Meet the Filmmakers

Melissa Henry and Alfredo Perez from Red Ant Films answer questions about their prize-winning film.

What was the inspiration behind ‘Horse You See’?

Alfredo: We made Horse You See through an experimental approach, it wasn't planned out like this from the start. Originally Melissa wanted to paint parts of the horse separately, as a kind of cubist deconstruction of the horse, and write the words in Navajo on the paintings. But then she decided to do it as video instead of paintings, and with video in mind she created some little scenes like the picnic table, or the introduction of the ancestors in the manner that traditional Navajos introduce themselves by naming their clans, and it started to grow into a little movie.

Melissa's dad, Johnnie Henry, is a Navajo medicine man, and he helped us as wrangler, and we asked him to do the voiceover for Ross. When we were with him recording the voiceover he said he could sing us a horse song, so we said go ahead, and it's the song you hear Ross sing. This is not a sacred song but an old Navajo travel song, stuff that people would sing while they rode on horseback, kinda like a road trip singalong, except that here it's sung from the perspective of the horse, and he did it just like that off the top of his head, so it's the horse who sings, not the rider. The song was so cool that we wanted to feature all of it in the video, so then Melissa shot the sequence that goes with it, and we put it together and there it is. It took us 2 years of editing for a few days and then letting it sit there for months and editing a little bit again until we arrived to its final form, and this was because we didn't have an end in mind but rather we worked with the material we had until we were happy with it.

Melissa: I also made the film in what was my childhood playground, so the movie couldn't be done anywhere else. This is where I'm from and this is where I started making stories.

What did you want viewers to take away from 'Horse You See'?

Melissa: I would just like them to be happy that they watched it, that it brings some sort of joy or happiness to their day, even if it's just for a little while. But for the more "serious" answer I'd like people to see that a film in the Navajo language can reach out to all audiences regardless of who they are or where they grew up. If anything it would be great that they become so curious that they use the movie to learn some Navajo words and phrases.

Did you have a horse casting call? How did you select Ross?

Alfredo: It's a funny story, because Melissa grew up with Ross as the family horse, but he wasn't originally cast as the horse, just because it's difficult to get a black animal well exposed under the bright New Mexico sunlight. So she was filming a different horse, which appears in the movie, but every time Melissa had the camera out Ross would approach and step into the frame, over and over again, so Melissa finally said to him "okay, you want to be the star, be the star," and he loved his role. 

What advice can you give to aspiring and up and coming filmmakers?

Alfredo: Melissa grew up in the Navajo reservation with limited access to TV, so she and her brothers had to make their own fun and exercise their imaginations playing in nature and with animals around them. So my advice I guess is for people to try to tell their own stories and not so much copy other things they've seen. Postmodernism has its limits, eventually you run out of movies to quote and pay homage to, and your audience is exhausted and hungry for new and different things. So just go with your own idea and make your own movie. It can be hard to come up with new things if you grew up surrounded by media, but it's always possible to offer a fresh approach. Then other people can quote you instead.

Melissa: Do something that's fun, do something that's going to be worth the time you'll be putting into the movie. Also, when you get too much advice from other people it can really cloud what you are aiming for, so you need to find people who really know you and you really trust. Find a good producer, someone who believes in what you're doing and who will fight for your vision.

What projects are you currently working on?

Alfredo: Last year we finished "Run Red Walk" which is the story of a Navajo sheepdog who loses his flock, and while looking for them he encounters all sorts of creatures in the forest. Right now we're working on "A History of Navajo Wool: As Told by BaaBaa", which tells of the origin of the Navajo Churro sheep-- it's not a traditional story but a made-up mythology that Melissa created, we've had it storyboarded for a while now and we'll be shooting it next year. Melissa just received an artist in residency for next year at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, and there we'll be working on an animatic for "Mosi Lizhini" (Black Cat), which is the story of a Navajo cat who saves the universe, and it will be our first feature.

What role do you see digital media playing in the future of filmmaking?

Alfredo: Digital is going to be 99.9% of filmmaking very soon. We love actual film, but it's just too expensive to be a truly democratic medium. We tried shooting 16mm reversal for Run Red Walk, and the tests looked great, but even with discounts it was like $50 for every 2 minutes of developed film, and that makes chasing a dog around the woods a very expensive thing for us. I said to Melissa that instead of a frame counter the camera should have a dollar counter so you can see how fast your money disappears. So we shot that movie on HD, on a little Panasonic camera, and the color was great, and some people think we shot it on 16mm anyway. And as digital gets better, and with DSLRs an interchangeable lenses you're leveling the playing field and giving access to a lot of people. There's always going to be a high end of digital wizardry, right now it's 3D and 48p, and maybe some day we'll even get Odorama like John Waters wanted, or even holographic cinema, but thanks to digital the field is now wide open for people who want to tell their own stories. Same with the distribution-- people have more and better TVs and you can watch HD movies online without having to pay $20 in a theatre. So everyone is more or less on a similar level, and what's going to make all the difference is that you have something new to tell instead of copying what we've already seen somewhere else.

Melissa: Digital gives more access to people to make films. It's easier now to put your movies in websites like Vimeo and share your work with people around the world. You don't have to wait for theaters anymore.

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