Taylor Jessen previews all the Oscar nominated shorts, highlighting the wide array of styles and origins among the nominees.
Five extraordinary shorts were nominated for the Academy Award for best animated short this year: Birthday Boy (Sejong Park), Gopher Broke (Jeff Fowler), Guard Dog (Bill Plympton), Lorenzo (Mike Gabriel), and Ryan (Chris Landreth). In late February, AWN talked with each of the directors about their shorts, the process of making shorts, and the challenge of getting them seen in todays marketplace. If you havent seen these short films, were obligated to offer the following SPOILER ALERT: You need to see them for yourself right now, cause were about to ruin em all.
Birthday Boy is a quiet, heartbreaking film about a day in the life of a child growing up during the Korean War; a day he finds quite ordinary, but that the viewer discovers is fraught with a devastating secret. It was written, directed and animated by Sejong Park, a Korean émigré who lives in Sydney, Australia.
Park was born in Pusan, the second-largest city in Korea, and after high school he moved to Seoul for his university degree. A child of the Korean War, Park lived and worked half his life in Seoul, teaching art and working as an art director for movies and TV. In the 1990s he was credited on a feature-length compilation of music videos for a popular Korean rock band, which split up in 1996. I moved down to Sydney in 1998, Park says, because I had an Australian girlfriend. Now shes my wife.
The artist first tried animation doing commercials for TV. He also made three animated short films prior to Birthday Boy, but dont look for them in theaters any time soon. I wont say what theyre called, he laughs. I have them in my garage. I havent shown them anywhere; they havent gone to any festivals. They were mainly your souvenir type of long-process animation. It was a long time ago, and some of the animation took two or three years. Its all hand-drawn. I shot them on 16mm, but theyre not done properly. I did it to see how the process works.
The Australian Film Television & Radio School in Sydney provided production facilities for the making of Birthday Boy. Park did enroll as a student, but not to earn a degree. I just wanted to make my film, he says. A lot of people ask me if this is a student film. It is, because it was made at a school, but I didnt go there for the degree. A lot of people come to that school to make their own films. Many of them are already industry professionals.
The story of Birthday Boy took six months to work out, and making the short took another 18. The resulting film is serene and unassuming, demanding the viewers attention not through spectacle but taciturnity and a reserve that demand an audiences full focus. (See August 2004s Fresh from the Festivals for a capsule plot summary.) After wandering through his war-torn village, making a magnetic toy by placing a metal shard under the wheels of an approaching train, and playing soldier with grenades made of rocks, the boy of the films title arrives home to find a present on the doorstep. He cant read the label, but we can read the meaning of the contents its dog tags and a wallet, and somewhere, far away, his father is dead.
Most of the storys settings and situations were mined from Parks own childhood. These are places I used to see on the way home from school, and the way the boy plays on the railway track is how I used to play, and how I used to make toys. When I got home at night I was alone until nine oclock because I was the youngest. The father dying in the war, thats fiction.
Because the Korean War is very current history, we learn a lot about that. There were a lot of documentary and fiction movies made in Korea in black-and-white a long time ago to build up nationalism. People are very educated about the war.
In addition to directing his crew, Park animated all the little boys scenes. The voice of the boy is his Australian neighbors son, who incidentally cant speak Korean. I had to teach him the Korean words, songs and dialogue, how to pronounce them. Hes speaking phonetically. It still works well for a Korean audience, Park says.
Birthday Boy has screened at more than 50 festivals around the world and earned many critical kudos, but Park would like to move on. I spent 16 hours a day on it for two years. I had no life. Everybody else went through the same thing, and if I have to, Ill do the same thing again for two years, but I have a family. Making short films, it doesnt give you any quality time. The next story I want to make is a feature, and there are some companies interested in putting money together for something. But Im still crazy about animation.
Blur Studios, the company behind Gopher Broke, recently finished a game cinematic for Warhammer in just under three weeks. It looks sensational, so good in fact that you might worry about the health of the people who made it. Ive heard people who think, Oh, Blurs a sweatshop, you must be killing everybody, says studio head Tim Miller. But when we have these projects that are death marches, its not because I said We gotta make money here. Its because everybody wants it to look great. They willingly throw themselves on the sword.
Gopher Broke s director Jeff Fowler concurs. Heres Tim Miller, one of the founders of the studio, and hes doing roto paint fixes on the fur on the gophers mouth at four in the morning a week before we had to finish it. So that says a lot about his dedication to the idea of doing shorts.
Miller estimates that Gopher Broke would have earned the company $1.6 million had it been a paying job. The fact that the 60 or so staff members in the Venice warehouse home of Blur Studios are killing themselves over something that cuts directly into their bottom line is a testament to their desire to turn out something that looks good, no matter the client specs or the timetable.
