From explosion to Oscar nomination, filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby break down their process behind The Flying Sailor.
What does a brief glimpse into near-death look like? What moments flash before your eyes as your mind floats unconsciously through time? This is the question that Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby look at in their 2023 Oscar-nominated short film, The Flying Sailor.
Based on the true events of sailor Charlie Mayers, who was flung over a mile by an explosion and managed to survive the experience, this short film takes a brief look at the moment the sailor is launched into the air. What starts off as a lighthearted catastrophe-in-the-making gradually becomes an animation about what it means to be alive. The fleeting moments that make the sailor who he is flash as the world dissolves around him.
To compliment the visuals of the film, Forbis and Tilby shaped a soundscape that builds on the experience of The Flying Sailor. Forbis and Tilby’s intentions for their short exist from the start. The challenge for these two filmmakers was learning a new set of skills in the digital era.
Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby sat down with No Film School via Zoom to talk about their process, the importance of sound in their animatic process, the challenges they faced during the animation, and their hopes for the short film format in the future.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on The Flying Sailor being nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Shorts. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind turning this true story into a short film?
Wendy Tilby: We heard the true story many years ago when we were in Halifax. This was about 20 years ago, and we were at a museum that had a display about the explosion. We saw the blurb about the sailor and how he was on the pier and was launched by the blast, and he found himself two kilometers away, naked and pretty much unharmed. It was an incredible, incredible story. We thought it was a vivid story that had great animation potential. We thought that was interesting for animation because we could play a little bit with the concept of a near-death experience and could take it into realms that were not easy to film in other ways. Our thought was we would take what would've been a few seconds of his trip and turn it into a few minutes and make it really kind of visceral and subjective and take them through the steps of what people report when they have near-death experiences.
NFS: The visual language in this is just gorgeous. From the explosion to those moments that flash before his eyes, which are these mundane but kind of beautiful images. How do you go about choosing those moments?
Amanda Forbis: We started the whole project by creating an animatic. We kind of skipped over storyboarding and went straight for animatic. That involved pulling in all kinds of placeholders. A lot of them were archival footage and stock footage, and we threw a few drawings in there. It was just really a collage of the idea. We did find some stock footage that provided some inspiration for us. For instance, the baby clapping was based on an image of an exceptionally homely baby clapping and things like that. We wanted moments that were, as you say, could be seen as mundane or very fleeting and not life's greatest hits. That was important to us because we wanted to explore the kinds of memories that only ever live in your head that are probably so small that you don't, would never even think to verbalize them to anyone. We thought that was a little more interesting and intimate way to see who he is.
NFS: I know you've both worked together on another animated short film. Was that kind of a similar process where you went into the animatic over storyboarding? Is that kind of the process that you both approach stories with?
Tilby: Yeah, I would say so. We've made three films together and we've done a lot of other work commercials and commission stuff. Certainly since the Digital Revolution, which is, well...
Forbis: A long time ago now.
Tilby: A long time ago. I mean, the first film we made together was called When the Day Breaks, and it was pre-digital. It was actually just before, almost right on the cusp. But it was made on real film and real paper and real paint. For that one, we did a lot of thumbnail storyboards. We didn't do one big master storyboard. The process was still fairly organic or a little bit experimental. We felt our way into that story and how we were going to realize it. So, we would do these little very rough little sketchy storyboards. Then, for the next film, which was called Wildlife, and then this one, The Flying Sailor, we very much would work just starting with an animatic.
It makes no sense for us to make a storyboard, we could go right onto the timeline and work with sound at the same time. And sound is very important to all of our work. We like to throw in temp music, sound effects, and images. In the case of The Flying Sailor, like Amanda was saying, we threw in a lot of archival footage, live-action drawings, everything, anything that will help us find the structure of the story, and then we start to flesh it out and figure out our technique and everything. So that's kind of how we work. It's difficult sometimes for our composer when we work with temp music, but we feel it's important to our creative process. We need to work with music, and it helps us to figure out what we're doing.
