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Oscar-nominated NFB animators draw on tradition

An image from Wild Life by Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby.

Worlds away from the flash and clutter of Pixar style, two handmade, personable NFB films are among the five contenders for this year's Oscar for animated short.

Wild Life, which was painstakingly hand-drawn using water-based gouache over seven years, tells the story of young English gentlemen who came to the Canadian West to start anew at the turn of the last century. Dimanche depicts an even smaller slice of Canadian life – the boring family dinners that kids have to endure on Sundays.

The Oscar nominations bring the National Film Board's total to 72 over the years, 37 of those for animation; it has won 12 Academy Awards, seven for animated films.

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In fact, Wild Life's Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby are return nominees. Both originally from Alberta, they were friends and fellow students at what is now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. They teamed up again for the 1999, multi-award-winning animated short When the Day Breaks, which also received an Oscar nomination. (Tilbey had previously received an Oscar nod for her 1991 short Strings.)

Their film tells a very un-Hollywood story, a quiet tale of remittance men from well-heeled families. Despite their best intentions to settle down comfortably, many were hopelessly ill-prepared for Prairie life, and the phenomenon abruptly ended with the First World War.

"They were young, and they didn't know what to do with themselves. They weren't going to inherit the [family]estate. So the obvious solution was to send them off to the colonies to make something of themselves," Tilby said.

Wild Life shows one such gentleman who fancies himself a rancher, but he's not doing so well. With its gentle feel and quiet pauses, the film seems to reflect on whether the harsh conditions he has to endure are worth it. It's a question the animators found themselves asking about their own work.

"There's so much tedium in animation," Forbis said. "There's no instant gratification. Through a lot of production, there's just a lot of hard work. But there is also an emotional aspect: Keeping our eye on the ball in terms of what we're trying to do … Over several years of production, it's hard to keep a grip on that."

Their style has caught the eye of Los Angeles, though, and they have worked with L.A.-based production house Acme Filmworks on some major ad campaigns, notably for United Airlines.

Patrick Doyon's aesthetic in Dimanche is more hectic and comical, yet the film is equally personal. Dimanche depicts a routine many Canadians have grown up with, being carted off as a child to a nearby relative's house for Sunday dinner, with nothing to do but exercise one's imagination.

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The setting is small-town, industrial Quebec, where the factories are shuttered and the biggest excitement is the passenger trains rushing by. Hand-drawn on paper solely by Doyon and completed over three years, Dimanche is not only his first Oscar nomination, but also his first professionally produced film. He divides his time between illustration work and animation.

Dimanche "is based on my childhood of Sundays. It's not autobiographical, but everything is loosely based on my memories," said Doyon, who grew up in Ville Desbiens, in the Lac Saint-Jean area north of Quebec City. Clearly, boring family dinners are a universal experience.

And that, as with Wild Life, is undoubtedly the draw: Aside from the painstaking artistry of the films, these are local stories told in a personal way, to which the whole world can relate.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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