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Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis Talk ‘The Flying Sailor’

The Oscar-nominated ‘When the Day Breaks’ and ‘Wild Life’ filmmakers use a mashup of 2D, 3D, and live-action techniques to contemplate the nature of existence in their new animated short, based on a horrific, true-life disaster.

Two ships, one laden with a comically prodigious cargo of TNT, collide in a harbor. A rotund sailor, walking jauntily along a nearby pier, watches bemusedly as the calamity unfolds. A moment later, there’s the roar and flash of a massive explosion, the waterfront town is leveled, and the sailor finds himself soaring through the air, before landing two kilometers away, naked and unharmed.

It's quite a story. And it’s true. Based on an actual incident that took place in Halifax Harbor in 1917, when the collision of two vessels produced the largest human-created explosion prior to the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, The Flying Sailor uses this simultaneously horrific and miraculous event as a jumping-off point for a meditation on the “fleeting, profound and utterly insignificant” ingredients that constitute life. Employing a wealth of techniques – including 3D, 2D, live-action, and photographs – and an often-jarring mix of comedy, suspense, philosophy and abstraction, The Flying Sailor is an exhilarating and challenging look at the nature of existence.

Following early solo careers, during which they worked as animators at the National Film Board of Canada and Tilby directed the 1991 Oscar-nominated short Strings, beginning in the late 1990s, Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis forged a creative partnership that has yielded a small, but highly regarded, body of work. Their first collaboration, the 1999 animated short film When the Day Breaks, won the Grand Prize at the Annecy, Hiroshima, and Zagreb festivals, and was nominated for an Academy Award, as was their 2011 short Wild Life.

Partners in life and in art, Tilby and Forbis are not only gifted animators, but funny and gracious women, who, in addition to their other attributes, know better than to take themselves too seriously. We spoke with them about their latest production, including their use of new techniques, as well as the lighthearted philosophy that underlies all of their work.

Check out the film’s trailer:

AWN: What drew you to this story? You don't make a lot of films, and you tend to be very deliberate in what you do, including the stories you tell. So why this film?

Amanda Forbis: It's funny, we had a chat recently with Annemarie Fleming – a filmmaker in Vancouver who’s an old friend of ours – and she observed that, at their core, all of our films are about the same thing. She said it's like you're stripping away a lot of the other stuff to get at the core, which is this kind of near-death experience. So I guess it's something about the fragility of life. That wasn't consciously why we chose this idea, but…

Wendy Tilby: We've always talked about doing films about death; we always had lots of death in our films.

AF: But it's not a preoccupation with death, it's more about what it illuminates about life, I think. We went to this museum in Halifax, which is where we learned about this incident. And it was just, wow, this sailor was in the air for this long and he landed and he lived and, wow, what was that trip like? We were attracted to the simplicity of the idea, because animation gives you this license to imagine something like that and be quite surrealistic. What would that have been like? A very subjective experience was interesting for us, and we were attracted to the flying, and to making something beautiful and balletic out of the horror. But, thematically, it's not so different from what we've done before.

WT: Structurally, it's a lot simpler than When the Day Breaks and Wild Life. The sailor’s flight, which is the meat of the film, was about fluidity. We didn't have to have certain things happening here to aid comprehension, because it doesn't really matter – it's not supposed to be entirely comprehensible, in a way, because it's chaotic and strange.

AF: There are different phases of the flight, where he goes from kind of tumbling into bliss, to this much more difficult descent, where it becomes very harsh. We wanted that arc.

WT: But, otherwise, the looser structure made it really fun to do. You don’t have to think about whether you’re crossing the line, about whether his eyes are pointing in exactly the right direction. We were freed from those sort of mechanical things, which was really fun.

AWN: Did you come up with this mix of formats once you decided this was the film you were going to make, or did you try to find a story where you could explore some new techniques?

AF: It's definitely story first with us, although we always like to try something new. On the other hand, before we decided to go with 3D, we harbored some ridiculous fantasies about how we might communicate a large portion of a city being blown over in 2D. Or Wendy always likes to think we can do things on the dining room table with little blocks. We could've built this cute little city, and it would've been really fun, but completely impractical. So 3D was the way to go. It seemed to us to have maximum flexibility in terms of what we wanted to show.

WT: For the smoke cloud too, if we tried to do that with coherent slow motion in 2D, we'd still be animating it.

AF: But we were also very nervous about it because, as you probably know, 3D looks like crap right up till the end stages. We didn't want it to be super-slick, we were imagining it kind of like a model railway town that has this rinky-dink quality. So we didn't want it to be super wizzy, but the depth, the feeling of space, especially as we're dropping or flying over, would have been very hard to achieve in 2D. In terms of getting the animation right, we kept thinking, okay, well, smoke will cover a lot of it ­– the smoke and dust and debris. A lot of wizardry was done in After Effects to throw more smoke at it, throw debris at it, make everything more chaotic and cover some of the limitations.

WT: We knew that really sophisticated 3D would not be available to us; it's quite hard in this country to find people to do 3D work for you. So we knew that we weren't going to have a crew of 200 to get this done, which is partly why we chose a sort of naive model railway look. There were certainly points where the technology dictated how the idea played out.

