SPIRITED AWAY, because it lets us peer into Japanese culture and stories. And THE THIEF & THE COBBLER, the Recobbled Cut; in my opinion, the best example of the use of traditional animation. Just beautiful.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
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