6 astonishing moments from Amanda Strong's stop-motion short film Biidaaban
Strong explains the stories and meaning behind her intricate, painstaking labour of love
Amanda Strong's Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) is a mesmerizing stop-motion short film, following an Indigenous youth named Biidaaban who sets out to harvest sap from sugar maples in an urban Ontario neighbourhood — a practice that goes back to time immemorial for the Anishinaabe. Helped by their friend, a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter named Sabe, and a ghost caribou and wolf — reminders of the history of the land — Biidaabaan can see the traces of the people, creatures, land and time as they work to continue in their ancestors' movements.
The film, now streaming in Canada on CBC Gem or anywhere in the world on YouTube, is an work of both stunning beauty and incredible technical achievement. We spoke to Amanda Strong about a select few of the film's many breathtaking moments.
Throughout the story, Biidaaban is helped by a ghostly caribou and wolf who reveal life hidden in the earth. In this moment the caribou frees a tree from the fencing that ensnares it. What is the role of the two animals in the film?
The ghost caribou was one of the core seeds to how this story took form. Caribou Ghosts and Untold Stories is a poem by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. From the moment I heard it, I saw the puppet in my head (that took a long time to make into physical form) and, after speaking with Leanne, learned it was their spirits that still lived on the land even after disappearing in Ontario. She could feel their presence in a space now concurred by subdivisions. Many of our four-legged have been culled and forced off of their lands and, in essence, their spirits still roam in between worlds. They are still searching for their food sources (Caribou for the lichen and the Wolf lurks for the Caribou). As Biidaaban sets out on their Journey with Sabe, they all find themselves interconnected and helping each other.
The film begins with this astonishingly cinematic sequence following a wisp of light crackling with electric energy through an underground tunnel that then opens up to the sky. The light becomes an eclipsed sun and the camera pans down, the light arcing back towards us along the power lines of the street below. How do you even begin to construct something like this using stop motion? Is it a mixture of practical effects and CGI?
The opening sequence is built in 3D space with a 3D camera move. As we pan down into the neighborhood we begin to see houses, telephone poles and maple trees. All of these assets were built by hand and further modelled and rendered in 3D in order to fill out a larger streetscape. So this is a blend and hybrid of handmade assets and digital tools and effects.
Here Biidaaban encounters the wolf while out walking to the trees. They're stopped in their tracks (and so was I while watching). From a technical perspective, the way the glowing, transparent wolf lights up the scene is stunning and immerses us into the wolf's presence. How was this shot achieved?
The wolf and caribou puppets are physical assets that were built by hand, each taking six months to make. They were shot against green screen so that they could be composited into any scene, where they could be adjusted without affecting the environment. There were digital glow effects used in pair with the already translucent made puppets that resulted in that effect.
Much time and thought had to go into perspective to make sure it looked like the animals were actually there. We had to shoot/create the base environment plates to use as reference of the angle to shoot the animals so they matched.
Sabe (above, with Biidaaban) is described as a 10,000-year-old shapeshifter — what some have called a Sasquatch — and is a really delightful character in the film. Despite his ancient otherworldliness, he is also very human and even relatable. He's helpful but not always reliable, he sleeps, he bumps his head — he even texts! What is Sabe's role in the story and in Biidaaban's life?
Sabe is indeed an ancient shapeshifter. His presence and spirit comes from the writings and teachings of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. He exists in many of her stories as a warm and gentle guide who helps the lost ones. They can shapeshift and transcend time, and though seemingly aloof, they are an extremely wise being who helps guide Biidaaban — but also allows Biidaaban to be empowered by their own gifts.
Biidaaban and Sabe text each other on these beautiful phone-like objects. They're a wonderful vision of a sort of naturalistic technology in a time when we often have complicated connections with our phones. I imagine that technology must be a big part of your work. What's your relationship with it?
I view technology as a tool or extension of ourselves or material. Our work focuses on the handmade and physical assets. Digital tools and software can be used in many ways to enhance, build and patch things together — which excites us — but we also do everything we can to build as many if not all of the assets that are rebuilt or worked on in digital space.
Throughout the film, the monotonous rows of imposing houses are a terrifying faceless surveillance system dominating the land, their front lights like spotlights trained on Biidaaban at the slightest movement. The houses themselves even move and encircle Biidaaban at one point. In this sequence Biidaaban is overcome by them after drilling into a tree to collect its sap. What were you intending to evoke with the houses?
In this story, we wanted to create a dialogue around who owns land and what is owned property — especially when you have trees and root systems that have existed in those spaces since time immemorial.
It was important to us to explore what these "owned properties" signify, especially in relationship to Indigenous peoples, land and animals. Many times it can feel like surveillance systems of trying to keep intruders off of their lot. We chose not to have a person-based antagonist, but rather the neighbourhood itself. Biidaaban sets out to reclaim and unearth a process and ceremony in the midst of calling on a rebellion.