The Last of Us | Animation


  • Exhibition April 13 - June 12 2024

Window + Plaza Media Gallery


Artist: Sonny Assu
Collaborating Animator: Dan Beaule

Overfishing, resource extraction, and agricultural and industrial development have created a devastating reality for the Pacific Salmon. Inspired by an article about an environmentally impacted river and its accompanying photo of a lone, spawning Salmon inspired Assu to create this work. Sonny enlisted the support of emerging animator Dan Beaule to develop a persistently swimming salmon on a never-ending journey to spawn. Beaule’s continuously generating animation captures the perilous optimism of the solo swimmer. An avid gamer and pop-culture nerd, the title of this animation was inspired by the hit videogame turned limited series.


From the start of this project, the idea was to make a simulation that continues on to perpetuity.  As this was my first time working with a real time simulation. It posed a major challenge: using simulation as an extension of animation.

Animating is quite a bit easier when I have control over the line of action that is taken, to get the timings and movement right. For this project, I had to imbed many animation principles into the simulation, making use of some simple math to create predictable and tuneable, but still dynamic motion paths that are appealing to view. Particularly important in the simulation was to get rid of the robotic “a to b” type of movements.

When animating, I like to think about the character I am animating, and think about personality and way the character should move. There is an important balance between making the subject, in this case, a salmon, move in the style of a real salmon, but to also inherit the personality traits of a character. Usually, I tend to focus on entertainment value the most, focusing on movements that are attention grabbing and appealing from as many angles as possible. As this is a simulation, the salmon could end up getting viewed from multiple angles. Some common tricks, like exaggerating scale and false perspectives don’t work.

When looking through Sonny’s work. I saw that many of his fish designs were carved into wood. That gave me the idea to put a grainy wood style texture along the surface of the salmon. It provides an interesting texture that adds subtle detail and breaks up the flatness of virtual lighting.

When beginning any new project, I like to quickly make a rough proof of concept with a collection of random ideas to see what makes sense and what doesn’t. The idea of failing fast is a common idea in small scale projects.

On this project, I used an entirely new tool, unreal engine 5. Many of the things I am familiar with from other tools I use are different. However, this was a student summer job, so this presented a good opportunity to learn how to use a new software.


Sonny Assu (Ligwiłda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km from his ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he clued into his Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. In his mid-20s, while attending Emily Carr, that discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.

Assu explores multiple mediums and materials to negotiate Western and Kwakwaka’wakw principles of art-making. Often autobiographical, his work can be humorous, laden with pop culture, comic book and sci-fi references. But it can also be solemn, political, educational and activist in tone. His diverse practice deals with the realities of being Indigenous in the colonial state of Canada, which mirrors the plight of Indigenous and colonized peoples around the world.

Sonny received his BFA from the Emily Carr University in 2002 and was honoured with the University’s distinguished alumnus award, the Emily Award, in 2006. In 2017, he successfully defended his MFA thesis exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (We Come to Witness) for Concordia University.

Assu received a BC Creative Achievement Award in First Nations Art in 2011, has been named a Laureate for the Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL – Indigenous Art Awards in 2017, and is an Eiteljorg Contemporary Arts Fellowship recipient for 2021.

Sonny’s work has been accepted into The National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Forge Collection, Eiteljorg Museum, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Guelph, The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Museum of Anthropology at UBC, The Seattle Art Museum, The Burke Museum, Audain Art Museum, and various other public and private collections across Canada, the United States, and the UK.

He currently resides in ƛam̓atax̌ʷ (Campbell River, BC).


Growing up as part of a military family, I’ve lived back and forth between Greenwood, Nova Scotia, and Comox. But I’ve spent most of my years living here. I spent a lot of time wandering the Lazo Forest when I was young, and I enjoy relaxing in nature. I’ve been to all but the most remote areas of the island, including having visited the tallest known Douglas Fir tree up a mountainous logging road somewhere in the island’s interior.