AWN: The flight sequence is made up of a diverse series of vignettes and images that use a lot of different techniques. How much of that did you have visualized before you started animating it and how much was discovered while you were working on it?

WT: It was quite an organic process. We don't storyboard and we don't like to have everything locked before we begin. It's always an experimental process for us. To work with the NFB, we needed an animatic and so we started with that. We just threw images on a timeline, and we put music and sound effects in right away. So we start immediately with images and sound to get a sense of rhythm and timing, and that informed the music and sound that we ultimately used. In terms of the images, for expedience, we were throwing in a lot of stock footage or found footage or even stuff that we shot and then drew images of.

We trolled around homey old British Pathé movies of families to try to find ideas for these little memories that flip through his head. We didn't want them to be monumental memories of important things, just little fleeting vignettes that don't give you a complete picture of this guy by the end, but you have some sense of things.

Oh, and we looked at nuclear blasts. Buildings and shock waves, real boy stuff. We didn't know how much we were going to animate and how much we were going to use as live-action. We really liked some of the live action, so we thought, why replicate that if it works stylistically.

AF: At the animatic stage, we didn’t know how much we were going to do in 3D, but we started to develop this kind of stock-footage aesthetic with a drawn sailor in it, because there was just some marriage of 2D and 3D that we were attracted to. So, in a way, with our 3D animation, we were trying to replicate a stock-footage feeling that would then have this overlay of the pinkness and 2D-ness of the sailor, who’s so out of place with the catastrophe going on around him. And the third thing we knew we wanted was to have objects flying through the air to represent what was going on below, elements of the actual disaster. So when you see a shoe fly by, or a chair, they are meant to show the real collateral damage that's going on, although we didn't want to get into that too much.

WT: We didn't feel we needed to show limbs or anything like that.

AWN: In this more free-form filmmaking process, were there any specific missteps or things that stand out as especially challenging?

AF: With regard to the flight sequence, I remember I felt ridiculous about the fact that it only occurred to us fairly late to put an anchor in, and then having to figure out how to fit it in. So there were things like that, but, structurally, it was strangely consistent from the beginning. The hairiest part, weirdly, was the cartoon prologue. I don't know how many different angles we imagined him walking down that damn pier. There must have been about five or six or seven or eight. Which is the optimal one? Is it going to be a follow shot?

But the big challenge for us on this was the 3D. It's a fascinating process, because it's almost instant gratification. Compared to animating something in 2D, you can see the potentials much earlier.

WT: Even though it looks terrible.

AF: Even though it looks terrible. But then getting it to fruition practically killed us. It was just agony, with the smoke, and the zillions and zillions of particles and the render times. “Oh, could you make this tiny change?” “Sure, I'll see you in a week.”

It was frustrating because we don't know the language, and we don't have the ability to get our fingers in there and deal with it ourselves.

WT: One thing I was going to mention was that Billy Dyer, the guy we worked with on 3D, created a rough 3D sailor that Amanda brought into Blender, which was a big help to us in animating. We really wanted it to feel slow-mo in an honest way, but it was extremely difficult to keep track, to not have it completely wiggling out of control. So the 3D model helped us to be precise, and also we could map on his tattoos and keep track of those. Because he was not on the ground with gravity and everything, we could just sort of rotate him, and Amanda did all the posing and everything. Then that was brought into Photoshop and rendered flattish.

AF: And it was a huge savings. Anyway, in terms of going forward, it's always great to have your pallet of tools made bigger. We always struggle with the kinds of exciting potentials that are offered to you in the computer – there are just so many things you can do.

WT: The bottomless pit.

AF: And we still have the desire to work analog because we’re still attached to the tactile nature of the work. Just in terms of the process itself, it's a happier process than being on the computer all the time. But we’ll continue to use as 3D as a tool in one way or another – you would be crazy not to – because it's just a fantastic tool.

AWN: Lots of folks do 2D shows, but they use 3D for all their backgrounds and environments, then bring them into Photoshop.

AF: I think there’s that kind of animation machisma where you've got to do it a certain way or it's not really animation and you're cheating. You don't find that as much as you used to, but still a little bit. We just watched something that included a scene where the camera's quite low, and there are characters coming at the camera from below, and they just did it with 3D figures and undoubtedly saved themselves a lot of brain cells. It's those kinds of shortcuts, where you want a certain effect.

WT: It's just more efficient, I think. But after When the Day Breaks and Wild Life, both of us had the impulse – or I certainly had the impulse – to just want to do plain ink line on white paint.

AF: We always say this.

WT: Even for The Flying Sailor, a lot of our early sketches were just that – just kind of inky line drawings. Forget all this texture and rendering and painterliness. But then, once you dig into the idea, the complexities start, and we always wind up making everything more complicated. So, in terms of what comes next, my impulse right now is just to go back to super simple. We're sort of still swimming around in summer and we have little snippets of ideas, but we don't know what we're doing next.

AWN: I'm sure, as with all your films, your next one will be equally as deliberate and equally as wonderful to watch when it finally gets to our screens.

AF: When we're 80.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.