& Wendy Tilby
The Flying Sailor
Shorts Programme 4
22nd -30th January 2023
January 9, 2023
One can never be surprised where an idea can come from. Where a spark of creative can lead you on an unforgettable and unimaginable journey. Cannes award-winning, and two-time Academy-Award nominees Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby have already won great acclaim for their latest animation short THE FLYING SAILOR based on remarkable true story. Forbis and Tilby are once again on the shortlist for the 2023 Academy Award for Best Animation Short and will be presenting THE FLYING SAILOR at SUNDANCE later this month.
I watched the film again this morning and it really is special. I think that there is a delicate beauty in how you have told such an interesting and intriguing story in such a simple and imaginative way. And I wanted to start by just asking how you both discovered Charles Mayers story and what made you want to turn it into an animated short film?
Amanda Forbis (AF): Well, thank you first of all. Many years ago we went to the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and they had a display about the Halifax Explosion (1917), which was this massive historical event that is very little known in Canada, we don't talk about ourselves in Canada very much. I can't remember whether we already knew about the explosion or whether we first discovered whole event during this visit, but whatever the case, we saw a blurb about this sailor who had been standing on the pier and was thrown upwards of two kilometres into the city and landed in a green space and survived, wearing only one rubber boot. It was an interesting story right on the face of it and it intrigues most people they say, “oh my God”, so our question was, what was the trip like?
To imagine what it would have been him in that moment. And that held our interest for a long time as we didn't make the film until 16 or 17 years later, but that fundamental tidbit held our interest all this time. And as it sort of burgeoned away in the backs of our minds, it became clearly a near death experience, which are very weirdly common experience for people. When they are in a catastrophic incident they find that time slows down and that they see visions of dead relatives and have memories replayed, and they start to become, to put it in a bit of a corny way, one with the universe. They start to lose sense of their bodies and they become very peaceful and serene and it's a beautiful experience only to be hauled back into harsh reality again, just like the sailor is.
I think what you both have captured, very beautifully and poetically, this wonderful sense of a life of a man. Though this subject has been something you have been connected to for over 16-years once you went into production how much of Charles Mayer’s real life and experiences where you able to discover?
Wendy Tilby (WT): Practically nothing. All we knew about him was that he was there on the pier when the ship blew and he landed, found himself alive and relatively okay, two kilometres away and naked. We knew that he was British and had been on a British ship (the S.S. Middleham Castle*), and after the war, went back to Britain and became a riverboat pilot and that he was 22 years old**, that’s about all we know. Our guy, we don't say how old he is, but he does seem older.
AF: Clearly not 22.
WT: We found him more interesting by not making him a classic sort of character, we did not want a nice looking young fellow, we wanted somebody that had a little bit of life, clot I guess. So we made him a little bit bigger so that we could have a little bit more fun with him.
AF: A little worn down.
WT: Yeah he’s a little worn down, salty.
AF: Which we can relate to because as you go along you get worn down a little bit.
WT: But in terms of his memories, we totally made it up, which was part of the fun of it, part of our attraction to Charlie’s story in the first place was that we knew nothing about him and we had license to make it up because nobody could contradict us for one thing. But it was also, like you said, a very simple story in that he goes up, he comes down, and everything in between was up for grabs in terms of the story. We started off the project by making an animatic, which is similar to a storyboard on a timeline in a way, and included some drawings, but we also started throwing in stock footage and archival footage because we wanted to get a sense of the explosion. We wanted to get some aerial shots so we threw in some drone footage of a city on fire. And because we were having a lot of fun looking at archival footage, we started throwing in clips of sailors and kids which gave us the idea of memories. And some of them stuck, some of them didn’t. But we didn't want them to be necessarily important events in his life. They're just little glimpses. Things that aren't necessarily what you would have in your obituary at all, they are just resonant to him, which was fun for us as it was freeform in that way.
AF: Basically inside your own head there is a movie of your own life and it's vivid and it has smells and sights and sounds and is locked in your head unless you realise it somehow. I was interested in the idea that the reality of somebody's memories is lost inside them when they die and that was what was interesting about those kinds of memories. The kinds of things that you probably would not even think to verbalise but for some reason they stay with you.
There's two points in the film, the initial explosion, which I thought was just cinematically stunning, I wish I had watched it on a bigger screen to be truly appreciate that explosion. The second point is as the sailor comes back down to earth, there is a nice balance between possible outcomes, is this the end or his “new” beginning? When you are storyboarding a film like this, how close are you able to keep to the vision that you both have for the story you are telling?
