Animation Magazine

Animating an Ancient, Sacred Story

How a beautiful story about healing Hawaiian spirits inspired the creative team behind the acclaimed new short Kapaemahu.

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How a beautiful story about healing Hawaiian spirits inspired the creative team behind the acclaimed new short Kapaemahu.

About 10 years ago, the producer/directors of the prize-winning animated short Kapaemahu Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer were working with Hinaleimoa­na Wong-Kalu on a documentar­y about her work as a teacher in Waikiki. That’s when she started chanting in the direction of some large stones on the beach, and told them about the origins of the sacred site. The filmmakers knew right then that they needed to go back to this intriguing subject again.

As Wilson explains, “As we continued to work with Hina on projects across the Pacific, we realized that she was not only a great film subject but a skilled storytelle­r in her own right. So when she decided to come over to our side of the lens as the lead director and producer on Kapaemahu, we were thrilled.”

Wong-Kalu has known about the stones of Kapaemahu since she was a young boy named Colin playing on the beach in Waikiki. She tells us, “It was only when I transition­ed to become Hinaleimoa­na, and began to immerse myself in Hawaiian culture and language, that I realized how they relate to me personally, and at the same time embody a beautiful part of our Hawaiian culture that most people know nothing about. I wanted to tell the story from my perspectiv­e as a native mahu wahine and to tell it in the language that my ancestors might have used to pass it on.”

Mystical Dual Spirits

The result of their collaborat­ion is a beautifull­y animated short which explains the origins of the four mysterious stones on Waikiki Beach and the legendary dual male and female spirits within them. The project, which premiered at Annecy last year and has gone on to win numerous festival awards worldwide, is one of the contenders of this year’s Academy Award and Annies races.

Hamer recalls, “We were inspired by the beauty and grace of Hawaiian culture, which in many ways is more sophistica­ted than anything westerners have come up with. As America went through its ‘transgende­r tipping point,’ finally recognizin­g that not everyone fits neatly into the gender binary, it was amazing to be working on a narrative about a society that recognized, respected and admired gender fluidity over a thousand years ago.”

The short’s Oscar-nominated animation di

‘One thing we didn’t expect is the way that the film has been embraced by youth. People usually think of healing and gender diversity as adult topics, but as it turns out, kids love the idea of magic stones.’

— Director-producer Joe Wilson

rector Daniel Sousa (Feral) seized the opportunit­y to create a very lush and beautiful world based on traditiona­l Hawaiian and Polynesian art patterns. He says, “I found inspiratio­n for the animation’s rough textures in Hawaiian tapa cloth and even the stones themselves. Dean, Joe, and Hina provided a wealth of photograph­ic references, and we tried to infuse every part of the film’s landscape with that stone texture and richness as well.”

Altogether, it took the team six years of research, two years of concept and script developmen­t, one year of fundraisin­g and one year of production. “We are a compact team,” says Wilson. “Hina, Dean and Joe direct and produce in Hawaii; Daniel animates in Rhode Island; his long-term colleague Dan Golden worked on the sound and music in Massachuse­tts; and Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole wrote and recorded the ceremonial chant in Sean [Na’auao]’s studio in Honolulu. Daniel animated full time for eight months, and drew every single frame by himself.”

Sousa explains that for character developmen­t, the main concern was to present the mahu as the dignified, statuesque healers they are, for which Wong-Kalu graciously offered to model. “Their large size is meant not so much as a physical representa­tion, but as a symbol of their large spirits,” he adds.

To produce the animation, Sousa and his team used Adobe Animate, Photoshop, After Effects and Blender to generate the 2D animation. “In terms of process, we started with Hina’s script, and from there I created a storyboard and an animatic, while simultaneo­usly generating character and background designs, as well as style frames for each critical moment in the story,” says the animation director. “This combinatio­n of animatic and style frames became our template for shaping the film. The directors were involved from start to finish and offered notes and references along the way by regular video conference­s.”

For Sousa, the biggest challenge was the joint effort of trying to create a story that connects with the audience on a human level. “The original manuscript is very straight forward, and as Dean mentioned we wanted to stick by it rather than embellish or revise,” he recalls. “Our innovation was to tell the story through the eyes of a curious child, a witness to history across the ages who gives viewers someone to relate to as the journey unfolds.”

The filmmakers have been thrilled with the reception the short has received worldwide. Says Wilson, “One thing we didn’t expect is the way that the film has been embraced by youth. People usually think of healing and gender diversity as adult topics, but as it turns out, kids love the idea of ‘magic stones,’ and think it’s totally natural for someone to be in the middle between male and female. We’re grateful to have been included in many children’s film festivals, and even to have won a few awards from youth juries. But maybe the greatest reaction was the message we recently received on Facebook from a local viewer: ‘I keep wondering who I’d have been if I’d seen it as a soft little boy at Kailua Elementary. I’m so excited for the kids who get to see it now.’” ◆

For more info, visit kapaemahu.com.

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 ??  ?? Director/producer Hinaleimoa­na Wong-Kalu
Director/producer Hinaleimoa­na Wong-Kalu
 ??  ?? Director/producers Dean Hamer (left) and Joe Wilson
Director/producers Dean Hamer (left) and Joe Wilson
 ??  ?? Animation director Daniel Sousa
Animation director Daniel Sousa

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