Oscar 2012: Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis Talk 'Wild Life'

The NFB’s latest nominated short proves once again that there’s more to like about the Great White North than maple syrup pie and Molson’s.

All images from the production of Wild Life © 2011 National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

It’s hardly a surprise that animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis are back in the Oscar hunt again with their new film, Wild Life.  Their last short, When The Day Breaks (1999) was an artistic and critical success, garnering the pair numerous awards as well as an Oscar nomination.  Their latest film, co-produced by the National Film Board’s Bonnie Thompson and Marcy Page, took 7 years to make, a quirky but realistic depiction of the life and times of a generation of young British men, often of considerable family wealth, who were cast off to seek their fortune in one of the numerous British Colonies (which at that time still represented half the globe). Known as Remittance Men, these mostly clueless chaps with more gumption than sense made their way in large numbers to the “wild west of Canada,” which was short on wild and long on isolation and boredom.  The toll prairie life took on scores of people, including these transient Englishmen, was tremendous. 

The two animators were moved by family stories of these pioneers and the odd but fascinating place they hold in Canadian history.  Wild Life is a deliberate film, austere in a way that doesn’t complicate or suffocate the story.  Brilliantly and beautifully animated with vibrant characters and prairie vistas, the film is an intimate, often funny snapshot of a uniquely Canadian experience from over a century ago.  We caught up with the pair of directors while they were visiting Los Angeles.

Dan Sarto: Congratulations on the nomination. As an artist, do you ever expect accolades?  Do you ever sit back and say, "Yah, this is good. We made a good film.  People are going to like this."

Amanda Forbis: We're absolutely delighted but I can't say it was expected.  You never really know.  When we finished this film, we had a lot of open questions about how it was going to read and what people would think of it. It got off to a very slow start. In Europe, it didn't do very well at all.  We spent a lot of time saying, "What did we do wrong? Why isn't it reading?  Why aren't people getting it?"  You never know what to expect.

Wendy Tilby: Also, compared to When The Day Breaks, I think it has a different audience because there is a lot of talking in it.  The language slightly inhibits its potential with a European audience. They just don't "get it" in the same way even with a translation.  We knew that going in, we knew having speaking parts was a slightly different thing.

AF: It's also a slightly odd film in its structure. Like Amanda said, we didn't know if it was translating.  When you get immersed in a project that goes on for years, one begins to doubt one's ability to tell if it works or not because you're so far into it. 

WT: The other thing too is that it's so Canadian.  We weren't sure how audiences would respond to such a regional story. 

DS: It's a different film from your other work and it's very Canadian. The humor is also very dry.

AF: One of things that causes it not to translate very well in Europe is that for a lot of Europeans, they just can't relate to it.  Canadians and Americans, we're nations of immigrants.  We all have immigration in our past somewhere.  So, it’s part of who we are, whereas for a lot of Europeans, it’s not part of who they are at all.  Then, the whole issue of space and isolation.  Not a problem in Europe, but certainly a problem in Canada.  When that young guy came over, isolation was a big part of the deal.  It was kind of terrifying.  I'm not sure if you haven't experienced it you could relate to it. 

DS: What is the genesis of this story and your desire to make this film?

AF: A number of years ago someone told me about "Remittance Men" in a conversation.  They were young men sent over from England by their families at the turn of the century to "become a man" and make something of themselves.  They just poured into the Canadian West.  There were something like 60,000 in a ten year period.  Then they all went off to fight in the First World War and never came back.  I was startled by the fact I'd never heard of them.  It’s a way with the Canadian West that we don't celebrate our own history because we don't have the knack for mythologizing the West like the US does.  Part of it is because it was a lot tamer history.  But I mentioned to my dad, "Have you heard of Remittance Men?" and he said, "Oh sure, your mother's family is full of them" which again, was a surprise for me.  My grandfather and three of his brothers came over and in Wendy's family, her grandfather came over as an electrical engineer.  They just bombed on the prairie.  They didn't die, but they did not do very well.  They were not well suited to farming.  It was a very personal history but I don't think we realized how personal until we started talking about it. Not quite living memory, but pretty close.  So that's where it all started from.

DS:   In the US, there are few if any greater mythical icons than the cowboy. 

AF: Absolutely.  That's what the Brit would have heard about and would have been expecting, that culture, when they came to Canada.  They dreamed of being that kind of cowboy.  But, it wasn't to be.  Certainly, there were real cowboys that lived a real hard life.  There were lots of stories of Englishmen getting off the boat and picking up their "kit" from a store that outfitted them with a giant cowboy hat, sheepskin chaps and a 6-shooter.  They were following the fantasy of the American West.  And the locals laughed and laughed and took their money and sent them out to dude ranches to learn to be cowboys.  And they took more of their money there and then sent them out on the prairie where they really did play polo and croquet.  They really did do that a lot. 

DS: It's an interesting period of history. As you say, they probably all went off and died fighting in WWI.

AF: Yep.  There was a great line by a fabulous newspaper man in Calgary.  He said, "Well, the Remittance Men, they may have been green, but they weren't yellow" when he was talking about them all going off to fight in the First World War.

DS: What would you say was most challenging about the story as well as the production?

WT: The biggest challenge for us was arriving at the technique, the look.  A couple years after coming off When The Day Breaks, we were determined not to hand paint the whole film because we knew how much work that was.  We were exercising our computer chops and thinking there must be something we can do with the computer to make life easier and get a look we liked.  We experimented a lot trying various things, hybrid techniques, a bit of hand drawing, a bit of computer drawing. In the end we felt dissatisfied with it mainly because we needed to capture the textures of the landscape and we found that computer painting just didn’t quite have it, at least at that time. A cleaner look felt wrong for the story, as much as we wanted to do it cleaner.  So, we ended up going back to real paint although we animated it using Flash.  We printed out every image onto paper and then painted it with gouache, scanned it back into the computer and in some cases did some compositing, and constructed the film that way.  It was very, very laborious, but the painting is fun and satisfying. We like the randomness that comes with it and the textures. It was worth it.

