Edge of the Knife: Preparing Props

A four-person contingent works busily in a warehouse in G_aaw, modeling k’aal (sculpins) and k’ay (Crab apples) from clay and fish from wax.

 

By Graham Richard —

Like any full-length film, the upcoming Haida language feature Edge of the Knife requires a large range of props and Haida craft-makers are hard at work to provide film crews with an arsenal of creations. Actors will need everything from bracket-fungus torches to be used in a chase-scene, to k’uud Black cod fishing hooks crafted in the old style, to lengths of cedar rope for binding captured prisoners.

Film directors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown led teams through months of research to showcase as much Haida technology as possible. They started the process in consultation with elders who remember early days. This was complemented by a “forensic” study of illustrations and photographs in books and archival collections. Using these two sources, crews reverse engineered and ferretted out items to ensure the film is as accurate as possible.

“We put a lot of work into looking for the old breed of dog that live in Haida Gwaii at the time,” Gwaai said as he provided an example. “We went hunting high and low going through the pictures. Some are from the 1890’s and early 1900’s. But cameras at the time had long exposures and the dogs don’t stay still, so we had a whole lot of pictures of ‘ghost-dogs’.”

The bounty of ghost-dogs eventually drove the inquirers to conclude the Haida breed must have been similar to the Tahltan bear dog, an athletic hound indigenous to the north coast. While introduction of new breeds brought the bear dog to extinction by the 1970s, the team settled on unearthing an archetype.

Then Gwaai’s brother Jaalen Edenshaw mentioned a good picture of the Haida breed in ‘Haida Monumental Art’ by George F MacDonald. A slight blur did not obscure the image enough to prevent investigators from cross-reference with existing breeds of similar quality, like the Blue heeler and Husky.

“We were hunting and hunting and hunting, and finally we had an image of a mutt,” said Gwaai. “We put people on the look out, but when we saw Boy, she pretty much fit the bill for what we were looking for. Boy is missing the great big claws. The old breed had pretty big mitts and they were a bit hairier…but maybe we’ll get hair extensions.”

While some props must be found or borrowed, many more must be created from scratch. A large team of craftspeople including Ralph Stocker, Diana White, Gabriel Serdult, Caleb Taguchi, Aretha Edgars, Paul Rosang, Jon Calfas, Jennica Bell, Tiffany Boyko and Paul Biron have been checking items off a list that includes k’ay Crab apples, hlGaajuu drying racks, ts’iihlintsaaw Devil’s club, and tools. The team is also borrowing key pieces from Saahlinda Naay the Haida Gwaii Museum and Haida citizens. Additional team-members are digging k’yuu clams, gathering sGyuu Red laver seaweed, and catching chiina fish.

Props Manager, SGaan Kwah Agang James McGuire, is leaning on direction and mentorship from Props Director, Sandy Cochran, who brings over 25 years of production design experience from movies like White Fang. Together the two are coordinating over a dozen Haida craft-makers and organizations.

“Sandy is a pro in the movie business. He has provided us with a flash education in the practical realities of making a movie,” said SGaan Kwah Agang. “The broad set of technical skills and knowledge that goes into outfitting a film is crazy! Our team is designing silicon molds for wax props that will look well on camera, and we’re even making our own tools to create certain objects. Sandy’s job is a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ gig. What he does is so diverse, but he does it with confidence and that’s really inspiring.”

A trio of weavers is working on costumes with help from Costume Director Athena Theny, a jeweler, leatherworker, weaver and artist who worked in costumes for TV series like Supernatural and Fear of the Walking Dead and classic films like Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Georgia Bennett, Nalaga Avis O’Brien, and Gene Davidson Jr are busy weaving with Kund Qayangaas Marlene Liddle at her house in Gaaw. The trio is clothing 25 actors in woven attire that will include aprons, rain capes, blankets, and cedar rope. They are employing a variety of techniques, including finger, A-frame loom, and floor loom weaving

“The three of us are all bringing different experience and technique to this project,” said Kund Qayangaas. “Georgia is a Raven’s tail weaver, so while this material might be a little new to her the techniques are the same, and she’s produced a quite a number of the pieces. Nalaga studied weaving with me before. She is a natural! She works with a floor loom that we set up in my kitchen during the day, then I get home from work and weave from 7 to 11pm.”

Meanwhile Theny is busy creating ten leather and wool costumes at her studio in T’agwan Vancouver. Theny says it is very rare to design a complete wardrobe for a movie, but committing more thought and involvement to each costume takes production to the next level.

Completed pieces must be ‘distressed’, or worn, to look weathered and well used. The layers of meaning woven into Haida garments already carry thousands of years of history. By darkening spots on a hide, tearing the corner of an outfit, or softening a cape to drape correctly artisans infuse each article of clothing with an extra layer of story. This form of storytelling is Theny’s specialty and her favourite part of the work.

Artisans are working steadily to finish all the clothes before filming starts. “We’ve got music going so we can stay relaxed in the comfort of my weaving space,” said Kund Qayangaas “Sometimes it gets pretty serious. We don’t take official coffee breaks. We kind of just stop for a few minutes, snack, then get busy working again. There was a lot to do, but we’re getting close now!”

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