I first got into animation by making short stop motion sequences with Lego as a teenager. I liked to imagine these characters coming to life in their own fully functional, living world. I thought animation was a good way of making these characters “come to life”. Creating a fully functional simulation, where a virtual world is filled with thousands of characters, living their lives in unique ways, has always been one of my goals. I find the idea of simulations fascinating, click a button and the entire world comes to life. The Ability to provide input into the direction the world and story progresses in a dynamic, non deterministic fashion. Each time is new.

For about two years after highschool, I had no direction about what I should do. It was while watching Japanese animated shows where I opened up a new passion and appreciation of animation and the ideas it can express.

So I began learning animation. Learning everything I could find off youtube. Interviews taken with renowned animators, directors, and writers to develop the techniques and knowledge of animation.

Most days, I enjoy watching the new episodes of animated shows coming out, or watch many  hour long interviews on different artistic and software techniques that can be used to create interesting results, or podcasts with high profile guests to learn new things about any number of subjects.



SONNY ASSU: “What else we’re presenting is the animation, which I’m really excited about. Dan did a really fabulous job with the animation. I was really thrilled to be able to think about my work in an animated space. I don’t have an animative bone in my body — for making animations. I can be very animated myself.

In terms of the image, I gave Dan a test image that I was thinking about using, and he just went to town and made this wonderful animation. You were a joy to work with on this project. I completely am enamored by your ability to make something so beautiful and stunning with my work. I really appreciate it, and I thank you so much.

If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, it’s playing on a loop [outside]. Dan can explain the science behind it a bit more, but what I wanted to talk about in this piece is the preciousness of the salmon. Particularly, a lot of the coastal peoples, we do utilize the salmon in a variety of ways. It is a sustenance of our societies. It is a lifeblood of our societies. And we are on the precipice of this species disappearing. There has been the fear of extinction for multiple years. We’ve seen horrible salmon runs one year, beautiful ones the next year, but then horrible ones the year after. With climate change and global warming, I theorize that we see the salmon going off deeper into the oceans, maybe meeting new predators, and all that kind of stuff. We’re seeing something very terrible in the future of the salmon, which is horrible.

Anyways, to bring that bummer down… I was inspired to make this piece by an article that I read about a Yukon fish ladder in the Yukon Territories. They have this fish ladder system that brings the spawning salmon up through various ladders into the river where they came from. They were looking for salmon to take tests from, and the article was basically saying: “We have such a horrible run this year, you’re going to have a really hard time getting a scientific base of salmon to test from.”

The accompanying photo with the article was just one lonely salmon floating in this fish window, just looking out with a single eye. It was devastating to see only one — because, in my mind when I think of a salmon run, I think of hundreds if not thousands. If I walk down to the rivers that are close to my place, you can see them in the river. To see one was just tremendously heartbreaking. That’s what inspired me to make this piece, just the determination of this species to keep going. Getting from your place of birth to the ocean and then back to your place of birth again is an amazing accomplishment — but to do it when you’re the lone female salmon in this animation, just thinking about the fact that you might be making this run in a frivolous way, is completely heartbreaking.

Dan did a wonderful job making it look beautiful. Thank you so much.”

DENISE LAWSON (DL): “We’re having kind of like an interview session here. So, your name is Dan Beaule, and you’re from the Comox Valley?”

DAN BEAULE (DB): “Yeah. Well, I was originally born in Nova Scotia. I’m from a military family, which means a lot of moving back and forth, so my parents are originally from Montreal and most of my family also lives in Montreal. So, from here, yeah.”

DL: “But this is [like] home for you now! And you were a former YMP participant?”

DB: “Yeah, I was in the YMP.”

DL: “YMP is Comox Valley Art Gallery’s Youth Media Project Groups of youth come and learn how to make films. It’s an excellent program… So, when did you develop your interest in animation?”

DB: “I first developed my interest in animation when I was young, watching a lot of animated films and all sorts of stuff. When I first got my first device that had a camera, I finally had the ability to create my own stop motion. So, I created a parody of Ratatouille. I made it for a school project, and then showed it to the entire class. And that was kind of fun!”

