This new, animated short film boasts two very big things: a stellar cast (featuring the likes of John Legend, Constance Wu, Liza Koshy but also Oprah!) and it’s also the first VR film to feature an indigenous world view. This film is none other than Crow: The Legend which was released just last month. asienne recently spoke with Maureen Fan, head of indie production company–and the studio behind Crow–Baobab Studios about: the legend behind the short film, the animation process, and snagging their stellar cast!
Crow: The Legend
What makes Crow: The Legend stand out?
We came across this legend!
Eric Darnell our co-founder, he co-directed Antz and [directed all] the Madagascar films, so he knows something about animation (laughs)–he actually has Native American blood in him. He doesn’t consider himself Native American but his grandpa found out that he had Cherokee blood within him. Ever since he was a young kid, Eric was just fascinated by Native American storytelling in particular.
So, he grew up with it and wanted to create this piece, but it was really hard to be our first piece because it has so many characters, so many sets and we were doing VR. It was ambitious and difficult so we didn’t tackle it. But now that we had two films under our belt, we thought, ‘Okay, time to do what we always wanted to do!’ and we went out to seek a Native American cast, as well as advisors to make sure we’re doing the right thing and telling the story as authentically as possible.
In that process, we learned that Native Americans were put in these boarding schools–which are also called re-education camps–and taught that they couldn’t tell stories like these because they’re considered Pagan. According to Randy Edmonds, he’s an 84-year-old Kiowa-Caddo tribal elder and our executive producer told us that [the camps] were trying to erase the Indian from the Native American and make them white.
What is The Legend?
Because of [the re-education camps], many people in the world–actually in the United States–think that Native Americans are no longer alive. There are people who actually believe that they’re extinct. They’ve been erased and that’s not true–there’s about 500 different tribes around here. When they ended up going to reservations, they tried to preserve as much of their culture as possible through oral storytelling that they pass on from their great-grandparents to their grandparents, to their parents to their kids and that’s how they try to keep it alive. But most of America is completely unaware of these stories because Native Americans were told they shouldn’t share them.
These stories are amazing, they matter so much in Native American history because they teach it’s how parents their children why things are the way they are. So Crow is about: ‘Why is the crow black? Why does the crow have his crying voice? Why doesn’t the crow fly south when all the other birds have to?’
Legend says that the crow made the sacrifice and that’s why crow doesn’t need to go down south.
It’s just amazing! Eric loved it from the story perspective as well because there’s this inevitable end where crow looks at his feathers and thinks that he’s lost everything that mattered, when the sun hits the feathers, his colors are still there, that’s saying that ‘beauty is within’.
He just thought the ending was perfect and didn’t understand why not more people know about this story and we found out. When we learned about the history of indigenous storytelling and how it’s been erased from our culture, we felt even more strongly about wanting to share this story.
Can you talk more about the VR aspect of the film?
We created it in both the 2D and the VR version because we knew that would make it so that more people could see it, but also in VR you get to be a character. You get to be the spirit of the season to turn the environment, you grow the flowers, you grow the grass, yet you are also the one who turns it cold and you make snow fall around you. By doing that, you’re the one who makes Crow go on a journey to save his animal friends from the cold. And by being a part of it, you feel even more engaged in the story and you care more about the characters because you’re, in a way, responsible for their plight.
The story is epic in scope and lends itself, naturally, to classic animation. We thought this would allow the viewers to choose how they’d want to experience it: do they want to take an active role, or do they want the story to wash over them like in traditional animation? So that’s why we did it in both [2D and VR versions].
Can you tell us a little bit more about your cast? I mean wow!!
(laughs) We’re a little indie studio of 15 people and we couldn’t pay top dollar for our amazing cast: John Legend, Diego Luna, Liza Koshy, Oprah Winfrey, Constance Wu…It’s amazing that we got this cast but they did it because they, themselves, were super passionate about the themes community and sacrifice; and all the people I just mentioned are advocates of their own minority underrepresented group. [That] meant a lot to our advisors and our executive producers (Native Americans in Philanthropy) [and] they’re hoping that these people lending their voices can help spread the word on indigenous storytelling.
We knew specifically that we wanted a diverse cast.
I’m Asian-American and to me, it really mattered that we had a diverse cast. We specifically chose a cast that we knew would be passionate about the theme. We sought out Constance before Crazy Rich Asians…We went to John Legend first because Crow is a bird–in our piece–he’s a celebrity who, ultimately, self-sacrifices for the greater community; and John Legend uses his celebrity platform specifically to shine a light on issues that he feels go unnoticed. Also, John didn’t just star in it, he’s also an executive producer and he wrote an original song for it because he was so invested in the themes.
[The cast] also learned that indigenous world view is very different from Western world view.
Western world view is more focused on the individual and indigenous world view is about community.
So, in Crow: The Legend, Eric (Darnell) wanted to emphasize that sometimes we think the differences between us are bad, but once you can accept yourself, and [what makes you different], that’s when you can accept others better – and we felt that that was especially timely in our world today.
This interview was slightly condensed for time and slightly edited for clarity.