Blur has no one meal ticket - its well-versed in game cinematics, commercials, Xbox projects, even ride films. We have no sales whatsoever, so all the work comes in word-of-mouth, Miller says. They call me, and I go Yeah, that looks cool. Lets try to fit it in. Were pretty lucky in that were always booked a few months ahead.
The studio has been making shorts since 2001, when a big paying project was put on hold with no notice and a gaggle of artists were left twiddling their thumbs. Miller says, One of our guys, John Jordan, says Why dont we do a short? And when I was going to be a freelance illustrator, I had written a bunch of apocryphal stories about my white trash family to send out as promos, and one of them was Aunt Luisa. So they made the short, and a staff member suggested they submit the finished film to AMPAS for Oscar consideration. To everyones surprise this sweet comic vignette was shortlisted for Best Short in 2002.
Since then Blur has held a regular contest where the staff votes for the best short idea, which led to Millers Rockfish in 2002, Paul Taylors In the Rough in 2004, and its current Oscar nominee, Jeff Fowlers Gopher Broke. Fowler started at Blur as a character animator, and when his idea won in 2004, another animation supervisor was assigned to direct it. I certainly understood that there was a hierarchy that existed, Fowler says, and I didnt want to feel like I had to raise a flag every time I didnt think something was going the way I had originally conceived it. But when the director left the company after three weeks of preproduction, Fowler was more than happy to take the steering wheel.
In the short, a gopher tunneling his way between wheat fields surfaces to the sight of a truck loaded with produce winding its way toward the farmers market, and the gopher sets about making bumps in the road to dislodge some choice veggies. But all are eaten by other critters rabbits, chickens, crows before the gopher can get to them. The last truck to drive by delivers something much less comestible a cow. In slow-motion, its bell tolling ruefully, the cow slices a deadly arc through the air and lands, ass-first, on the enterprising gopher.
The expert comic timing and strong acting of the short have earned Gopher Broke its well-deserved nomination (see January 2005s Fresh from the Festivals for more details). There are some impressive technical achievements on display, from the complex articulation of the Gophers face and body to the details of the vintage pickup trucks cruising in and out of frame. The billowing fields of wheat, in particular, nearly brought their render farm to its knees. The first stalk of wheat could have been simpler, Fowler admits. And it just snowballed. When that single stalk of wheat was multiplied however many times It didnt need to have as much geometry as it did, so it created bigger problems down the road.
Jeff and Tim admit to some creative differences along the way. Our biggest fight, Tim says, was when Jeff had the squirrel show up, and then the chicken showed up. He had one chicken. I said, You gotta have three chickens, Jeff.
I was just trying to be resourceful, Jeff says with a smile.
No you werent, because you fought it! So finally I said, The next time I see this animation, there better be three fuckin chickens.
So one of the layout artists put in three chickens, Jeff notes. They each had Tims head.
And of course Jeff and I had a bitter battle I wanted the gopher to end up in the cows ass in the last shot. In hindsight, Im glad we didnt push it, Tim concedes.
Aww, Jeff coos. That means so much to me, Tim!
Miller, though, says the turn-and-burn aesthetic that gets so many of their game cinematics out on time helped them solve these issues quickly. Guys that come out of cinematics are super-efficient, and they can handle that. I think that overall, the more efficient you are, the more creative attempts you can do. If you have five days to do something, and you get it done in three, youve got two days to experiment and make it better.
Vin Diesel is interested in a feature version of Rockfish, and Miller is taking meetings all over town, but hes aware that theres a lot of hype under that wave of genuine interest. Every Rubicon we cross to operate on a different level, the same principles apply. An agent at ICM will have to hear about us from three different people to go Ah, I guess theres some buzz.
After doing 40 minutes for Disneys Twice Upon a Christmas, Tim and company are aching to get a feature going. It was great to be able to focus on the pipeline for Disney, the mechanics of creating in longer format, Tim says. But it would be nice to do some more story stuff. I think we have a lot to contribute there. Nickelodeons been talking to us, and weve been talking to Fox about doing some films, not necessarily family-style films which is another goal of mine, for Blur to be able to do the kind of family films that Jeff would like to do as well as the more sci-fi fantasy stuff which is where my heart is. Id like Blur, unlike Pixar, to be one of the first companies that can do both those styles of filmmaking.
