Meet the Filmmakers Behind 2022 CUFF: 'The Lion & The Firebird'

BY Emily Johnson, April 26, 2022

The Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF) is a celebration of the Film Program’s students and alumni, screening shorts from exciting emerging talents, and bringing filmmakers together. For this series, we reached out to the filmmakers behind just a few of CUFF’s most unique films to talk about craft, process, and story. In this edition, we chatted with Daniel Byers and Fernando González Ortiz about ancient humans, the Mandalorian, and making up a paleolithic language for their film The Lion and the Firebird.

Still from Lion & The Firebird

The hook for writer/director Daniel Byers in embarking on his paleolithic film project, The Lion and the Firebird, was learning that Neanderthals used body glitter.


That’s right: 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals apparently rivaled the Euphoria teens in their application of makeup, using manganese body paint, ground-up mica and seashells to adorn themselves with shimmer. 


“There’s a long history of representing ancients as knuckle-dragging Saturday-morning-cartoon-style cavemen,” Byers told me. Yet according to recent archeological evidence, “human beings have been expressive for a long time.” Byers felt called to portray ancient humans in all their complexity: “We wanted to create a world, a vision of the ancient past, where the tribes were very culturally specific.”


But how do you represent a new vision of the ancient past on an indie filmmaker budget? 


The Lion and the Firebird’s Producer, Film student Fernando González Ortiz, had a timely solution: enlist cutting-edge real-time Virtual Production technology, popularized by Disney in The Mandalorian


“It’s a first for independent filmmaking. We’re the first fully independent entity to go and make a film this way,” Byers explained. “We were breaking a lot of new ground. I think it was the right choice for this particular film because we wanted to transport people into a different world, a different time, an absolutely different environment.”


The Lion and the Firebird is a story about survival, change and transformation. It’s also a love story, a kind of paleolithic Beauty and the Beast. The film follows a young human woman whose matriarchal tribe is destroyed by an invading band. Forced to escape with her daughter, she encounters one of last Neanderthals, with whom she must cooperate if they are to survive.


According to Byers, “I was really interested in this moment at the end of the age of the Neanderthal, when the Neanderthal as a distinct subspecies of human vanished from the world and kind of got integrated into our populations.”


Most researchers classify early humans and Neanderthals as related but distinct species. There are many theories about the disappearance of Neanderthals, most involving some combination of interbreeding and conquest by human tribes. Byers wanted to show a little bit of everything, “to show how power and hierarchy at the early days of the growth of human societies started to fall into place…but then also the possibility for people to find love and cooperation.


“[The film is also] subverting what I think the traditional narrative is, which is that Neanderthals were stupid and homosapiens were smart and so we wiped them out with our big brains.” 


Great care was taken to render this ultra-ancient world with as much complexity and accuracy as possible. The whole film is performed in a proto-Afro-Asiatic language, reverse-engineered by a linguist from root words going back 18,000 years. The script was supervised by paleo-archeologist and Neanderthal expert Dr. Anna Golstein from UC Davis. The film was even awarded the prestigious Sloan Science Grant in Anthropology, a significant boost for the production that enabled Ortiz to chase down even bigger possibilities. 


I spoke to Ortiz and Byers in an interview in late February, as the team was still working on the final cut of the film. Ortiz explained Virtual Production, why he was so keen to secure it for the film, and how he pulled it off. 


“It’s very ethereal,” Ortiz described, “when you’re creating [the background] and your environment designer sends you something and you’re seeing all these pieces apart, it’s very hard to understand, but once you see [the finished product], you believe the magic is real.”


Byers wanted to create a world that felt distinct from anything audiences had seen before, an “active, vulcanized world,” a world on the verge of an ice age, littered with wooly mammoth skeletons. This kind of scope would not have been possible without the ability to build it from scratch in a Virtual Production environment.


If you’ve seen any old film where an actor is in a car and the background is being projected on a screen behind them to make it look like the car is moving—that’s old school Virtual Production. 


Modern Virtual Production uses the same principle, with actors performing in front of a screen, except that when the camera moves, the virtual background being projected on an LED screen moves with it. The coordinated movement between camera and background imagery creates a totally immersive illusion.


Instead of a green screen set-up requiring actors and crew to imagine the scene they’re working with, in Virtual Production, it’s projected for everyone to see. Ambient lighting from the screen also spares headaches with lighting design.


