Echoes from the past: On the Edge’s moving new film recounts the extinction of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird
Through emotive storytelling, rich animation, and clever sound design, The Unseen tells the tale of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, which was last sighted and recorded in Hawaii in the mid-1980s.
- 14 November 2023
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On the Edge, a not-for-profit multimedia and conservation organisation has released a new short film titled The Unseen. Focusing on the extinct Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird that was once endemic to the island of Kauai in Hawaii, the film tells the story of how habitat destruction and invasive species led to the tragic erasure of a unique and beautiful species. The Unseen joins a broad range of other projects that On the Edge has worked on since its founding in 2018. Specialising in a “modern, pop-culture” style of storytelling, the team merges accessibility with scientific rigour to communicate important narratives around pressing issues such as biodiversity loss. At the heart of their mission is a desire to restore our connection with nature – a connection we have slowly lost over time.
To create The Unseen, On the Edge partnered with several independent creatives that brought their powerful visions to bear on the work, including director Francesco Guarini, screenwriter Daniel Braham, and executive producers Karen Vermuelen, Carlos Baena and Ramon Giraldez. Together, On the Edge and the team studied the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, looking for ways of faithfully recreating its story, whilst adapting the film’s format to suit a modern audience. Key to the narrative was the unique documentation of what was possibly the last member of the species in 1987. At this time, the desperate call of a male Kauaʻi ʻōʻō looking for a mate was recorded before being housed in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where it can still be heard today. With, presumably, no others of his kind left on the island, the species was declared extinct shortly after.
In order to effectively capture this aspect of the bird’s history, the team turned to animation as a way of bridging the past to the present. They wanted to retell the story of the last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, as he searches in vain for his mate, and they knew a strong artistic rendering of this real event was the best way to do so. Crucially however, the bird in their film (lovingly called Timo) needed to appeal to a large audience – some of whom may not typically engage with this kind of content – so striking the right balance between a lifelike depiction of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, and a character design that could express tangible emotions, was important. “To design accurate proportions and details we relied mostly on stuffed specimens of the bird from various museums and research centres,” recalls Francesco. “[But] we needed to enhance and personalise his design to serve the story effectively, [so] we gave him just enough features to allow him to ‘speak’ to the audience.”
Along with carefully designing Timo, the team also painstakingly recreated the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s natural habitat in Hawaii. Its lush green landscapes and diverse plant life are highlighted through painterly animation that again treads a fine line between the real and the surreal. Bold colours and cinematic lighting are complemented by intricate textures and details that communicate the richness of the island’s nature. As the story progresses, and we encounter a key plot point within the landscape, this attention paid to the environmental design becomes even more important. After watching Timo excitedly search for a female, with his call seemingly returned by another bird, it is revealed that the reciprocated sounds are merely the echoes of a nearby cave. Appearing at the crux of the film, the cave presents as a juxtaposing pit of darkness against the surrounding greenery, symbolising the absence of a mate, and the sad fate that awaits the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō.
Rich, layered and lifelike, Francesco says the resulting film would not have been possible without the help of Unreal Engine – the implementation of which was guided by Madrid-based animation studio Able & Baker. After storyboarding and creating the assets in 3D, the team rendered the entire film using the software. “This choice gave the team flexibility that is typically impossible to have with other software – at any point, we could open every shot and preview the look of it in real time,” explains Francesco. “As a director, I could not ask for more control over the image and that's thanks to the amazing team at Able & Baker. Many aspects of this short film represented a huge technical challenge and the team executed them flawlessly.”
Speaking on the importance of this film, and why the team chose to make it, Carlos says the story of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō serves as a crucial reminder of an ongoing issue: “For me the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō’s extinction represents a small part of a much bigger picture, as well as a larger pattern of species endangerment and extinction, which threatens variability of life on Earth at all levels.” Daniel, who wrote the script for The Unseen, adds: “Through art and through stories we can remember these things that we may never have had the chance to see ourselves, but by remembering them we are reminded of the importance of the ecosystems we are still fighting to preserve.”
As part of It’s Nice That’s collaboration with On the Edge, four nature-inspired creatives have been commissioned to create comic strip stories focusing on other endangered species around the world. María Medem, Min Heo, Cory Feder and Jer Dee will be bringing their distinctive styles to bear on the project, which is due to be unveiled next week, so stay tuned!