Taylor Jessen profiles the five animated shorts nominees for the 2006 Academy Awards.
The five animated shorts nominated for an Oscar this year represent an eclectic mix that, strung together, would nevertheless make for a fine evening out at the local InfiniPlex: Shane Ackers post-apocalyptic thriller 9; Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez One Man Band (scheduled to open in front of Pixars Cars this June); John Canemakers intimate paternal biography The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation; Sharon Colmans charmer Badgered; and Anthony Lucas mini-epic shadow play The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello.
It should come as no surprise that animator Shane Acker is also a trained architect. The eye-popping detail of his post-human action thriller 9 suggests a world-maker who didnt just write a lot of history books or draw a lot of plans but who actually laid his fair share of cornerstones. In the piece, a living rag doll named 9 with a body built of burlap is hunted by a skeletonized cat-beast. With wit and deception, 9 eventually lures the beast through a disaster landscape into a trap where it is finally vanquished.
Acker pursued his undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Florida, considering it a natural extension of a singular childhood obsession. I was a hyperactive kid, Acker says, and my parents bought me a drawing table to curb my excess energy. My mom had this great set of books from Brian Froud, and all these great fantasy illustrators, and I would copy those guys and just draw, draw, draw all day long. He followed the architect track as far as graduate school, and only fell into animation by accident while filling some electives at UCLA. I was like, This is what I should have been doing the whole time! Acker laughs. It just combined all my interests sculpture, painting, architecture, illustration into one medium.
Already a cinephile with roots firmly planted in Brazil and the Brothers Quay, making his first two animated films The Hangnail and Mr. Grenade (both viewable at ShaneAcker.com) was a natural next step. We studied a fair amount of movies, actually, in architecture school, he says. We studied so many kinds of disciplines in art and media, to try to pull ideas into and inform the design we were doing. Riding on the success of Hangnail, a Spike & Mike favorite, Acker yearned to develop something more substantial.
By making 9 as his graduate thesis, Acker was able to take his time and get it right although his progress at one point was so sluggish he had to drop everything and make the priceless one-shot, one-set gag film Mr. Grenade just to keep his sanity. I must have been in school for about 11 years, he giggles. But I love studying. And the second time around, graduate school, it made a lot more sense to me. It was funny Mark Andrews spoke at our school, and he said, You guys dont realize the position youre in. Believe me, Im out working in the industry right now, and youre never going to get this opportunity to do what you want, so make the best of it. I really took that to heart.
Ackers discipline for details and place-making gives the world of 9 a startling depth, and he worked out the back-story to a similar degree. He wont over-elaborate, for reasons that will become apparent shortly, but he does say the gist of the story came from Beowulf. I wanted to make a story in which the humans have all destroyed themselves. All thats left is the detritus they left behind. But from that, a new sort of life is forming. And thats where 9 begins, where they have these devices left over from the humans, and theyre trying to figure out how they work and what their logic is and theres this beast thats driven by instinct rather than intellect, and its trying to take that intellect from them. Thats why its hunting them down, stealing their souls and sewing their skins onto its back.
Finishing 9 became his loves labor, as Acker took a leave of absence from UCLA and made a subsistence living one job at a time. Then when the job was done, he says, I would just not answer the phone, and keep my head low until the money ran out, and then pop my head back out of the gopher hole and find another freelance gig. When 9 was finished and started making the festival circuit, his hard work paid off he found an agent, and then he met a producer, and the producer got excited about 9.
After four and a half years working on the film, he says, I was ready to walk away and do something else. But whats great is that its a proof of concept. You show it to people, they get it. They understand the world. Re-energized by all the outside interest, Acker wrote a feature treatment and pitched it to Mike Simpson, Tim Burtons agent. Now Burton is set to executive produce a movie version of 9 for Focus Features.
Production-wise Acker is in terra incognita now, but so far hes survived. I dont have training for a lot of the experiences Im having now, so Im just winging it, and trying to stay true to what I want to do.
Because of rights issues, he cant sell 9 on home video; but for the lucky few who already have a copy, theres a cornucopia of eye candy and new connections to be gleaned from every viewing a main character with lenses for eyes and film for a brain who has a flashback in the form of a scratchy 16mm print; design riffs on paintings by Klimt and Matta; and a thousand other Easter eggs and shout-outs to everyone who influenced this, for the most part, solitary artist. Beyond the fine sound design of David Steinwedel and Earganics electronica score, 9 is effectively a focused look at all the art history thats been running around Shane Ackers skull for half a decade. About 80-90% of what youre seeing up there, he says, is me pushing the boulder up the hill for about four and a half years.
In Pixars new short One Man Band, two Renaissance musicians with miniature orchestras on their backs attempt to separate a little girl from her money. They wear the closed-mouth smiles and winking eyes of the hardened professional, but theyre wearing more than that: Bass (the guy with, among other things, the bass) and Treble (the guy with the ten tiny violins) have more than a passing resemblance to co-directors Mark Andrews and Andy Jimenez, respectively. When I tell Andrews that I think Treble, in his quest to earn the girls single gold coin, sports a smile without an ounce of pleasure in it, he cries, Thats why hes the bastard character, and Bass is the happy-go-lucky kind of chap.
Well, I dont know about that, Jimenez retorts. The bass characters also the lazy one. The older, sadder one.
Of course leave it to Osnat Shurer, producer of the short and the third party on this conference call, to really lay things out. Get over it, she says, youre watching the money.
Yes, they actually boarded a version of One Man Band where the two battling musicians teamed up at the end and made beautiful music together. And though it was a smooth collaboration, really, between the directors and their crew, making their story about a smooth collaboration didnt work as well. Teaming up is a nice message, says Andrews, but it aint funny. So once we ripped that out, and we could just go for blood with these guys, that was fun.
