The Shepherds

Rural villagers struggle to adapt to life in an urban metropolis in The Shepherds. We chat with filmmaker Woody Ray about the making of their hand-drawn animated short.

The Shepherds tells the story of a group of mountain villagers who are swept away from their home by the winds of progress and are forced to adapt to life in the big city.

Both stylistically mesmerizing and beautiful, the animated short serves as a powerful reminder of the clash between nature and modernity and the dizzying effects of the global climate crisis.

Filmmaker, animator and visual artist Woody Ray says they were drawn to the idea by the idea by the desire to create art “that explores the interplay between individual and shared emotional worlds.”

“The film is a meditation on the impact of losing one’s physical and emotional home,” Ray says. “It follows a character who is suddenly displaced and has to find their sense of belonging in an urban setting.”

The Shepherds (2023)

As Ray explains, the film’s title points to the concept of stewardship, whether it be caring for people who are vulnerable and in need of support or for a natural ecosystem threated by the encroachment of the modern world.

“Throughout the piece, I’ve emphasized the presence of physical spaces and the unique character of each environment,” they say. “I’ve also tried to gesture towards the ways in which the climate crisis involves us all, even in parts of the world that may not witness its damage directly.”

“I started by just laying down on the floor and journaling about what I’d been reading, listening to music and daydreaming a bit.”

Ray worked on the project over a period of three years, working in intermittent bursts of activity, hand-drawing each image before scanning and assembling everything in the editing suite until they had a roughly 11-minute narrative film.

“I started by just laying down on the floor and journaling about what I’d been reading, listening to music and daydreaming a bit,” they say. “Then I drew in my little notebook for a while and started imagining the setting and environments. I storyboarded about three quarters of it, and then added the other parts out of necessity to build the narrative.”

The Shepherds (2023)

Ray describes their collaboration with composer Dylan Henner as a “joy” and emphasizes the role Henner’s experimental-ambient soundscape (which you can listen to here) plays in giving the film both shape and structure.

“Dylan contributed such a voice and revealed something about the piece that seemed to be there all along. His music brings such warmth and heart,” Ray says. “I don’t think I’d have had the same courage to lean into that tone and perspective without him.”

“Make sure to take breaks and be on the lookout for other pieces of art that might inspire you.”

Especially when working in “a mostly a solitary craft” like animation, Ray adds, it is important to find people you trust who can add a new perspective. They also note that it is necessary to find a process that is manageable and not too overwhelming.

“I’d encourage anyone approaching animating to try to enjoy the slowness of the process, if you’re able to,” they say. “I definitely struggled with antsiness and impatience, especially towards the end, but I’ve learned to appreciate the stillness. Make sure to take breaks and be on the lookout for other pieces of art that might inspire you.”

The Shepherds (2023)

The Shepherds is currently out on the festival circuit and recently screened at Paradise Cinema as part of the 2024 Toronto Short Film Festival, but it wasn’t as easy as it looks to get it out there.

“An unexpectedly difficult part was having the motivation to actually put the piece out and show it to people. That was tough, since I was the producer and director,” Ray says. “I’d definitely recommend finding help for that part! Either as moral support or someone who’s organizationally inclined.”

They add that they have been glad to see audiences engaging with the film and hope that they leave the theatre feeling closer to their environment and each other.

“I love filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky’s description in his book Devotional Cinema of coming out of a film and being more inclined to make eye-contact and connect with other people,” Ray says. “That would be so sweet.”

Connect with Woody Ray via their website here, or on Instagram here (@vvoodyray).