'Heartbreaking': Animator shed tears working on Gord Downie's Secret Path film

Justin Stephenson, who grew up in Yukon, remembers an emotional roller-coaster working on the project with the late Gord Downie.

Justin Stephenson spent many emotional days and nights bringing Chanie Wenjack's story to the screen

Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert premieres Sunday night on CBC TV. Justin Stephenson directed and edited the film with Mike Downie, and also animated last year's Secret Path film. (CBC)

Justin Stephenson remembers getting the call, inviting him to animate the film based on Gord Downie's project The Secret Path.​

Stephenson was in a car, and as Gord's brother Mike Downie told him the story behind the project — about the tragic death of Chanie Wenjack, a First Nations boy escaping residential school — Stephenson was deeply affected.

"I had to pull over," he recalled.

That call led to one of the most emotionally challenging, and rewarding, projects the Juno-nominated animator has ever worked on.

"My wife would come downstairs and I would be working on the material and shedding a few tears," he said. "And it got to the point where she asked me, 'do you just sit in the basement and cry?'"

Downie's songs, Stephenson said, 'brought the reality of what happened in [residential] schools to me. And it was heartbreaking.' (Justin Stephenson)

Stephenson, who grew up in Yukon but is now based in Toronto, spent three months bringing the drawings from Jeff Lemire's graphic novel to life, and setting them to Downie's The Secret Path song track. He directed the animation, and also edited and supervised the design of the film.   

"It was 18-hour days for three months straight, you know, seven days a week. I slept very little ... It was wonderful, but it was also a very hard process too."

Stephenson said it was emotionally difficult for two reasons — Downie's illness, and Wenjack's story.

"It's an unbelievable story. It's unbelievable in the sort of simplicity and directness of the story, but also in the fact that [Wenjack's] story was sadly not uncommon," he said.

Downie's songs, he says, "brought the reality of what happened in those schools to me. And it was heartbreaking."

Stephenson also worked with Mike Downie to direct and edit the film Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concertwhich combines his animated film with a performance Gord Downie gave at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall last year.

"Gord's performance is meticulous and rigorous and very, very forceful. It's definitely something to see, for sure," Stephenson said.

"Not only is this a work of art, but it's also a work of  history, and a work of politics, and a work of uncovering a greater sense of our history together as a country."

Gord Downie's Secret Path in Concert premieres on Sunday night at 9 p.m. on CBC TV, with streaming at cbc.ca/secretpath

With files from Dave White