Animation casts colourful light on a dark topic

Discarded underwear, plastic vodka bottles and used needles lie around at the Fish Camp. It’s a popular youth party spot in the woods at the…

Discarded underwear, plastic vodka bottles and used needles lie around at the Fish Camp.

It’s a popular youth party spot in the woods at the end of Main Street.

Tim died there.

One night the 18-year-old drank too much booze.

To deal with the loss, some of his friends went to Hospice Yukon for grief counseling.

But the others just started drinking more heavily.

The characters in this story are rainbow coloured, bright pink, green, yellow, blue and red.

They stand in front of familiar backdrops, photoshopped images of the clay cliffs, the Fish Camp and the Anglican Church.

The colourful, computer animation is reminiscent of South Park, with arms and mouths moving in isolation.

But the subject matter is heavier than the medium suggests.

Highlighting the lifestyle and loss of local teens, the 22-minute animation was created at the Bluefeather Youth Centre.

“We did this because so many kids have died in the last eight years,” said Bluefeather executive director Vicki Durrant.

“They have been rehearsing this in life for years.”

Last summer, Durrant remembered when a bunch of kids showed up at the youth centre drunk. Shortly after they left one of the youth, who was jumping from rooftop to rooftop, fell and died.

He was only 18 years old, she said.

“And after he died they were all partying — they were dealing with his death by drinking.”

This is when Durrant decided the centre needed something visual to show these kids that there are more positive ways to deal with crises.

“These kids have someone dying in there family once a month,” said Durrant.

“I just can’t imagine that.”

The production was originally supposed to be a play, performed by youth at the centre.

But when the kids realized they would have to stand up in front of an audience that might include the premier and Whitehorse’s mayor, they balked.

It was also difficult to get all the youth together to rehearse, said Bluefeather project manager Michael Wood.

“It’s just the nature of kids to drop in and drop out,” he said.

“So we ended up with an animation, where we could work with a single person at a time.”

Wood wrote the original script.

Then, the youth tore it apart.

“I came out with a script that was written like I thought kids talked,” said 32-year-old Wood.

But, apparently, they don’t talk like that at all.

“The kids really enjoyed writing their own dialogue,” he said.

It’s their world and their story, said Durrant.

“We just had to get the swearing out, because their language would have been terrible.”

Upstairs at Bluefeather, a small corner of the computer room has been transformed into a recording studio, complete with egg-carton walls to mute the sound.

This is where the youth sat to record their parts, often repeating a line numerous times until they got it just right.

After turning the recordings into computer sound files, Wood chose the best reading of each line and synched it up with the animated characters’ moving mouths.

Usually, this is done in reverse; the animator matches the mouth to the spoken lines.

But, in this case, time didn’t allow it.

“I like to look at it as a really complex jig-saw puzzle,” said Wood with a laugh, as he fiddled with the files.

Bluefeather graphic designed Dan Benoit, who usually works with stop-action animation, produced the cartoon.

But with only one month to create the piece, Benoit didn’t have time to build the clay characters that stop-action demands.

“It was a pretty short period of time to put together a 22-minute animation,” he said.

“So we just put all the ideas into a blender, then poured it out into a cup shaped like a DVD.”

Benoit drew the characters in Photoshop using a program called ImageReady.

Each character is a layer, said Benoit.

“And if you want them to move an arm or mouth, you have to make a whole other layer.”

Benoit made the characters colourful to contrast the dark subject matter.

“It’s pretty dark,” he said.

“It’s like making Schindler’s List as a colourful Disney cartoon.”

The banjo music soundtrack composed by local artist Charles Hegsted also helps to lighten the movie’s tone.

It’s reminiscent of the old days, sitting in the bush drinking a bottle, said Benoit.

It’s not the music local youth are listening to today, he added.

“But if we used their tunes we would have had to put a parental advisory on the DVD.”

Benoit called the animation Drop the Leash, referencing a Pearl Jam tune.

“It suggests that you don’t have to follow peer pressure,” said Wood.

Yukon diocese archbishop Terry Buckle and Hospice Yukon administrator Anne Macaire worked on the animation with the youth, getting their parts right and offering some support.

By working Hospice Yukon into the animation, Durrant hoped to offer youth who are struggling with loss an alternative.

“A lot of these kids, from the moment they’re born, haven’t had a stable life,” she said.

“Many have experienced physical and sexual abuse and are already very fragile.

“And right now, counseling doesn’t even cross their minds as an option.”

But the message is not necessarily the main point, said Wood.

“Maybe working with two, three or four kids at Bluefeather, on the animation and on the murals we painted behind Hougen’s, maybe this accumulation of experience is what’s important,” he said.

“Who knows how experience builds up in a person — we’re changing kids one at a time.”

Drop the Leash premieres Monday at the Bluefeather Youth Centre at 5:30 p.m.

It’s free, and so is the pizza.