With Guard Dog, the ever-independent Bill Plympton has cooked up one of the simplest and most brilliant comic premises of his career; a dog who wont stop barking while hes walking through the park is actually imagining one terrifying scenario after another, involving all the things that surround him birds, flowers, a cricket attacking his owner in a fight to the death. The sheer size of the humor quotient in Guard Dog, combined with Plymptons signature rough-drawing style, have earned the Oscar-winning animator his current Academy distinction. (See February 2005s Fresh from the Festivals for a brief overview.)
I was jogging in the park a little over a year ago, Plympton recalls, and I saw this dog barking at a pigeon. It just struck me why is this dog so afraid of a harmless little bird? And the great thing about animation is to be able to go inside this dogs brain and try and figure out what sort of paranoid scenario hes imagining of this bird attacking his owner. That was the delight in making the film, creating those crazy dog fantasies. Once I had the concept it was really easy making up all these crazy Fear Factor ideas.
Then I went back to the dog run and did sketches of all the dogs. The dog I chose was some sort of pug. Of course I exaggerated him a bit, squished him up, made the eyes bigger and the nose smaller.
Plympton wrote Guard Dog in December 2003, animated it the same month, and did post-production in January. The whole shebang took two and a half months, but as you might guess from counting frames the drawings took only two weeks. Theres a lot of shortcuts, Plympton says. The shot where the dog is bouncing down the street toward the camera is three drawings, recycled. I do that a lot, and you know what? It works. Indeed, the effect is part of his signature style, and its a smart move, humor-wise, when you animate on fours, eights, or even twelves, as Plympton does, things go super fast and in comedy, speed is half the bang.
Guard Dog is the first film-free product from Plympton Studios. Backgrounds and Plymptons colored pencil drawings were scanned separately and then composited. Theres some good to that and some bad, Plympton says, but basically the costs were about the same for the whole production. Thats whats going on for me now as costs diminish for making a film print from digital, it makes more sense for me to make that transition.
Reassuringly, Plympton still faced the same technical crap this time around. We had a lot of mistakes, crashes, digital problems. If the black should be blacker, or something should be moved around, Im involved with that. Editing was as crucial as ever, and at first the film was overstuffed with gags that later hit the desktop recycle bin. There was a gag where the dog looked up in the sky and saw this cloud, and the cloud opened like a bomb-bay and bombs started falling on the guy. And then another one was this little caterpillar with a welding mask and a sharpener, who was sharpening the blades of grass and he tripped the guy with his slime, and he fell on the grass, and it pierced his body. We showed it to a bunch of people, and nobody liked it, so we cut it.
Plympton has done two more shorts since Guard Dog The Fan and the Flower which hes just finishing, and a sequel to Guard Dog called Guide Dog, where the owner-killing pug returns to help blind people. Hes holding back both shorts for the moment to keep media attention focused on Guard Dog, because the ultimate objective of exploiting all this hype, he says, is to bring attention to his completed and still-unreleased feature Hair High.
We havent signed a domestic deal yet, Plympton says, because we felt that the offers we got were not appropriate to the quality of the film. Were signing a deal for foreign sales, and the film is coming out in France in early April, but for the U.S. we have not done a deal. So the important part of all this media attention on me and Guard Dog is bringing Hair High to peoples consciousness.
Plympton is bringing a print of Hair High to Los Angeles during Oscar week to screen for potential studio executives. Meanwhile theres a contest underway at the Plymptoons website where readers are invited to send in pictures of their favorite canine sentries to earn a free copy of Guard Dog. Which brings up the question Now that the pug represents a potential franchise, has he given his new star an appropriate non-threatening nickname? He still needs one, Plympton says. I may have another contest.
Mike Gabriel is the only Oscar nominee this year whose animated short has played in theaters as an added attraction in front of a live-action feature. That short is Lorenzo, a remarkable, hilarious, groundbreaking piece from an original idea by Joe Grant and featuring an innovative brushstroke-on-a-CG-spline animation technique pioneered by Dan Teece. (For a thorough making-of appraisal, see Bill Desowitz article, and for a shorter summary see May 2004s Fresh from the Festivals column.)
The feature to which Lorenzo was attached was Raising Helen, and whatever you may think of this light-comedy vehicle for Kate Hudson, Lorenzo is definitely the more historically significant item. In fact Lorenzo was originally slated to open for Joel and Ethan Coens The Ladykillers, and it certainly made a better match with this darkly funny remake of the classic Ealing Studios comedy. But for reasons that are still unclear, Lorenzo was bumped from Ladykillers, and were probably lucky we ever saw it in front of a movie or on its own at all.
