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Calgary animators’ The Flying Sailor is going to Sundance Film Festival

Film took home jury award for Best Animated Short during CIFF 2022

An animated film depicting the 1917 Halifax Explosion, which sends a sailor on an unexpected voyage both physically and metaphorically, is heading to one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals.

The Flying Sailor, created by Academy Award nominated and Palm d’Or winning Calgarians Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, has been garnering audience recognition alongside jury awards locally and internationally over the past year.

And now the film is on its way to Sundance in 2023. Although, the animators are modest about the entry into that festival.

“Sundance is one of the bigger, more well known live action feature film festivals, so it’s not necessarily a given that a short film will stand out,” said Tilby.

“It’s still great, because it does get our work seen by more people than just it gets some, some exposure for sure.”

Calling the kind of audience reception they have received a “dream come true,” Forbis said that they never really know how audiences will receive their films.

“When you put it out in the world, you really have no idea how it’s going to play, how people are going to receive it, and whether you’ve deluded yourself in thinking that you’re saying what you think you’re saying—but it’s very gratifying.”

Thus far the film has been lauded at dozens of film festivals, including those in Calgary at CIFF 2022, Toronto at the Toronto After Dark Festival and TIFF, at the American Film Institute’s International Film Festival, at the New York City Short Film Festival, and in Cyprus for the Countryside Animafest Cyprus. Thus far it has received nine awards, and more than 20 film festival selections.

The film recieved the Best Animated Short award at CIFF 2022, and was a selection at the Edmonton International Film Festival.

Forbis, who is from Bowness, said that it was really nice to be presented with the award by this year’s CIFF.

“It’s really nice to be rewarded by your hometown and to have your friends in the audience and the people that that really care about you,” she said.

“Calgary is a very welcoming place for artists in that other artists are very supportive. You get very, very supportive audiences, and they may not be huge, but boy are they in there.”

International accolades a bit of a surprise

Cyrpus in particular, said Tilby, was a bit of a surprise as a place where their film has been shown.

“The funny thing is when you finish a film, particularly like the Flying Sailor, that has no language, it goes out into the world and it is sent by the National Film Board, who’s our producer, sometimes we don’t even know where it is,” Tilby said.

“I think it’s like having a kid grow up, and goes off to college sort of without their phone, and then you realize, ‘oh, my God, they’re showing up in all sorts of places.'”

Forbis called it amazing to wake up and find out that her film had been awarded Best Narrative Film from Countryside Animafest Cyprus.

“It’s a little bit surreal, actually.”

She said that one of the reasons why their film has been successful is because it has no language component, allowing it to be enjoyed by audiences that don’t speak English.

“Our last film, Wildlife, was full of the English language and so did not play in European centres in the same way. But that one had a really dedicated local audience because it was a prairie story,” Forbis said.

“So you get different different kinds of feedback from different films.”

Telling a forgotten story about Canada

The film depicts the stylized journey of a real life sailor who survived the 1917 Halifax Explosion. In the actual tragedy, two ships carrying war materials collided in Halifax Harbour, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

Among the stories told of survivors was of a sailor who was blown more than two kilometres from the blast, and was found naked but alive on a hill. That formed the basis for the animated short.

Almost 2,000 people died from the disaster, which flattened kilometres of the city.

Forbis called it a story that was both horrible, extraordinary, and inspiring.

“The Halifax explosion is just such an extraordinary event, and nobody outside of Canada knows about it,” she said.

“Obviously, the 2017 anniversary brought it up again, and even I think the the explosion in Beirut, brought it up again.”

The explosion was also the subject of another short created as part of the Heritage Minute series.

Forbis said that the pair have yet to present their film in front of a Halifax audience with themselves present, although it has played in that city.

“We would love to be there with the Halifax audience, even if they wanted to pick bones with us about things we got wrong, because we certainly took some licenses but tried to stay true to the spirit of the thing,” she said.

Film used a mix of traditional 2D animation and 3D

Among the reasons why the filmmakers chose to use a mix of traditional animation techniques and cutting edge 3D animation is because of the complexity of some of the shots in the film. Also, said Tilby, it presented a new challenge for the animators from their previous works.

“Because the sailor’s flight and his whole experience partly involves flying over an exploding city, at least at the beginning of his flight, that was a real challenge for us to do in 2D, so as animators that’s not something we felt that we could achieve,” she said.

William J Dyer created Halifax in 3D, with the pair then painting the buildings digitally. Dyer also created the explosion effects for the buildings, which then had the traditional animated form of the sailor imposed over top to give a sense of depth.

“We had a lot of fun with that because it was a little bit like a model railway town that we could kind of construct different things, making churches and schools, and some of the iconic buildings of Halifax. Then the really hard part was blowing it all up.”

The short also incorporates some live action film shots from stock footage and archival footage.

Forbis said that all of the techniques together it gave them a real way to control how the audience would see and feel about the character.

“We were not trying to make him a very appealing character, but to make you engage with him, we just felt like 2D was the fastest route to making him into an engaging character,” she said.

Tilby added that the overall goal is always to have the audience swept up in the story of the film, and that the visual variety was a real bonus for audiences in this case.

The Flying Sailor is available to watch on the National Film Board’s website at www.nfb.ca/film/flying-sailor-the.