Interview with DNEG Greenlight Alum and Director of n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ, Asia Youngman

DNEG proud to provide VFX on independent Indigenous short film

Asia Youngman is an award-winning Indigenous director and screenwriter from Vancouver, Canada.

An alumna of DNEG’s 2017 Greenlight program, her films have been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, the St. Louis International Film Festival, and the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, among other festivals. Asia’s talents have been recognized over the years, with award wins for ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Short Film’ at the 2021 Vancouver Short Film Festival and ‘Best Short Documentary’ at the 2019 Calgary Film Festival for ‘This Ink Runs Deep’.

DNEG was proud to collaborate with Asia on her latest project n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ, which follows an Indigenous teenager named Zarya. After moving to a new town, Zarya must navigate peer pressure when her next-door neighbour, Amanda, convinces her to explore a nearby island in search of a legendary lake monster, the Ogopogo. She quickly learns that her new friends might be harbouring some secrets and ulterior motives of their own.

We caught up with Asia to hear more about what she’s been up to since graduating from Greenlight and to hear more about her latest project. We also hear from Chris Downs (DNEG VFX Supervisor on n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ) and Rosie Walker (DNEG CG Supervisor on n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ) about their experiences working on the project.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience in DNEG’s Greenlight program? How did your participation in DNEG’s Greenlight program prepare you for this project? What was it like to work with DNEG again?

In 2017, I was hired to work at DNEG and was fortunate to participate in their Greenlight program. What I loved about the experience was that it really eased my transition from film school to working in a professional studio. I gained confidence as an artist by testing my previous knowledge and learning new skills in a friendly, welcoming and supportive environment. I developed a strong understanding of the VFX pipeline, the software and the quality of work that DNEG expects from their artists.

When I left the VFX industry to pursue filmmaking, I had dreamed of working with DNEG again in the future as a director. I never imagined that the opportunity would present itself so early on in my career and I’m so grateful to have that dream come to fruition. Each artist brought so much passion, creativity and dedication to the project and we couldn’t have made the n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ (sacred spirit of the lake) come to life without their incredible work.

How has your approach to filmmaking changed or developed over the last few years? What can viewers – familiar or new to your work – expect from n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ?

I made my first short film Lelum’ in 2017 which won the award for Best Documentary Short at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto. Up until 2020, I had primarily focused on documentaries but my dream was always to pursue fiction storytelling, especially in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. So in addition to making that transition, I feel like my approach has changed in terms of building more trust and self-assurance in myself as I continue to develop my voice as a filmmaker. n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ is my most ambitious and personal film to date and I intend to continue pushing myself as an artist by taking risks and telling more vulnerable stories.

A lot of heartache and painful memories resurfaced for members of Indigenous communities across Canada last year. What impact do you think the ability to share Indigenous stories on a wider platform has on the potential for healing and reconciliation?

I think it’s important to share Indigenous stories on a wider platform so that audiences can understand our various experiences and cultures, while also shifting the narrative of some of the harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about our people that exist in Hollywood and mainstream media. Not only is it essential for people to understand the history of genocide, colonization and racism in our country but I also want people to see that Indigenous people are thriving and we are more than just our trauma. We are still here and we have so much to offer by sharing stories that have never been told from our perspective.

For many kids who grew up in B.C., the legend of the Ogopogo monster has long fascinated and frightened. Are there any specific stories about the Ogopogo that stick in your mind from childhood and if so, how did these memories play a role in the creation of n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ?

When I was growing up, my parents would take me and my brother to the Okanagan every summer to visit a family friend who also had two kids around our age. We would swim in the Okanagan Lake and scare ourselves with the belief that the Ogopogo was lurking somewhere beneath us. At that time in my life, I wasn’t accepting of my Indigenous identity due to the bullying and racism I was receiving in school. In addition, I didn’t understand how the mainstream depiction of the Ogopogo as a man-eating green monster was both inaccurate and exploitative to the Indigenous communities in the area. In my early research for the film, I discovered that in the 1980s a local tourism agency offered a cash reward of $1 million dollars for a proven sighting of the Ogopogo. After receiving permission from the Syilx Okanagan Nation, this became the inspiration for the story in conjunction with some of my own experiences of navigating peer pressure, bullying and the yearning to belong.

What’s next for n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ? Where can the public see the film in 2022?

n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ will be premiering at a film festival this year and it will be available online in 2023.

 

 

Want to find out more? We caught up with leaders of our DNEG team, Rosie Walker and Chris Downs, who served as CG Supervisor and VFX Supervisor on n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ, respectively.

What about n’x̌ax̌aitkʷ inspired you to get involved in this project? What was special about working on the film?

CD: I was inspired to work on this project for a number of reasons. First and foremost was to work with Asia, one of our Greenlight participants, as she pursues her dream. That alone would have made it a special experience. Additionally, I’ve always loved the short film format and the challenges it presents in quickly drawing you into the story and characters. After reading the script I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of.

RW: As someone who moved to Vancouver and made it their new home, learning about the Indigenous people of Canada, and the importance of the First Nations and their history, became very important to me. Long before the awful findings at residential schools made news around the world, I’d been told about the devastating impact of children being snatched from parents, and the ongoing poor treatment of Indigenous people even in the current day. As a human it made me angry, and as a mum it left a deep hole. I can’t imagine or speak for anyone who went through that, but I’m keen to do anything I can to understand and help. When this project was put in front of me, I was excited to be part of telling an important story – not only the legend of the N’xaxaitk’w, but also the experience of trying to fit in as an Indigenous young woman in a new place. I also remembered Asia from her time with us at DNEG, and I was beyond impressed and excited to support her in directing this film.

Do you have a favourite shot or sequence from the film that you enjoyed working on most?

CD: I always get drawn in by the suspense, so I love the shots where the creature is implied or hinted at, without giving too much away.

RW: I really enjoyed putting together concepts and visual ideas for discussion, particularly for the shots that were full CG. There is a lot to be enjoyed in the very beginning of a shot, when you can just loosely put things together, aiming for good composition and storytelling. And I think this shot is everyone’s favourite, but … the shot where the N’xaxaitk’w finally looms above the boat and you see the teenagers reacting is my absolute favourite. We thought a lot about how the N’xaxaitk’w would look – graceful yet imposing and powerful. So seeing that look we were after coming to life on the screen in that particular shot – that was very cool.

What was it like working with Asia again – no longer as a mentee in DNEG’s Greenlight program but as an accomplished director and filmmaker in her own right?

CD: It was an absolute pleasure to work with Asia. She had a clear vision for what she wanted to achieve and couldn’t have been more collaborative and helpful in our exploration of the creature and the mood that we were aiming at.

RW: I love movies, I adore the ones I work on, and I always have and will continue to do so – but I do crave more original screenplays, stories and projects. Knowing this was Asia’s project and an important story to tell made me feel so happy for her, and I was very keen to help. I always get excited when I hear something new and original, and I’m down to support any new director or filmmaker so we can continue to encourage more fresh ideas and new storytellers to step up. I’m looking forward to helping Asia out again on her next project, because I’m sure she has more!

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