Alberta-made animated film chases elusive Canadian mythology

Filmmaker and teacher Kevin Kurytnik spent seven years working on his NFB animated film Skin for Skin, which is screening at the Calgary International Film Festival, Edmonton International Film Festival and Ottawa international Animation Festival.

ACAD professor Kevin Kurytnik's Skin for Skin mythologizes a 8,046 kilometre cross-country canoe epic

Skin for Skin, an animated Canadian myth, is being screened at the Calgary International Film Festival. (National Film Board of Canada)

Kevin Kurytnik set out to create a Canadian mythology before all the animation artists he teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design fled to the United States.

Kurytnik, who is an assistant professor of media arts at the Calgary art school, set out with partner Carol Beecher about seven years ago to create an animated film that told the story of former Hudson's Bay Governor-in-Chief George Simpson, who in the 1820s sailed a canoe 8,048 kilometres [5,000 miles] across Canada.

Researching the history of Simpson, Kurytnik discovered some pretty astonishing early 19th century data.

"We were looking at the research, and read that they processed two million beaver a year," Kurytnik said in an interview with host Russell Bowers on Daybreak Alberta. "Can you imagine?"

'A Canadian myth structure'

Canada has always been a little lacklustre when it comes to mythologizing itself — except when it comes to hockey.

Kurytnik, a lover of the films of David Lynch, thinks he knows why.

"We don't have myth because everybody moved here for jobs — to get land, to create a new life," he said. "Practical reasons. A lot of people with religious persecution moved here. All sorts of people."

On the other hand, Canada also shares a continent with the United States, a country that knows a thing or two about creating an origin story.

Skin for Skin was animated in part by former students, some of whom have gone on to work for companies such as Pixar, Blue Sky and Electronic Arts.

"Americans have the myths, and they are strong myths," he said.

"The idea of the west is such a strong myth. You have something bad happen in the east — move to the west. New life."

Inspired by iconic Coleridge poem

Kurytnik, who was inspired in part by Coleridge's 1834 epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, found support for his project working with a pair of Edmonton documentary producers.

"Our Edmonton producers, Bonnie Thompson and Dave Christiansen, have documentary backgrounds primarily," he said. "They let the research dictate the project

"So we researched Simpson. We researched the fur trade. We wanted [the film to capture the feeling of] a trip across what became Canada. That's sort of the structure of it." 

He said the tale devles into the darker side of the journey. 

"The history is kind of a Cormac McCarthy-ish kind of screwing over the other guy to make a buck," Kurytnik said, referencing the American novelist with a somewhat jaundiced perspective of American western mythologies. "And whoever doesn't have the latest technology, the latest guns,  the latest anything — they end up being on the short end of the stick.

"Our guy in the film, Simpson, was a kind of a sociopath. You had to be to survive. You could die out in the bush, and it was nothing but bush."

'They've decided to go where the money is, basically'

Kurtnyik's own filmmaking odyssey might not have involved two million beaver pelts, but part of the reason why it took so long was that his students kept getting cool jobs working for major animation studios.

The film employed a crew primarily consisting of Kurytnik, Beecher and former animators who Kurytnik taught at ACAD.

Director Kevin Kurytnik spent seven years making Skin for Skin, a digitally animated short that tells the story of Gov. George Simpson's 5,000 mile canoe trip across the country in 1826. (National Film Board of Canada)

"I've got a student who works at Pixar. I''ve got a student who's head of story at Blue Sky, that made Ice Age and their new film, Fernando is coming out soon," Kurytnik said. "They've decided to go where the money is basically — the big five Hollywood animation companies and things."

Another one of Kurytnik's former students  turned down a gig working on Spiderman: Homecoming in order to take a job at EA, the gaming behemoth, while another student, an Aborignal filmmaker, got a job as a lead animator on a show called Wapos Bay, which ran four seasons.

It seems that Alberta's animation industry is churning out talent at a significantly higher rate than its film and television industry is creating opportunities for them to earn a living here.

"Alberta is kind of very quiet for animation," Kurytnik said. "We don't have series or features here — yet."

Skin for Skin is being screened this week at the Calgary International Film Festival, the Ottawa International Animation Festival and in early October, at the Edmonton International Film Festival

With files from  Daybreak Alberta