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It Takes Your Breath Away

Heard any good films lately?

“Hear any good films lately?”

While this is not the typical way of posing the familiar question, we know that we bring our ears as well as our eyes to “seeing” a movie. In fact, the pivotal role of sound to the cinematic experience – especially music – is a long-studied phenomenon. But there are two angles to the role of music: the film viewer’s enjoyment and comprehension, and the filmmakers process and pacing of the emerging film.

Both perspectives on the role of music came into focus in my interview with Kat Baulu, a producer at the National Film Board of Canada. Kat produced Echo Henoche’s recently released short animation Shaman. Shaman is based on a Labrador Inuit legend of how a polar bear was turned into a mountain.

Kat enthusiastically described her trip to Nain, Labrador, about two years ago, when she was invited by the Nunatsiavut Government (the Inuit government of Labrador and Newfoundland) to explore training and capacity building in audio visual arts with Inuit artists from Nunatsiavut. The Nunatsiavut Government is currently creating a world class cultural center, called Ilusuak, to shine a light on and celebrate Nunatsiavut Inuit heritage and art. Creating new content that reflects the unique experiences of Labrador Inuit to share in the new 80-seat theater in Illusuak was top of mind for the Nunatsiavut Government and Dave Lough, former Director, Torngasok Cultural Centre and Deputy Minister of Culture.

She explained, “When Michelle E. Smith and I consulted the community about its artists, many people repeated that we should meet Echo Henoche.  At the time we met Echo, she was 17, so she was definitely the youngest artist that I’ve ever contemplated working with, but she was already creating art in more than one medium. She had just returned from Iqaluit and her first silversmithing workshop. She wore the polar bear claw pendant she had made there. She has this extraordinary visual language that is really her own, very graphic, often in pen and ink. I got very excited with the possibility of working with her. And she got very excited about the possibility of working in animation, which was something that she watched, but never had the chance to make. So, that was the starting point for a relationship with Echo to begin her first film.”

Kat added, “Echo chose to animate this really well-known story from her community, about how a polar bear turns into a mountain. She has a particular vision of the legend informed by hearing it so many times from her grandfather - it has deep personal relevance.”

She went on to describe the development process, the challenges of producing the work of a young, first time animator, and the role that music played in the animation’s development. “The music reflects Echo’s identity, and her culture. Echo grew up around this particular master drummer, Karrie Obed, who was also her high school teacher. From the beginning, when she started designing and drawing for the animation, she would say that, ‘This is the part that Karrie is going to drum, and it’s going to go like this [Kat claps out beats].’  So, even before I ever met Karrie, even before we formally asked him to be a part of the project, in Echo’s mind, he was an integral part of the project, and she already had that rhythm in her head and she was already drawing with that rhythm in her mind.”

Kat also noted, “It’s interesting because even though this was Echo’s first animation, and she could have created anything she wanted to, she went towards all the beautiful things she loves in her world: her family, Karrie’s drumming and her best friend Althaya’s throat singing. I feel that is also why it works. It’s not like there was an external imposition. Echo’s intention was honored -- everything was all made together.”

When it was time for Echo to do the sound mix, the NFB brought in Althaya Solomon, throat singer, and Karrie Obed, master drummer, to create the music together in the Montreal studio.

“There was something invisible yet strong about having her community with her in the NFB mixing studio in Montreal,” Kat continued. “It was magical. Echo had made her film over two years, but sharing the space with Althaya and Karrie, with her community members bearing witness to her work and participating in it, this was exactly the way she wanted it to happen and how it unfolded. So that went incredibly well because she designed it.”

I was invited to the sound mix. With the film projected in front of them, Karrie began to drum. I watched as Althaya and Echo locked arms, exhaled into each other’s mouth, and began throat singing.

My response was visceral. I had heard throat singing and Inuit drumming before, but never live, never in the service of animation, and never in the magical setting of an NFB sound stage. Besides tapping my foot and moving my body to the drumbeat, I found myself breathing to the rhythm of the throat singing.  

Both music and animation are time-based media. The technological synching of image to sound in filmmaking, on the frame level, is augmented by the psychological synching of image to music, both for the audience and the artist. As a viewer, music can manipulate my feelings of expectation, drama and time itself. For the artist, music can structure the pacing of scenes and events, how much time and how may frames are used to present a particular event or action.

The common phenomenon of synchronizing our bodies to music is studied as “entrainment.” Entrainment relies on adapting one’s motor neurons to an external body or system. We synch to external stimuli, aligning our bodies to rhythms of music, dance, image and even language.

Entrainment has been hypothesized as serving a social, evolutionary survival function. Neuroscientists have tracked the motor neurons that fire up when we observe or sense rhythm. Interestingly, these neurons can fire whether or not we follow through in bodily action. For example, if you’re a tennis pro watching a match, your motor neurons may fire faster than those of average couch potatoes.

In some controversial yet relatively hot studies, entrainment is considered as part of the so-called mirror neurons that assist social bonding and empathy.

(S. Nozaradan’s recent article, “Musical rhythm embedded in the brain: Bridging music, neuroscience, and empirical aesthetics” in Enhancing Participation in the Arts in the EU, 2017 is a great overview

Witnessing Echo’s sound mix struck me as being both culturally foreign yet inherently familiar. What I couldn’t grasp culturally, I could with my body and breath. I said to Kat, “The tempo all made sense, which was very unexpected to me because I have limited experience with Inuit life and films. Yet I totally got the film. I was very surprised at how something so culturally specific can be so universal at the same time. So, I was amazed at that.”

Kat said to me, “I’m really glad that you picked up on that. One thing that I’ve learnt in having had the chance to collaborate with different Inuit artists is that Inuit design is just so splendid and arresting. Whether it’s the design of a knife or a kayak, it’s an intelligent and refined design for what it’s used for. You can’t really come up with anything superior. It’s been crafted and thought out for such a long time that it’s just a perfect design. And imagine someone like Echo growing up in a culture where she has access and sees such beautiful design…to me there is a direct link to how she draws and creates. Her grandfather Gilbert Hay is also an extraordinary and really renowned sculptor, so she sees great art and great design, and for sure that influences her positively.”

She added, “And, I think great art and great design can move people everywhere, who will find in the work something that is relevant to them. We hope for that connection. And personally, I feel that there is so much space for so much more animation and documentary from Inuit artists. Because to see something that looks and sounds like you is incredibly important, instead of always being bombarded with storytelling from a Southern point of view, which unfortunately, has been the case for the last 100 years. The first audience that I’m thinking of when we create is actually the artist’s own community, no matter how small it may be.” 

The issue here is how Echo managed to succeed in bridging cultural, historical, linguistic and psychological gaps. Any animator hoping to succeed globally needs to find that sweet spot between her unique memory and the essential experiences we all share. When that happens, it takes your breath away….

Shaman is currently making the animation film festival circuit.

Sadly, Karrie Obed passed away in September 2017, one month before the film’s premiere at the Imaginative film festival.

This blog is dedicated to his memory.