It was 20 years ago when three-time Oscar nominees Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis first stumbled upon the incredible story of a sailor in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They were at the Maritime Museum in Halifax, looking at a section dedicated to the Halifax Explosion. Two ships collided—one packed with explosives for the First World War—and a huge explosion erupted, killing more than 1,700 and injuring more than 9,000.
“There was a small blurb about Charles Mayers,” Tilby recounted to Now Toronto. “He was a sailor who happened to be on the docks when the ships collided and blew up. He reported finding himself two kilometers away, naked, but he was pretty much okay.”
From there, the duo took what it called a “poetic license” on the true story and created The Flying Sailor.
The 2D and 3D animation film has them in the running for the 2023 Academy Award’s Best Animated Short Film category.
“We were interested in taking those few seconds of that journey and expanding it into a few minutes and, and basically describing a near death experience. Animation seemed perfect for that, because one can go off in all sorts of directions that are surreal or implausible,” Tilby said.
The Flying Sailor marks the animation duo’s first time venturing in 3D design.
“It was a very interesting experience, because the style of working is so foreign to us,” Forbis said. “It’s a bit of a mind bender, in a good way. We figured it’ll stop us from getting Alzheimer’s eventually.”
The short film has a cartoonish start before the tone takes a darker, more dramatic turn.
“The cartoony prologue is meant to say that all of us, when we got up this morning, we have plans for the day. We all imagine how it’s going to go, nobody’s planning to be blown up and thrown across the city, and nobody’s planning to get into a car accident, nobody’s planning to get bad news,” Forbis said.
“That’s how we function in the world, is to pretend that we know how the day is going to go—how every day is going to go. There’s a point in everyone’s life where basically, they’re blown to smithereens in some way,” she added.
Tilby and Forbis acknowledge they were walking a fine line between humour and the gravity of the situation.
“The fact that we’ve got a ship in the story that is loaded with TNT seemed irresistible to kind of go with a cartoony thing to set up this idea,” Tilby said. “We just went with this kind of jaunty thing and slightly sailor-ey music, and then the shift. When we first see the sailor in space, and he’s rising up over the exploding city, and his clothes come off, we intend it to be funny.”
Tilby and Forbis met at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design, focusing in film and animation, in the mid 80s. They then went on to pursue their own careers before joining forces for their first collaboration, Oscar-nominated short-film When the Day Breaks, in the late 90s.
They say they are excited to head to the Academy Awards again and are thrilled about their nomination.
“We’ve told ourselves don’t take this too seriously, because it’s not,” Tilby said. “There are lots of fun events surrounding the event, and we’ll be with people we adore. The main thing is that the film is being celebrated, and that’s why we made it. We made it to be watched, we made it to be appreciated, And so that’s what this all represents.”
The animation duo is headed to the 95th Academy Awards on March 12.
You can watch The Flying Sailor online.