Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life.
Copyright 2011 National Film Board of Canada
For decades, Best Animated Short had been one of the lesser known and underappreciated Oscar categories. That’s a great tragedy as the category always features (from America and around the world) beautifully written, drawn, and voice-acted films that are incredibly heartfelt, entertaining, and compelling. Fortunately in the past decade, digital distribution, the Academy’s Oscar Week programming, and nation-wide theatrical runs have helped audiences find and connect with these films. In the process, the artists behind these wonderful shorts are getting the attention they deserve.
Wild Life, directed by Canadian natives Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, has been shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The film explores the journey of the Remittance Men, second sons of wealthy English families sent to settle the West in Alberta in the early 1900s. I recently spoke with Forbis and Tilby about filmmaking in Canada, hand drawn animation, and crafting Wild Life. Check out our conversation below and go to http://www.nfb.ca/film/wild_life to see Wild Life.
Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis. Photo copyright 2011 George Webber
Jackson Truax: How did Wild Life originate? How did you come to make a movie about this character?
Amanda Forbis: It goes back quite a ways. A long time ago…I was having a conversation with somebody…and she mentioned the concept of a remittance man. I had never heard of a remittance man. They were pretty common in this part of the world around the turn of the 20th century. They were usually second sons from wealthy families sent to Canada.
Wendy Tilby: Sort of gotten rid of, actually.
AF: Yeah, or [sent to the] colonies in general. And they usually played around and drank too much and didn’t achieve too much. Obviously, some of them did. But they were quite a phenomenon. I was quite intrigued by them. Because I had never heard of them at all. They’re just…a forgotten part of our history. So [Tilby] and I resolved to make a film about them. Partly because our Canadian history is so boring. They seemed like a colorful aspect that we could make into a Canadian version of the Western.
JT: What’s the process of getting films made in Canada, especially with the National Film Board?
WT: That varies. But for us, especially because [Amanda] and I worked with them in the past, we already had a connection. We just went to our producer with a concept. I think we probably had a written treatment and possibly some images and described what we wanted to do. It then goes through a review with other producers and other filmmakers and then it gets…a budget. It happened that we were in Montreal at the time, and then we moved out to the West, which is where we’re both from, to actually make the film. We had producers in both Montreal and Alberta… The National Film Board, they’re a really well-run institution. They were originally brought up to write propaganda during the Second World War. Then after the war, they became an arms-length creative agency. They made specialized documentaries and animation and they’ve produced an awful lot of good stuff over their history.
AF: The great thing about the Film Board is that they’re not constrained by commercial interest, so they do support auteur filmmaking in animation. The Film Board has been very good about helping filmmakers to develop new techniques and experimentation… We feel really lucky to have them.
WT: Yeah, very lucky.
JT: How much of Wild Life is based on the reality of what did or could have happened in Alberta in the early part of the last century, and how much of it was your fiction?
AF: The guy himself, his character is our invention. He’s based on the reading we did about remittance men… In terms of the environment he lived in, and the way he’s regarded in the community, that’s all pretty realistic. It’s not specific historical fact. It’s just the stories we’d hear. I was talking to an elderly friend of mine who said something about seeing signs in stores when she was younger that said, “No Englishmen Need Apply for Jobs.” It was an actual fact that they were regarded with hostility by the community. The environmental stuff, the smell, and the prairies, rain, and thunder, and lightning, those are just our experiences with that part of the Earth. Part of what was attractive to us about doing Wild Life was that we both pretty much grew up here and feel that it’s an underrepresented part of the world. That was another impetus for making the film.
WT: We both have English relatives who came over around that time. Although they don’t have exactly that story, and obviously they survived, they had a similar experience of being completely shocked by the harshness of the environment. In reality, these guys really did play polo and badminton and go on foxhunts on the prairie pretending it was England.
JT: What was your research process? How did you find the information on the remittance men of that time?
WT: We dug up a couple of books. One was published shortly after the story burgeoned into our consciousness as something we wanted to do. That was a book called, “Scoundrels, Dreamers, and Second Sons,” and we used that quite a bit. [The author] did lots of research on Alberta and [British Columbia] and the scoundrels and dreamers who inhabited it. Then there was another, older book called “Gentlemen Immigrants…” Another thing that we used a lot was…a museum here in Calgary called The Glenbow that has this fantastic archive of photographs. We spent hours and hours and hours on-line looking at photographs…of Englishmen and of badminton players and polo players…it was absolutely essential to the making of the film.
JT: Wild Life has a certain relationship to the myth of the great west as portrayed in Hollywood westerns, almost deconstructing it. Is the frontier experience as idealized in Canadian popular culture as much as it has been in America in the past century?
AF: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s talked about much at all. Our history of the West is quite different, in large part because the lack of population, but also the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [brought] law and order in advance of settlement… So it was [a] much quieter beginning here.
WT: I think our history with the aboriginal population…was a bit gentler. So it’s quite different. One of the points we were trying to make is that the Englishmen, they still had an extremely romantic view of what it would be. That might have been based on the American West, their idea of what a cowboy [was]… Though there were very real cowboys in Alberta, these guys were not equipped to be one of them.
AF: Also as Canadians, we don’t quite have the knack for mythologizing that Americans do… Just look at the history of the Western movie in the United States and the fantastic fiction built from these [scrawny] little guys who herded cattle all over the continent, and from that comes John Wayne. I think partly were trying to do was sort of a mild mythologizing of our own history.
