Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis’s Oscar-nominated animated short “Wild Life” is anything but conventional. Set in 1909, it follows a young British man who travels from his native England to the great adventurous unknown that is Canada, eager to make a life for himself as a rancher. Once he arrives, however, he finds his rarefied upbringing hasn’t prepared him for his new life.
The two women, both Canadian, attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and were nominated for their first Oscar together in 2000, for the animated short “When the Day Breaks,” which won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at Cannes. Tilby was also nominated for an Oscar in 1991, for her short animation “Strings.”
Jacob Combs: I was most struck by your film’s mockumentary style, which I don’t think I’d ever seen in an animated film, long or short. Was that the idea from the start, or did it evolve?
Amanda Forbis/Wendy Tilby: It was the idea from the beginning. We knew we wanted to do something that was not structured as a straight-ahead narrative, so we were attracted by the idea of interviewing the townspeople about what they thought about this guy from England. Actually, it ended up less documentary than we had intended. We wanted to play with the absurdity of interviewing animated characters in another time. There’s something anachronistic about that.
JC: The mockumentary style gives it the feel of a sociological investigation. In the scene where he’s rowing on the lake, you zoom out and he’s actually in a tiny pond going around in circles. Did you set out to make a comment about the effects of imperialism, or was it more about the mindset that’s behind it?
AF/WT: Both things were definitely important to us. It’s about the effects of imperialism. Through the news reel, we wanted to highlight the hubris of the notion that the British Empire and the British were better than everybody else, and that they could go out and just rule the world. We wanted to show that in some sense, he’s kind of the victim of it. He’s a product of the culture—he doesn’t really have the education to live in that kind of environment. But because he comes from a wealthy family, and is very well-educated and is part of the British Empire, he and his family think they can do anything. The whole scene in the boat, in the pond, he’s spouting Darwin and thinking at that point that he is one of the survivors. He doesn’t quite recognize what’s coming. Part of our conversation in making the film was, what exactly is education for? There’s no doubt that this guy can speak Latin and has read all of the philosophers, so in certain circles he seems like a well-educated man. But he has no practical education. Those are all things I admire—people who speak Latin and who have read Sophocles and The Iliad and The Odyssey. But what is education, really? It’s all really about context.
JC: The style is both specific and appropriate. Is it all hand drawn?
AF/WT: It’s all hand-drawn, but it depends on how you define it. We animated the film using Flash software, and we animated by drawing directly into the computer. There was no computer animation, per se. We would print out the line drawings and paint on them with a paint wash—an opaque watercolor. And then those paintings would be scanned back into the computer and composited.
JC: So that’s a labor intensive process!
AF/WT: Absolutely. The painting is very time consuming. We had experimented with other ways of doing it—doing a cleaner, more graphic look. But it just didn’t feel like we’d captured the visual landscape we wanted. We both liked paint, and we end up deciding to paint the whole thing. I don’t think we knew quite what we were getting into. Our previous work had been hand-painted.
JC: But it definitely gives it a sense of age.
AF/WT: Yeah. We wanted a bit of a folk art look. We wouldn’t call it a folk art style, but it’s definitely inspired by that, and we thought that was appropriate to the subject matter.
JC: For a short piece, the film has quite a drastic tonal shift. You’re laughing at the beginning and it has this very sporting old chap element to it, and then the shift is sudden and effective. In that compressed format, how you make sure that change comes across as authentic?
AF/WT: That was a big source of concern for us in production—had we sped our way to the end too quickly? We tried to move smoothly through the seasons, with spring, summer, fall, winter, but it took a long time to get the balance right. And think we wonder still if we actually achieved it! We definitely wanted the levity and humor in it, certainly at the beginning, to keep all those fun elements. And we did have some comments that the change did come too quickly. So we added the scene in the bar. And we did have the voiceovers, so we added the visuals to show his boredom and that he wasn’t so happy anymore. Hopefully that works! But in a bigger sense, it is like telling a short story. You don’t have time for background, you don’t have time for a lot of character development. Everything that you put in the film needs to have value and needs to tell something that adds to the story, even if it’s just a dandelion—those things have to add an emotional sense that you’re trying to get across. It’s tricky. And of course in animation, you don’t want to do a lot of things that are unnecessary or not leading towards your goals.
JC: So you had to do that process of editing and figuring out the shift, when you were writing? Or did you do that somewhat in the animation as well?
AF/WT: It was kind of a combination. In the original storyboarding phrase, we started right away with an animatic and some sound effects, and that’s when the shape began. But I think it continued right up to the very end. We were editing all the way through, and switching beats around and adding and subtracting elements. It never really stopped, right up until the last moment. It’s really a delicate thing to make that arc work.
JC: So I have to ask—you’re both Canadian, yes?
AF/WT: That’s right.
JC: So culturally, how does the Canadian view of the Wild West differ from the American stereotype? Because obviously, you’re touching upon something that feels very Canadian, but is also kind of different from the way we look at it here.
AF/WT: We do look at the West very differently. As with many cultural things, Canada is frequently overwhelmed by the culture of the United States, as well as the traces of British culture. Maybe not so much anymore. In terms of the settlement of the West, Canada was just a completely different affair. The Mounties went out first, and they had established law, so there weren’t the kind of wild gold mining rushes or lawlessness of the American West—it was much more civilized. And as a result of this, we don’t have a lot of mythologies around the Wild West and Canada. We live in Calgary, where they mythologize cowboy culture quite a bit, but I don’t think it’s in a distinctly Canadian way. The primary thing about the film is that there really were a number of Englishmen who came out from home and settled here. These guys were almost completely forgotten in Canadian history, but they were a big part of the settlement of the West. And of course they were colorful characters in a bleak landscape. It always irked us that they were forgotten, so in a way, that’s part of the impulse for making the film—to mythologize in some small way our own experience of the West.
JC: So what has the reaction been like in Canada?
AF/WT: Well, they get it. We haven’t talked too much with people who ask, did that really happen here? People are pleased to recognize that they’re part of the world of the story. It’s very satisfying. Much of the recognition comes from people who have some history in their past of immigration, and they really find that something resonates for them in the film. One thing I noticed was that we showed it a couple of times in Europe, and there were certainly some things that they didn’t get that North Americans do. At one screening we went to in Los Angeles, they laughed throughout the film—they were even laughing at the newsreel at the film, when the narration goes, “Young men from fine families all over this might island are crossing the seas for adventure IN CANADA!” As though Canada were this fabulous place. But that’s exactly how Canada was sold, like this golden idol. Americans seem to find that funny, because there’s such a joke in America about Canada. Because, you know, we’re sort of boring.
JC: So what’s the next step for you guys? Do you have other projects in the works?
AF/WT: Finishing “Wild Life” a year and a half ago gave us time to do some commercial projects. We’re just wrapping one up right now. And we have some ideas that we want to propose to the National Film Board again. We’re choosing between a few ideas, so when we go home we’ll start figuring that out. So hopefully that’ll go a little faster than “Wild Life” did.