Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s home studio is a lot like their animation career: unassuming. Their Inglewood house looks just as cute as the rest but it hides a wealth of craftsmanship. Small pieces of artwork cover walls and hang on banisters. Rustic furniture matches the old hardwood floors. It’s very textural and very modest.
Yet the pair have shared a more-than-modest career mostly out of this home. Their animated short films for the National Film Board (NFB), When the Day Breaks and Wild Life were nominated for Oscars in 1999 and 2011, respectively — while the former won Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival. They’ve animated commercials for General Motors to Suntory Water in Japan. And last year, they won the prestigious Winsor McCay Award for their lifetime contribution to animation.
On the back of their third collaboration with the Alberta Ballet in February, and in the early stages of their next short film, the Calgary Journal sat down with Tilby and Forbis to gain some insight into their remarkable career and preen what it takes to be revolutionary animators on the small scale they’ve made for themselves.
Q: I’ve always felt it’s taken a particular childhood to be an artist. What were yours like?
Amanda: I think a critical thing that we share is that we're both youngest children and thus, you end up just not being so much a focus of your parents’ attention. Our parents were of a generation where they did not play with you and so we played on our own and spent a lot of time alone as kids.
Q: You were on your own a while before you guys started working together. Does it get hermetic?
Wendy: Yeah. Particularly because, at art school, I was doing a technique called paint-on-glass, which was where you're sitting under a camera with Plexiglas in front of you and you paint an image. Then you photograph a few frames and then you manipulate the paint, repaint the characters or whatever it is that you're animating, ever so slightly in a different position, then you take two frames and then you paint again. So it's like a performance. You're just animating in real-time, destroying everything that came before. You don't end up with a stack of drawings. We call it straight-ahead animation. I did that at school and that's extremely hermetic. You have to be in a room by yourself and hopefully not interrupted, but are constantly interrupted anyway.
Q: When you started together, you were printing images from video and painting on top. It’s very tangible. How did you first come across that style?
Wendy: Somebody in French animation at NFB in Montreal … had a video printer for some reason. But I remember just seeing them somehow and just tried printing off some film footage on it and then photocopying those images and drawing on them. I thought, 'That's kind of fun.'
Amanda: You just couldn't do that technique easily. You could not work on an image easily just because a) capturing them and then b) being able to draw and paint on them. It’s just a big rigmarole. And so you get something like that video printer and it just kind of sparks something where you think, 'Oh, you know, there's kind of a potential there.'
Q: Animation has the power to connect on a human level more so than live action sometimes.
Amanda: It's a funny thing, isn't it? It's kind of a contradiction sometimes. If you wanted to show sexual abuse of children, you do it in animation because it's intolerable in live-action. You get some distance by doing it in animation … But if you want to draw people into a character, say, our pig, it's much easier. You see that pig, you’re like, “I like her!” And with a human character, you have to work a lot more, especially in a short film. I think you’re really reluctant to engage with this character. You’re thinking, 'Who is this? Why do I care? What are you doing?' At least I have that response.
Q: And you guys like to add hyper-realistic elements too.
W: Well, with When the Day Breaks, that comes from the video and the backgrounds. Sometimes you see the backgrounds coming through. The real street, the cars, all that sort of stuff. There was sort of a cinema verité thing about it that gave the city a reality that we liked or certainly suited that story. Then on Wild Life, the structure of the interviews with the characters–
A: I don’t know if we ever fully articulated why we did that, even to ourselves. [laughs] We just kind of liked it.
W: Well, the shorthand for describing the main character was to get other people's impressions of him and I remember sort of liking the anachronism of it being as though they're talking to the camera, but it's 1910.
Q: Well you said you were interested in documentary filmmaking, so maybe it just seeped in.
W: Totally… the paradox is that animation is so hyper-controlled, as you really are in charge of every single frame, and that's appealing. But what's great about documentary is you just go out and shoot stuff and then you've got the stuff that you have to make something out of it. You sort through it and I love that process. I like the idea of just reacting to what you've already done, which animation usually isn't but I think we're trying to. I guess you can kind of call this a more experimental approach.
A: Accidents are what you deprive yourself of in animation. It's really hard to come up with something spontaneous and off the cuff. It’s not impossible and so that's why I think you need to leave little openings for yourself to do things you didn’t plan because it'll re-spark your excitement about it. It's the unexpected.
Q: How do you go about capturing the human experience in animation?
W: Animation is very good at that. Even in some ways more successfully than live-action because there's a shorthand to animation that you can get to the heart of something more quickly. Because sometimes it's exaggerated but you can describe it. You could take a most rudimentary stick figure and imbue it with all the emotion and heart and you could get the audience caring about what happens to that character really easily.
Q: How do you go about creating your voice?
W: I don't think you do. We're not at all prolific and partly because it's animation. But even in animation terms, we're not prolific. I'm very slow. But it isn’t until you've made a few films that you realize, “Oh yeah, they're all about the same thing.” You don't set up to do that. You don't set out to create a style or an oeuvre that has anything like that. In fact, we always try to do something totally different. We think we're doing something totally different. We don't like to repeat the look of something or the kind of story — which we haven't.
Q: How has your style changed over time?
A: This idea that we’re working on now, we had ages ago and it’s been kind of sitting there. Obviously, it’s a different film now than it would have been 20 years ago. I don’t even know if it’s because of maturity, it’s just whatever is at the forefront of your mind that needs to be exercised at the time. There are things you wouldn’t do now that you did 20 years ago.
W: Like full frontal nudity? [laughs] Our current film has a naked man in it.
Q: And what about your method? You guys have said before the hand-painted process has been long and gruelling before. Has the computer made a difference?
A: It makes a big difference, but in a way, it's a double-edged sword. This was what nearly sunk us in Wild Life was just the — and the technology being where it was then — infinite number of possibilities that were never quite good enough. And so that's why we went back to real paint then … I miss it. I miss the tactile and the smell of it. The balancing of water. It was just so much more fun.
Q: You’ve done three productions with the Alberta Ballet. How did you first get involved with them?
A: Actually, that's really funny because we had neighbours next door and the guy was their technical director. So he just said to Jean Grand-Maître [artistic director], “Oh, my neighbours are animators. Maybe you should talk to them,” which is so ridiculous. And so we did. The first production we did with them was Mozart's Requiem, and we did projections for that which were really tricky and not a huge feature of the piece, but it was super fun. And then we did another one.
- By Thomas Bogda