WT: Well, thank you for those nice comments. It's so satisfying for us to know that you you got it on that level and we wish you could see it on a big screen because it's quite a different experience.
AF: We were even shocked by it on the big screen to be honestly.
WT: Having worked on it on a small computer and then mixing it in Atmos, which is the next evolution of Dolby sound in which they have multiple speakers in the ceiling, but we didn't want to push that too much in some ways because we do not like gimmicky sound stuff. But the the explosion is fantastic in a proper theatre, however, most people see it on a small screens so we have to accept that.
And to answer your question we do not really storyboard we work in a very organic way, we just throw stuff in, like throwing paint at a wall and seeing what sticks.
AF: And it starts to built.
WT: It is like a construction project. We work with sound and music right from the beginning. And we used all sorts of temp tracks because this was what was shaping the film as the narrative structure was quite simple for us. We wanted our sailor to go through various stages of this experience. So we knew that from the start and we stayed true to that and the beginning of his launch was meant to be traumatic in a way, like he's flailing. And we wanted those flailing motions to become balletic in a way and to have a beauty or a poignancy to them. Then the memories are interjecting into that trauma as he rises above the smoke in the mayhem. That was really important to us that he would go above it. We wanted him to go into the clouds, into outer space, and there was this transcendence as he transitions into this pink blob, which came a little bit later in the process. We both began to think "How do we realise him at this point? Is it just his point of view or do we show him?" But we thought "Well no, he's becoming seamless in a way."
So we imagined him as this blob figure and then the white light, it's very cliched, but it's true, people really do report that. And and then the particles, I guess everything we knew from the beginning.
AF: It fundamentally and structurally stayed the same. Actually, what we had to tinker with a lot more was the prologue of having him walk down the dock and having the ships collide. We wanted that to be as tidy and succinct as possible because, to us, it wasn't really what the film was about, it was just our way to get into it. We had to work very hard to tell that story as tightly as we could, and it was painful. I can't tell you how many variations we had of him walking down that stupid pier, it just drove us crazy. But the fundamentals of the the film were always set.
WT: Although one one question we always debated was the ending: Do we show him landing? Is it his point of view landing? Does he get up after? We wondered about that, but we knew that we wanted the actual plummet to be harsh, I guess, or wrenching. And so the memories at that point become falls and spills and all that sorts of thing.
AF: It was an interesting process for us because we haven't really made such a violent film before, I'm almost sorry to say, but, it was quite gratifying to do something so dramatic and so violent. And to feel those things myself, once we got into the big theatre and saw it on the big screen, to be somewhat shocked by the impact of it was really satisfying.
WT: We were really trying for dynamic range, the big things to be big, the small things to be small because that gave it definition, like that's what shaped the narrative and the music was extremely important to that.
Watching The Flying Sailor is like ballet, it is very operatic. How close did you work with Luigi Allemano on that sound and the music?
AF: Really, really closely. I don't think we've ever worked as closely with somebody before.
WT: Not so early though.
AF: No. When we started out, we were using temp tracks by Bach and people like that. It's an awful thing to do to a composer to say, "here's some Bach. Just do something like that". But when we were trying temp tracks, I bet we tried hundreds of tracks, particularly for the section where he is first launched and he is flying over the city and then is enveloped in smoke. It was really hard to know the exact tone we wanted and also the pace of it. So we tried a ton of things and by the time we got to Luigi, we were pretty clear on what we wanted.
WT: We had some Debussy in there, remember. Mainly because we decided we wanted the music not to be the sailor's experience because that was quite a violent experience and that we were doing with sound. There was an embedded rumble and all of that, but that it was kind of removed from the sailor and with the sailor's ballet we wanted the music to be that. And it needed to be suggestive of the slow motion, but not literally in slow motion so it got paired down more and more and more into very simple piano and strings. I guess it was really tricky to get that, what worked at the beginning didn't seem to work at the end.
AF: It was a very interesting problem. I think the way we felt about it ultimately was that we wanted something that was not overplayed, but slightly melancholic, letting go of life feeling that it was sort of beautiful and sad that I think that was fundamentally what we were looking for. And as Wendy said, it got paired down and down and down. And Luigi was just incredible because he has no ego as far as we can tell, he was able to just let us take things, mess them up, move them around, chop them up, repeat them, slow them down, speed them up, and we'd give them back to him. And he would say, "okay, great." He was truly collaborative in that way, in a way that I'm not sure is very common.
