A waka huia is a treasure box carved in wood in the shape of a waka (canoe) in which the most personal goods owned by a person were kept. They were carefully taken care of, generation after generation.
We chose that title after seing a waka huia displayed in the "In Flanders Fields Museum" in Ieper. It was offered to the museum by the relatives of a Maori soldier who died in Belgium during WWI.
Waka Huia was inspired by our meeting with Charlie, a Maori from New Zealand living in Australia. In April 2012, he booked a room for one person in the B&B Philippe and I run in Brussels. After a few days, he told us he had made the trip to Belgium to pay respects to his grandfather, who had fought in Belgium during WWI and was buried in a military cemetery in Ploegsteert.
Charlie knew that we were developing this project. He supported us and helped us prepare our reconnaissance trip in New-Zealand. But he never told us much about his grandfather. The « man with the guitar » is a fictitious character that Philippe and I pictured little by little. He is a mix of our first evening as couchsurfers in the family of a Maori tattoo artist in Auckland, of exchanges with Maori historian Monty Soutar, of the diary of Maori soldier, Rikihana Carkeek and... of our imagination.
It is only towards the end of the project that I heard Charlie had died on the plane back to Australia after visiting his family in NZ. A former colleague of his put me in touch with his sister Ngahuia. It is her who started telling me the story of their grandfather Charles. She wrote to me : "This film has resulted in a twofold experience for our whanau; the war years and the loss of our grandfather Charles and Charlie his namesake, who finally made the trip to Belgium after going to many other countries beforehand."
My intention with "Waka Huia" was not to work step by step, as usually happens in the animation industry, but to allow myself to discover things little by little in order to keep the initial energy of animatics till the end. That way of working allowed the short to crystallize slowly but also drove to tensions with my producers. Some important changes in the story happened in the very end of the production, when some characters, dialogues and even a whole (unfinished) sequence were abandoned.
We tried to be very minimalistic both in picture and movement by taking as many elements out as possible from most frames, so that the animation heavily relies on the viewer's imagination. No standard frame rate was used, which meant adding additional frames when the movement was not fluid enough or deleting some frames if that better fitted our intentions for the shot.
People are often surprised that no rotoscopy (tracing of live action) was used in the short. This would not have been possible without Mathieu, who has a great vision in space, which also allowed him to draw all camera movements by hand. Yet, many reference sketches were made and some of them were integrated in the backgrounds as collage, giving the short that sketchbook look and feel.
The very first animation test. It was animated traditionnally, with pencil on paper, by Pieter Vanluffelen. I then edited his drawings in After Effects.
This test should be compared with the final rendering on https://vimeo.com/376653765
A second animation test. It was animated on the computer by Mathieu Jadin with TV Paint Animation, the software that was used for the final version of the short.
In this version, colour had a watercolour look. It is only later that we chose for a colour pencil look. The paper textures were added at a later stage.
Sound is as important as animation in the short. It was included in the project from the very first animatic on to complete and sometimes even replace the often elliptical drawings. All sounds in the short are diegetic, which means all that is heard in the short is part of the action and can be heard by the characters.
The only piece of music that was used is "E Pari Ra", which was sung by an amateur choir in London, with a kid running between them in the recording studio, just as it would have if sung by the man with the guitar's relatives in front of his grave.
At some point, the short contained quite a lot of dialogues. They were all deleted on the advice of our producers to make the short much more universal. I sometimes feel sorry for Andrea Rees, who rewrote and translated a number of lines of dialogue, and for Sue Hansen, who recorded a number of them with friends, none of which appear in the short.
Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club recording E Pari Rā (The tide surges), a māori song written in 1918 by Paraire Tomoana as a memorial and lament for all fallen soldiers. It adds an authentic and very sensitive touch to the end of the movie.
Ambiances has printed a number of flipbooks featuring some lyrics from "E Pari Ra" :
"Haere ra e tama. / Haera ra. / Haria ra te aroha i ahau."
"Farewell young man,
Take my love with you."