DL: “And then people started to notice that this was something you were really good at. Thus, we invited you to get involved with this project!

[When] we think about animation, we think about stop motion. We think about cells, they move, and that sort of thing. It’s starting to get more and more sophisticated. This animation is a very complex animation. Can you talk a little bit about its name, ‘continuously generating’, and then also the kinds of things that you had to do to animate Sonny’s graphic?”

DB: “This fish is a live generating animation, so it’s playing live. It’s kind of like what a video game is doing, where it’s procedurally generating. As the fish is swimming, it’s changing between different currents. The fish swims up one current, then tries that one, then it moves and it flows back, then it tries another current, then the current pushes the fish back, and then it tries another one. It keeps doing all of this. That is completely procedural. So, it’s not a video. As you’re watching it, the fish is actually trying to swim up the currents, and then the currents continuously push the fish back.”

DL: “What Dan is saying is that fish out there is constantly figuring out the currents. The currents are always changing, and the fish is always problem solving continuously. It’s not a looped film. It is an ever-changing animation that you’re seeing out there. To do this, does a person need to be good at math?”

DB: “Yes. It’s important to know vector math in particular. You need to know how to have one location move to another. You need to know things like gravity and projectile physics, because essentially the fish is like a projectile. It’s moving from one location to another, and you have to do all of those kinds of calculations. Another thing, for animation specifically, is you need to have a good sense of movement, motion, and just general physics, because as Newton said, every action has an equal opposite reaction. If you don’t do those actions properly, it’s quite noticeable. You have to have a very strong basis in knowing what an equal-opposite reaction is, especially with the fish flowing up through the current. It’s extremely important when I was animating it that the tail actually looked like it was pushing the water. The speed of all the animations had to move properly so the physics looks correct.”

DL: “There you go, math is important! How many hours do you think you spent on this animation?”

DB: “I believe around 250 hours. It was quite a long time. Also, I was learning a completely new program that I hadn’t used before, so a lot of that was embedded in the time spent.”

DL: “The last question is: you worked and collaborated with an artist, an artist that’s a little bit famous, and I was wondering what that was like for you? Also what it was like for you to take this artist’s idea and then convert it into an animation? It’s kind of a two-part question.”

DB: “First of all, it was quite exciting because this is the first time I was able to collaborate with an artist directly. It was quite interesting being able to receive feedback and able to then make changes, updates, and modifications to the visuals. And it was something I was excited to do because I hadn’t done it before. What was part two?”

DL: “What was it like when you were thinking about the feedback that you were getting, like how you went through that process?”

DB: “The way I went through the process was I would write down notes, and then I would just kind of like try to figure it out. It’s a bit complicated.”

DL: “It was complicated! Well, that’s a good answer! Thank you, Dan. Thank you for your good work.”

The animation The Last of Us and exhibition Assertion of Sovereignty are part of the convergent program RETURN TO WATER 2024.


The Comox Valley Art Gallery is grateful to operate on the Unceded Traditional Territory of the K’ómoks First Nations.

CVAG is honored to collaborate with artists, writers, guest curators, community partners + volunteers. We are grateful for the support of our members + donors.

This convergent program is made possible through the support of our FUNDERS: City of Courtenay, Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, Government of Canada, Province of BC, Comox Valley Regional District, Town of Comox | LOCAL SUPPORT: ABC Printing + Signs, SD71 Printshop, Sherwin Williams Paint Store, Hitec Screen Printing, Shine-Eze Ltd., BoomBright Media | COMMUNITY COLLABORATORS: CV/Arts, CVRD Connected By Water, Hand-In-Hand Nature Education, Curating Cleaner Waters, Kumugwe Cultural Society, MakeItZone, SD71 Aspire to Action, CVAG Youth Media Project, Teo Moon


The Last of Us was created for presentation on the new large scale and outward facing screen in CVAG’s Window + Plaza Media Gallery. This project was supported by funding from the BCAC Digital Arts Impact Grant.

Artists’ Websites