And by doing that it became a very intense process. We got to where we needed to get to and we had our greasy mitts in the whole thing, but the end piece, it took a couple of tries, but we said to Luigi we wanted him to go full Russian on this. We wanted the conductor to be sweating, the bows to be losing hairs and he produced this stunning piece of music. When we heard it in the mix it was just thrilling. And those are the kinds of things in a production that are so rare and they're so precious they give you so much courage to keep going. It's so exciting when you've finally made something that is really snapping, really singing. He was an absolutely wonderful collaborator. One of the interesting things he said about writing the music was that some of the music was so slow that it was a challenge for the musicians to be able to play it. It got down to such a slow speed and a lot of the musicians were challenged by the pace of it.
WT: The music was also recored during the pandemic and they where only allowed a certain amount of musicians in at once, and Luigi really organised that well which was then knitted together in the music mix. And the music mix was quite an accomplishment as well because there's a lot of weaving in and out of the instruments. And it was great for us the music and sound are half the film, I mean any film really which is really important to us. And Luigi understood how we work and that we respond to music in how we're shaping the movie and it was very much a part of the editing process. So everything was being worked on, the sound was being worked on right to the very end, back and forth between us and it was interesting.
You have also been shortlisted for the 2023 Academy Award Animation Short Film, having been nominated twice before. Do you still get the same butterflies or nervousness over the whole selection process? Or are you able to not put as much focus on on the nomination process?
AF: Yes we still get nervous. We try to tamp it down because we know the process fairly well and we know that there are certainly no guarantees. We we pleased to be shortlisted.
WT: It’s a strong, very strong field of films this year.
AF: Yeah, it is so we're trying not to have any expectations about a nomination because it really is wide open and there are a number of strong films.
WT: And the shortlist is longer this year. I think it used to be 10 films, so now it's 15. So the odds are a little different. And because we are members of the academy, we see everything and we are also voters. We always find it hard because it is apples and oranges to compare our film to some of the other ones, they're just so different. Also over the years, we've learned to make our peace with what we think is the best and what we vote on, and then what ends up winning or being nominated.
AF: They don't often coincide actually.
WT: The academy is so diverse in terms of the studio people and independents, or probably fewer independents I guess. One thing we've noticed is that since the last time we went through this the whole media sphere is very different.
AF: It’s so much more media.
WT: There’s just more, more and more. So you are swept on this wave and talking to delightful people like yourself.
AF: Which is nice.
WT: Which is lovely because it's nice to talk about the film and we’re please that people like you are appreciating it. This is also helps get our film known and so we just try not to put too much stock in the actual process.
AF: But the plain fact is once you know you are in a race, you can't help but invest in it. And I wish we didn't because I would prefer to be above it all, but no.
WT: Above it all like the sailor.
Last month you where part of a discussion about short films. And with the Academy having two specific categories for short films, what do you think could be done to take short films out of the festival circuit and and bring them more into wider audiences.
AF: It's always been a problem. And we had thought that possibly the internet would help because people would just give five minutes to watch a film. And I think that does happen, but somehow they just don't get traction. We've gotten to a point where we find programs of short films, particularly short animation, kind of exhausting because it's so rich and you're kind of switching your entire field of attention every 5 or 10 minutes.
WT: It’s like overeating at Christmas.
AF: So you're reorienting yourself to a different vision every 5 or 10 minutes and trying to work your way through that world, if it's challenging material. And I think that's tricky. And we were just talking about this issue the other day and honestly, I wish that they could be shown in front of features more often. I think people welcome them much more than they do as a program of shorts, we used to see them when we were small kids. They used to show Bugs Bunny etc before features in the theatre and it was always thrilling, I'd think, "Oh, I short." I don't think that people necessarily react that way today. So it's a difficult issue. And even though the internet does afford you the possibility to see films that you wouldn't see otherwise in our case of our film, it hurts my heart that somebody watches it on their phone because they're missing about 90% of the experience.
WT: And then there's the problem that features are not even being seen in the cinemas so much either. So the whole cinema is a problem. And I think the pandemic has made it worse because everybody has gotten out of the habit of going to them or they're still fearful, I particularly wish short animation could be seen on the big screen. However we did get our film in The New Yorker package online.
AF: It still is.
WT: The New Yorker magazine has a screening room and that has given The Flying Sailor a lot of exposure that we're really appreciative of.
AF: They really do a lot actually and they have really helped to push our film to new audiences.
"We don't know when that moment, our moment might come or happen, most of us won't have such a dramatic moment, but they can be small moments too that life becomes defined as simply as before and after."
It is also great to hear that The Flying Sailor is going to be at Sundance 2023 which means a lot of people will get to experience it on the big screen.
