In the year 1988, a fire ravaged the world heritage site of Yellowstone National Park. With over 1.5 million perimeter acres scorched, it was both the scale of this event but also its relevance to today’s global struggles with climate change that led to the studio Little Fluffy Clouds creating a “really short, animated documentary.” Within, the team took an original poem titled ‘Song of Fire’ [Betsy de Fries] and combined it with animated animals, vivid depictions of the cosmos and an original score by Mark Murphy.
With the goal of depicting Yellowstone ‘88 through the lens of the animals - many of whom starved in the bleak winter that followed the fire - Little Fluffy Clouds saw this as a story “that perfectly lends itself to animation,” as well as an opportunity to move away from the often human-focused viewpoint that comes with the discussion of any natural disaster.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt caught up with the team at Little Fluffy Clouds to find out more about the events of Yellowstone ‘88, what went into the process of making this film and why its message is relevant in the year 2021.
LBB> What inspired you to make Yellowstone 88 in 2021?
Little Fluffy Clouds> 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 realised 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 Yellowstone, the town of Paradise California was destroyed by a massive fire taking many lives. Although the specific cause of both fires was different the underlying agent was the same. In Yellowstone the fire was 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.
Perhaps the question that remains is what can we learn from these past events so that we can adjust and prepare for the future?
LBB> A consistently striking detail of the film is the depiction of the background, which often consists of the night sky and the cosmos. How did you go about designing and detailing these backdrops?
Little Fluffy Clouds> When you find yourself in these vast wild land and national park areas you know you are in dark sky territory. You don’t find any lights from cities and human activities. Without this light pollution the night skies become voluminous and all-consuming. They are such a big aspect of what you experience. You realise how amazingly large and powerful the cosmos is and that our role is a very small part to play.
In the first section of the film we use the night skies to create a mystical and ominous setting for the forces to come. These dark skies also create a contrast for the fire to take centre stage. In the same way, when we transition to the following event - the snowstorm - we create a stark contrast by moving to very light skies. A total wipe out and a bare landscape devoid of any food or hope. Then we transition back to the dark mystical cosmos that receives these majestic animals in death before arriving at the final chapter of rebirth and renewal.
LBB> The animation obviously plays a large part in depicting the animals and the changing of the environment throughout the course of the film. What challenges did you face when going about such a process?
Little Fluffy Clouds> Designing an animated project is always a challenge but one we really enjoy. That’s the great thing about animation, once you know what story you want to tell you have to come up with a visual narrative that supports that story. You have to set parameters like colour palettes and techniques. As with any story you have your characters coupled with an event that takes place. In Yellowstone 88 our characters are the animals and the environment. The two major events of this story are the fires and the snowstorm.
The nature of this story is one of high contrast. Against the brightness of the fire and the whiteness of the snow, the story of the animals plays out in almost silhouette. This gave us the idea to create a 2D animation and stack the characters and events in layers. Starting with the first character, the environment, then we add the events of fire and snow and on top of that the second character, the animals. To make sure we fully showed the vastness of this landscape we introduced slow camera moves and worked with many 2D planes to create parallax and immerse the viewer into the story. It was at this stage that we decided to create this animation in Cinemascope to give it this epic feeling.
LBB> It’s obvious that a great deal of care was put into the creation of the soundtrack in order to add a thematic musical element to the vivid imagery. What steps went into scoring the film?
Little Fluffy Clouds> We had previously worked with Mark Murphy at Secrets and Machines on another project for Dell and really liked his work, so we asked him to have a look at the animation to see what he thought of the project. He loved it and became part of the team. We were really curious where he would take it so we didn’t give him too much direction. We discussed each scene, what kind of feeling we were trying to establish and the contrasts between scenes and chapters in the story, but musically we made sure to give him the space to create. Secrets and Machines is located in Dublin so we were also curious to see what he would bring to the table on a cultural level. It is scary to hand off your project and hand over some control to another but what you’ll find is that your project can grow beyond your boundaries and that is exactly what happened. We had a much more subtle scratch sound track in our minds but Mark went all out. I think he’s brilliant but the first time I heard it I have to admit it took me a bit to get comfortable with it before I started to love it. Betsy loved it from the start.