NFS: So you have an actual rough cut before you start honing it in and making it closer to its final cut.
Tilby: Our first animatic, the one that we actually presented to the film board in order to get the final funding, was what we would call a dog's breakfast. I mean, it looked terrible, and it was full of stolen bits and pieces from other films, and it was just a real mishmash. But we explained that and we told them that this was part of the process. Then, from there we started, and we entered into the world of CG, 3D, which was new for us. That's how we ended up building the explosion and the city. It was sort of circuitous, but the main thing for us was to figure out the structure and also the emotional arc. Sound was just so important to that.
NFS: When you're creating this short film, what were some of the challenges that you faced that were unique to this project, and how would you take those learning moments into your next project?
Forbis: That remains to be seen, but I think interestingly in structuring the film. The shaping of the prologue where he's on the dock and he sees the ships and that whole thing, but just before the explosion was much harder than the whole rest of the film, just to get this sort of very concise, tight narrative nailed so that, because we didn't want to spend a lot of time on it because it's really that, it's just a prologue. It's not meant to be the content of the film. The post-explosion, by comparison, was more fun and looser and had more dramatic potential. That was an interesting lesson about the hardship of just telling a straight story as quickly and cleanly as you can without making it seem rushed.
The other major challenge was honestly, the 3D. Coming from a 2D world, we have spent very, very long periods of time crafting shots, and they can be quite arduous, but it's nothing in 3D.
3D is astonishing, and we just were unfamiliar with it. I think probably most younger animators have at least dabbled in it, so they know what they're up against. But it was a bit of a shock for us. Even though there's some level of instant gratification, you can see the camera move really easily, you can build something fairly easily, and get the drift of it easily. It takes a long time to hone it and a long time to get what you want to actually have to fight. You have to fight with the software sometimes just in that blowing up Halifax. There would always be some tiny little bit of a house and the edge of the frame that wear wavering and not moving correctly.
Tilby: It looks terrible up until the very end.
Forbis: There are all these factors. So, we hired William Dyer, who was the Maya artist for us. He did a monumental amount of work on this thing. But it was weird having it out of our hands and having us not fully understand the process.
Tilby: Because we're more used to doing everything and having it in our hands to tweak this and that, and it was difficult for it to be a step removed.
Forbis: Removed, but I think we would like to know more 3D for the next time. I think that would be one lesson. It's a deep pit of learning you have to do to get in there. But it would be handy.
Tilby: As for a lesson we would take into the next project, we're not entirely sure what our next project will be. We're kind of still in the gathering, kind of gestating phase, but we tend to always hope that our next project will be really fast and simple, and then it never turns out that way.
Forbis: That's right.
Tilby: The main thing for us is that whatever we decide, the technique will have to just suit what we're doing. It could be super simple or it might be complicated, but we like to change it up, too. We like to not just completely repeat ourselves.
NFS: What program or software did you use for the 3D rendering?
Forbis: It was mostly Maya. We did some, actually, yeah, we did some animating ourselves in Blender. So, that was a good moment of dipping our toes in those waters. But mostly it came out of Maya.
NFS: I'm sorry that it was such a strenuous process. I mean, that's a whole new technique that you have to learn in animation.
Tilby: Animation is strenuous. So, it's just one extra level of it. We're really happy we did it. I think it's good for us to have expanded our repertoire a little bit.
Forbis: We don't think we could have done [the story] justice in 2D. We don't think we could have done a nice job of blowing down the city of Halifax in 2D. We particularly found the idea of doing that giant smoke cloud very daunting because it needs to be majestic and slow and rumbling. The way we were envisioning it would've had a heavy boil on it. I don't know if you're familiar with that term, but it's when the paint texture is very active on the surface, and it totally changes the character of whatever it is you're animating. So, we would've had this very busy smoke cloud, and it would've been hard to animate. Even though it was painful, the results were really satisfying.
