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‘The Flying Sailor’: Building on the NFB’s Legacy of Women Animators

With Oscar-nominated filmmakers Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis’ latest animated short, they add to, and benefit from, the organization’s growing support for filmmaking diversity, while celebrating the role of female pioneers like Evelyn Lambart, who’s being honored posthumously with the Winsor McCay Award at this Saturday’s 50th Annie Awards.

Though it began 80+ years ago producing, among other things, newsreels and WWII-related propaganda films, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has grown – with the help of creative geniuses like music-inspired abstract animator Norman McLaren and paper cut-out animation artist Evelyn Lambart – into a prolific, well-respected producer and distributor that continually delights global audiences with its experimental, boundary-pushing animated and documentary films, in both French and English. 

“The creative work that filmmakers do, and their contributions to enrich our lives and our cultural heritage, is something we have to recognize,” says Julie Roy, the NFB’s Director General of Creation and Innovation. Roy has practically grown up with the organization; in her 29 years at the NFB, she’s worked in a variety of roles on both documentary and animation projects, beginning as marketing manager, then producer, then executive producer, before assuming her current position in 2020. “I feel privileged at the NFB to be able to support and guide filmmakers on their artistic journeys, which are sometimes difficult,” she shares. “Fortunately, we have the resources and expertise to support them. We are truly in the service of creation; it’s our prime motivation.”

At the NFB, teams of talented collaborators at every level – technical, legal, marketing, distribution, and communications – provide personalized support and guidance for every project. In total, the NFB has delivered more than 13,000 productions, which have won more than 5,000 awards including 12 Oscars (out of 77 nominations).

The NFB, according to Roy, has also “played a pioneering role for women in film,” as exemplified in the work of animator Evelyn Lambart – producer of several award-winning films such as Fine Feathers (1968), The Hoarder (1969), Paradise Lost (1970), The Story of Christmas (1973), Mr. Frog Went A-Courting (1974), and The Lion and the Mouse (1976) – as well as in the work of generations of filmmakers that followed, such as award-winning animation directors Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis.

In fact, this Saturday, February 25th, at the 50th Annie Awards ceremony, Lambart will be awarded (posthumously – she passed away in 1999) the Winsor McCay Award, given to individuals in recognition of lifetime or career contributions to the art of animation in producing, directing, animating, design, writing, voice acting, sound and sound effects, technical work, music, professional teaching, and for other endeavors which exhibit outstanding contributions to excellence in animation.

“The auteur model of filmmaking is what the NFB excels at and we owe our careers to it,” says Tilby, who has worked with the NFB for over three decades, producing films with her creative and life partner Forbis, including the Oscar-nominated animated shorts When the Day Breaks (1999), Wildlife (2011) and, most recently, their 2022 film The Flying Sailor, which just received a Best Animated Short Film nomination for the 95th Academy Awards set for March 12.

Take a few minutes to enjoy their latest nominated film:

Tilby notes, “We would never be making these films if it weren't for the Film Board. And our commercial career, which has run parallel to making our personal films, is very much because of our films. We will have a commercial producer at an agency say, ‘We want this, but we want it in a When the Day Breaks kind of style.’”

The Flying Sailor is yet another reminder of the NFB’s desire to enrich lives and inspire a wonder for the world with each film they produce. Case in point, Tilby and Forbis’ primarily 2D-animated short (which also includes 3D and live-action shots), which takes an abstract approach to the true story of a sailor launched through the air by the tragic 1917 Halifax Harbor explosion, that at the time, was the largest man-made explosion in history. The sailor, blown two kilometers in the air before landing, miraculously, unharmed, left an account of his experience, displayed on the wall of Halifax’s Maritime Museum, where Tilby and Forbis first discovered the story 20 years ago. 

“He said he felt like he was underwater,” notes Forbis of the sailor’s story. “He knew he was conscious. And then we read that he landed on this hill, without any injuries, and he was next to a crying child. He said, ‘Where are we?’ and she said, ‘I don't know.’”

“We both were struck back then and thought, ‘Wow, what was that trip like?’” remembers Tilby. “We thought of it immediately as an animation idea. But we were, at that point, developing a different film and we were doing commercials, so it ended up on the back burner for all these years. And so, when we decided it was time to do another film with the NFB, we thought, ‘Okay, maybe this is it.’”

The film, which features a middle-aged man flying through the air naked, in slow motion, shows how the sailor, in what he believes may be his final moments alive, contemplates small and seemingly insignificant parts of life that become magnified in his memory.

“It’s about encapsulating a life and exploring, ‘What is a life?’” says Tilby. “Is it a collection of memories? Is it a collection of atoms? We're so much more than that. And it's hard to define. It's only at these moments of death, or near death, that it all comes to the fore. It also relates to some of our previous work. Our film When the Day Breaks is about a death as witnessed by another character. The witness sees the character who dies when he’s hit by a car, and she sees his whole life strewn out on the road, starting with his groceries and his hat and his glasses and then she starts to think about who his family is, where he came from, all that.”

