‘The Flying Sailor’ Filmmakers Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby On Blending Humor And Poignancy

Filmmakers Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis were inspired to make The Flying Sailor from a small blurb about a sailor they found while researching the Halifax explosion of 1917. As they were captivated by the flight aspect, their animated short takes a slowed down look at life flashing before a man’s eyes as his “balletic” movements are underscored by a beautiful piano. The animation style blends 2D and 3D elements, which Forbis says created a “cartoony” opening sequence that contrasts the tragedy of the situation.

DEADLINE: How did this short come about?

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WENDY TILBY: The inspiration came about 20 years ago when we happened to be in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada. We went to the Maritime Museum where there was a display all about the Halifax explosion and among the many things that we looked at, there was a very small blurb that told the story of a sailor who was on the docks when the ship blew. And he was launched and flew for two kilometers and landed unharmed and naked except for one boot. We were captivated by this story, and we thought it would make a very interesting animated film. And we were really interested in just the flight part because we wondered what that was like for the sailor. It was interesting because we could make up a very surreal, subjective, visceral account of what that was like in animation. So, we took what would’ve been a few seconds in the air, and we made it into a few minutes of film.

DEADLINE: Is there a record of his experience in the explosion?

AMANDA FORBIS: He wrote a single page testimony of his experience, so there’s not a lot. The real guy was about 21 or 22 and he was a third mate charged with delivering $75 from his captain to another captain. He was walking on the pier and he saw the Mont-Blanc on fire, the ship that was going to explode, and he ended up running back towards his ship. And then all of a sudden, he launched. He said that his impression of the flight was very limited, that he felt like he was underwater, and then he found himself lying on this hill in Halifax, in a park completely naked except for one boot and next to a crying child. And he asked, “Where are we?” And she said, “I don’t know.” And then somebody got him a pair of pants and a McIntosh and he picked himself up.

DEADLINE: The beginning starts out very comedic and cartoonish in 3D before changing from the explosion. Can you talk a bit about blending styles of animation?

FORBIS: We deliberately set the opening sequence up as cartoony, and the notion came to us because of the TNT. We also liked it because it so sets the beginning apart from the later body of the film. It’s to suggest that we all walk around not imagining that ill fortune is going to befall us. We all walk around thinking we know how the day’s gonna go and that we can manage it, and then things happen to us that just absolutely pull us off our perch and throw us around and beat us up. 

We also used a combination of 2D and 3D. The town of Halifax is all built in Maya by our guy Billy Dyer, and then he also blew it up. The big smoke cloud and the debris and were all 3D and sailor was 2D. We have some live action in there as well, partly because we liked it and we thought it worked in the context of the film.

TILBY: When you’re talking about the change in tone from the kind of jaunty cartoon to the more serious tone of the disaster, we’re always interested in walking that line and we kind of do it unconsciously. All of our films seem to have a blend of comedy and I wouldn’t necessarily say tragedy, though it was tragedy in this case, but poignancy. We knew that it was delicate in this case because we find something funny in the image of this pink naked sailor rising above all this mayhem, and we were deliberate about that with the slow-motion aspect of it that made his movements kind of balletic. We wanted it to have a funny aspect, but we also didn’t want to undermine the seriousness of the real situation, particularly for the people from Halifax for whom this is a very real and personal calamity that affected their families and their city. We wanted to walk that line and make it entertaining and with some humor, but also show the poignancy and gravity of the real situation.

DEADLINE: That also seems exemplified in the music, as you have this peaceful sound contrasting the chaotic event.

TILBY: We always wanted that contrast of the music to be beautiful and balletic, but finding the right sound was hard.

FORBIS: We hoped that the viewer would understand that we are watching a much slowed down experience. He probably would’ve been in the air for about four or five seconds, and he’s flying for minutes at a time in our film. So, we love the idea of flailing becoming something kind of beautiful. This strange transformation of a disaster to a thing of beauty along with the music. It suggests this kind of melancholy of letting go of life in a way. He’s kind of saying goodbye to everything that he knew, and the tone had to thoughtful and sober without being maudlin. 

TILBY: And then it transitions into a more serene sound when the sailor actually goes from flailing to flying in the clouds. Most of us sort of fantasize about the fun of what it would be like to fly, and he’s actually having a moment of that, of the actual fun of flying, and it transitions into a state of bliss. And the music transitions to that before the final moment where he becomes a blob and then a particle, and then everything changes again as he’s wrenched back to life in a harsher and bombastic sound. The music takes many transitions and it was very tricky, but it shaped the film and really provided the backbone.

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