JT: Did you ever worry that the audience wouldn’t feel sympathy for the character? How did you get around that?
WT: [SPOILER ALERT – SKIP THIS RESPONSE TO AVOID SPOILERS] We worried a lot about that. Because we knew from the beginning that we were going to kill him off. We wanted the audience to feel for him, but we didn’t want to over sentimentalize it so that it felt manipulative, to have a very close attachment to him and then kill him off. So it was a little bit of a tricky balance. Also, he’s not an entirely likeable character because he’s hapless and he’s sympathetic but not necessarily heroic… We wanted the viewer to feel for his plight. He’s a victim of the empire more than anything. His upbringing, all of his education and reading, didn’t equip him for this. It’s not really his fault in that sense.
AF: It’s a good question. We did struggle with the theory that he might come across as an upper-class twit and the audience might say, “Well, he’s a nincompoop, he had it coming.” We did our best to make him engaging. To try and give him some charm and some magnetic pull. It’s just a risk. I’m sure some people do write him off as an upper-class twit.
WT: By introducing the father character, it shows a little bit of the pressure he was under… You kind of just learn about him through others. The locals are critiquing him. He’s kind-of unaware of it… There’s a little bit of sympathy there… It’s a short film. It’s not something you can go in-depth in. So the story is told in vignettes.
JT: Talk about your visual approach to the film. I understand you used computers, but it feels hand-drawn. Why did you decide to go that route and how did you achieve that affect?
AF: We went through…many iterations of the look…before we arrived at what we did. The way we achieved it was to do the animation in the computer using Flash, just doing the drawing outlines and character animation. Then we… printed it all out on paper…painted it…scanned it back in and composited it. So it was a pretty laborious process. But we ended up doing that because we felt that paint was the most fitting look for what we wanted to do. Despite the number of things we tried with the computer, real paint has integrity and [a] real hand on the paper makes a big difference. You get all kinds of little globs and accidents and mixing colors that you can’t replicate on the computer no matter how hard you try. And it’s much more fun. When you’re doing that much painting and that much rendering, you really should try and enjoy it. In terms of the look itself, we starting out thinking that we wanted a folk-art look. We like the saturated colors and simple renderings.
JT: What was your process of writing the narration and the rest of the dialogue, and then finding the cast to execute it?
AF: The script was written very early in the process, the voice-over of the various characters and the narrator of the newsreel. Because we were going to be animating to the voices using lip-synch…actually having the characters speak to the so-called “camera,” we needed to record voices quite near the beginning of the process. So we looked at actors. The Canadian actors are almost all from Toronto. But we did have trouble finding a good Englishman to play the voice-over for the main character. We actually recorded him in London. We went to a talent agency there. [We] listened to them long-distance. We picked the guy we wanted and actually went there and recorded him in London.
WT: It was hard to find that actor. That was the most challenging thing. But the Canadian actors, it was a lot of fun recording them. This is also something that [Amanda] and I had not done so much. Our previous film When the Day Breaks had no voice-over at all, so this is a bit of a departure. We were also running the risk of it being a little too talky. It doesn’t play as well in foreign lands, because of that, I think. But we had to do it because of the story.
JT: What was the process of being shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film?
AF: To qualify, there are certain rules. A film needs to either win an important prize at certain festivals…or it has to be four-walled in LA. I think it comes down to forty-five films… Then the Academy gathers in New York or LA or San Francisco and they watch all of those films and vote. That gets narrowed down to ten. This year, unlike other years, it’s been much more publicized than it used to be. I think they never used to publicize the shortlist.
JT: When you work with the National Film Board, do they make sure the films get into the right festivals to qualify?
AF: Yes. They’re very good about that. We feel really lucky, because they’ll send it off to…hundreds of festivals in the course of two years, and will make sure if they think you have a chance at the Academy Awards that it gets four-walled, that it gets seen the right way… It’s a fantastic thing.
JT: Wild Life is currently available online for anyone to see. That said, why is it important audiences see Wild Life as well as make a point to see animated shorts from Canada and around the world?
WT: We’re grateful to the digital world and the internet for making it possible for people to see animated films. For years, people would say, “How can I see your work?” And you’d have to give them a long explanation of how they can order it through Film Board or they could see it at their local library. Now, people can see animated short films much more easily… It’s a much underappreciated medium. It’s such an incredibly diverse medium. There are people doing widely varying things. Some of the best films you’ll ever see are short animated films. We think it’s an art form in its own right. People tend to think of short films as just little baby siblings to feature films, but they’re not… We just want people to see them because they’re very rewarding. People are generally attracted to them, if you can find them to see them.
AF: It’s really important for the Film Board, too. Because when our films do well, it helps the Film Board remain in existence. It’s good that the Canadian government knows that, so they don’t completely pull the plug on it… We always find that the Film Board is more appreciated more abroad almost. People are always in awe of the documentaries and animation that come out of there.
JT: If Wild Life were to get an Oscar nomination or win, what would that mean to both of you?
WT: Obviously, it’s nice to know that the years we’ve put into the film have paid off. And that people get it. That’s the main thing, we want people to get it and like it and see it.
AF: There’s nothing like an Oscar nomination to get people to pay attention. There’s really nothing like it. That’s gratifying for us because it means more people will see the film. More people will see our work. Obviously it brings us opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Filed under: LiC Interview