Exclusive: “‘Little Wolf: The Night Trail’ is about a Native American in his actual environment”: dir. Jesse Cowan

Little Wolf: The Night Trail

Animation as a medium of art and expression is proving its mettle  every passing day! Independent animator, graphic novelist, filmmaker Jesse Cowan’s 10 minute animated short, Little Wolf: The Night Trail, that premiered earlier this month on YouTube, is a perfect blend of imagination, fiction and folklore.

Little Wolf: The Night Trail is a story of a young boy hoping not only to survive the terrors of the wild, but to prove his worth to his mentor and clan totem. Dark, violent and exquisite, the award-winning animated short  is a coming of age tale featuring the boy and his wolf totem as they navigate the perils of a murky forest, rife with monsters from Native American lore.

The description reads: It is not the standard fare for western animation, which has commonly been a family friendly forum for all ages to explore and play. No, the world of Little Wolf is a dangerous place, feeling more like a chapter out of a horror movie. The cannibalistic wendigo found rampaging through the woods are reminiscent to a hoard of zombies.

Besides being an independent animator, Cowan is a teacher, and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He is a lover of all things animation, and it was his boredom with the status quo of animation in America that drove him to create Little Wolf. He drew from his love of early 80’s animation, horror movies, and anime, as well as his studies of Native American myth and the influence of Joseph Campbell to weave a tale of action, adventure, fear and bravery.

Cowan stated in an official statement, “I started out animating the first minute on my own. I was prepared to animate the entire thing myself if I had to, but luckily that first minute of animation was solid enough for me to recruit a team of really talented artists, animators and friends. They believed in the project, and really helped elevate it to something amazing. I’m proud of the work we accomplished. I think we’ve made something awesome.”

A hybrid of CGI and hand drawn illustration, Little Wolf: The Night Trail is an adrenaline-fueled romp into the dark corners of Native American monsters and lore. The short has been honoured with many awards such as: 

Atlanta Horror Film Festival – Best Animated Short

Freakshow Horror Film Festival- Best Animated Short

New Wave Short Film Festival- Best Animated Short

Europe Short Film Festival- Best Animated Short

Roma Short Film Festival- Finalist

Seol Short Film Festival- Finalist

Animation Xpress had the privilege of having a conversation with Cowan on his acclaimed short. Excerpts follow :

What was the inspiration behind Little Wolf: The Night Trail?

A ton of things inspired me. I set out with a few goals in mind when making this animated short. The first was to tell a coming of age tale. I wanted to animate a boy in the woods hunting monsters. It’s the sort of fare that captures the big kid in me. Learning about Monomyth and Joseph Campbell played a big part in that, because that speaks to the idea of a timeless struggle that would be understood by both our ancestors and our great-grandchildren.

Secondly, to treat my audience like grown-ups. I mentioned earlier that I was influenced by early 80’s animation. Stuff like Watership Down, The Secret of Nimh, The Black Cauldron, The Wizards, Fire and Ice. I watched these as a young person, and later animation felt like it was playing it safe, trying to patronize the audience, which always left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be straight with my audience, and give them the respect they deserve.

Lastly, I wanted to do something that I haven’t really seen being done with animation. I’ve seen swords, armour and dragons. I’ve seen cowboys in space. I’ve seen samurai high-schoolers. But when’s the last time I’ve seen a story about a Native American in his actual environment? Without European settlers or cowboys? The closest things I can think of would be Disney’s Brother Bear, or the graphic novelisation of Joseph Bruchac’s Dawnland. This piqued my curiosity because it gave me an opportunity to learn about a part of my heritage that I knew relatively little about, and combine it with my own imagination to create something new and fun.

That’s really interesting. Did you do extensive research and resort to history to create this film?

I’ve been tirelessly studying Native American and indigenous myth and folklore from all across the continent. I collected a library of visual reference, and read a number of stories from the Creek to the Oneida, from the Cherokee to the Navajo. I’m particularly drawn to the stories involving monsters and boogeyman. There’s something intrinsically cathartic about giving form to all your fears and anxieties, and then duking it out with them on screen.

What software did you use for animating and how much time did it take you to complete the film?

I used Maya for the 3D aspects of the film, and Krita for the 2D, clean up, and visual effects. I used Ableton Live Lite for the music, except for the guitar, which was performed by Shumaun’s Farhad Hossain. Overall, the production time was one and a half years.

Jesse Cowan

Please take us through the entire production process in brief.

The whole production phase was pretty typical. I usually start out by writing a script, story-boarding it out, and creating a rough animatic to time out the action. In the animatic phase, I voice all the characters (quite awfully) [laughs]. Each step of the process reveals the weaknesses and shortcomings of the story that are corrected with new drafts, creating a stronger overall piece. After that, it’s all modelling, rigging, and animation. Oh, and voiceover recording, cleanup, lighting, audio mixing, and compositing of 2D and 3D.

Tell us about the animators and your team who helped you with this project?

I was lucky enough to get on Artella, a website for connecting animators and artists to projects, while it was still free and available to independents. There, I found lots of talented artists who liked the concept and signed on. It was a wonderful experience, directing an international crew of 20+ animators and artists all from my computer. Some worked on 3D animation, some on 2D, some on backgrounds. But they all really helped elevate the project and made it something great.

What’s upcoming on your plate?

The story of Little Wolf is one that I’ve been working on for years now. It’s been extremely fun to work on, and I intend on continuing it in some shape or form, be it a series of shorts, graphic novels, or some other medium. My heart will always lie in animation, but I will go wherever I have to in order to tell this tale and finish this journey.