How birds got their songs

By ELIZABETH RAU  |  February 3, 2010

THE FILMMAKER RedShirt at work.

Wakinyan RedShirt has made three films in his life: Lego Star Wars, Bionicle Heroes, and The Wolf Show. But perhaps his greatest flick, he says, is his latest.

Not only did he get to be a crow (with a speaking part, no less: "k-kaw k-kaw"), he got to bang on a drum and shake a rattle for the musical score. He's five years old and already has his life mapped out: He wants to be a filmmaker.

"It's fun to make movies," he said, chewing on his sleeve. "They're interesting."

Wakinyan was sitting at a little table with little chairs at the Nuweetooun School in Exeter the other day talking about How Birds Got Their Song, a five-minute animated film that will be shown at the first Providence Children's Film Festival, which runs from February 12-15 at the Cable Car Cinema and the RISD Museum.

Many of the films, both shorts and features, are from around the world (Germany, France, India, even Cuba), but there are also local productions like Birds, a collaboration between RISD graduate and Providence filmmaker Jo Dery and the 12 students at Nuweetooun, a private K-8 school that focuses on Native American and environmental studies and hands-on learning geared toward children of Native descent.

The film's story, based on a folktale, is simple: The birds cannot croon. They hear the "Nahagansetts" (or Narragansetts) sing every morning to welcome the day and ask the Creator for a voice. The Creator tells them to fly to Sky World for the "gift of song." The birds find success; one bird, the woodland thrush, finds too much. She piggybacks on an eagle during her flight; she cheats. Her bird friends discover her trickery. Ashamed, she flees into the forest and there, alone in self-imposed exile, she sings only for herself.

"I learned that it's not right to cheat," said Laurel Spears, 9, who threw herself into creating the woodland thrush, but is quick to point out that she does not share the bird's moral shortcomings. "I don't cheat."

Dery, 31, a printmaker and illustrator as well, wanted to make a film with people who "maintain a storytelling tradition — like Native Americans." She thought Nuweetooun, which lies deep on wooded grounds near Roaring Brook, would be a good match.

Every Thursday for three months this fall, she packed her light kit, digital SLR camera, tripod, laptop, and microphone into the back of her station wagon and drove to the school to teach animated filmmaking.

A lot of "grunt energy" went into the early sessions. Every child picked a bird, say, a hummingbird, or a Scarlet Tanager. The children drew the birds, cut them out and then turned them into what Dery calls "animated puppets," which, with a delicate push from tiny fingers, would soar above a cloud or tumble over mountains. Dery snapped the pictures.

TAKING FLIGHT A frame from Birds.

Animation can be tedious, but the children persevered. Laurel, for example, said it took 36 flips for her opossum (who had a bit part in the movie) to climb a tree. In clock time, that translated into one hour; in kid time, one day.

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