AF: Do you have any thoughts on how short films can be seen more but audiences?
I agree with you. The filmmakers who are complaining that people don't go to the cinema aren't supporting short filmmakers who are making great short films that could actually screen ahead of their features, which would encourage more people to go back to the cinema.
AF: That’s right.
I feel as though a lot of audiences that love films have no real connection with short films. And they need to taken away from YouTube or Vimeo and maybe streaming platforms like Netflix could curate more short films connected to festivals like SUNDANCE, TIFF, AFI or BFI rotating the selection ever month or so. Yet none of the festivals are really willing to partner with cinema chains or steaming platforms so I suppose it's unfortunately down to you guys, to the short filmmakers to continue to make these types of films that eventually might get to somebody in power, with vision, that sees the benefit in bringing shorts back to the cinema.
WT: The problem is it does not make economic sense for the theatres anymore. Not only do they get revenue for showing commercials, they're tooting their own horns when they show the previews of what's coming. Also feature films are so long these days so adding to that is a problem. The other thing is that if you do add the time it cuts into the concessions where they sell popcorn, sodas and candy. This really does drive us crazy for all the reasons that you just said and especially with animation a little bit more than live action because a lot of people who make live action shorts are on their way to making features. Whereas people who make short animation often don't want to make a feature. For us we have no desire to make a feature animation because it would be a completely different process for us and we like to do a lot ourselves, so we appreciate the form for what it is. It’s the shortness that we practice, the concision.
We started a little festival in our hometown where our friends would ask us what we did and when we told them we are filmmakers they would ask how they could see our films. This would be a bit of a problem so we went to our local church, which is like a community hall almost, and they show live music there and everything in between. And we invited people to come to see a selection of short films and we did it for about 11 years in a row. Every winter we would show a night of short films and hundreds of people came and it's almost like we educated them that this is a form worth watching.
AF: They were great audiences. It was also a chance for us to share these masterpieces. There is this enormous catalog of some of the best films ever made, short or long, that nobody sees and nobody knows. And it was a real pleasure to share them with audience. And it was a lot of fun and afterwards we would talk about the films giving people an insight into the technique or the thought behind it or something like that.
WT: Then we'd have a party in the church basement. It was great.
Finally, last year The Flying Sailor won best film at the Ottowa International Animation Festival who said “For its striking, inventive combination of animation styles and its thoughtful, poetic evocation of the dignity of humanity in times of catastrophe.”. What are you hoping that your audiences might take away from this film?
AF: When we were making it early on, we were saying to ourselves, what is this thing about anyway? And all we could come up with, all we could articulate was it's about life. And that's essentially where we've ended up. And for me it comes down to life is beautiful and hard and I always hope that people are going to ask themselves, what is that poor bastard going to do now? And I hope they will then say, "well, obviously he has to find a pair of pants." That's how you get through these incredibly difficult times, you take one step at a time. You just do the thing that's right in front of you and then you do the next thing that's right in front of you. And I think that's kind of what I hope.
WT: We made a film years ago called When the Day Breaks (1999 Palme d'Or - Best Short Film, Cannes, Academy Award Nominated), which is thematically related to this one because it is about an event where everything changes. It's a car accident and it's about connectivity and how we are all connected. And The Flying Sailor is similar but a little different in that it also has that moment when everything changes. And he's on the dock having a smoke, and the next thing you know he's confronting death. This is how we all live in a way. We don't know when our moment might come or happen, most of us won't have such a dramatic moment, but they can be small moments too that life becomes defined as simply as before and after. So we're interested in those moments.
But it also about the sailor, the review of his life and for the viewer these moments are not necessarily meaningful. We're just observing them, but for him, these moments are his life, which is very profound. And that somehow at the end when he's almost dissolving into particles, into atoms, it's like we are all just going to be dust. Yet he doesn't, he is hanging in that moment between life and death, in a form of suspension. We wanted it to be both profound or significant and insignificant, like our lives in the grand scheme of things, any one of us are not so important, but to us we are and to our loved ones we are.
So that contrast, we wanted to bring those two things right up against each other in that moment, I think that’s one thing if people will feel that. And the other is that we hope people will watch it more than once because there's a lot of little shots in there and they go by quite quickly. It's quite a short film compared to a lot of films out there now, barely 8-minutes. But people tell us over and over again that, "Oh my God, when I watched it again, then I got this, this, and this." And because the first viewing is more like a ride, you are going along for the ride and then the next time I think you are able to absorb more.
Hopefully it'll be one that people will want to watch more than once.