***This article originally appeared in the December ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 325)***
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its student finalists each year, it often seems like ‘the usual suspects’ are among the honorees. Young talent from legendary American animation schools regularly wind up on the dais accepting honors. The chief question is which students will win the Gold, Silver or Bronze medals.
Not so at this year’s 49th Student Academy Awards competition, when all three medals will go to students from Germany, Australia and France. This is the first year that the Academy is no longer distinguishing between U.S. schools and international ones. It is also a year when the aesthetics of stop-motion animation — both physically real and digitally simulated — dominate the scene. Here is a look at this year’s impressive medalists:
An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It
By Lachlan Pendragon
Griffith Film School, Australia
The title alone tells you to expect a surreal tale from the get-go. When we meet the film’s protagonist, Neil, he’s struggling to keep his desk job in an office filled with bizarre characters (including that titular ostrich). The more Neil tries to make sense of things, the weirder things get.
Writer/director/animator Lachlan Pendragon may have fashioned a dark comedy that’s sometimes reminiscent of Charlie Kaufman’s sensibilities, but that’s only part of what makes An Ostrich Told Me so striking. Pendragon’s 11-minute film also plays with ideas about stop-motion animation itself. “Even before I had a story figured out,” he recalls, “I would pitch it with: ‘What if a stop-motion puppet fell off the animation table and landed in a tray of their own replacement mouths?’ That would be terrifying.
“It developed from there. I tried to unveil or poke fun at as many specific stop-motion processes as I could fit into the narrative. These kinds of meta-gags have a long history in animation — like Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck, with its fun back-and-forth between Daffy and the animator.”
“My film bridges the world of the animator with the world of the animated,” Pendragon adds. “I envisioned a stop-motion film that feels like you’re watching it over the animator’s shoulder — like one well-orchestrated time lapse. That’s done by showing the film through an external camera monitor, leaving ‘making of’ glimpses around its border.”
Pendragon doesn’t try to hide things like the hinges on the characters’ replacement mouths, either. “It is very unapologetic about stop motion’s shortcomings and imperfections,” he explains. “For me, that’s where a lot of the charm comes from. There’s that internal debate as to how polished is too polished? If you can’t tell that it’s handmade or you can’t recognize familiar materials, then I think it loses some of the magic, which is counter intuitive.”
“Stop motion combines so many interesting disciplines: fabricating sets, building puppets, 3D printing. Bringing all these skills together to tell stories is really special.”
Pendragon is based in Brisbane, Australia, where he’s completing a three-year Doctor of Visual Arts program at the Griffith Film School. It’s probably safe to say that, after making An Ostrich Told Me, he won’t be seeking an office job. “I’d love to continue directing, but I love animating and I think I’d learn so much in a studio environment. I’m not ruling anything out yet.”
Laika & Nemo
By Jan Gadermann & Sebastian Gadow
Konrad Wolf Film University of Babelsberg, Germany
When a space shuttle crashes to Earth near a remote lighthouse, two unexpected soulmates meet: Laika, in her gleaming white space suit, encounters Nemo, the lonely lighthouse keeper whose Jules Verne-vintage diving garb marks him as the village eccentric. What ensues between this odd couple is a Chaplin-esque study in human kindness.
These characters had been germinating in the mind of Jan Gadermann since 2011, when he saw a t-shirt graphic of a diver and an astronaut sharing a see-saw. That image was the spark behind the stop-motion adventure Laika & Nemo, co-directed by Gadermann and his classmate Sebastian Gadow. As Gadermann notes, “Nemo, which means ‘nothing’ in Latin, is the ideal underdog. He had to turn himself from a Nobody into a Somebody.”
Fifteen students from the animation program at the Film University of Babelsberg contributed to the 15-minute film, which featured 20 characters and took over six years to complete. (By then, the co-directors were completing their Masters degrees.)
Along with the epic running time, Gadermann explains, “Another exception was that we got funded and co-produced by an initiative for graduation films by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the RBB, a local broadcaster. This helped us to pay a puppet maker and some miniaturists.”
Subtle details contribute enormously to the characters’ appeal. For example, mixing iron powder into the puppets’ foreheads enabled the students to animate the puppets’ eyelids, which were made of silicone and tiny magnets. The characters’ emotions appear palpable.
As newly-minted recipients of advanced animation degrees from Babelsberg — not to mention their Student Academy Awards — Gadermann and Gadow are already pursuing professional opportunities. Gadow is a production designer on a 3D animated feature, and Gadermann is working on ideas for a children’s series. “There’s not really a stop-motion industry in Germany,” he laments. “That urgently has to change!”
The Seine’s Tears
By Yanis Belaid, Eliott Benard and Nicolas Mayeur
Pôle 3D Digital & Creative School, France
The unbridled passion that students bring to filmmaking is a hallmark of The Seine’s Tears, an emotional retelling of the political unrest that gripped Paris on October 17, 1961. On that tragic night, when French police attempted to shut down protests against the Algerian war, more than 200 protestors were reportedly killed.
This nine-minute film, co-helmed by eight students from France’s Pôle 3D Digital & Creative School, employs 3D CG techniques to simulate a stop-motion look. Their efforts earned them Best in Show honors at SIGGRAPH 2022. (So their Student Academy Award represents another qualifying event for eligibility for the Animated Short Film Oscar.)
Yanis Belaid — who made the film with Eliott Bernard, Nicolas Mayeur, Etienne Moulin, Hadrien Pinot, Lisa Vicente, Phillippine Singer and Alice Letailleur — sees the political theme as personal. Belaid’s family members of Algerian descent remember what happened that night. “We wanted viewers to feel like they are in the protest with our characters; to have the point of view of the people who came to demonstrate that night.”
To accomplish this, explains Belaid, “We had references from live-action cinema. We used the on-board camera and wanted it to be an entire character in the film. We analyzed how films like Blair Witch Project used that camera style.” To underscore the reality of the event, the students also created city environments based on photography of the Paris streets where the protests occurred.
The ambitious scope of The Seine’s Tears is reflected in the crowd scenes, which challenged the students to develop ways of reusing foreground animations. “That helped us create density without having to animate everything,” says Belaid. “All the animation was done in Maya,” he notes. “To create a stop-motion look, we chose to develop a script that copies 80 percent of the previous key. The movement stays fluid so motion blur can be calculated, but it still has this jerky aspect.”
The Seine’s Tears, which has also won top prizes at Clermont-Ferrand, Palm Springs ShortFest and SXSW, took two years to produce, but the results earned Pôle 3D Digital & Creative School its first Student Oscar. As Belaid points out, like many previous student winners, it definitely validated his desire to be a director.
For more information about the Student Academy Awards, visit oscars.org/saa.