The hook for writer/director Daniel Byers embarking on his Paleolithic film project, The Lion and the Firebirdlearned that Neanderthals used body glitter.
It’s true: 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals apparently rivaled Euphoria teenagers in their make-up application, using manganese body paint, crushed mica and seashells to adorn themselves with highlights.
“There’s a long history of portraying the ancients as Saturday morning cartoon-style cavemen,” Byers told me. Yet, according to recent archaeological evidence, “human beings have been expressive for a long time.” Byers felt called to portray ancient humans in all their complexity: “We wanted to create a world, a vision of the ancient past, where the tribes were very culturally specific.”
But how do you represent a new vision of the ancient past with an independent filmmaker’s budget?
The Lion and the FirebirdFilm student Fernando González Ortiz’s producer had a timely solution: using cutting-edge real-time virtual production technology popularized by Disney in The Mandalorian.
“This is a first for independent cinema. We’re the first fully independent entity to go and make a movie this way,” Byers explained. “We were innovating. I think it was the right choice for this particular film because we wanted to transport people to a different world, a different time, an absolutely different environment.
The Lion and the Firebird is a story of survival, change and transformation. It’s also a love story, a kind of paleolithic The beauty and the Beast. The film follows a young human woman whose matriarchal tribe is destroyed by a band of invaders. Forced to flee with her daughter, she encounters one of the last Neanderthals, with whom she must cooperate if they are to survive.
According to Byers, “I was really interested in that moment at the end of the era of Neanderthals, when Neanderthals as a distinct human subspecies disappeared from the world and somehow disappeared. so integrated into our populations”.
Most researchers classify early humans and Neanderthals as related but distinct species. There are many theories about the demise of Neanderthals, most involving a combination of interbreeding and conquest by human tribes. Byers wanted to show a bit of everything, “to show how power and hierarchy in the early growth of human societies began to set in… but also the ability for people to find love and cooperation.
“[The film is also] subverting what I think the traditional narrative is, which is that Neanderthals were stupid and homosapiens were smart and so we wiped them out with our big brains.
Great care has been taken to render this ultra-old world with as much complexity and precision as possible. The entire film is made in a Proto-Afro-Asiatic language, reverse-engineered by a linguist from root words dating back 18,000 years. The script was overseen by paleo-archaeologist and Neanderthal expert Dr. Anna Golstein of UC Davis. The film even received the prestigious Sloan Science Grant in Anthropology, a significant production boost that allowed Ortiz to pursue even greater possibilities.
I spoke to Ortiz and Byers in an interview at the end of February, as the team was still working on the final cut of the film. Ortiz explained to Virtual Production, why he was so keen to secure him for the film, and how he pulled it off.
“It’s very ethereal,” Ortiz described, “when you create [the background] and your environment designer sends you something and you see all these parts apart it’s very hard to understand but once you see [the finished product]you believe magic is real.
Byers wanted to create a world that felt distinct from anything audiences had seen before, an “active, vulcanized world”, a world on the brink of an ice age, littered with the skeletons of woolly mammoths. This type of scope would not have been possible without the ability to create it from scratch in a virtual production environment.
If you’ve seen an old movie where an actor is in a car and the background is projected onto a screen behind him to make the car look like it’s moving, that’s old-school virtual production.
Modern virtual production uses the same principle, with actors performing in front of a screen, except that as the camera moves, the virtual background projected onto an LED screen moves with it. The coordinated movement between the camera and the background imagery creates a fully immersive illusion.
Instead of a green screen setup requiring the cast and crew to imagine the scene they’re working with, in the virtual production it’s projected for everyone to see. Ambient screen lighting also avoids lighting design headaches.
The pandemic got Ortiz thinking: If a soundstage was the safest place to film and a set could look as good as those in The Mandalorian, Virtual Production presented an ideal solution. But for one independent producer, this new technology seemed out of reach:
“I saw it as something fantastic,” Ortiz said, “a technology that I might have access to in ten years, unless I had a stroke of luck. This technology is controlled by the studios in a capitalist sense.
