Did anyone ever hear the story about the 1917 Halifax Explosion that literally sent a man flying? I didn’t. But it only came up a while back on its 100-year anniversary. Yeah, sometimes we celebrate the most morbid of things around here. I know an old family friend in Halifax and maybe he has heard so much about it tires him out by now. But it makes for a good animation. And a good animation makes for a noteworthy Oscar nomination. Just ask Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby. It’s their third trip to the Oscars so far, having been nominated for their past works When the Day Breaks, and Wild Life. Okay, maybe not the third trip for BOTH of them. Wendy got an individual nomination for her first NFB film, Strings. But we’re not talking about those films today, we’re talking about The Flying Sailor. That recently got nominated and you know what that means: A trip to the Oscars. I reached out to both the ladies one early morning and we had a nice chat about the nomination, the film, and how the festival reach has been. There are so many impressive details on this. Sit back and this interview is going to blow you away. Not literally.
HNMAG: This is your third trip for an Oscar nomination. Do you hope to win this time?
Wendy Tilby: I think one always hopes to win but we’re not definitely not counting on it.
HNMAG: What’s the experience like being at the Oscars?
Amanda Forbis: It’s kind of trippy, we grew up watching them and it was so impossibly glamorous. The reality is part that and part something else. It’s a busy business, being nominated.
Wendy Tilby: I think the lead-up to the actual event is such mayhem and a flurry of activity and stress and just parties and getting clothes and talking to people about it. By the time the show is over, it’s almost anti-climactic. The other day, we realized that nobody actually remembers who won. Sometimes you think of a film that was nominated and can’t remember if it won, but it almost doesn’t matter.
Amanda Forbis: Friends of ours wrote a song, and it was called “it’s an honour to be nominated” where they were protesting too much that it was an honour to be nominated.
HNMAG: But it sounds like the Oscars is always interesting.
Wendy Tilby: Another thing about it is there’s the whole world of animation festivals, and quite different films that win those festivals get nominated for Oscars. It’s the most public and most famous award given, but by no means is it the most important and the academy does tend to pick a certain kind of film and I don’t know if it’s more meaningful than what happens with juries at festivals which also is a very fraught thing too.
Amanda Forbis: It’s a weird business.
Wendy Tilby: A collection of people that may or may not like your film. We really try not to put too much stock into that.
Amanda Forbis: As for the Oscars themselves, I have to say it’s not exactly our mill yard so for us to get ready for the Oscars is kind of a big deal. Particularly when we dealt with COVID for three years in sweatpants at our desks. It’s a bit of a shock to the system to be contemplating all the grooming that’s required.
HNMAG: True, but it will still be a fun experience, won’t it?
Amanda Forbis: Absolutely. We’re going to the nominee’s lunch on Monday and that’s always fun. You’re just in a room with all the other nominees and it’s more convivial and less stressed. That’s quite a treat.
HNMAG: The Flying Sailor seems like a very intense film. Where did you hear the story from?
Wendy Tilby: We first heard the story 20 years ago when we were in Halifax and visited the Maritime museum there which has a whole section devoted to the explosion. Even for Canadians it remains a slightly obscure thing, up until a few years ago which was the 100th anniversary of it happening, so 2017. In any case, the event was catastrophic, it was an explosion that the biggest the world had ever seen until the atomic bomb. The museum we went to had some stories and artifacts on display. One of the stories was really just a paragraph or two about this one sailor Charles Mayers who happened to be on the dock when the ship blew and he was launched and found himself a couple km from where he started within a few seconds. He was naked except for one boot and we were struck by this story as most people are. We thought about it and wondered what that trip was like.
Amanda and Wendy felt this was a great story worthy of animation. They worked on some other films for quite a while leaving this one on the back burner for quite some time, until they decided it was finally time to make it. Their main point of inspiration was the fact it was a near-death experience for the sailor.
HNMAG: So live-action would’ve been a little too much for something like this?
Amanda Forbis: We felt it was really suited to animation, we have some conversations about the wonders of animation and how it allows you to depend on things in a different way than when it’s live-action. I’m really not sure anyone would want to watch a real naked middle-aged mangy guy rolling around in the sky for a minute or two. The animation puts you a little distance from him, and I think as humans we’re reading all these millions of cues from real humans all the time. When they’re animated, you take a whole bunch of those cues away and the audience relaxes for a little bit.