As someone who has directed both features and shorts, who in recent months has been both employed and un-, and who still remains on good terms with the studio that made him both of those adjectives, Gabriel is well-disposed to consider the practical obstacles to achieving what every fan of animated shorts wants most getting them back into movie theaters. Here, for our edification, is his first-person account of the Lorenzo experience:
I probably saw Lorenzo five times with a Raising Helen audience. I snuck back in to get an audience reaction. That was really the only completely general non-industry audience that saw it.
It took them a while to understand what they were looking at, because they didnt know if this was the next movie. It just started in the black abyss, and people kept looking at it it had the Disney logo, so they were thinking, Are we in the wrong theater? I wish we had thought of putting on a card that let them know And now, enjoy a new Disney cartoon short! But once they started watching, I could tell they went with it. Its funny they react exactly the same as the professionals in all the studios. The breathing on the glass, the sad face, the little tear that always gets a laugh.
In a way, the obstacle to overcome with getting shorts back as an expected treat before the feature is all the stuff they put in front of movies now. Youre watching TV for half an hour before the movie starts. Then you get the trailers, and at that point man, youve been sitting there watching stuff for an hour. So it is tricky to have a short film start at that point, and have an audience eagerly awaiting it! Its got to be really good, and really wow em from the start, and its gotta be clear Dont worry, in 12 more minutes your movie is about to begin!
I keep trying to make shorts somehow financially profitable and a reason for everybody to make them besides just R&D. I was at the Oscar nominee lunch on Monday [Feb. 7, 2005], and sure enough Im talking with Robert Iger. First time Id really met him. This was my opportunity. I said, Robert, heres an idea: What if, to make shorts profitable, you get a kiosk in the theater lobby selling the same short that youve just seen two hours earlier before the feature? So when youre walking out of the theater, for $3.99 you can pick up For the Birds, or Lorenzo, or one of your favorite shorts, Geris Game. I guarantee half those people would pick that thing up.
He immediately loved it. He said, I would pitch that, I would bring that in. I dont know what the price points going to be, and would people spend money for that short of a DVD? I said, In this day and age, when people are busy and hustling and theyre bombarded with short little bits and bytes of entertainment all the time, JibJab and all that stuff, I bet you theyd buy it if they liked the short. He said, I think youre right. I think its worth a pitch. So who knows if it took hold or not. But I really think, if you had as part of your lobby in the theater, the shorts that are out there right now, I bet people would pick them up. You know how people like controlling their entertainment now. Then you pop it in when you want to see it. Kids would pop it in all the time.
People would walk out Oh, I want the ChubbChubbs short! And then you get the merchandise in there, and youre starting to sell the dolls and toys. You really start making some money on it, if you have a good one.
Lorenzo almost went out with The Ladykillers instead of Raising Helen, and Gabriel still doesnt know why it got bumped one week before release, or even if the Coen brothers saw Lorenzo at all. But what filmmakers, he wonders, really want some other thing attached to their films? Why would the public need more than what theyre offering? Maybe they have to be participating somehow financially, Gabriel suggests. Theyre the main reason the publics showing up, not your short. In a way youre leaching off their audience to sell your DVD, so maybe they have a right to be part of it, too.
In the end he feels blessed the thing got made at all. Shorts are so personal, Gabriel says. Theyre based on nothing except artistic expression. Theres no commercial lean in any way. Lorenzo is a complete freak of nature. I got away with it because it was halfway done anyway, and [the studio] looked at it and said, Well, its turning out well. Just make it. I was under contract, so they were going to be paying my salary anyway.
And for those who missed it theatrically and cant get their hands on a preview copy, theres good news from producer Baker Bloodworth. Disney is planning a compilation DVD featuring shorts like Lorenzo and Destino. Now that it has lit its tiny corner of the collective moviegoing radar, and with the Oscar nomination to boot always a great hook for the cover of any consumer product Lorenzo, it seems, stands a chance of hitting the home video arena soon.
Different audiences react to Chris Landreths short Ryan in different ways. At a recent American Cinematheque screening in Los Angeles, the enthusiastic general applause at the end was accompanied by a more personal thank-you from a theater employee, who told Chris in person that her mother had recently died while addicted to painkillers and that she hoped Ryan would increase public understanding of the way we deny our addictions.
Ryan Larkin, the subject of Landreths surreal, sometimes grotesque and ultimately moving animated short, has seen it too. After his first viewing, having taken in a vision of himself as a man with 80% of his head missing, Larkin reacted simply, I dont like the way I look. Landreth had to point out that, strictly speaking, he felt the same way about his portrayal. Landreth is also a character in the film Ryan, and between rainbow-colored spikes flying out of his skull, emotional scars manifested as practical ones, and a fluorescent halo that pops up above his head when he tries to act noble, Chris replied, I dont like the way I look, either. That seemed to settle the matter.