NFS: That's always going to be the tricky part about being a creative with all this new technology coming into our field. You have to adapt or die.
Forbis: That's so true. So true.
Tilby: We're not as mentioned, we're not digital natives. We weren't born into this.
Forbis: It's trickier for us.
NFS: It's really tricky for everyone unless you're constantly learning, which is something we don’t all have time for.
Tilby: We're definitely learning on an as-needed basis. I'm in particular really impatient about that. Even though as animators, we have to be patient. But I'm in a flurry of creating something, and then I have to watch a tutorial and try. I just try to get it as quickly as I can so that I can keep the momentum going. I'm not methodical about properly learning things. That's something that we should be doing now, probably brushing up on even things like [Adobe] After Effects, which we use all the time. We know that we have this much of what it's capable of. It's a fantastic program. It's brilliant. I know that would be an ambition maybe for the next ones, too.
Forbis: It's always a tension between learning it yourself or saying to somebody, "Can you do it?" That's an appealing option as well.
Tilby: That's true. Well, but then it's out of your hands again, too. The thought process that you do when you're actually manipulating it yourself is different from telling somebody else what to do.
NFS: What is it about the short film format that you really admire and like working in?
Forbis: It’s what we've always done. It's what our skills are honed to, but we like the concision. We like exploring an idea in that kind of limited timeframe. One of the things we really treasure about it is the fact that we feel you can pack every frame pretty much with meaning, and that there's not a lot of fat. It's an interesting challenge to tell a story.
NFS: It's a really great story. I mean, it's very full. In a way, it's a complete narrative. It's a full moment on display.
Forbis: But it is a moment. I guess that's my point. It's a moment.
Tilby: The story, we've often sort of realized that the story itself is simple when you're talking about a narrative structure. The ships collide, there's a fire, there's an explosion, he goes up, he comes down. The end, you know, could describe it that way. But it was everything that was packed into the middle of it. That was the interesting part for us.
Forbis: We love having an idea like that, then just exploring it to the point that you feel like you've filled it up as much as you can with meaning and with shaping it. I think we'd feel quite at sea in a longer format, actually.
Tilby: Well, if we're talking animation, a feature is such a different animal. It is something that would require us to work in a way that we don't work. The story would have to be nailed down. The storyboarding would have to be nailed down. The animation style would have to be able to be replicable by numerous other people. We would be more in the role of directors where we're bossing a bunch of people around. All of those are things that we don't do. We work intuitively. We do everything ourselves.
Forbis: We're very hands-on.
Tilby: We do have assistance, but it's a very small number of people. It would be a very different way to work. As far as ideas go, I don't know. I think a lot of features are possibly longer than the idea warrants because feature length requires a certain number of minutes. As a writer, it would be interesting to try to write stories like that. Not in any way against that. It's just the process would be very different in terms of our roles. Neither of us actually likes being a director in that sense of the word of commanding a set or a room full of people and telling and trying to get them to do your vision. I find that quite daunting myself.
We worked with an After Effects artist that we've worked with on commercials named Nick Merme. When I think about what he can do, especially with the complexities of the 3D and all that, it was just so beyond what we could do. I didn't want to misrepresent that we could ever possibly do all that ourselves. Delegation is fantastic in the right hands.
Forbis: I do feel that short films are not given their due in terms of their potential. I think they're invariably seen as something lesser. There are short films out there that are some of the most beautiful things you've ever seen in your life and that period. It's a medium we really believe in as a valid form of expression. I would love it if we could get the rest of the world to see that, but might be happening or might not. It's always difficult to get your film seen and taken seriously.
NFS: Hopefully we can get there. I know certain streaming platforms like HBO and Disney are really celebrating shorts on their streaming platforms. So, that’s exciting.
Wendy Tilby: I think it's changing. Live-action shorts are even more so considered a stepping stone to features. Rarely do you meet somebody who's made a live-action short who only wants to do shorts. Despite that, I think that short films are maybe being given a little more respect.
