Oscar shorts: Seven years of painting Canadian history

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For animators Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, having a short film in the Oscar race is nothing new. Their film “Wild Life” is in the running for an Academy Award, following up on their 1999 Oscar-nominated short, “When the Day Breaks.” But a few things have changed in the landscape of animated short films since then.

“We’ve noticed a big difference [since 1999] in terms of exposure and buzz and media,” Tilby, 51, said. “We don’t even remember being on the shortlist last time. It was such a non-event.”

Things have also changed vastly for the making of animated films.

“When we did ‘When the Day Breaks,’ a handmade film was not an exception; it was the rule. Now a handmade film in terms of using actual paint on paper is regarded with a little bit of amazement in some quarters,” Forbis, 48, said.


For “Wild Life,” about an Englishman’s difficult adjustment to life in the Alberta prairies in 1909, Tilby and Forbis employed both the benefits of modern technology and their skills with more traditional mediums in the seven-year production. The Calgary, Canada-based filmmakers animated the 13-and-a-half-minute short using Flash, drawing just outlines of characters and objects on a computer. Then they printed out each frame and painted them with gouache.

“[Gouache] is actually very fun to work with,” Forbis said. “It’s very organic. It smells nice, and it’s actually a little bit flexible because once it’s dry you can go back and rework it to a certain extent.”

Forbis also said the “folky, colorful look” they could achieve with gouache fit their story about ranching in the Canadian frontier. The film’s main character was inspired by the remittance men who immigrated to Canada in the early 20th century. Tilby and Forbis didn’t know about this piece of history until Forbis learned that there had been some remittance men in her mother’s family.

“It’s a very unstoried part of the world. We don’t have a lot of mythology or lore or even much sense of history because it’s a pretty short history,” Forbis said.

To shed light on that little-known history, the filmmakers enlisted the help of the National Film Board of Canada, which is the country’s government-funded producer and distributor of films. Another animated short in the Oscar race this year, “Sunday,” is also backed by NFB.

“They encourage experimentation. They encourage unconventional stories. Because they’re not market-driven, there are different constraints,” Forbis said of being backed by NFB.

Forbis and Tilby, who met at what’s now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, are working on some animated commercials and are preparing to propose another short to NFB. “Wild Life” is available for purchase on NFB’s website, which is also streaming the short for free until Monday.


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— Emily Rome