Animation Magazine’s Oscar Watch

Shorts Race Emerges as Sublime Global Sampler.

The conventional wisdom about animated shorts is that they can spotlight emerging talent, test new techniques or explore subjects that might be considered offbeat for more commercial films. These bursts of creativity and wit are likely to reflect the international reach of animation, and this year’s nominees continue that tradition, representing artists from America, Britain, France, Japan and Russia. The choices of the Academy’s Animation Branch were not without surprises however, with only one nomination going to a film from a major studio.

That would be the nod to Pixar’s Presto, an action-packed five-minute short about a vengeful magician’s rabbit that marks the directorial debut of veteran animator Doug Sweetland (Toy Story, Cars). Presto enjoyed a high-profile theatrical showcase as the opener for the Oscar-nominated feature WALL’E, and astute viewers might have noticed that it was billed as ‘A Pixar Animation Studios Cartoon.’ ‘We were really emulating a cel-style animation, and trying to get airtight holds on the characters,’ Sweetland explains. While Presto employed Pixar’s CG tools for character animation and the simulation of cloth and crowds, they were applied with a ‘toon’ sensibility. ‘I would like to consider myself a cartoonist first, even though it’s not technically what I do as an animator,’ says Sweetland. ‘Nothing made me happier when people on this show recognized that it was a cartoon.’

Sweetland credits his experienced crew with keeping him from ‘overcomplicating’ Presto during nearly 16 months in production. ‘I had the least amount of experience at my position. I was the only ‘first timer.’ Everybody else had led departments before, so I benefited from their experience.’ Sweetland’s major insight from the experience of directing his first short would undoubtedly resonate with his fellow nominees: ‘Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should!’

A similar sense of discretion also guided directors Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, nominees for This Way Up. While they are commercial animation pros at Londonbased Nexus, the duo took a hiatus to make this silent black comedy about two hapless undertakers trying to bury a corpse. Their eight-minute short blends 3D CG characters within 2D environments, which enabled Smith & Foulkes to focus their attention on subtle comic behaviors. As Smith explains, ‘It was a six month production, so there was no way we could fully animate and render it all in 3D. We just animated the characters in 3ds Max, and the backgrounds were treated like paintings. That was part design and part logistics.’ They also avoided dialogue, and Smith notes, ‘We loved the restriction of trying to tell a story where these characters couldn’t speak because they were maintaining a dignified silence out of respect for the body!’

The deadpan humor of This Way Up has attracted attention at a slew of festivals, including Sundance, and stirred a great online buzz. Smith & Foulkes, meanwhile, have resumed making commercials, for although their short had backing from the BBC, Nexus, France’s Arcadi and The Animation Show in the U.S., Smith deadpans, ‘It was not a money-making venture. But we’re intensively writing the next project, and developing long form ideas.’ Should This Way Up win the Oscar, it will illustrate yet another truism about animated shorts: They can be great calling cards for directors with feature film dreams.

Digital animation techniques may be front-and-center in Presto and This Way Up, but they play a subtler role in the 12-minute nominee from Japan, La Maison en Petits Cubes (The House of Small Cubes). Animator Kunio Kat used a mix of 2D CG and drawings on paper to create a handmade look for his meditation on the memories of an old man. His character lives atop a teetering tower of blocks surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he survives by adding cubes that push his tower even higher.

Kat, who creates animation for TV and the Web through Robot Communications in Tokyo, has become a favorite on the festival circuit. The poignancy of The House of Small Cubes has touched audiences worldwide and won honors at Annecy, Hiroshima and Milan. It’s the kind of beautifully executed, highly individual film that still captures the imagination of Academy members who select animated shorts. As veteran Animation Branch member Bill Kroyer of Rhythm & Hues observes, ‘The Academy has always responded to a great personal film. If anything, I think there’s a little bit of a prejudice against the big studios and the richer productions when it comes to shorts. People love the fact that animation is still an art form that can be made by a guy in his apartment.’

Labor of Love

Kroyer also thinks that Animation Branch members appreciate the painstaking effort that’s required to make a hand-drawn film like this year’s Russian nominee, Lavatory Lovestory. The 10-minute, largely black and white film by Konstantin Bronzit chronicles’without words’a love story between two attendants in a public restroom. As Kroyer notes, ‘It’s amazing how such simple drawings can convey such subtle expressions and a pretty complex story. It’s the furthest thing from a rendered CG film.But films can transcend their style if their content is engaging. What people love to see are looks that perfectly match the tone of the story that’s being told.’

This year’s final Animated Short Film nominee tells another unusual love story ‘ one between two octopi. What makes the two-minute Mayaanimated toon Okatapodi unique in this year’s field, however, is that it was made by six students at France’s Gobelins. ‘It’s fairly common in France to do group films,’ explains Emud Mokhberi, one of the film’s co-directors. ‘Our idea was to reunite two octopi who’ve been separated. We thought ‘Where do people eat octopi?’ China? Japan? Cuba? Greece?” The group initially chose China because they envisioned a chase sequence where the octopi splash through descending terraces of rice paddies. Then DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda appeared on the horizon, and the students changed course. They discovered pictures online of terraced swimming pools on a Greek isle, and the signature chase sequence of Okatapodi was transformed.

Mokhberi recalls that the students reached a breakthrough when Ice Age director (and Animated Short Oscar winner) Chris Wedge visited Gobelins. ‘We showed him our Flash animatics and he laughed where we w a n t e d him to. That gave us reassurance that this could work.’ The honors that followed include Best of Show at SIGGRAPH and awards at Annecy and Imagina. Mokhberi, who’s currently working at Sony Imageworks, admits, ‘When I heard the crowd reaction at an Academy screening, it was more than I could have imagined. Then I heard an Academy member say ‘That can’t be a student film.’ But it was six guys spending seven months doing the best we could.’

‘Without a doubt, Oktapodi is a viable candidate,’ Bill Kroyer asserts. ‘It’s remarkable that it’s only a couple of minutes long. It’s a perfect length, like a Minute Waltz. I do tend to think this Oscar category is a long shot for students, but the Animation Branch people who judge these shorts are filmmakers themselves. Because they have an appreciation for what goes into short films, they can sometimes lean towards the underdog.’ Whatever the odds for any of these Animated Short Film nominees, as a group they provide an interesting reflection of today’s state of the art. As Kroyer remarks, ‘Short films lead the way in animation’things occur here first.’