There was a lot of love for Canada when the nominations for the 95th Academy Awards were announced Tuesday.
Not only did Sarah Polley net a surprising Best Picture nomination for Women Talking (in addition to an expected Best Adapted Screenplay nod) and Domee Shi score a Best Animated Feature nomination for Turning Red, but Toronto’s Daniel Roher scored a Best Documentary nomination for his Russian-dissident doc Navalny. Oh, and James Cameron – the favourite son of Kapuskasing, Ont. – was there, too, with four nominations for Avatar: The Way of Water.
But perhaps the biggest sign that Canada is top in at least one of the cinematic fields can be found in the Best Animated Short Film category, where the National Film Board scored a nod, as it does with startling frequency.
This year, it was for NFB animators Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, the Calgary-based duo behind The Flying Sailor, a tender and fragile retelling of the true story of a man blown two kilometres through the air by the 1917 Halifax explosion. It is the pair’s third Oscar nomination as a team (after 2011′s Wild Life and 1999′s When the Day Breaks), and the fourth for Tilby (who snagged a solo nomination for 1991′s Strings).
Just after the two heard the good news early Tuesday while attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, they hopped on a call with The Globe and Mail to talk about homegrown collaboration and innovation.
You have made three films together now, each of which has been nominated for an Academy Award. What’s your secret?
Amanda Forbis: It’s a pretty good track record, I have to agree.
Wendy Tilby: We’ve been making films together for almost 28 years now, and our working relationship is basically each of us doing a bit of everything. Amanda does more of the character animation, while I do more of the editing and compositing, but we both have a hand in the entire process.
When did you get the idea to make a film about the Halifax explosion?
Forbis: We happened to be in Halifax more than 20 years ago and went to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where there was a display about the explosion and this tiny paragraph about a sailor who was sent two kilometres in the air by the explosion, landing without his clothes. We were both struck by that, and wondered what the trip would look like. For one reason or another, we had to put it aside for a long time, but it stuck there.
Tilby: It was an idea that just sat with our preoccupations – it deals with transcendence, I suppose. One of those moments in life when everything changes. We also thought it had great potential to be a departure from reality, where we could make up this whole experience of taking just a few seconds of life and turning it into a few minutes with slow motion. Luckily the NFB was into it, and we started production in 2018.
Is that years-long production process a typical kind of timeline for your work?
Tilby: That was a fast one for us, actually, because we were able to focus on that project primarily, while other films we balanced with commercial work. Production on this also overlapped with the pandemic, which was obviously a terrible thing for everyone but beneficial for animation projects, because being cloistered indoors is conducive to getting work done. Animation is a very labour-intensive thing, and because we work experimentally, we need the time for trial and error.
There is a lovely kind of fragility to The Flying Sailor. How did you both decide on the tone?
Forbis: That idea of fragility is important to us, because we started out with just this single vision of a naked, pink sailor flailing, and then we slowed it down so it would become more like a ballet.
Tilby: That pinkness in contrast to the grey, smoky debris-filled mayhem, it was something so terrible but also poignant and beautiful.
How beneficial, in terms of exposure, was the partnership with The New Yorker, which screened the film online on its digital channels?
Tilby: It reached such a larger audience, particularly Americans, and for us as filmmakers, that’s the main objective. To get people to see it.
Forbis: It’s always a challenge to find large audiences for short animated films. While The New Yorker deal meant that the film would be rendered ineligible for certain film festivals in the U.S., it felt like going with the magazine was a far better choice because it would reach so many people.
Do you find that distribution of short films has changed, or gotten better, over the past few years thanks to the proliferation of streamers and audiences eager for more bite-sized entertainment?
Tilby: Those new avenues have changed it, yes, and one thing we’ve discovered while in Sundance right now is that shorts are gaining traction and stature. We’ve always felt that when we go to big festivals, short films are at the kids’ table, and animation, well, it’s in a different room altogether. But that’s never been a problem for us. The one thing that is still troubling is that we want people to see this movie in a theatre, because we have a really interesting soundtrack here that benefits from being in a room with an audience. So online screening rooms can be a little disappointing in that way, but don’t get me wrong, we much appreciate the exposure. But we also lament the loss of shorts before features, which disappeared a long time ago.
Why do you think Canada has such a strong track record in animation?
Forbis: One word: the NFB. Well, that’s not one word.
Tilby: They have been the backbone of all these years of experimental and auteur-driven animation, and it has made a huge difference. The NFB has been the nucleus of the animation industry, and the fact that animators have a publicly funded agency to give us time and resources to invent techniques and work in an experimental way has put Canada on the map in both animation and documentary.
The Flying Sailor is available to watch on NFB.ca