LBB> When preparing to read the poem Song of Fire, did you have any specific goals and intentions in mind for its delivery?
Little Fluffy Clouds> We had a lot of ideas on how the poem should be read. Betsy did such a fantastic job in the creation of Song of Fire and we had lived with the scratch read she did for so long that we were completely set and satisfied with its cadence. Then we stepped into the recording studio with actor Peter Coyote and he just did his thing. He read the poem in such a different way than we had imagined it and his read was so original. Once again you realise that although you should prepare, you have to be flexible and give space for individual artists to bring their interpretations to the table. The last thing as a director or a designer you want to do is control and box in your project. Peter’s contribution, although taking only an hour or so to lay down, was incalculable to the whole.
LBB> What challenges did you face in actualizing your vision for this film project?
Little Fluffy Clouds> 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 five- or six-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.
LBB> Do you have a part you’re specifically proud of now that it’s finished?
Little Fluffy Clouds> I’m most proud of the fact that we finished it and that we were able to tell the story we wanted to tell. When I look back at Yellowstone 88 and what it took to create it and the effort from everyone who contributed to it, it’s pretty amazing that it all came together. It’s bigger than the sum of its parts and definitely bigger than what we set out to create.
LBB> This piece obviously has a great many moving parts. In what order did you approach putting the project together?
Little Fluffy Clouds> I wished I could show you a clear, linear roadmap we followed from A to B but this production was far more organic than that. This project has indeed a lot of moving parts that somehow all had to come together and the only way we managed to do that was to re-create and change direction on many scenes during the process.
We started off by writing the animation script and we created some test animations and sketches for look and feel.
Betsy wrote this spectacular poem, Song of Fire, that was way more complicated and beautiful than our script and storyboards were. So we adapted. We created a scratch track with Betsy reading the poem and timed the story sketches to that. We do these projects during downtime between our paid projects so after a long period of stop and go we worked on the animation until it was in a fairly good place.
Next we started thinking about who could do the final VO. We had worked with Peter Coyote before on another project you can see on our website, As The River Flows, about River Otters of Northern California. We knew his voice and input would be perfect for this. We asked him to do the spoken word reading, sent him the poem and a work in progress of Yellowstone 88 and he agreed to do the project with us. Like working with any great artist, you’re going to be in for a surprise. His reading was absolutely beautiful. He totally understood the poem and the story we were telling but the way he read it was completely different than we had imagined - different but better. Instead of trying to make him fit the animation we decided to change the timings again to make the animation work with Peter’s reading of the poem.
At this point we felt we were ready to get a composer involved and called Mark Murphy. We showed him the animation and explained what kind of moods we were looking for in each section. We gave him general directions but not too much as we wanted to make sure he too had room to be creative. As this was post-scored you’re going to run into some timing issues so we had to go back and do some more tweaking to the animation. Mark’s music also inspired us to add some more effects and details. This was all very time consuming and clearly not the most effective way to go about creating an animation but as it was our own project, being effective was a lot less important than being creative and collaborating with other talents.
LBB> Has the release of this film had the impact you were hoping it would have?
Little Fluffy Clouds> Yellowstone 88 hasn’t been out there for very long and as a very small studio it takes time for an independent film to gain traction but its getting into festivals and perhaps more satisfying is the amount of very inspiring and emotional responses we get from people who have seen it. It’s the first time in my career that people have thanked us for creating something. It has struck a chord in the heart of so many who have witnessed or experienced the effects and disasters of climate change.
I think we all understand that we are facing major challenges. I hope that Yellowstone 88 will spark interesting conversations and make people think about the topic of climate change and the necessity of saving what nature we have left and make a place for it in this world. If diversity and sustainability is our goal it must be for the whole and not just for the human species.