The Mountain of SGaana spins a magical tale of a young man who is stolen away to the spirit world, and the young woman who rescues him. Haida filmmaker Christopher Auchter’s dream-like gem brilliantly entwines traditional animation with formal elements of Haida art, which are brought to life by a rich, evocative palette and stylized effects.
As a young fisherman cruises along a rugged shoreline, a tiny mouse in Haida regalia appears and starts to knit a blanket. A story unfolds on the blanket as it grows longer, illustrating the ancient tale of Haida master sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and his beloved, Kuuga Kuns. When a SGaana (the Haida word for “killer whale”) captures the hunter and drags him down into a supernatural world, the courageous Kuuga Kuns sets off to save him.
Will the lovers manage to escape the undersea Mountain of SGaana, or will they, too, become part of the Haida spirit world forever?
A young fisherman cruises along a rugged shoreline on autopilot. His face lit by the screen of his phone, he ignores his radio, a boiling kettle and a persistently inquisitive hummingbird, until a tiny mouse in Haida regalia appears and taps on a cup to get his attention.
The mouse begins to knit a blanket on which a story unfolds, illustrating the ancient tale of Haida master sea hunter Naa-Naa-Simgat and his beloved, Kuuga Kuns.
Once upon a time, the two lovers are hunting for sea otters when, suddenly, Naa-Naa-Simgat is swallowed by a killer whale (a sGaana, in the Haida language). The orca takes the hunter to the Mountain of SGaana, a supernatural undersea world, where she transforms into human form, becoming Killer Whale Woman.
The courageous Kuuga Kuns sets off in a canoe with her friends, the hummingbird and the good-for-nothing marten, determined to rescue her lover. But she’s captured by a halibut who brings her to the mountain. Kuuga Kuns manages to save herself by singing a spellbinding Haida tune, and then spots Naa-Naa-Simgat, who is about to be transformed into an orca by Killer Whale Woman.
Will the lovers manage to escape the Mountain of SGaana, or will they, too, become part of the Haida spirit world forever?
Seamlessly blending traditional animation with formal elements of Haida art, Christopher Auchter’s luminous images bring story and character to life, in this dream-like gem of symbol and narrative. The Mountain of SGaana makes brilliant use of a rich, evocative palette, spare orchestral music, stylized effects, and the ethereal strains of traditional Haida song.
The Haida are an Indigenous People whose island territories lie off the West Coast of Canada and in the southern regions of Alaska. The modern name for the archipelago is Haida Gwaii, which best translates to “people’s island.” There was a time when the islands were called Xaadlaa gwaayee, which means “coming out of concealment,” appropriately named for its location in the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. Haida Gwaii was formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands, after the ship of a British explorer who landed there in 1787. The lands of the Haida Nation were re-named in 2009.
Who are the Haida people?
The Haida are an Indigenous People whose island territories lie off the West Coast of Canada and in the southern regions of Alaska.
The modern name for the archipelago is Haida Gwaii, which best translates to “people’s island.” There was a time when the islands were called Xaadlaa gwaayee, which means “coming out of concealment,” appropriately named for its location in the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest.
Haida Gwaii was formerly named the Queen Charlotte Islands, after the ship of a British explorer who landed there in 1787. The lands of the Haida Nation were re-named in 2009.
Where did you first hear the story you tell in The Mountain of SGaana?
I first encountered the story years ago in an anthology of traditional Haida tales. This one stayed with me. Research later led me to many other versions of the story, but all with the same core events: the kidnapping, the rescue, and the journey to the underworld.
Why did you want to tell this story?
There was so much in the story that made my imagination light up. It has a master sea hunter, a transforming great killer whale, a mysterious trip to the supernatural world, and time travel. It was the perfect tale to turn into an animated film, and a great way to provide a small window into the beauty and complexity of Haida culture.
What’s the significance of the film’s title, The Mountain of SGaana?
The film follows the adventures of a sea hunter who is snatched by a killer whale and taken into the supernatural world located inside an underwater mountain, thus the title Mountain of SGaana. SGaana can mean both “killer whale” and “supernatural” in the Haida language―so it was the perfect fit.
To the average viewer, The Mountain of SGaana is a beautiful film that tells a gripping story. How did you use design elements to make it resonate at a different level for a Haida audience?
