The Flying Sailor
“Imagine the story of the sailor’s flight as a subjective, visceral, slow-motion ballet”
WORDS BY RACHEL WINDSOR | CALGARY | IN FOCUS
FEB 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11
"The Flying Sailor"
Artistic inspiration can come from the most unexpected places─just ask Calgary-based Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, creators of the short film The Flying Sailor. The duo, known for such films as When the Day Breaks and Wild Life, took inspiration from the 1917 Halifax Explosion for their newest work. The explosion – caused by the early morning collision of the TNT-laden French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian SS Imo – was unquestionably tragic for the Halifax and surrounding community (including the Mi’kmaq First Nation settlement in nearby Turtle Grove, which was never rebuilt). Yet, in The Flying Sailor, Forbis and Tilby are able to find beauty and even humour in the catastrophe by focusing their attention on the story of a single British sailor. The pair imagines his experience through a mix of 2D, 3D, live action, and photography techniques, with their variations mirroring the work’s blend of meditative philosophy and playful exuberance. Their innovative combinations paid off: the film has won nine awards to date, and was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards. smART Magazine connected with the filmmakers who, true to their collaborative nature, answered in tandem.
Amanda Forbis (L) and Wendy Tilby (R)
The Flying Sailor
sM | What was your journey towards the telling of this story, and what larger motivations propelled the realisation of this project?
AF&WT ── A number of years ago we visited the Maritime Museum in Halifax and discovered the section dedicated to the Halifax Explosion. Oddly, we can’t remember if we already knew about that catastrophic event or not. Few Canadians are familiar with it─and that was particularly true before the famous Heritage Minute was made. Among the displays was a short blurb about a British sailor who was blown skyward from the pier and flew two kilometres before landing uphill, naked and unharmed. We were intrigued! What did he see? What did he hear? What was he thinking? The story brimmed with animation potential. Inspired by accounts of near-death experiences, our idea was to expand those few chaotic seconds into as many minutes, and imagine the story of the sailor’s flight as a subjective, visceral, slow-motion ballet. Our aim was to show that our lives are at once fleeting, precarious, profound … and, in the grand scheme of things, utterly insignificant.
LAUGH & CRY & LAUGH
sM | Although you're depicting a tragedy, the visual style is bright, colourful, and exaggerated. Why is this mixture of tragedy and comedy important to you, and to this particular story?
AF&WT ── The humour was built into the factual account of the flight of the sailor. All he was wearing when he landed was one rubber boot. It’s an image that is both funny and awful, and we were interested in that tension. Humour is also the leavening that keeps the story from getting too earnest or self-important.
We’re attracted to contrasts—terrible and beautiful, vast and tiny, funny and tragic─these contradictions keep showing up in our work. We feel they tell the truth of life, that it’s a mess of conflicting states and emotions, difficult to navigate and harder still to truly understand.
In The Flying Sailor, we deliberately made the prologue jaunty and cartoony (how could we resist, with a giant stack of TNT in the story?), then changed the tone at the point of the explosion. We wanted to underscore the notion that we all get up in the morning with some idea of how the day will go, blithely unaware that our plans could be blown sky high in an instant, and our lives stripped down to the bare, often desperate, essentials. It could be an accident, a lost job, a bit of bad news─these are the moments that sharply divide our lives between before and after.
sM | The two of you have been working as a team for over twenty years. What makes that collaboration work?
AF&WT ── Yes, it’s been 27 years of pure hell! Just kidding. We met at art school in 1985 and immediately discovered that we had very similar tastes, ideas, and senses of humour. For us, two heads are better than one─rather than a dilution of the creative process, we find that working together is a route to better ideas. It involves a lot of discussion and negotiation throughout the entire process, and 97 percent of the time we agree—which means that disagreements come as a nasty shock to both parties. Occasionally, we’ll have a good knock-down-drag-out on the way to resolution, but we always get there.
Though we take on different tasks in production [Amanda does a lot of drawing and character animation, while Wendy does much of the editing and compositing], we each have fingers in all pies. It’s a true collaboration. The best part is having a partner to share the highs and lows. Animation can be such a tedious, solitary, inward-looking pursuit—it’s wonderful to have someone along for commiseration or encouragement or celebration. We wouldn’t have it any other way.