Road trip lore has a rich presence in Canadian and US films, books and songs.

Dan Sokolowski’s film, Degrees North, screening at the Available Light Film Festival, joins the tradition and bends it in new directions. His camera looks not at the road but at where the road takes us.

“I think driving across Canada was my biggest change artistically,” says the Dawson City filmmaker, who started making animated short films in the 1980s.

Badland Hill, recreated by Sokolowski as an animation in Degree’s North PHOTO: Courtesy of Dan Sokolowski

“It was 1988 the first time I drove across, and at that time I was kind of at a crossroads. I was getting sick of doing animations, sitting in my basement all alone in the dark doing drawings.

“Driving across the country is such a Canadian event. It changed my work completely.”

Degrees North is his first feature-length film, clocking in at 65 minutes. He started shooting it in 1997.

“I did it the same way I did the other films in that I cut together the live action first. By working with the images you start to think of what images might animate nicely, and where you might want visual breaks, or things that might make you understand the space better.”

Instead of going along Canada’s east-west lines, Degrees North starts in Pelee Island, Ontario, and moves east to Mingan Point, Quebec, before swooping west through Alberta’s Badlands.

Then it heads north to the Athabaska region in Saskatchewan, lingers in the Klondike, and finally rests where the Arctic Circle crosses the Dempster Highway.

Sokolowski sets up his Bolex at these chosen rest stops – 10 altogether – and films the ancient players in the natural world: stones, skies, rivers and trees.

He uses long shots that pick up nuances of flickering tree-light or storm clouds. Sand dunes and hoodoos, crab carcasses and seashells, take on a lingering presence.

And then he adds the human presence: sections of hand-worked animation that he creates in response to a location.

Sokolowski shoots both the live action and the animation (painting, drawing, sand) on 16 mm film,then transfers the footage to digital for editing.

The animated paint-on-glass sections are particularly captivating – palette knife strokes of red paint ripple diagonally over a rich blue background to echo ocean waves, or ochre paint rises to form a windswept mountain peak.

The feature length format also allows more room to unfold emotional undertones by working with music. The soundtrack includes jazz, wine glasses, noodling cello, reversed notes, wind and raven field recordings, folk music and more.

“The place determines the mood,” Sokolowski says.

“Then because I was bound to cut it from south to north, sometimes you’re stuck with two meditative sections that go together… so the change then has to be more in the sound. You work with the soundtrack to make it really different.”

There is a meditative thread through Degrees North, and there is also a light touch to the film that can initially leave you thinking this is going to be a folky, pretty ride from place to place.

But I think that’s Sokolowski being humble and letting the landscape speak slowly, which is, after all, what landscape does.

“Cities are what we built around us, but nature we don’t build around us. It’s just there around us, doing its own thing and growing, following its own rhythms,” he reflects.

“Subconsciously I think it affects us more than how we get up and go to work on the subway – that has a rhythm, and it affects you, but it doesn’t affect you on the grander scale, in the bigger picture of the human trajectory.”

The animation sections reveal much about how Sokolowski’s mind works visually. He frames a formal, almost minimalist image with his live camera and animates it in a way that brings us into a pause. It’s a vibrant pause – not the kind of frozen pixels of a paused film – a breath in.

There’s a moment at the end of the Mingan Point section where the closing scene morphs intocolour fields of orange, red and black. Three horizontal “stripes” blur into each other the way colourhovers in a Mark Rothko painting.

Abstract painters, such as Piet Mondrian, are an inspiration.

“His early work came out of trees, it’s the crossing of branches. And as you see that progression of work the crosses got straighter.”

Sokolowski’s Degrees North follows circles and cycles, and while it shows as part of the regular screenings at the Available Light Film Festival, it will also be present in unique form.

The film has been cut into three loops and will show as a continuous three-channel installation at the Yukon Arts Centre for the duration of the festival.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.