Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT
Producers for the hit movie “Prey” went the extra mile to bring authentic Comanche culture to the film, set in 1719.
In addition to the language, clothing, and weapons, they wanted to draw on 1700s Comanche ledger and rock art for the closing credits.
That’s where Arapaho artist Brent Learned of Oklahoma stepped in.
Learned, perhaps best known for his numerous exhibits and the illustrative artwork he did for Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” video, was asked to lead a team of artists to design credits that would recreate the story line as Comanche artists might have done centuries earlier.
-Comanche Nation vs. Predator
The producers wanted it a mix of rock art and ledger art – with simple lines that were strong and told a story.
“That was nice, because if you look at the rock art the Comanches did, it was real primitive, real stylized, nothing was really well-defined,” Learned told ICT. “The director thought that they should have it where at the very end, they wanted to do a recap of the movie in credit form.”
‘Never seen before’
Ledger art is just what it sounds like – art drawn on the pages of ledger books left behind by the French and English colonizers. The art was usually a record of events – hunts and battles were the most commonly drawn scenes.
Once the producers and directors settled on the idea, producer Jhane Myers said she went to the Heard Museum Show in Phoenix and recruited seven artists to participate in the endeavor.
“They reached out to me and to several other artists,” Learned said by phone from Oklahoma. “We had to provide a portfolio of different types of ledger drawings that we've done. And then once we were chosen, they sent us a package of what kind of look they were going for. Then from there we had to come up with the characters.”
Learned was named the lead artist. Other artists who worked on the project are Dallin Maybee, Northern Arapaho / Seneca; NiCole Nahmi-A-Piah Hatfield Curtis, Comanche/Kiowa; Jonathan Thunder, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe; Sheridan MacKnight, White Earth Chippewa/Hunkpapa Lakota; Sandra Okuma, Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock; and Nocona Burgess, Comanche.
Kaz Kipp, Cayuse/Nez Perce/Yakama, who has been with the film throughout the post- process and previously worked for the 20th Century Fox Studio, came on as the animation coordinator for the project.
“We started with a test phase and then into drawing each of the prominent scenes in ‘Prey’ with a hint in the last frame for all those ‘Prey’/’Predator’ fans,” Myers said. “When the artists turned in the finals, Kaz and Brent fine-tuned them before they went to animation.”
As lead artist, Learned developed the characters.
“They looked at early ledger artwork and they liked the way I did my characters,” Learned said. “So I literally came up with a design for each one of the movie characters.”
One challenge, he said, was in drawing the character from the “Predator” films from the point of view of the Comanche who had never seen anything like it.
“They thought it was a bear; then they thought it was a mountain lion,” he said. “I tried to put myself in that mind frame of, how would they draw something that they've never seen before? So coming up with a character design of the Predator, we went through several ideas before they finally decided on one that would fit that motif of something that no one's ever seen before.”
The artists had to complete their work before the movie was completed, so the artists had to rely on early rough scenes from the film. Animators would then take the designs and add action and movement.
“They outlined it,” he said. “They sent us a scene we watched ahead of time … They said, ‘You need to watch this scene, which is at 29 minutes to 32 minutes, and come up with a drawing from that.’ We would do a drawing and then send it in and then they would turn that into animation.”
The more specific process was done digitally on an iPad, he said.
“For example, I drew Naru [lead actress Amber Midthunders’ character] just standing there,” Learned said. “And they would draw her standing there, but they would put a tomahawk in her hand or her holding a bag or something. Just little, small details. From there they were able to send that to the animator and then the animator would actually make her move and run and everything else.
“It was beautiful, not to mention that's the first time ever to have a ledger-style illustration at the end of a movie.”
The artists never got to see the whole movie beforehand, just different scenes. Learned saw the completed film for the first time at the premiere in Oklahoma City, when it was shown to the public for the first time.
In attendance were several stars from the film, including Midthunder, actor Dakota Beavers, who plays Naru’s brother; and producer Myers.
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He was impressed.
“When I saw it finally running, it was like, ‘Wow, that is really cool.’ It was kind of wild to see the movie magic as it was unfolding,” he said. “Each artist [was] given scenes to do, but the majority of the work was the character development, which I did.”
He shared his thoughts with the team.
“I said, ‘Man, it was a beautifully done movie. Not to mention it was nice to see a strong female character,’” he said. “You don't see that in movies, especially growing up. You really never saw that where you have a woman who is strong in nature and where she's trying to show others, ‘Hey, I'm equal,’ … She used simple techniques that were taught to her from her tribe to outwit this creature from another planet. I thought that was really, really cool.”
Myers told ICT she enjoys the animated closing credits as well.
“The end credit sequence is one of my favorite parts of the film,” Myers said. “Early on, I had shown director Dan Trachtenberg some ledger art drawings and he had seen my segment on rock art in the series, ‘Native America.’ He thought it would be cool to do an animated sequence during the credits as a bonus.
“Since 'Prey' is set in the 1700s, the art of that time would have been depicted on hides,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful way to re-live tribal and family histories as well as recalling notable battles and events.”
She is also pleased to incorporate museum-quality Native artists in the film's visuals.
“[The film] brings so many new things to the table, like the end credit sequence,” Myers said. “Now the world sees Native artwork drawn by prestigious Native fine artists. What a bonus.”
It also signals that times have changed since the 1980s, when the first “Predator” film featured a macho Arnold Schwarzenegger and a minor role as a tracker and scout for Native actor Sonny Landham, who died in 2017.
Flash forward 35 years – and backward to the 1700s – and an Indigenous female is leading the action and Native art is showcased.
“Everyone was really excited watching it,” Learned said. “It made you proud to be an American Indian.”
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