The Alberta creator of a short animated film about the battle and aftermath of the Fort McMurray 2016 wildfire hopes his star-studded movie will share a message of healing beyond the province.
“I went through the evacuation like many people in our community,” said Michael Mankowski, a filmmaker from Fort McMurray.
Mankowski said the idea for the movie began when he was volunteering for cleanup and re-entry work.
“I was given an opportunity to work for the Red Cross during the re-entry program, as well as during the one-year and two-year anniversary. That’s pretty much how it started.”
After over five years of production, Back Home Again is set to stream online for free this fall, and features an ensemble cast that includes Eugene Levy, Michael J. Fox, Catherine O’Hara, Kim Basinger, Jeremy Renner, Bill Burr, Martin Short and Mena Suvari.
The actors voice woodland characters who tell the real-life stories of one of the worst wildfire disasters in Canadian history that saw 88,000 people flee their homes in northern Alberta.
During that period, Mankowski — who has a background in video and production — worked with the Canadian Red Cross and Vice to help record the stories of resilience in Fort McMurray following the disaster. It was through that work he realized he wanted to share the stories further.
“I recorded over 200 testimonials of people who lost their homes,” Mankowksi said.
“I had the (movie) idea in August 2016, that’s when I wrote the first draft of the script… mostly as a weird way to kind of heal.
“I started writing this script as more of a process for myself, and I kept showing the Red Cross.”
Mankowski went through animation training as part of the five-year process to get the movie into production.
He drew thousands of story boards and put thousands of dollars of his own money into the film, but also received support from the Canadian Red Cross, Canadian Mental Health Association, the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism, as well as film industry professionals.
“I worked on all the story boards and character designs and got it to a point where we could start approaching some cast members,” Mankowski said.
“I was very lucky, John Schneider, one of the producers of the project, had 30 years of relationships and friends and he reached out to all those people in Hollywood.
“The intention was never to have any of these celebrities. I never thought that was the case.”
“It’s surreal, the whole cast. It was an honour to work with everyone on this project.”
The cast volunteered their time and voices for the project.
He said many of the actors have experienced wildfires in California and felt a connection to the film’s cause.
A team of around 20 people worked on the animation.
“I hope to spark a conversation around mental health,” Mankowski said. “Ultimately I think, (now that) we’ve passed the five-year anniversary… hopefully through this film we can talk about mental health and how our community’s doing.
“Not focus on where we were five years ago, when we were in the wildfire — but focus on the rebuilding and where we are today.”
Back Home Again runs approximately 30 minutes.
Mankowski said he’s submitted it to around 30 film festivals ahead of its fall release, when it will be widely distributed for free online.
Mankowski is now based out of Calgary and runs an animation studio, Alien Kow Inc.
“I hope that I can use this to tell stories that matter,” he said. “To make little films that raise awareness for important causes.”