On a Roll: NFB Film Wins at Cannes

By Lois Siegel

©Photo by Paul Jean

Lois Siegel

Plays fiddle and she teaches Video Production at
the University of Ottawa
Her documentary films include “Baseball Girls”
 (women who play softball and baseball)
 “Lip Gloss” (female impersonators)
 “Strangers in Town” (albinism)
 and “Stunt People”
 (The Fournier Family performing stunts for films).

When the Day Breaks” won the Palme d’Or in the “Short Film” category at Cannes this year.  And that was just the beginning.  The list is goes on. At the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France it picked up two more prizes: The Fipresci Award (The Jury of the International Film Critics) for its outstanding cinematic way of portraying human emotions, as well as the Grand Prix for Best Animated Short film.

At the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax it won Best Canadian Short.  It also appeared at festivals in Chicago, Leipzig, Melbourne, New York, Ottawa, Seoul, Taipei, and London: Awards.

It’s not that often that an animation film goes beyond the pure effect of visual imagery and funny little story.  We usually watch an animated film and go on to other things. “When the Day Breaks, ” co-directed by Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, will not let you run off that easily.  It is full of feelings and moods.  It will force you to re-assess your everyday place in the world and the disappointments and tragedies you face.

The film immediately captures our attention with sound.  Before any images appear, we hear distinct sounds, and then we see fluctuating images in close up: an electrical cord, a toaster viewed at a strange angle.  The movement of the texture of the images captivates us.

The story involves Mr. Chicken, a stately, dignified character who wears glasses, and Ms. Pig, who loves to cook and eat. They don’t live together. Their lives converge by accident, and we see glimpses of their lives through cross- cutting.

By coincidence they meet unexpectedly, without reason, except that they both need groceries. Like in the “Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges, the choices we make, where we are at a specific time, may change the direction of our lives forever. “Time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures. In one of them I am your enemy.” - Borges

Ms. Pig accidentally bumps into Mr. Chicken on this fine day.  He is not pleased. One of his lemons escapes from his bag into a hole in a ground sewer.  The lemon becomes significant in an approaching scene, although it was a barely noticed object a few minutes before.  This “accident” indicates the start of a new sequence of events that end in tragedy. 


The key is how Ms. Pig handles life when a chance meeting goes terribly wrong.  We sense that she has now changed.  She discovers the abstractions of life.  That the living form can be reduced to just bones, a chicken wing, an image of what “it” once was.

Is life merely a collection of photos on the wall, recording our images as we follow the rites of birth through high school graduation to marriage. What are our happiest moments? Cheering for the home team during a hockey game on TV?

We start as an egg, then we follow unpredictable paths by chance - a process that ends when we least expect it…during a new day.  When the day breaks, we realize how precious life really is.

An Interview: With  Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis

Lois Siegel:   How did you and Wendy meet?
Amanda Forbis: Wendy and I met at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design (now the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design) in 1985. I was in my first year of the film program, and Wendy was in her third and final year of the animation program. 
Lois: How did you begin working together?
Amanda:  I was just finishing work on another NFB project in Vancouver, “The Reluctant Deckhand,” when Wendy called me and asked if I would come to Montreal and work on “When the Day Breaks.”
Lois:    How did you organize working together?
Amanda: The style we had chosen was graphically complex, and it took some time get our styles to meet in the middle. The artwork was created evenly by both of us, though we did often choose shots according to our own strengths.

The partnership allowed us to air and explore ideas in ways that we couldn’t have done alone. We had many brainstorming sessions.  We also had a two-week intensive session in the editing room with Haida Paul (editor on “My American Cousin”).

Lois:   What was the animation technique you used?
Wendy Tilby:   First, we shot the basic action on Hi-8 using ourselves and our loyal friends as actors. Back in the studio, we transferred the footage to VHS, then selected and printed the desired frames using a video printer. By adding, subtracting, repeating or reordering frames, we could speed up, slow down, or otherwise depart from the original motion. It could be thought of as a kind of subtractive pixilation process.

After testing the sequences, we photocopied the video prints onto paper, and then drew with pencils and painted with oil sticks on this paper. Ears, snouts, beaks were added, while much unwanted background detail was obliterated. Finally, with the help of our trusty assistant, Luigi Allemano, we filmed the finished frames onto 35 mm.
     The black and white ‘pipes and wires’ sequence in the third part of the film was designed and animated by our fellow Emily Carr Institute graduate, Martin Rose of Vancouver.

The animation was drawn with pencil on paper, filmed onto 35mm, then reversed into negative on the Cineon by Susan Gourley.

Lois:       What were the problems with this technique?
Wendy:    Our biggest difficulty was that the artwork was both very small (4x5 inches) and fully painted. Because it is impossible to paint two frames exactly the same way, the variation in the line and texture from one frame to the next causes a ‘boiling’ or ‘flicker’ effect. At its best, the flicker is lively and interesting. At its worst, it’s messy and distracting.

The boiling was most difficult to control when the action held as there was no other movement in the frame to distract the eye.  Some of the more detailed holds (most notably the toaster) were pure hell to render! It was for this reason that we stayed away from long (wide) shots.

