In December 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbor, triggering the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever caused by human beings. One vessel was a French cargo ship, packed to the gills with explosives. The other was a Norwegian merchant steamship sailing empty to pick up WWI relief supplies in New York. When the ships bumped into each other, the blast triggered a tsunami and wiped out nearly all structures in a two-mile radius. Some 9,000 people were injured and 1,782 died.
Amid the devastation, one sailor survived with an extraordinary story to tell. After being thrown into the air and traveling 1.2 miles, Charles Mayers landed, naked and alive. The story so fascinated Canadian filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby that they decided to make it the premise of their latest work, “The Flying Sailor,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short. “It’s such an unbelievable tale,” Forbis said. “And we thought: Well, what was that trip like for him? The dazzling array of potentials in that trip was what really excited us.”
Forbis and Tilby’s eight-minute film begins with the sailor strutting down the docks, where he stops to smoke a cigarette. The ships collide and explode, and suddenly, he is in flight, contemplating in slow-motion random moments of his life: toddling in the grass as a child, scrubbing the deck of a boat, punching a man in the face, watching a woman dance. “We wanted to get at the profundity of life because the fragments of memory that we see of the sailor, they’re not profound to us, they’re not anything really super important,” Tilby said. “They’re just little bits that we all have within us. And should we die, they’re gone. And so he’s carrying them with him and they matter. Life matters. But death also points out the idea that we’re really just a particle. We really are insignificant. And so when he lives, it’s a very bleak thing, but he’s alive. We’re attracted to these contrasts in all of our work — the humor, the sadness, life and death, profound and insignificant.”
Forbis and Tilby — whose two previous animated shorts, “When the Day Breaks” and “Wild Life,” were also animated for Oscars — recently spoke to TheWrap via Zoom about returning to the Oscar race, making “The Flying Sailor” and the meaning of a lit cigarette.
Congratulations on your third Oscar nomination. You’ve got a pretty enviable track record going. You make a film, you get nominated.
Amanda Forbis: Just like that! [Laughs]
Wendy Tilby: It’s easy, really. [Laughs]
How does it feel to be back in the Oscar fold?
Forbis: Well, it feels good. It’s hard to do a fine grained description of how it feels because it just feels good.
Tilby: We make a film and we really don’t have expectations while we’re making it. And this one, we thought it originally was going to be even shorter than it was. It just didn’t seem to us like it would be an Oscar kind of film at all. There’s full-frontal male nudity — you never know! [Laughs] So it’s just been a delightful surprise. It’s a very strong field this year of [animated shorts]. And it’s not like it’s old hat for us at all because the whole mediascape is quite a different thing than it was even 11 years ago, which was the last time [we were nominated].
How did you come across the story of the sailor who survived the Halifax Harbor explosion?
Forbis: We were in Halifax a bunch of years ago, about 20 years ago, and saw the story in a museum. I can’t remember whether we knew about the disaster or not, but it was a very affecting display they had and there was a blurb about this sailor. Obviously, everybody’s just gobsmacked by the story.
Tilby: And really all we knew was: He was there on the docks — although historians have said no, he was on his ship. The essence of what we had read was that he was launched and he found himself two kilometers away, naked except for one boot boot. We didn’t include the boot.
Forbis: That’s the thing. It is such a terrible event, but there is something inherently funny about somebody landing naked wearing one rubber boot.
Yes, since he landed alive. I probably would not have chuckled just now if he had not survived.
Tilby: Right. And relatively unharmed. He went back to England and became a riverboat pilot.
You’ve explained before how the actual sailor wasn’t a middle aged man of size, but a slender young man. What made you want to change his physicality for your film?
Forbis: I had a thought somewhere along the line, this guy needs to be middle-aged. Somehow the explosion reminded me of the ravages of middle age where you’ve got stuff coming at you that you didn’t anticipate, you don’t like it. And it’s painful. [Laughs] So we liked that. And also, we’ve all seen ballets with beautiful young men doing beautiful things on stage. And it was just so much more interesting to have this somewhat compromised body so much more vulnerable, so much more imperfect. And then to let him have some kind of beauty in this very miserable moment that he’s having, to turn the flailing into a dance. It just felt better than having him be young and beautiful.
Tilby: Well, it was funnier too. That was the line we were trying to walk and we we were really conscious of the fact that we didn’t want to seem irreverent or disrespectful of the explosion, or the gravity of it. It’s partly why we were sure to have we wanted the debris, some artifacts of the explosion — a shoe, a pair of glasses, a chair — that are up there with him. There’s a frying pan — these domestic things that represent lives below that are lost or affected. And so we wanted to keep it real in that way but also have have some fun with the sailor a little bit as well.
In a short amount of time, your film balances the specificity of this man on the dock at that moment with the universality of humans’ tiny, insignificant place in the cosmos. We are but dust. How did you manage that balance?
Tilby: That’s the essence of what we were trying to get at. It related to a previous film that we had done called “When the Day Breaks,” which is about those moments when everything changes: the car accident and the pig witnessing the chicken’s life strewn out on the road, and it changes her. That was a jumping off point for this. I don’t know what our fascination for death is because it seems to crop up in our work, but it is more what it can tell us about our lives. We define ourselves, or our lives, as before and after things change. It changes our perspective. And in the case of the sailor, his nakedness and the near-death experience of it — that vulnerability, that rebirth, all those kinds of things that in a few seconds, his life is totally different. People who report near-death experiences, they do report the slowing of time and seeing their life pass before their eyes, these fragments of memories and the transition into a sense of weightlessness in the air. Bliss.
There is the extraordinary detail of how when the sailor lands, his cigarette is still in his mouth, lit. How did you come up with that idea?
Tilby: In the beginning, when he’s on the dock, we have so little time to introduce the sailor. We wanted that prologue to be short because the film really starts with the explosion for us. We wanted that sailor to be strutting along as though he’s confident and kind of unmovable. He owns the piers, he’s a bit of a hardened, salty sailor. Then we thought it was kind of funny to have him not panic or get excited. He’s just gonna have a cigarette and watch the spectacle. Also, the cigarette coincides with the ship going on fire and gives him a [sense of] slight culpability. And then the keeping it in his mouth, that’s sort of a joke of, you know, smokers dearly hanging on that cigarette. But the other thing is the fact that it’s still lit and hasn’t burned down at the very end is a bit of a timepiece to remind the viewer that this has only been a few seconds. This has not been a few minutes. That was just a flash.
Forbes: Some people have said, “Well, so are you making a mixed message? Because cigarettes kill and he lived!” [Laughs]