Forbis adds, “Animation is so interesting in how it simultaneously removes you from the subject matter and puts you way closer to it. Our films tend to offer up this kind of beautiful vision, that makes death, or a near-death experience, look so much more appealing than we tend to think. They tell an audience that, even though life will just kick the snot out of you, it’s still beautiful."

Though NFB-supported projects include documentary films, web documentaries, and alternative dramas, animation has always been featured front and center, their creative “sweet spot.” 

“Animation has a long and rich tradition at the NFB, where important, acclaimed films have been made, 43 of which received Academy Award nominations,” notes Roy, who has produced around 50 NFB projects. “To this day, animation embodies the heritage and philosophy instilled by Norman McLaren: an approach that draws on innovation, a broad diversity of techniques, and a mode of production based on the creator as a craftsperson.”

Having been weaned on the NFB since childhood, Tilby and Forbis remember always rooting for the NBF’s animation programs, despite initially heading towards live-action film careers in school.  

“When the NFB logo came up, you would pray that it was going to be an animated film because the live-action films were things about the light industry in Oshawa, lumbering in British Columbia, the geography of the Canadian Shield, things like that,” remembers Forbis. “It was ghastly. But we loved the animated films. We would see the film strips in school and if another program on TV ran short, they’d slap on an NFB animation. It was always part of our lives as kids.”

And even though Lambart was a uniquely innovative technician and craftsperson, Forbis says that she never realized the famed animator’s impact on the industry, and Tilby can’t recall having seen any of her films growing up. Now, the NFB has made Lambart’s works available on their website. 

“For most of my time at the Film Board, I thought of her as being Norman McLaren's assistant, which tells you a lot right there because she was obviously a filmmaker in her own right,” says Forbis. “And though the Film Board was way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of encouraging and acknowledging female talent, she just kind of got overlooked. But the fact that we're having this conversation means that she's now being acknowledged along with how her work has certainly set a tone for other people's work from that point forward.”

In addition to over a dozen cut-out animation films that Lambart produced, she also co-directed Begone Dull Care with McLaren, which was designated as a "masterwork" by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada. She also did animation for McLaren and Claude Jutra's pixilation film A Chairy Tale.

“She wasn't somebody who loomed large when we were at art school as someone that we were aspiring to be like, because I don't remember even seeing her films,” says Tilby. “But she was literally the first woman animator at the Film Board. So, Eve’s part of the NFB’s legacy. And she's one of several women filmmakers who have made it feel possible for us.”

The NFB now features multiple generations of talented female creatives in animation, including The Hat’s Michèle Cournoyer, The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin's Janet Perlman, Animal Behavior’s Alison Snowden, Threads’ Torill Kove, Hedgehog's Home’s Eva Cvijanović, My Little Underground’s Élise Simard, Le clitoris’ Lori Malépart-Traversy, and Two Sisters’ Caroline Leaf. All excellent films by any standards, made by filmmakers well-known and respected in the animation community.

“The Film Board champions gender parity and diversity in all its forms, and also furthers the transmission of knowledge from one generation of animators to the next,” shares Roy. “For this great NFB tradition to continue, we need to welcome and develop new talents. Some of the avenues for this are programs for emerging filmmakers, like Hothouse and Cinéaste recherché(e), and creative labs like Alambic. We need to continually cultivate openness and accessibility, to widen the pool of creators and emphasize intersectional diversity. We’re in a state of constant evolution, and we continue to provide a model for younger talent.”

She adds, “Wendy and Amanda’s work is a true auteur endeavor. They never hesitate to push the envelope of creativity, to explore new artistic ground by trying out new techniques and technologies, supported by the teams at the NFB. As such, their film [The Flying Sailor] is emblematic of the NFB’s international reputation and their journey as women filmmakers is inspiring to emerging artists.”

Tilby and Forbis have given master classes, traveled to festivals around the globe, and shared their journey and expertise with aspiring filmmakers, themselves continually inspired by the “jewels of short stories,” by creators like Leaf. “At this point, we're quite practiced as short filmmakers, and we're a really rare animal because we are essentially creations of the Film Board,” notes Forbis. “The fact is, lots of people make one or two short films and then have to do something else because they just can't maintain themselves. They can't live on it. But we've always had the potential of the Film Board, for better or for worse, so we remain short filmmakers.”

Tilby adds, “There are certain conservatives who might think we need to ditch the Film Board, and that it's too expensive, or something like that. But it's the recognition, the Oscar nominations, that stops them. And when we travel, when we go to the States or Europe, when people say, ‘Oh my god, the Film Board!’ It reminds us how lucky we are. We're reminded of the treasure that it is.”

Roy wishes to leave female creators with this final call to action: just create, no matter what. 

“Women, keep on daring, empower yourselves, talk about yourselves on screen—that’s always a positive thing,” she says. “It drives social progress. Young women, especially, are less prone to self-censorship. Embrace that. Don’t wait for your film to get funding or a producer; use the tools at your disposal right now.”

For those wishing to get started on creating a film with the NFB, or who want to pitch a project, visit the website here

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at