Interview with Animators/Filmmakers Jerry van de Beek & Betsy De Fries (YELLOWSTONE 88 – SONG OF FIRE)

YELLOWSTONE 88 – SONG OF FIRE played to rave reviews at the August 2021 ANIMATION Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

JERRY: Our studio is located in California where we are now beset with ever increasing climate related fires and purple air quality from the smoke every year. Fire season begins earlier and finishes later with every year that passes. Yellowstone 88 was finished this year but has been in production for some time and the more research we did for the film the more we realized that the conditions that allowed that conflagration to happen are the same conditions we are seeing today. In our lifetime we will all be confronted with the effects of climate change.

What happened in Yellowstone Park is a great example of how we view and sometimes misunderstand large climate related events like fires. In 2018, exactly 30 years after the Yellowstone fires, the town of Paradise California was destroyed by a massive fire that claimed many lives. Although the specific cause of both fires was different the underlying agent was the same. In Yellowstone the fire was a predominantly a natural occurrence caused by dry lightning igniting the fuel of dead trees and dry brush. In Paradise the fire was started by a combination of strong winds and badly maintained electricity poles that ignited sparks. These same events and more are happening around the world every year as we fail to keep pace with climate change and the havoc it is wrecking.

We cannot and should not fight every fire. Here in North America we have to pay heed to the ways of the First Nation and Native American wisdom in managing the land. We have to learn when to fight and when to give back to nature so that life can be brought back into balance.

In the story of Yellowstone 88 we show how for the animals of the park there were not one but two catastrophic events. First came the fire. Instinctively animals know how to survive a fire – they move away, they seek water, they go underground and so comparatively few animals were lost in the conflagration. Next came a devastating winter snowstorm of unparalleled severity. This was welcomed as a major relief as it stopped the fires but for the animals the snow and its aftermath was the larger of their problems. During the conflagration that took over 1,500,000 perimeter acres, vegetation was scorched and burned away. It was when snow covered all that remained that thousands of animals starved and died.

BETSY: Our studio is located in California where we are now beset with ever increasing climate related fires and purple air quality from the smoke every year. Fire season begins earlier and finishes later with every year that passes. Yellowstone 88 was finished this year but has been in production for sometime and the more research we did for the film the more we realized that the conditions that allowed that conflagration to happen are the same conditions we are seeing today. In our lifetime we will all be confronted with the effects of climate change.

Perhaps the question that remains is what can we learn from these past events so that we can adjust and prepare for the future?

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

JERRY: At Little Fluffy Clouds we fund these short films ourselves. This means that we can only work on these projects in between other productions. As you can see on the credits the team is also very small with just one animator. It takes us at least 2 years to complete a short animation like this with a lot of big breaks in between. I don’t think that is a bad thing, it’s very interesting to take these breaks and then come back to the project and look at it again with fresh eyes. It’s easy to lose perspective when you work on your own projects. We did however revisit a lot of the scenes after those breaks and change them.

BETSY: Yellowstone 88 was finished this year but has been in production on and off for sometime.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

JERRY: Majestic – Humbling

BETSY: Evocative and magical!

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

JERRY: Yellowstone 88 is really a short, animated documentary. We didn’t come up with the events of this story. A story like this one is extremely complicated and much larger than we could ever tell in a 5-6 minute animation. The challenge was in which part of the story to tell and what to leave out. Most of the stories you read about the fires at Yellowstone are told from the perspective of human loss. You always see fire fighters, burned out cars and structures. You hear about the political and public pressure brought to bear on the National Park to fight this fire and you see the stats and numbers. What we hoped to do was show only the story of the event as it happened and the animals caught up in that event. How they moved out of the path of the fire, where they hid and how they struggled against the snow and starvation. It is a story that perfectly lends itself to animation.

BETSY: Getting enough time to work in a concentrated way without interruption and the constant nag of having to earn money. In that strange way, that only fate can bring about, the pandemic and lockdown presented us with the time to focus completely on finishing the film – which we did.

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

JERRY: I found it a very emotional experience. For us this story is very close to our hearts. We’ve experienced these fires up close and live with the threat of wild fires and droughts each year. Its sad and beautiful at the same time when you realize that there are a lot of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences understanding and connecting with the beauty of our world and the challenges we are facing. The feedback went far beyond them responding to the images, it was very clear that the animation evoked a much larger emotion. It was never our intention to tell people what to feel and think but what we hoped for is a moment of reflection and a space for contemplation.

BETSY: It was incredibly moving to see and hear the straight from the heart emotion that these eloquent people were unafraid to express. I loved the diversity of the reviewers. You can see they aren’t professional industry critics and they are so far from being jaded. Brava! It was so touching to see something you’ve created and feel strongly about resonate so palpably with others. I loved and am thankful for that!

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. When did you realize that you wanted to make films?

JERRY: I personally realized I wanted to make films when I studied graphics design. I found that I couldn’t tell a story the way I wanted with a single image. I decided to stop graphic design and started studying animation. I’ve made independent animations ever since. Betsy and I met 25 years ago. She’s an exceptional writer and designer and worked on many large-scale projects before we met. We started Little Fluffy Clouds so we could earn a living and keep creating our own independent projects. It’s a great collaboration the way we feel really came together on this project with Betsy writing the poem, me doing the animation and together working on the overall design.

BETSY: I can’t pinpoint an exact moment I don’t think there is one. My life is art and filmmaking is one part of that continuing stream of life.

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

JERRY: Well we do watch “The Snowman” based on the picture book by Raymond Briggs and “Wind in the Willows” by Dave Unwin every Christmas and now we’ve added “Klaus” and “Wolf Walkers” to the list of our holiday tradition. I’ll also keep “Watership Down” the 1978 Martin Rosen version close by.

BETSY: “The Women”, George Cukor 1939 and “His Girl Friday”, Howard Hawk 1940. These films represent Hollywood at the peak of creativity. In animation nothing beats, “Wind in the Willows”, Dave Unwin 1995, “Ghost in the Shell”, Mamoru Oshii 1995 and “Spirited Away”, Hayao Miyazaki 2001. There is always something new to see in every viewing of each of these films.

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

JERRY: I’ll let Betsy answer that.

BETSY: Film Freeway is an excellent service, especially for small indie filmmakers who don’t have a PR machine backing them. FF organizes everything in one place and takes the chore out of film submissions. I recommend it.

9. What is your favorite meal?

JERRY: One that’s comes with good conversation.

BETSY: Sushi. Philosophically though nothing beats a dinner table surrounded by good friends and excellent conversationalists.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

JERRY: As soon as we have recovered from this journey I’m sure we’ll venture on our next that is probably a little longer but again something about nature. Our previous film, “As The River Flows”, was about the return of northern California River Otters to our watershed. We find nature endlessly inspiring.

BETSY: First we have to get “Yellowstone 88” out to as many people as we can before we can turn to a new project. “As the River Flows” our previous film was made in the same genre. I think there will be a third in this series but it may take a year or so before we can begin to realize that project. Also, and in the meantime, we have to work on commercially viable projects to get the money to make the next film. Life of a small indie studio :°)

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