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Oscars Q&A: The Flying Sailor

Filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby on latest Academy Award-nominated short film about Halifax explosion

3 min read
Amanda Forbis (left, with curly grey hair) and Wendy Tilby (right, with straight silver hair) look at each other, laughing, in front of a shelf and desk which holds books, a computer, lamp, small set of drawers, and still images from their animated work.
caption This is the third Oscars nomination for Best Animated Short Film for the Forbis and Tilby duo, who also received nominations in 1999 and 2011.
NFB Media

Calgary-based filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby have been nominated for an Oscar for The Flying Sailor.

The animated short film, focusing on a sailor during the Halifax explosion, has also won the animated short film prize at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Forbis and Tilby discussed the film with The Signal.

You came across this story when you visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Can you talk about that?

Wendy Tilby: We were there when we discovered the true story of the sailor who was launched by the Halifax explosion and flew for two kilometres and landed naked and unharmed. I think when we first saw the description in the museum, we talked about it right away. We just finished a film called When The Day Breaks (1999), which was actually about a death rather than a near death, but there was also a transcendent aspect to that. So in a way, The Flying Sailor is an expansion of that idea.

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What kind of research did you do for that? Did you talk to people who had been through something similar?

Amanda Forbis: One of our primary sources was the first person to collect stories of near death experiences, a geologist named Albert Heim. And he did this in the 1890s, something like that. He had had a near death experience himself, and he wrote about it very beautifully. That was a big inspiration for us.

What’s your animation process like?

WT: We start by making an animatic using Premiere Pro. We started drawing just stills, but we also threw in a lot of archival footage of some of the things that ultimately became the sailor’s memories. And then we started to figure out how we were going to animate it. We realized that we needed to turn to 3D, which is something that we’ve not done before. So we enlisted a Maya artist in Calgary to do that.

The city was rigged in Maya, the sailor was animated in another 3D program called Blender. We then animated and rendered in Photoshop and knitted together in After Effects. Our main fear was, Was it all going to look like it belonged in the same film? So we had to really work to give it some texture and grain, just to kind of make it all come together.

AF: We should add that, when it came to blowing up Halifax, we had to just leave that completely to Billy (William Dyer), the Maya artist. We personally just scratched the surface and then we just said “Here, you do it!”

And what drew the both of you to animation?

WT: Amanda and I studied live action filmmaking first, when we went to art school. We both gravitated to animation because we were attracted to the solitary nature, and the fact that you have more control over a single film. When you animate characters, it’s like you’re an actor. You’re literally breathing the life into them, and making them say what you want and act the way you want.

AF: I think Wendy touched on this a little bit–  the aesthetic potentials are so much broader than with live action. There’s such a wide variety of things you can do. But you have to be the world’s most patient people of course, because it’s just so slow and so particular. No instant gratification.

This is your third Oscars nomination. What was your reaction when it was announced?

AF: Well, the Academy likes you to do a reaction video, which is a bit of a stressful thing when there’s every potential that it’s going to capture you being disappointed, you know. So, we made our producer and our publicist get into bed with us and pull the covers up. And then when we got the nomination, we all leapt up and went, “Yay!”

Tilby and Forbis will be at the 95th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on March 12. The Flying Sailor is available on the NFB website and YouTube.

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Sabine Antigua

Sabine Antigua was born and raised in Manila, Philippines and previously lived in Sydney, Australia before pursuing the one-year Bachelor of...

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    Hughena Matheson

    History and imagination also collide in Barometer Rising, a novel based on the explosion. On Citadel Hill, you will find plaques (Bookmarks) with a passage from the novel in the exact location the writer imagined when writing the words. This is part of the CanLit Trail, the focus of Project Bookmark Canada (
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