Ryan is the story of Ryan Larkin, former NFB animator who gave up his art in the face of overwhelming personal problems but managed somehow to keep himself together to the present day. (For background, please see this appreciation from AWNs own Animation Pimp, as well as a brief summary from Junes Fresh from the Festivals column.)
Landreth first met Larkin in the summer of 2000, when Landreth was on the selection committee for the Ottawa Animation Festival and Larkin was chosen as a last-minute replacement for committee member who dropped out. Chris Robinson, the organizer of the festival, was in Montreal at that time, Landreth says. He had just gotten to know Ryan, had found him hanging out on the street, and they had shared a beer or two. Chris drove Ryan back to Ottawa, and together they made the selections of films for the festival. It was clear this guy had an amazing story, that in one way would be very easily told, but really needed to be done in a way that did justice to it.
Landreth started driving up to Montreal on weekends with a soundman to record interviews. For six months starting in March 2001, Larkin told Landreth the story of his life, and Landreth took away the 20 hours of interviews and began to construct a short film screenplay around the transcripts.
Steve Hoban is the principal guy in Copperheart Entertainment, Landreth says, and I had known Steve for years before [Ryan]. We had worked together on an Imax project called Cyberworld 3D. I thought it would be great if he could be part of this thing. Copperheart was the first production company attached to the project, but it was not a financier, so the search for more partners continued. The first production grant, $60,000, came from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2002. Shortly afterwards NFB signed on as well, bringing facilities and additional animators to Landreths team.
Then Seneca College in Toronto came on board. They were just starting an animation program called the Animation Art Center, says Landreth, and they saw this project as a really great opportunity to get it jump-started. Landreth got a studio as well as a group of students to complement his crew, and the results pleased him no end.
In all, Ryan was in production for three years as Landreth went from rough storyboards to animatic to a finished product. From the beginning he and animation supervisor Dave Baas worked with the animators to help them achieve completely naturalistic movement to complement Landreths often eye-popping character designs. Landreths visual sense is influenced in equal parts by English painter Francis Bacon, Chicago magical realist painter Ivan Albright and Polish surrealist Zdzislaw Beksinski. But his preference for far-out character canvases is complemented by an equally intense desire for simulation of human movement and behavior thats thoroughly grounded in naturalism.
That fact that people, to this day, are still confusing the animation with motion capture is flattery in that respect, Landreth says. The characters appearances are pretty disturbing and jarring as it is. It would have been even more jarring if they moved in any way that was stylized or not human-like, and not reflecting a thought process and emotional process that did justice to their humanity.
The keystone of the short is the moment following the point where Landreth tells Larkin he wishes Larkin would give up alcohol. Landreth put the question to Larkin on the last day of interviews, and he had no idea what to expect. In fact Larkin was slightly inebriated at the time, and in the 20 seconds of silence that followed, he laughed it off before exploding What?
Landreth brought it up because alcohol contributed to the untimely death of his own mother, Barbara. He could see a lot of his mother in Ryan, and he said as much. That angry response of his, as you see quite clearly in the film I thought, Theres no way I can leave that out, Landreth says. But if I was to include that, along with the line about my mom, that really forced a lot of issues, and the big issue of course was Id better get myself in there. If I had not put myself on screen, at best it would have been coy to suggest that and not follow through, and at worst it would have been voyeuristic toward Ryan.
The exchange captured on tape is extraordinary enough; what appears on screen is just as amazing 20 seconds of animation that represent one of the truly great acting moments of the year. In person, Landreth says, Larkin simply tried to laugh off his comments. On screen, animator Sebastian Kapijimpanga has turned the moment into a miniature epic of gestures and interior decisions. Ryans hands and head move through one thought after another, each decision closing a door behind it, ending in a shrug that seems to indicate acceptance. It makes Ryans barked-out What? that follows even more shocking. Its an extraordinary 20 seconds, Landreth says.
When hes not traveling, Landreth is currently doing consulting work, plus twice a year he does a three-hour course on animation for students at the University of Toronto. In terms of his next project, hes keeping his cards close to his chest, but he says a feature is probably not his ultimate goal. Im not using any of my films as a calling card for a feature film, Landreth says. The stylizations I do would not carry through a feature. There is so much more room for experimentation in a short, where in a feature you have practical constraints and narrative constraints. It would be really hard to do a movie that didnt have your classic three-act structure.
The short film is a completely misunderstood and completely underutilized form in telling stories. Part of me would like to stay doing it forever.
Taylor Jessen is an author living in Burbank. He was the only third-grader in his class with credit card debt.