AF: Although we came up with the script very early on and the story is much like the script, there was a lot added in the process. The structure changed a lot.  It was a constant editing process for both picture and sound. We worked with sound effects right from the beginning and that was challenging.  I think that is sort of a typical way for us to work.  We don’t tend to set it in stone and then make the film. It’s always a process of revision and evolution.

DS: How did this differ from When the Day Breaks as far as the type stories you want to tell?

WT: This was harder than When The Day Breaks.  It was a harder story to tell.  It was a harder film to work out visually. Some of them just flow better than others. In terms of the kind of stories we want to tell, I don’t quite know.  I need more of a sample of work. 

AF: We need to make more films before I know how to answer that one.

WT: For me, with Wild Life, we were moving in a different direction like I mentioned earlier.  Its talky, it has a lot of talking.  For us, it was an interesting challenge to record voice actors.

AF: That was fun.

WT: Directing voice actors was really fun. You design characters and animate to the voice.  That was a fun aspect that we were both keen to try. There was also the faux documentary part of it that was appealing, that we could construct a fake newsreel and have these cool interviews with the local people. We originally set out to do even more of a documentary structure.  That was quite different from When The Day Breaks. The musical structure oddly is slightly similar to When The Day Breaks.  We have these distinct musical pieces in it.  There are some things you can’t change about how you make films as much as you try. We’re always trying to be different from the previous films and they always end up being somewhat the same.  What we want to do next is go in a different direction, even more abstract.  The abstract elements of When The Day Breaks and Wild Life would be more the direction we would go in.  We’re not sure.  We tend to not want to repeat ourselves.

DS: How do you push yourselves artistically?

AF: We do like to push ourselves artistically.  We did push ourselves pretty hard on this film.  I don’t know whether that’s evident or not.  You’re always trying to find a balance between your intellectual, rational side and your instinctive side.  When do you let your instincts run and when do you force structure and logic and rationality onto it.  It’s particularly interesting when you include an element and you don’t actually quite know why it’s there. And then it becomes clear to you down the road.  For us, the firing of the bullet was like that.  We always wanted to have the firing of the bullet in the film but we weren’t 100% sure why.  Then after we finished it, our executive producer David Verrall came up to us and said, “I get the bullet.  It’s futility.”   And we thought, “Oh, that’s nice. That’s true, that is futility.”  But, you just keep including it because some part of you insists on including it but your rational mind is saying, “I don’t know.  What does this do? Is it advancing anything?  Is it telling anything?”  I look forward to getting into those types of questions again on the next film.

DS: Who does what on your films?  How do you divide up the work?

WT: It’s truly collaborative in that we both do everything.  It’s not divided into one of us animates and one of us paints.  We did brainstorm together on the script.  We both animated more or less equally.  We do have our own strengths and weaknesses that we try to take advantage of.  Certainly on Wild Life Amanda had a better grasp on painting it in gouache.  I was much better on the When The Day Breaks-style painting, which was much easier for me. Working with a water-based medium on Wild Life, I hadn’t had much experience with so I think Amanda was definitely the better painter. She did more painting than I did, where as I did more of the editing, the construction of the story, the sound.  I didn’t do the final sound but I did a lot of the sound work throughout the process.  But everything was consultation.  Sometimes we both worked on the same shot.  One would start, one would finish, one would add something, one would fix something the other did. It was a very back and forth process. 

AF: The other part of the collaboration that was very valuable was moral support.  I’m sure you know, it’s a very long process, very tedious and difficult sometimes to sustain interest in the project.  We had producers that were very helpful that way as well. They have an objective eye.  I find that the two of us are more than the sum of our parts.  We’re better together than we are individually.

DS: What are you stylistic influences?

AF: An illustrator we looked at a lot in making Wild Life was Maira Kalman.  She has illustrated a lot of books, some of them for kids. She has a very low key, gouache painterly style.  There is humor in her paintings. She’s very masterful, quite naïve but very adept at the same time. She paints a lot of things like rooms and objects.  We looked at her paintings a lot.  One of our primary influences would have to be Caroline Leaf in the sense that I only realized just recently that our style of storytelling and the kind of films we make owes an awful lot to her.  She is such a master storyteller and has made such a fantastic body of work that it’s always a source of inspiration. For Wild Life, one of my big influences was a book by Wallace Stegner called Wolf Willow that talks about living on the prairie.  He distills so many thoughts about being a prairie person that I’ve never been able to articulate. He was certainly an influence from way back on this film. 

I think the style of filmmaking comes from a tradition that is very Canadian, that comes from people who have been at the NFB over the years that we can’t help but be influenced by. Apart from that, there is a bunch of Canadian literature that has an austerity to it that is influential to us. They show small moments in life rather than the bigger strokes. Also, some of the characters in the film are people we would have just in the beginnings of our memories. I remember a grade 5 teacher, in elementary school, who was the most terrifying Scottish lady. She had a big pile of red hair and she was just a very angry and stern person. I realized that the Scottish lady in the film is absolutely her. I remember that going into grade 5, I had made the aesthetic decision to continue printing instead of handwriting because I liked printing better. We get into this classroom and she is just in a towering rage and she screams, “Which ones of you are still printing!”  I took up handwriting immediately. Every Canadian has had at least one Scottish teacher.

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Dan Sarto is the publisher of AWN.com.

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