Forbis: Jay Rosenblatt, who's nominated this year with How Do You Measure a Year? We met him years ago in Halifax, actually. He has made a career of making films that are running roughly half an hour. He's very unusual that way because they're live-action or live-action experimental. He'll sometimes treat the image, but he's made terrific films. They're films that just would not be expandable into an hour, an hour and a half. That's not what they are. So he's one of the only live-action filmmakers I can think of who's made a career doing that.
NFS: I think a lot of filmmakers don't think it's possible. So, it's great to see that. There are so many artists, you both included, that have made a career off of the short format.
Forbis: We're helped by the National Film Board for funding. They'll usually say “yes.” A guy like Jay Rosenblatt, I don't know how he's doing it. I don't know where he gets his funding or how he keeps it all together. He probably teaches or something, but I'm not quite sure.
NFS: I want to also compliment both of you on the pacing of The Flying Sailor. I think your intentions are to get to that middle point and just be in that story because that's what it is about, it reflects in how deliberate each frame is.
Tilby: Thank you. That means a lot. One of the anxieties we've had is that it's maybe too lean or that it's too short, and it could have been longer. So, I've sort of had lots of little regrets about that, or not regrets, but anxieties. So to hear you say that is good to hear because there's no fat on it. It's true. It definitely could be a little longer. I don't think it could be any shorter, but I hope that, I think people definitely get more the second viewing because it does go by very quickly. But we did intend it to be something of a ride. It's an experiential film that you have to, maybe you will absorb it without thinking too hard while you're watching it, then you think about it after.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are wanting to make an animated short?
Tilby: With students, we're always telling them, “If you're at school, take advantage of that school time where you've got the time and the resources to make something and make a film that is your vision, your idea because that's what will be your calling card thereafter.” It's really important. You rarely have those opportunities after that. Although computers have certainly helped people to make films on their own on a shoestring, that's for sure.
The other thing that I would say is that you have to be free with ideas that come to you. Then, you put on your rigorous hat, your editing hat, and you be tough on it and ask yourself, "Does this belong in the film or not?" This is the intuitive part, you start to make connections. Interesting ideas, they seem like they're unrelated, they seem disparate. Let's just throw all these ideas at the wall and see what sticks. The rigor part is equally important, and to be tough on your own ideas. We see a lot of films where you sort of think, “Man, you spent three years on that film, and the idea itself has some real problems, or the story has some problems that could have been easily fixed if you'd really thought about it.” Believe me, we know how hard it is, and we know how hard it is to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes when you're in the middle of something and you know, you make tons of mistakes. Sometimes you gotta show it to other people for objectivity, that kind of thing. That's what I would say is that alternating between being free and being rigorous.
Forbis: I would add that the internal component of that is that you have to learn your own responses. You have to learn the sensation of the instinct working for you, and you have to learn the sensation of unwarranted defensiveness because we all do that. We all defend our darlings. That's how you end up with ideas that are not working. You have to learn your responses and trust them or beat them down if they're not working for you. So, I think that's quite important. It's very difficult because it's not like you get these kinds of clear-cut sensations. It's a real process. It's just such a hodgepodge of responses and emotions and instincts and ideas, and it's a learning process. You do a lot of internal work while you're doing these things.
Tilby: Well, one other thought I had was that whatever your idea is when you're thinking about how you're going to execute it technique wise, or aesthetically if we can strive for aesthetic coherence for one thing like that, everything looks like it belongs in the same film. We really struggled with that with The Flying Sailor because it was a bit collagey in its techniques, and we knew that we were in danger of it being a hodgepodge. I really like aesthetic coherence, but it doesn't matter if it [doesn’t] your idea. Complexity can be good in other ways, and one is not better than the other. Does it suit the story? Is it appropriate to the story? And don't let the technique sort of be everything. Because it's not everything. It has to support your concept.
Forbis: Also, find critics you trust and learn when to listen to them. Get them to give you the straight goods.