The pandemic got Ortiz thinking: if a soundstage was the safest place to film, and a set could look as good as those in The Mandalorian, Virtual Production presented an ideal solution. But for an indie producer, this new tech seemed out of reach:


“I saw it as something fantastical,” Ortiz said, “technology that maybe I’d get access to in ten years, unless I got a lucky break. That technology is being controlled by the studios in a capitalistic sense.


“The wheels started turning for me…how can we bring this technology to more people? I don’t want students, independents, to have to wait until they’re in the big big big leagues, spending the millions and millions of dollars to use it. So I started doing some research. Luckily, I talked to all of my professors to see if anyone knew anyone in this space.”


Through School of the Arts Professor of Professional Practice Maureen Ryan, Ortiz connected to Worldstage, an event technology company located in New York, and the owners of a Virtual Production set-up.


Ortiz managed to secure a steep discount with Worldstage. “It was also them betting on us for being their first narrative endeavor. They had done mostly commercials and corporate work. We were kind of like their guinea pigs, and they were ours, and we were all learning with each other which was really interesting.”


“Every day was some sort of absolutely, completely unanticipated challenge," Byers said, “because we were pushing their technology in ways they had never tried to use it before. What happens when you take the camera off the techno crane and put it on an easy rig on somebody’s shoulder to shoot a fight scene, for example? Well, we found out when we tried to do that the second day, and it was chaos at first.”


“There were many times when we lost some hours to something technical that we couldn’t have anticipated,” Byers admitted, “but, we made up so much time that we would have had to use if we had gone to upstate New York and shot [the film] in the woods.”


I asked Byers and Ortiz which scenes and effects they were most excited for audiences to see. Both mentioned the forest chase scene they had shared with me in selects from the film. It’s a scene in which the young woman, Rising Fire, and her daughter are fleeing the invading Lion Men through a forest at night, the world awash with blue in the moonlight, except for layers of twisting black trees in the foreground. 


The camera tracks the bodies of the pursuers and their spears; the scene is kinetic, but fluid, urgent, but beautiful. It’s just one example of the film’s wonderful use of color: elsewhere you’ll find dramatic reds, fiery oranges and umbers, more moody, crepuscular blues. The scene also showcases the marvelous physicality of the performers. 


How does one cast and rehearse for such a unique project? You let body language carry the story. Byers explained the thought process:


“We need people who can move a certain way. And a lot of this is behavior, a lot of this is movement, so we actually ended up casting a trained dancer for our leading lady. One of our leading gentlemen, the Neanderthal, is a former heavyweight boxing champion…We cast people who already embodied very specific ways of moving and behaving because of their backgrounds and who they are.”


“Our villain was another really fun one, he’s a trained opera singer, and was formerly in a gigantic Indian production of Beauty and the Beast.” 


The villain, the leader of the invading band of Lion Men, is also wearing a mask for much of his performance, adorned with stripes, feathers, and fangs.


“A lot of our characters are wearing masks, masks were a big part of the story, because we’re taking a lot of inspiration from paleo art, you know, like the [Hohlenstein-Stadel] Lion Man, so we wanted to have our characters embodying that, like being living lions themselves.


“In terms of acting in the language, it’s a challenge,” Byers went on, “We didn’t have the full translation of the film out of English into our proto-Afro-Asiatic language until pretty late in the process…luckily the actors picked it up really well.”


Byers hopes that the language, striking visuals, and otherworldly setting will immerse audiences: “You’re watching something where you have to get on board with being someplace very different from the world that you know.”


The Lion and the Firebird is an inspiring showcase for ingenuity and risk-taking in both story and film production. As a creative team, Byers and Ortiz show the kind of magic that can happen when filmmakers up the ante with every decision, and the resulting film is not to be missed when it premieres at The Columbia University Film Festival (CUFF), on May 7, 2022, 9 pm ET, and May 14, 2022, 9 pm ET.

CUFF is the annual celebration of the work of MFA Film Program students and alumni, featuring screenings, premieres, panels, award ceremonies, and more dynamic programming. Showcasing thesis-level work from participating filmmakers, it’s a great opportunity to see some exceptional short films, and get to know the up-and-comers of the filmmaking community. This year, the festival will run from May 5-16, 2022. For Columbia University students, faculty, and staff, festival screenings will be available free of charge.