Two ships collide in a harbour, an explosion shatters a city, and a sailor is blasted skyward. With ears ringing, blood pulsing and guts heaving, he soars high above the mayhem and towards the great unknown. A bold blend of comedy, suspense and philosophy, The Flying Sailor is an exhilarating contemplation of the wonder and fragility of existence.
A sailor takes a sudden and unexpected voyage.
In 1917, two ships collided in the Halifax Harbour, causing the largest accidental explosion in history. Among the tragic stories of the disaster is the remarkable account of a sailor who, blown skyward from the docks, flew a distance of two kilometres before landing uphill, naked and unharmed. The Flying Sailor is a contemplation of his journey.
Drawing on reports of traumatic shock and near-death experiences, animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis consider the kind of cataclysmic moment that pulls us from our path, strips us bare and utterly shifts our perspective. By suspending the Sailor in a state of near-death, the film contemplates the stuff of life that is at once fleeting, profound and utterly insignificant.
The Flying Sailor marks the return of the Oscar-nominated and Palme d’Or-winning duo of Forbis and Tilby (When the Day Breaks, Wild Life). Employing a wealth of techniques (3D, 2D, live action, and photographs), along with a bold mix of comedy, suspense, philosophy and playful abstraction, The Flying Sailor is an exhilarating meditation on a few seconds of a life, and a celebration of the wonder and fragility of being.
What was the inspiration for the film?
A number of years ago we visited the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. There was a section dedicated to the devastating Halifax Explosion of 1917 (which, by the way, was the largest man-made blast prior to the atomic bomb). Among the displays was a short blurb about a British sailor who was blown skyward from the pier and flew a mile before landing uphill, naked and unharmed. We were intrigued. What did he see? What did he hear? What was he thinking? It’s a story that brims with animation potential. Inspired by accounts of near-death experiences, our concept was to expand those few catastrophic seconds of life into as many minutes, and imagine the story of the sailor’s flight.
The Flying Sailor also emerged from our continued interest in combining narrative form with abstraction. Our earlier work, When the Day Breaks, is a story about collisions and connections and the accidental death of a character (a chicken). A key sequence depicts both the material and intangible components of his life: his hat and his groceries, his bones, cells and blood vessels, and finally, his past. This scene represents a significant point of departure, in both theme and style, that we explore in The Flying Sailor. Like the chicken (and all of us), the sailor is an unremarkable clump of atoms possessing consciousness, emotions and a tangle of memories. By suspending him in a state of near-death, our aim is to ask: What composes a life?
What inspired you to work with varied techniques and tools?
We like to seek out new styles and techniques with every project, in part to keep it interesting, but also in response to the needs of the idea itself. With The Flying Sailor, it was clear from the outset that if we wanted to capture the exploding city from the sailor’s point of view, 3D was the way to go. We briefly considered the fun we could have creating a ‘model train set’ city on our dining room table, but quickly abandoned the idea, mostly because it was impractical (we need that table! And we generally try to avoid setting off explosives in the house!), but also because we thought it high time we explored the potential of CG 3D. We enlisted local Maya artist William Dyer to sculpt a virtual topography reminiscent of 1917 Halifax, and we created the painted skins that covered everything. Aesthetically, we were aiming to combine that rinky-dink model train set quality with a hand-tinted postcard look.
We wanted the sailor to be distinct from his surroundings, which is why we rendered him in a 2D painterly style (and made him very pink). As much of his movement is complex and in slow-motion, we did some preliminary 3D animation in Blender for reference, then painted over it in Photoshop. We also needed sea, sky and ships, plus smoke and debris, not to mention an explosion, a galaxy, a fish, added characters, and abstract digressions. Using combinations of CG animation, stock footage and hand-painted elements, everything was knitted together in Adobe After Effects. The process was highly experimental and infinitely more complicated than we had first imagined!
The opening scene is reminiscent of a cartoon from the 1940s. The tone changes dramatically from there. What motivated this shift?
With a boatload of TNT in the story, how could we resist the cartoon reference?! Also, as the blast is that pivotal moment when everything in the story irrevocably changes, it made sense that the prologue have a bright, jaunty, business-as-usual tone to contrast sharply with the dark, bleak post-explosion world. It’s a deliberate ‘red herring.’
Can you talk about how you approach sound design? Do you generally have a clear idea of the kind of music you want in advance or do you work with your composer to find the direction?
Sound is a fundamental component of all our work, and The Flying Sailor was no exception. Early in the process, we gathered a wide range of music and effects and built our animatic using temp tracks and rough soundscapes. This was critical for us in establishing the shape, tone, rhythm and emotional arc of the story. Our composer/sound designer, Luigi Allemano, welcomed a collaborative approach and was game for much back and forth and experimentation. It was a challenging process and Luigi produced a terrific track.
The fish is almost like a supporting character. How did that evolve?
We were initially intrigued by the notion of the inverted trajectory of countless fish who (we imagined) were blasted downward into the depths of the sea as the sailor was launched upwards into the air. Ultimately, we pared it down to a single fish whose journey matches that of the sailor—but with a different outcome. In an oblique way, the fish represents the thousands of souls who did not survive the disaster.
Are there recurring motifs in your work?
All of our films are concerned with details—small resonant moments that add up to something ineffable. Whether it be the pleasure of a piece of buttered toast, the futility of a bullet shot into nothingness, a puff on a cigarette, the thump of a heart, the thought of a bug, or a glimpse of a comet, these are the ingredients—the stuff of life that is at once profound, fleeting and utterly insignificant.
A Film By
Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby
Original Music & Sound Design
3D Modeling & Animation
William J Dyer
Additional 2D Animation
Jon Jon Atienza
Foley Mix & Editing
Foley recorded at Footsteps Post-Production Sound Inc.
Music Recording & Mix
Jean Paul Vialard
Flute and Piccolo
Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
Alice Lane Lépine
Trombone, Euphonium, and Ukulele
Digital Imaging Consultant
Studio Operations Manager
Katja De Bock
Producer & Executive Producer
A National Film Board of Canada production