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‘Skin for Skin’: Exploring the Ultimate Cost of Arrogance and Greed

Directors Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher share the vision and creative process behind their contemporary myth.  

Calgary filmmakers Kevin D.A. Kurytnik and Carol Beecher take viewers on a wondrous visual journey through Canada’s dark past and spiritual reckoning in Skin for Skin, an animated short produced by the National Film Board of Canada and Fifteen Pound Pink Productions.

Drawing inspiration from legends, symbols, and mythologies worldwide - especially Scottish Celtic myth - Beecher and Kurytnik meticulously crafted a 15-minute 2D/3D hybrid gothic historical fantasy set during a period of Canadian fur trade in 1823.

Partners in work and in life, Beecher and Kurytnik have made 15 animated short films together. We asked them for a peek behind the layers of their creative process on Skin for Skin.

Drawing from the Past

Kevin D.A. Kurytnik: The structure of our film is based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner -- the idea of a supernatural journey with a boat. We wanted to do a Canadian environmental myth, looking at the various histories of Canada and pre-Canada to figure out a story that would have mythological resonance. This was a very challenging project for us. We took the history and environment of Canada and the events of the Hudson’s Bay, and merged them with mythology, looking at what those events and environment mean to us now. Our collages represent a collision of the natural and the supernatural worlds, and our color strategy from start to finish. Colors as emotion is another layer of information in the film.

Retracing the Steps

Carol Beecher: We did a research trip by car in 2010 to different locations along the St. Lawrence, and a quick canoe ride around at the Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site in Montreal, then a raft and jet boat trip through the Lachine Rapids while taking video footage -- one of the big filmed splashes did end up in the film. And we got a personal boat tour around the Thousand Islands to get shots of the environment that we used to help with the film design.

KK: We worked on the idea book over six months, during the trip to the St. Lawrence and while writing and doing visual development.

A Way into the Story

KK: There are different ways of telling a story visually; one way is to find an image that's compelling, and design around that image as a starting point. Another way is to have a character and start to design the story around the character. Some of the drawings are of the main character -loosely based on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Governor Simpson - very posed, in the canoe with bison skulls underneath, then an image of the Pacific where he’s embracing a spirit animal, and with a very large raven.

A Fresh Pair of Eyes

KK: I’m a full-time teacher at the Alberta College of Art and Design and early on, we realized we needed a storyboard artist to work with me to visually develop the rhythm and events for the film, so Danielle Bazinet - an amazingly talented alumnus from my school - came onboard and did the sequences of storyboard exploration with me. We discovered it was difficult to draw the canoe and the people in it. Imagine drawing 10 people in a canoe in perspective so that it’s got a design attached to it as opposed to a loose sketch. We ended up doing previsualization, which was invented at Lucasfilm and codified by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. We made simple forms in Maya -- we put the canoe and the characters in Maya with their joints being able to move. Then I would select shots, and Danielle would interpret the shots in those drawings.

Exploring a Hybrid Technique

KK: We’d never worked in Maya in 3D before to this extent, so that was really very tricky as well. We were always interested in 3D and 2D hybrid, but this project gave us the ability. Our original intent was to do a graphic 2D film, mostly cut-out, but we were having trouble controlling the shots and doing them in a timely manner, so it just freed us up to be able to do the previs.

Adding Layers of Dimension

KK: Nic Wassill, a student who had just graduated, wanted to learn Maya and had heard we were doing some previs with the software. One day, he brought a turntable rotation of his face, head, and shoulders that he’d done in ZBrush, the sculpting program. It looked so good that we took Danielle’s drawings - which we loved the aggressiveness of - and pasted them onto 3D forms. At one of the Skin for Skin screenings, fellow NFB animator Louise Johnson said a lot of people talk about taking illustration and making it into 3D, but in her opinion, we were one of the few to succeed. We were so excited and couldn’t have done it without our assistant art director and colorist Lyndon Navalta. With just 2D, we would’ve had to lock in the storyboards early on, and then 75% of our time - years of our time - would have been spent implementing the storyboards.

The Freedom to Push Boundaries

KK: Because of the 3D, we were able to approach this film more like live-action, in that we created more shots than we actually used. For example, I would quickly frame-grab shots in Maya -- I would stage something in Maya, and then I’d take a bunch of frames of a camera action or a character’s moving, and then we would look at those in a PDF and decide if it was worth pursuing it with Danielle and our lead animator William Dyer as a potential shot, or a scene in the film. I think that we did three times as much work as we used, in terms of story and visuals.

The Gang’s All Here

CB: One great piece of our story is we had 30 alumni work on the film with us. Our whole house except for one bedroom was our studio at one point.

KK: The staging of all these things was so much fun. We couldn’t have done that without Maya. Our film moves like a river; it flows. I’m very proud of that. Carol did the editing, and we got a flow going with the film -- we wouldn’t have been able to achieve that without having lots of extra footage that we could remove and add.

KK: We’re very proud of our team because a lot of people added to the story. Almost every day, we had story meetings, and we’d be challenged constantly by different crew members. When we started the project with NFB producers Bonnie Thompson and David Christensen, we decided this was going to be a collaborative process, and we’re very proud of the collaborative effort towards a singular vision. We had continuity where you couldn’t tell where one person’s contribution starts and ends, and the next begins.

CB: The Banff trip in August 2013 was a thank-you for the crew, and so they could get a feeling as to what it would have been like to be in a big canoe paddling all day, and how the shoreline would have looked. We shot some experimental footage with a GoPro and a bunch of stills. And it was fun!

An Emotional Journey

KK: I’ve got two favorite sequences. One is the most visceral and it shocks people: the beaver being transformed into a hat. That was a very hard thing to nail down because of the industrial processes, but I like how shocking it is. In our research, we discovered there were roughly four million beaver slaughtered that year. I also love the Governor being repaired, which echoed some of the canoe repair footage that Carol had collected.  There’s a lot of mirroring in the film, so I love the way we linked the canoe repair and the Governor repair.

CB: My favorite is a real quick sequence right after the Governor comes up from the ice, where we see the voyageurs and the clerk, after they’ve been killed, and in the lightning flash, we see them as ghostly, scary figures looking at the Governor and at the viewer. It’s a very strong image. I also love the canoe landing at the end and the reveal of the voyageurs over the canoe. But I’m most pleased with the emotional content of the film and the reaction we get from audiences. When you think of animation, you think in terms of exaggeration, but we managed to achieve a very subtle emotion out of our characters. We left it open enough for people to bring an interpretation to it as well -- we weren’t bashing people over the head with our concept.

The film's many awards include Best Overall Short Film at the 2017 Calgary International Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film (Animation) at the 2017 Edmonton International Film Festival, the Silver Skull for Outstanding International Short Film at the 2017 Mórbido Film Fest in Mexico, and Animation and Best of Fest Awards at the 2018 Yorkton Film Festival.