Wendy Tilby, Amanda Forbis Discuss Backstory, Inspiration For Their 3rd Oscar-Nominated Short
Amanda Forbis (l) and Wendy Tilby
"The Flying Sailor" combines humor, poignancy, 3D CG, 2D animation and live action

The lack of female nominees for the Best Director Oscar this year has received much deserved scrutiny. But seemingly flying under the radar are those women directors who have made a mark in this season’s Academy Awards derby such as Sara Dosa whose Fire of Love is nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. And then there’s a female directing duo, consisting of Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, who just picked up their third career Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film--this time for The Flying Sailor (National Film Board of Canada).

Writers/directors/animators Tilby and Forbis have turned out a body of lauded work over the decades. On the Academy Awards front, that dates back to 2000 with their first joint nomination for When The Day Breaks (National Film Board of Canada). A dozen years later, they garnered their second Oscar nom as a team on the strength of Wild Life (National Film Board of Canada). 

For Tilby the Oscar lineage goes back even further as she first became an Oscar nominee as a solo director in 1992 for the animated short titled Strings (also via the National Film Board of Canada).

Throughout their filmmaking endeavors, Tilby and Forbis have continually sought out new styles, approaches and techniques. The Flying Sailor, for example, marked their first major foray into 3D CG, which they expertly meshed with 2D animation and live action. 

The inspiration for The Flying Sailor came some time ago when Tilby and Forbis visited the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they saw an exhibit dedicated to the Halifax Explosion of 1917. The presentation included a blurb about a British sailor who was blown skyward from a pier and flew a mile before landing uphill, naked and unharmed.

Forbis recalled being captivated by the story, thinking, “What was his trip like? What did her hear, feel and see in that moment?”

However, the animation directors didn't immediately pursue the story. Rather, it stayed on the backburner for some 18 years. Ultimately, explained Tilby, "what interested us was we could take what was [an experience lasting] a few seconds and turn it into a few minutes of film. Because we are animators, we thought it was a perfect opportunity in that respect.”

The Flying Sailor opens with our title character walking along a pier. He looks out to the harbor where he sees two ships collide. The explosion shatters the city and the sailor is blasted into orbit. While in flight he has a series of flashbacks. Soaring above the mayhem in his birthday suit, he goes on a journey marked by humor, suspense and even philosophy. The short becomes an exhilarating contemplation of the wonder and fragility of existence.

Tilby related that while in flight, the protagonist gets glimpses of his past, giving viewers something that falls short of a backstory yet is inherently intriguing. Tilby and Forbis stayed true to the story in some respects--such as the sailor’s clothes coming off. But the filmmakers also took some creative license. The sailor from 1917 was about 21 years old. By contrast, directors conjured up a seafarer who was what Tilby described as “a slightly hardened middle-aged character, a bit world weary.” 

Deft humorous touches also mark the short. In the prologue, which is bright and has a 1940s cartoonish-type vibe, we see our sailor on the pier. He notices that the ships are on a collision course which to him is no big deal. In fact, he lights up a cigarette, figuring, said Tilby, that he will “have a smoke and watch it.” When the explosion hits, a darker mood takes over. Yet while his clothes are blown off and he’s propelled into the wild blue yonder, the cigarette stays firmly in his mouth, almost, quipped Tilby, like he’s “hanging onto it for dear life.” It’s a bit of subtle comedy that juxtaposes with the poignancy of reflecting on one’s life--akin to a smile cloaked in darkness, underscoring what Tilby cited as “the opposition of comedy and tragedy” which she and Forbis look to create.

Forbis knew early on that CG needed to be part of the equation for The Flying Sailor. Using drawings to convey the blowing up of Halifax, she related, was “overwhelming to contemplate so we dipped our toes in CG.”  Tilby and Forbis hired William Dyer, a Maya artist, who made integral contributions, including creating the town of Halifax and then blowing it up. The explosion and surrounding smoke entailed “a very intensive technical process,” noted Forbis who added that the sailor himself was animated in Blender, a CG 3D program. 

“We originally thought we would draw the sailor but realized it would be so difficult to do his constantly changing angles and keep them consistent because the action is in slow motion [as he contemplates his life],” continued Forbis. The sailor was animated in CG and then painted over in 2D, a choice that was made, explained Forbis, so that “we could keep possession of the character, keep him in our realm, control how he looked and how he was presented to the camera, to stand out from the background.”

Live-action bits were thrown in as placeholders but ultimately they fit and thus remained in the final piece. “They were close enough to the rest of the world we created so they could stay in,” said Forbis. “The film ends up being a three-pronged approach--CG, live action and 2D animation.

Music and sound were also vital to the film, as they’ve been to all of Forbis and Tilby’s work. “We started working with temp tracks and sound effects in our original animatic. This was key to helping us shape the film and to find its structure and emotional arc,” commented Tilby who along with Forbis gave much credit to composer/sound designer Luigi Allemano and his collaborative approach which yielded a track well suited to the story.

That story is one that developed over time, requiring the filmmakers to trust their belief in the film from the outset. In fact, Forbis observed, “I felt maybe for the first time that I truly trusted my instincts. When we started making it, when we asked ourselves what is this about anyway, we could only say ‘it’s about life.’ That didn’t sound all that convincing.”

But she and Tilby felt strongly that this was a story worth telling and a film worth making. “As we went along, it became clearer what it’s about. It’s still becoming clearer now,” continued Forbis who shared that a prime lesson learned from the experience was simply that “trusting your instincts is a nice feeling.”

That trust has led to The Flying Sailor earning not only an Oscar nomination but also the Animation Short Film Jury Award from the Sundance Film Festival, an Annie Award nomination, and being selected for the 2022 AFI Fest as well as the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, among other accolades, 

Tilby and Forbis continue to maintain their longstanding relationship with Acme Filmworks in the U.S. for representation in the commercialmaking/branded content arena. The directing duo's exploits at Acme over the years include notable spots for United Airlines and a campaign for Suntory water in Japan--based on a character from their Oscar-nominated short Wild Life--which ran for seven years.

This is the 15th installment of a 17-part The Road To Oscar series with installments running in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print/PDF issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. The 95th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 12.

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