Lois:   How did you arrive at the idea of using animal characters?
Wendy:    Originally, the characters were human, and we experimented with many styles and techniques (cut-outs, na´ve line drawings, paint-on-paper) before arriving at the paint-on-video prints method using animal characters. We immediately found the critters to be much more engaging than the humans, not to mention fun to draw, and by retaining some of the photographic underpinnings of the video prints, we were able to give the city setting a needed reality and dimension.

Also, because the themes in the story are serious and
concerned with human emotions, we didn’t want the film itself to be too dark or depressing.  The somewhat cartoony animal characters, particularly the singing pig, gave the story a lightness and sense of fun which helps to set up and contrast with the tone of the film after the chicken crosses the road.

Lois:  How did you come up with the idea for the story?
Wendy: I had originally wanted to make an abstract film to music based on the notion that we are more than the sum of our parts.  I wanted to somehow equate our intangible components, such as thoughts, memories, and experiences, with the concrete, such as our bones, cells and groceries. This merged with the more narrative idea of an accident and the contemplation of cause and effect and chance encounters.

The protagonist, Ruby the Pig, then became the observer, and the story is about her experience of the chicken’s life and how his death prompts her to discover the connectedness, both literal and abstract, of our urban lives. 

Lois:      How long did you work on the film?   

                                        ©Photo by Lois Siegel, 1997
                                        Wendy Tilby   

 Wendy: The film took four very preoccupied years to make, and the  ideas were cooking even longer.     
Lois:      How did you choose the person to do the music?
Amanda:   Judith Gruber-Stitzer worked with us from the very early stages of the project and endured several big changes in our thinking about the music. The first song, where Ruby the pig greets the day, was the only constant through the whole four years.

Judith created a scratch track, and we choreographed and animated to it.  The other two songs were written closer to the end of the project, and we edited the sequences to them.

Lois:    Who were the singers?
Amanda: Judith, Wendy, and I had seen Rufus Wainright perform a
couple of times, and we were always delighted by the presence of his ‘little’ sister Martha.  We had listened to a lot of vocalists from the twenties and thirties, and we felt Martha  Wainright’s voice came the closest to the kind of sound we  wanted.

Then film animator John Weldon mentioned Chaim 
Tannenbaum. Hearing him sing was one of those rare and
precious moments where you not only know you have found
exactly what you were looking for,  but it’s much better than
you had imagined. David Gossage and Judith did the arrangements.

Lois:    Who did the sound? 
Amanda:   Marie-Claude Gagne, the sound editor, often provided us with up to ten options for any given sound, and many times we used several tracks for a single effect.  Andy Malcolm did Foley. It is remarkable to watch Andy work. He’s very casual, but only because he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Lois:     What was your experience like at Cannes? 
Amanda:  We were a little stressed out about the Cannes festival at first.  Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Star referred to it as the “Circus-whorehouse of the festivals.”

Having just completed the film and not having yet fully recovered, we weren’t sure we were up to it.  And what would we wear?  We had also been told that as makers of short films, we would be completely marginalized.

Our second night there we attended a large dinner in a tent on the beach, and once we realized we were well-enough dressed to be allowed in, we started to enjoy ourselves. The food was beautiful, the other filmmakers in our category were a fascinating bunch, and we didn’t feel marginalized at all.

We didn’t seriously think we would win.  The actual winning of the award was like some kind of glorious hallucination... champagne, flash bulbs and movie stars.

Lois:   Will you work together again?

  ©Photo by Lois Siegel, 1997    
Amanda Forbis

Amanda:    We feel very good about our partnership and look forward to developing it further. Nonetheless, we may choose to work on individual projects for a while. For some time I have been harboring a desire to make a documentary, or maybe a short animated film, or maybe I’ll try writing.
Wendy:  I would still like to make an abstract film to music or an
experimental documentary which mixes live-action with
animation.  Something short, quick and dirty.  I would love to collaborate with Amanda again, and I would be happy to
work in the same technique. Right now I’m teaching two film animation courses at Harvard, “Introductory”  and “Intermediate.” 
Lois:    What has inspired you?
Amanda:  As a dormant cut-out animator, I am deeply influenced by the work of Yuri Norstein, and so I was particularly delighted by Eugene Fedorenko and Rose Newlove’s latest film “The Village of Idiots.”  I also love the work of Gil Alkabetz, Prit Parn, Caroline Leaf, The Fleisher Brothers and Zlatko Grgic.
Wendy:  Short stories, tiny moments from feature films, painting, graphic arts. Three animated films: “La Pista” by Simona Mulazzani and Gianluigi Toccafondo, “Metamorphosis of Mr. Samsa” by Caroline Leaf, and “Primiti Too Ta” by Ed Ackerman.
Lois:    What type of artistic decisions were you able to make working at the National Film Board of Canada?      

The Film Board gave us complete freedom in the making of “When the Day Breaks.” We were supported producer
encouraged, and paid. We had excellent technical assistance, and our David Verrall not only championed the project from beginning to end, but he also provided excellent insight in the editing room.


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