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Animating History

It was the thirteenth century in what is now called Siberia, in the region of Olkhon and Lake Baikal, during a time of intense war between various Mongol tribes vying for superiority. In the midst of it all, a tribe of horsemen were led by Ellei Bootur, who was charged by his dying father to take his people to a place of safety beyond the Lena Pillars.

The journey was fraught with peril, as Ellei and his good friend Modoon encountered harsh winters, attacks from wild animals, and a shipwreck on the Lena River. With the help of Omogoy, who takes Ellei in and gives him his daughter’s hand in marriage, he begins a new life and becomes the progenitor of the Sakha (Yakut) People, a group with a current population of 500,00, living mainly in Yakutsk, Russia.

An Epic Story

In 2018, Create International Taiwan partnered with local missionaries working in Siberia to produce a unique animated short film titled, Ellei. Most of the films we have made involve modern stories that relate to the felt needs of a particular people group, and include a clear presentation of the story of Jesus. So we were somewhat surprised when our main cultural advisor told us that the Sakha people were already familiar with the gospel from the Russian church, and that what they needed to know most was that their famous progenitor, Ellei Bootur, worshipped one God. Apparently, there had been a recent movement within their culture toward polytheism and he felt a retelling of their origins would be key to leading the Sakha to Christ.

A team of three Create Taiwan staff and three students from the School of Cartooning and Animation for Missions flew to the city of Yakutsk in June of that year to research and record the voice actors for the film. We arrived at midnight to find that it was still light outside (the sun set at 10 PM and rose again at 2 AM). The script had not been completed, so we began our research by visiting local museums and immersing ourselves in Sakha culture. This included eating raw frozen fish, horse meat stew, and their most famous drink, kumis (slightly fermented mare’s milk).

From our research, we learned that there were many different legends about the origins of the Sakha, and their hero Ellei Bootur. One involved him choosing a bride based on the smell of her urine, which was a common method used by the Sakha when determining the health of their horses. Needless to say, we chose not to include this in our story. We did, however, include the interesting tale of how Ellei was the first to use blocks of ice as window panes in Sakha homes, and how he showed compassion for his enemies by helping the injured.

A Cast of Many

When the script was finally completed, we ended up with 9 speaking parts! We were able to find most of the voice actors by doubling up on a few parts, but there was one significant character that we had not been able to cast, and so we prayed for God to provide. While sitting with the project partner in a restaurant, he looked over and said, “How about that guy?” As it turned out, this total stranger ended up being perfect for the part!

“I know, for many Yakuts this will be their first time hearing about God through our own language and culture!”

By the end of the week, we were able to wrap up all our recording, but still had one last research location to visit… the Permafrost Kingdom. This fascinating exhibit was essentially a series of tunnels dug into the side of a hill which remain at a temperature below 7° C year round. After donning our thick coats and helmets, we entered the cave and took in the many ice sculptures of traditional and historical Sakha figures. It was nice to feel winter in the middle of June.

The Real Work Begins

After returning to our classroom/studio in Taiwan, we began the arduous task of creating all the digital assets needed to produce this epic story. This was, by and large, the most difficult animated film we have ever made. We had to create 90 individual backgrounds to cover all the locations and angles of their perilous journey. Thirteen characters were designed and animated, plus a huge amount of extras for crowd scenes. Other animation challenges included a Mongolian battle, a shipwreck, galloping horses, a blizzard, and a bear attack. It took us over five months to complete the 123 shots needed for the film. Our talented musician friend, Samuel, enhanced it all with an epic musical score.

Was it worth all the time and effort? After sending our rough-cut to the project partner, he said, “You did an amazing job! Thank you very much for blessing the whole nation of Yakutia with this cartoon. I know, for many Yakuts this will be their first time hearing about God through our own language and culture!”

- Dave H.

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