I used Haida art to help frame the action and highlight key moments in the story, and to give those important moments an exclamation mark. I also use the Haida art as symbolism: at the beginning of the film, the character of Skipper is surrounded by multiple frames featuring various scenes from his environment. He ignores what’s going on around him, and doesn’t engage with his world. These scenes that surround Skipper are framed with black lines. This works in contrast with the other more complex multi-panel Haida formline shots we see throughout the course of the film. Skipper doesn’t get this more complex visual treatment until later in the story when he actively begins to engage with the world around him. His biggest moment comes when he throws the rope to Kuuga Kuns and Naa-Naa-Simgat and pulls them in. This symbolizes that he is pulling his culture closer to him.
Are there animation filmmakers who are your role models?
I look to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Tomm Moore (Song of the Sea). They have both included their culture in their work, and shared it with the world in a very accessible, authentic and entertaining way.
Can you trace for me the evolution of your animation from How People Got Fire to The Mountain of SGaana?
I think I have always been heading in this direction. The style I used for the animation in How People Got Fire was actually a bit of an accident.
I had been drawing samples for director Daniel Janke, and my pencil just wasn’t working for me, so I picked up some charcoal. Daniel flipped through my drawings, and as soon as he saw the charcoal he said, “This is it”!
It was while I was working on How People Got Fire that I discovered a program called Toon Boom. I began to use it to create shorts for Loretta Todd’s children’s series Tansi Nehiyawetan. This was really pivotal for my growth as an artist. Loretta gave me a ton of room to create, and to grow as a filmmaker.
After that, I worked with my uncle Mike [Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas] on animation to accompany his graphic novel Flight of the Hummingbird, and then on the Raven’s Call. From there I moved into commercial work until I felt ready to embark on my own project with The Mountain of SGaana.
There was nothing old-school about the process for this film―well, aside from the initial drawings. Once I had those, I had the characters 3D printed with JC Cappelletti, at 3D Phacktory in Toronto. We were able to send changes back and forth almost in real time. It was amazing, and I want to do that all the time now.
How do you use animation as a tool not only for cultural memory, but also for activism and engagement with non-Indigenous audiences?
This is very important to me, but I’m also conscious of making sure my voice is coming from a place that I know.
I always look at my uncle Mike. He was publishing his comic books, Tales of Raven, No Tanks T’anks, and Mutants of the Pit in the 70s and 80s, speaking out on many social and environmental issues. He stood with other Haida, blockading the logging roads to save Lyell Island from clear-cutting―a fight that would eventually lead to the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. He has actually experienced those things. If I haven’t experienced something like that, I’m not going to pretend I have. I’m conscious of not stepping into territory that I don’t know, which is why this film is about what I do know. I know fishing, and what it’s like to be on a fishing boat. I also know that internal struggle to understand your culture in order to find that sense of belonging.
At art school I did this piece―simplistic really―but it was real for me. It was an image of a raven holding one of its own feathers and looking at it. The title was Not Haida Enough. It was about being part of a culture, but feeling I knew neither my history, nor my language, since they were both destroyed by smallpox and residential schools. That reality creates a feeling that you’re not who you are. And I’ve come to understand that a lot of people feel that way.
Telling stories like The Mountain of SGaana helps me keep the learning process alive. I’m building my own cultural memory.
Animation is not yet a common filmmaking tool for Indigenous artists. How do you see it becoming part of the continuum of drawings, paintings, and perhaps even totem pole art?
I think I was the first of the Haida people to use animation as an art form. There are now others. We are using it to record and make traditional stories accessible, and also to begin new traditions, as in any living culture. There is constant exchange between the new and the old.
THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA PRESENTS
THE MOUNTAIN OF SGAANA
CHRISTOPHER AUCHTER & ANNIE REID
SOUND DESIGN AND RE-RECORDING MIXER
COMPOSITOR, VFX AND AFTER EFFECTS ANIMATION
MELANIE LE TUQUYEN
3D RENDERING AND PRINTING
NIKITA TOYA AUCHTER
KEVIN LORING AS THE SKIPPER AND THE BEING
DEVERY JACOBS AS KUUGA KUNS
OLIVIER DE COLOMBEL
SOUND MIX FACILITY
THE SOUND KITCHEN
NFB ANIMATION STUDIO
ROSALINA DI SARIO
NFB BC & YUKON STUDIO
STUDIO DE LA COLOMBIE-BRITANNIQUE ET DU YUKON DE L’ONF