With newly purchased red boots and pet sitters on standby, filmmaking duo Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby were well prepared for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Before flying to snowy Park City, Forbis and Tilby chatted with The Daily Californian over Zoom about festival preparations and “The Flying Sailor”— their animated short film about a middle-aged sailor’s near-death experience, inspired by the Halifax explosion of 1917.
Forbis and Tilby have forged a personal and professional partnership that spans decades. They met at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, when Forbis was in her second year and Tilby in her fourth.
“(Tilby’s) not gonna like this — but she was the golden girl of the animation department,” Forbis laughed good-naturedly. “She was somebody I liked a lot, and I admired the way she worked. And I liked her sense of humor.”
Tilby, filling in the portrait, recalled their immediate connection. “I was stuck away in a camera room doing paint on glass technique of animation,” she said. “And every so often, Amanda’s animation class would come in, and I would hear a big racket going on in the classroom. And that was Amanda … I thought she was always full of fun and spirit.”
Forbis cited compatibility as being keenly responsible for their relationship’s longevity. She admits they spend more time together than apart, but with the right person, companionship doesn’t compete with solitude or infringe on its merits.
Filmmaking is a tender project for both Forbis and Tilby, its reception an ongoing negotiation between prestigious critical reception and individual resonance. The short’s budding success prompts the filmmakers to strike a balance between external awards and personal comments about the film, with the latter holding more meaning.
“The Oscar run is a perfect example,” Forbis explained. “Because if you’re in a race and if you find yourself with the other horses, you just run. Even though you’re saying, ‘This is not the ultimate measure of my work … I may not get a nomination, and I’ll be fine with that.’ So you’re trying to manage all those things. Then of course, if we don’t get nominated, we’ll be really disappointed. And if we do get nominated, we’ll be just terrified.”
At the time of the interview, the film was set to screen at Sundance and shortlisted for an Oscar; since then, however, “The Flying Sailor” has won the Jury Award for Animated Short Film at Sundance and officially secured the nomination for Best Animated Short Film at the 95th Academy Awards.
Tilby noted the film is best suited for the visceral and immersive conditions of a theater. As the sailor tumbles through space, he is flooded by a series of memories, oblique and ephemeral. In theatrical screenings, audience members have told the filmmakers varied stories of the impressions left by their quietly provocative film.
“They’re the things that don’t make it to your obituary,” Forbis explained. “The other day, I was thinking of one of those (moments): of being on a road trip with my dad. I had to pull over because I was sleepy, and I was doing all the driving because he was very sick … While I slept, he just sat next to me, and he was looking over maps because he loved that kind of thing … And I just remember the sound of the crinkling map and me having a nap.”
Forbis’ recollection of sound is similarly embedded into “The Flying Sailor,” as the score from Luigi Allemano, a close friend of the filmmakers, plays an essential role in establishing and traversing mood. The music, buoyant and jaunty, changes suddenly after the explosion detonates, and the soundscape softens to be serene and wistful.
Forbis, Tilby and Allemano worked diligently to sculpt the music. Because Allemano is based in Montreal and the directors are in Calgary, it was a labor of long distance collaboration transpiring over Zoom calls and written messages. Moreover, the differences between music and animation as artistic practices became increasingly salient when the musicians came into the studio to play Allemano’s score.
“We’re so impressed by what musicians can do,” Tilby effused. “Coming into the studio — never having played it before, or maybe seeing the sheet music for a little bit — they come in and they play so expertly … It’s instant gratification, whereas what we’ve been doing is delayed gratification for years.”
The fusion of music and animation proved to be thrilling for Forbis and Tilby. With Allemano, they encouraged improvisation, an elastic practice seemingly at odds but ultimately compatible with the meticulous and disciplined craft of animation. The fluidity and flexibility of music evoked profound outcomes — one cellist was so moved by his own playing that he cried.
As its music similarly affects, Forbis and Tilby’s triumphant short film lyrically inspires viewers to ruminate on the mundane moments that hem a life. “The Flying Sailor” soars high en route to the Oscars, resonating with everyday viewers along the way.
“The most gratifying thing is if people relate to (‘The Flying Sailor’) in ways that aren’t even that literal or that close,” Tilby reflected. “Just those moments that mark: ‘There was the time before that happened, and the time after.’ It could be a breakup, a diagnosis, something happening to a loved one. Those moments do change us and become crystallized in our minds.”