“The wheels started turning for me… how can we bring this technology to more people? I don’t want students, independents, having to wait until they’re in the big leagues, spending millions and millions of dollars to use it. So I started to do research. Luckily, I spoke to all my teachers to see if anyone knew anyone in this space.
Through the School of Arts Professional Practice Teacher Maureen RyanOrtiz connected with Worldstage, a New York-based event technology company, and the owners of a virtual production setup.
Ortiz managed to get a big discount with Worldstage. “They were also the ones betting on us to be their first narrative effort. They had done mostly commercials and corporate work. We were kind of like their guinea pigs, and they were ours, and we were all learning with each other, which was really interesting.
“Every day was kind of an absolutely, completely unplanned challenge,” Byers said, “because we were pushing their technology in a way that they had never tried to use it before. when you take the camera off the tech crane and put it on an easy rig on someone’s shoulder to shoot a fight scene, for example? Well, we found that out when we tried to do it on the second day, and it was chaos at first.
“There were many times when we lost hours on something technical that we couldn’t have anticipated,” admitted Byers, “but we made up so much time that we should have used it if we Went upstate New York and shot [the film] in the woods.”
I asked Byers and Ortiz what scenes and effects they were most excited for audiences to see. Both mentioned the forest chase scene they shared with me in clips from the film. It’s a scene in which the young woman, Rising Fire, and her daughter flee from the Lion Men invaders through a forest at night, the world awash in moonlit blue except for the layers of twisted black trees. in the foreground.
The camera follows the bodies of the pursuers and their spears; the scene is kinetic, yet fluid, urgent, yet beautiful. This is just one example of the wonderful use of color in the film: elsewhere you’ll find dramatic reds, fiery oranges and shadows, darker, twilight blues. The scene also showcases the wonderful physicality of the performers.
How to choose and repeat for such a unique project? You let the body language carry the story. Byers explained the thought process:
“We need people who can move a certain way. And a lot of it is behavior, a lot of it is movement, so we ended up choosing a skilled dancer for our first lady. One of our main gentlemen, the Neanderthal man, is a former heavyweight boxing champion… We chose people who already embodied very specific ways of moving and behaving due to their origins and who they were. are.
“Our villain was another really fun one, he’s a trained opera singer and was previously in a gigantic Indian production of The beauty and the Beast.”
The villain, leader of the invading gang of Lion Men, also wears a mask for much of his performance, adorned with stripes, feathers and fangs.
“A lot of our characters wear masks, masks were a big part of the story, because we draw a lot of inspiration from paleo art, you know, like the [Hohlenstein-Stadel] Lion Man, so we wanted our characters to embody that, as being living lions themselves.
“In terms of the language game, it’s a challenge,” Byers continued, “We didn’t get the full translation of the film from English into our Proto-Afro-Asiatic language until quite late in the process… luckily the actors understood it very well.
Byers hopes the otherworldly language, striking visuals and setting will immerse audiences: “You’re watching something where you have to accept being in a very different place from the world you know.”
The Lion and the Firebird is an inspiring showcase for ingenuity and risk-taking in the production of stories and films. As a creative team, Byers and Ortiz show the kind of magic that can happen when filmmakers up the ante with every decision, and the resulting film is a must-watch when it premieres at the Columbia University Film Festival. (CUFF), May 7. , 2022, 9 p.m. ET, and May 14, 2022, 9 p.m. ET.
CUFF is the annual celebration of the work of students and alumni of the MFA Film Program, with screenings, premieres, panels, awards ceremonies and more dynamic programming. Showcasing the thesis-level work of participating filmmakers, it’s a great opportunity to see exceptional short films and get to know newcomers to the filmmaking community. This year, the festival will run from May 5-16, 2022. For Columbia University students, faculty, and staff, festival screenings will be available free of charge.