ON A KNIFE EDGE is the coming-of-age story of George Dull Knife, a Lakota teenager growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. The film traces George’s path to activism, inspired by his family’s long history of fighting for justice for Native Americans. 

In the following UNFILTERED blog post, animator Michael Burton, reveals the process behind creating the animations for On A Knife Edge.

Guy Dull Knife and I are sitting in a park in Rapid City South Dakota looking at storyboards I drew depicting a band of Northern Cheyenne who escaped Oklahoma and fled north only to be captured near Fort Robinson, Nebraska. Although Guy and I are sitting in the late spring sun, it feels chilly. Eli Cane, the film’s producer is hanging out on the periphery letting us talk.

Guy and I discuss everything, from the look of American fabrics that some of the Cheyenne women wore, to exactly how many people were held captive. I ask him question after question about the colors of clothing and horses, the gestures of the people, and details about the outbreak.

Guy Dull Knife and Michael Burton sit with storyboards discussing the animated segments of the film. Photo: Eli Cane / Normal Life Pictures.

Guy occasionally smokes a cigarette during the almost three hours we sat in that park. When I ask him, “How did people make it through the cold? The Cheyenne were walking through an exceptionally cold winter,” he contemplates for a minute then sighs, “…Well, people were just tougher back then, don’t you think?” Then he laughs with his infectious raspy laugh.

His laugh is defusing my nervousness. Guy is using humor to punctuate our dialogue about the hardships his family has faced. Perhaps he’s being honest or perhaps he’s keeping it from getting too serious. After all, we have just met for the first time.

My goal when visiting Guy was to gather as much visual and contextual information as possible so I could accurately illustrate the scenes he had in his head. One challenge of animating oral history is balancing the use of cinematic conventions with artistic interpretation while being historically accurate. I’ve become a specialist in this area by working closely with historians, writers, and contributors who are close to the story. In this case, it was a great asset to work with Guy because he’s both an artist and guardian of his family history.

Guy Dull Knife drawing on storyboards for the animated segments of the film. Photo: Eli Cane / Normal Life Pictures.

I brought the storyboards so he could draw on them. He did that, correcting my misconceptions and making clear what he envisioned. I had drawn the scene where the Cheyenne were making their way through the Sandhills of Nebraska. I originally painted and drew too many people. “There would have been fewer people and they were more spaced out; not near each other. There was a blizzard going on and they would have been walking at different paces.” Guy draws what the scene looks like and it takes him a long time. He’s in no rush. He wants this to be right.

“What did it look like when the Cheyenne broke out of Fort Robinson?” I ask. Guy thinks and answers with a question: “What are you going to paint? You’ll have to show the people running in the snow towards the creek. Dog soldiers would have jumped out the window first. The people were mostly unarmed and were shot like animals. How you gonna paint that?”

I tell Guy that I want to balance animating the violence brought of the U.S. militia with the incredible second half of the story, Chief Dull Knife, his son George, and a few women who made a second escape to Yellow Bear Canyon 120 miles northeast of Fort Robinson. I suggest that animation gives us the ability to use symbolism and metaphor as a way to illustrate a gruesome event while putting the event into an emotional context.

I pitched the idea: Cheyenne turning into a herd of Buffalo as they are shot, conjuring the visual so many of us are familiar with – the mass slaughter of buffalo in the American West. Guy considers this, but he says he has to think more about it. It wasn’t until months later with some hand-wringing that Guy, Eli, and Jeremy Williams, the film’s director, agreed to the idea.

Our biggest concern was using obvious symbolism in lieu of detailing the massacre of the Cheyenne. I argued that the massacre of the Cheyenne and the slaughter of buffalo (a major food source) were both forms of subjugation. The herd and Chief Dull Knife and family running away seemed like a metaphor for subjugation and a way for the viewer to be quickly transported to the journey to Yellow Bear Canyon.

Upon returning to Lincoln Nebraska and over the following two years, I worked with a few assistants to animate three segments of the Dull Knife Family story: Chief Dull Knife, George Dull Knife and Buffalo Bill, Guy in Vietnam and home on the reservation. The process was slow and laborious. We used acrylic paint and cameras pointing down at wood panels to shoot stop-motion animations. These were composited later and assembled into several 3-4 minute sequences.

I frequently called Guy or texted with his partner, Angie. I also followed up with producer Eli Cane and director Jeremy Williams to discuss ideas and progress. Whenever I had a question I would refer to The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge by Joe Starita, then I’d make a call or write a message. But often my best visual guide would be from Guy, whose descriptions are highly visual and symbolic. For example, to describe the cloth worn by some of the women he told me to imagine an old mattress. I later understood this to be a printed pattern motif called a sprig.

Animating this project has profoundly changed the direction of my work. The material culture research, visual development, and the historical scholarship involved in making these animations and the film attracted me to the project and prepared me to further work in the area of animating American History. I am now focused on visualizing the stories of those who are not prominently featured in the canon of American History. In 2015, I teamed up with historian William G. Thomas III to animate the story of an enslaved woman named Ann Williams from D.C., who threw herself from a third-story window, was severely injured, then later sued and won her freedom in U.S. circuit court.

Interpreting the Dull Knife Family story for animation prepared me for the challenges of producing a highly researched animated story. I’m deeply appreciative that I was able to work on this production and thank Eli, Jeremy, and Guy Dull Knife for the experience.

By Michael Burton, animator @colorkeymedia

On a Knife Edge makes its TV debut on WORLD Channel, Tuesday, November 7, 2017 (check local listings), followed by free online streaming, starting Wednesday, November 8 through December 8, 2017.

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AMERICA REFRAMED is a co-production of the WORLD Channel and American Documentary, Inc. AMERICA REFRAMED curates a diverse selection of films highlighting innovative and artistic approaches to storytelling from emerging and veteran filmmakers alike. Viewers will be immersed in personal stories from the streets of towns big and small to the exurbs and country roads that span the spectrum of American life. The documentaries invite audiences to reflect on topics as varied as culture, health care, politics, gun violence, religion and more. An award-winning documentary series, AMERICA REFRAMED is the recipient of an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism and a George Foster Peabody Award. The series has earned several Christopher, GRACIE, Telly and Cine Golden Eagle Awards, as well as nominations for an EMMY, Independent Documentary Association, and Imagen Award.