Wendy Tilby: Even if it were live-action, so much of it is implausible and surreal that it would have to be done with CG.
HNMAG: How long did it take to get made?
Amanda Forbis: It sat on the back burner for roughly 17 years, because we were doing other things. It took us about 3 years to make.
Wendy Tilby: That’s typical.
Amanda Forbis: But we have a very small crew, mostly the two of us and a CG animator who created then blew up Halifax for us. Then Anna Braun did some more amazing animation. When you look at the credits of feature animations, there are hundreds of people involved in production so we’re a tiny team.
HNMAG: Have you ever made other animations as intense in content as this?
Amanda Forbis: I would say this one is the most intense. It’s very chaotic and noisy, and also very quiet and peaceful.
Wendy Tilby: There’s a pretty great dynamic range in this one.
Amanda Forbis: I think we manipulate the audience more than we have in other films. We startle them and buff at them with a loud noise.
Wendy Tilby: Our previous two films have dealt with death, and could be just as intense.
One of these two films was When The Day Breaks which I mentioned earlier. It was about someone who got hit by a car and a witness who saw the whole thing. In some ways, it contemplates a character’s life and focuses on death as well. The two ladies enjoy exploring that subject sometimes for plots.
HNMAG: Besides all the awards, how has the audience reacted to this short?
Amanda Forbis: They’ve reacted as we hoped they would. The film is sort of a stew of conflicting emotional cues so it’s really awful, yet it’s funny and beautiful all at the same time. I think we’ve been rather pleased by the reaction. People laugh at the start of the film because it starts out really light, and then they continue to laugh when it takes a sudden turn towards darkness. Then they stop laughing after a while, so there’s a little moment of where they’re sitting in this conflicted zone of whether this is funny or terrible. We really like that.
Wendy Tilby: Because it’s both. It’s a bad situation but we certainly intended this pink man flailing about in slow motion with his clothes coming off. It made things funny.
HNMAG: How did it feel to have it screened at Sundance and TIFF?
Amanda Forbis: Sundance was our favourite screening. The audiences were so engaged and so thoughtful and asked really interesting questions.
Wendy Tilby: We had never been to that festival before so it was just fun going to it and navigating all the snow. We’re used to it, but it was funny to be in a festival that was in those conditions. I like live-action festivals in a way, what was interesting is that The Flying Sailor was screened with live-action shorts and it sort of fit in.
Amanda Forbis: That was fabulous, and TIFF was great as well. That was the first time we had really engaged with it in an audience.
Wendy Tilby: The interesting thing for us is that when we finished the film and were a little bit insecure about it. You haven’t seen it with a real audience, other than the people at the NFB. The first few times we saw it at festivals in theatres was scary but it’s such a different experience seeing it with an audience ESPECIALLY in a theatre because that is the way we intended it to be seen as.
HNMAG: Is it currently en route to other festivals?
Wendy Tilby: We’re not looking much beyond March at this point, but its premiere was in Annecy, France in June. A film only has a 2-year festival life so I think there are some European festivals it might go to in the spring, and then that will be its first year. For the second year, I don’t know. We get a lot of emails from festivals asking us to submit.
Amanda Forbis: There are a lot of festivals.
Wendy Tilby: But the NFB are the ones who deal with that. They’re mostly the festival world, so sometimes we don’t even know where the film is. The main thing for us is to keep track of where WE’RE supposed to go.
HNMAG: What do you plan to do for your next short? A similar short based on a real story that’s almost or just as intense?
Amanda Forbis: Probably something different, we like to change it up from film to film. We haven’t really honed in on anything because we’ve been so busy worrying about grooming. (laughs) But we have a few ideas floating around, it’s not quite clear to us what we’re going to do next.
Wendy Tilby: What we generally say when asked this is that whatever it is is going to be fast and loose. When we dig into an idea it becomes more and more complex as we go, but that was true of The Flying Sailor when we entered into CG and all that kind of stuff it became very complicated.
Did you like that interview? Do you want to see this film? Well, guess what, you can! Check it out online over here. It’s a booming little short that you’ll enjoy. You’ll laugh for a while. And maybe even gasp. But if you ask me, it would be better viewed in a theatre. Just because of the intensity from the sounds in the film. I wouldn’t mind watching it in a theatre with an audience to see how they react.