Andrews and Jimenez, two long-time storyboard artists, came to Pixar in 2000 to work on The Incredibles at the command of their liege lord Brad Bird, for whom the two had both worked on Iron Giant. Near the end of their tours of duty on Incredibles a meeting came up on both of their calendars with studio head Ed Catmull. It was unexpected and a little alarming, like an unscheduled trip to the principals office, but when it was over they had been given the task of coming up with three ideas for the new Pixar short.
Mark and Andrew starting having lunch together every day, filling their idea notebook with 50 pitches, which they then culled to 40, 20, 10 and finally three. The winner was of a topic they were both passionate about music. While Incredibles and One Man Band proceeded on double schedules, the two directors snagged their third creative partner, composer Michael Giacchino.
Getting him was key, says Jimenez, because once One Man Band was green-lit, it became very apparent this film would live or die by who we got to do the music. Our characters voices are the music. The movies about musical one-upsmanship. And getting Giacchino was one of our biggest coups, because we got Michael at the very beginning. At one time we had four different endings we were toying with, and he wrote music to all four. He became our third story man.
A short is obviously a less pressurized production environment than a feature, and One Man Band gave Pixars top brass a chance to give a bunch of up-and-coming artists a chance to lead their own departments for the first time and to try some new variations on old techniques.
The film is rich on tons of different levels, says Andrews, because of our crew taking the established technologies in new directions, from the cloth simulation to how we build the sets. The elaborate opening background, for instance a fabulous CinemaScope money shot with the piazza in the foreground, an entire city in the middle ground, and mountain peaks and God-ray sunlight beaming down behind was still rigged using only four building templates, four roofs, two windows and one door. Theres a lot of detail, Andrews says, but it was simply done, because Bill Polson had this idea of how we can get a lot of bang for our buck by just building variety into the models that we can turn up or down.
Theyre not test-driving any fabulous new technology with the short, so One Man Band is simply Pixars way of shoring up some of their key strengths great animation from the likes of Angus MacLane, great production design from Ronnie Del Carmen, and a dedication to believability rather than realism. In a short where the two characters start on just a couple instruments apiece and end sounding like a 38-piece orchestra, one guy can be a whole jazz trio, and someone can do an 88-key glissando down a piano a foot long you buy it.
And of course its a re-declaration of principles from a studio so committed to shorts, theyre spliced into the first reel of the feature so exhibitors cant not show them. We did see a bit of trend there, just for a moment, with The ChubbChubbs and a few other things, says Shurer, where people were making some short films and then throwing them in front of the features. And we were thrilled. I remember having a conversation with Ed Catmull he was just beside himself. Its like, All right! What can we do to encourage these people? Because we want more! We want everybody to be making shorts. All we can do is set an example.
I somehow got a reputation for being able to take on serious subject matter such as cancer and the bomb and teen suicide. John Canemakers summary of his own career obviously eschews fluffier resume items like Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile or Bottoms Dream, but the animator/scholar who cut his teeth on Sesame Street interstitials has certainly moved on to weightier topics like child abuse and, most recently, his tortured relationship with his father. In The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation, Canemaker takes his dead father to task for years of emotional abuse, at the same time performing an exegesis on the tragic life story of an immigrant father in deep with the mob.
Besides his independently produced shorts, Canemaker was also the drawing hand behind animated sequences in The World According to Garp, the Oscar-winning HBO documentary You Dont Have to Die, and the Peabody winner, Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse for CBS. Trying to do a serious subject in animation is something I think Im good at, and really love doing, Canemaker says. When you do a film about child abuse, the trick is not to show the abuse, but to show the emotions and how it felt to the child. And I found ways to do that. And also the one about children with cancer, to talk about the treatment, chemotherapy and how that might psychologically feel to the child, not how it physically looked, was another challenge which I think worked out well.
The Moon and the Son had been percolating in Canemakers head for years when he got a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 2001 and began developing the piece in earnest. For a month Canemaker stayed at the Foundations villa on Lake Como in Bellagio, Italy and drew storyboards. There are all these artists and poets and musicians, Canemaker says, who drop by your studio and give you comments on your work, and you give presentations.
With a script and a working storyboard in hand, Canemaker returned to New York to chair the film department at NYU. It was a stressful year his first day on the job was 9/11 and despite moving an animation table into his office specifically to work on Moon and the Son in his spare time, in fact he didnt touch it for a year.
In 2002, he took a sabbatical and animated full-time, hiring students and freelancers to color and in-between, and, one by one, old friends and colleagues started to glom onto the production. Producer Peggy Stern hooked up Canemaker with editor/sound designer Dave Mehlman, and also secured grant money from the New York State Council on the Arts. When they finally had something to show off, Canemaker says, I said Why dont we send the rough cut to Sheila? Sheila Nevins, who shepherded You Dont Have to Die at HBO, loved what she saw, and eventually got HBO to front the bulk of the shorts $100,000 budget.
The Moon and the Son is an intensely autobiographical, and totally subjective, exhumation of the life of John Canemakers father John Cannizzaro. Cannizzaro was born in the U.S., emigrated back to Italy as a child, fell in with mobsters, returned to the U.S., and eventually had a family, but his mob ties never left him alone. In the early 1950s a debt-ridden Cannizzaro was persuaded to commit arson for an insurance payoff, and he was indicted, tried and sent to prison. Canemakers family had kept the trial transcripts for years, and as an adult John revisited them continually to poke around the painful memories.
The trial is the dramatic peak of Canemakers short, and the way he depicts it is conceptually mind-bending. I did attend the trial with my brother when I was a kid, Canemaker says. That thing about having the measles was true. Being brought in for sympathy. At one point the district attorney tells the court If you try to pin this on anybody else, it doesnt work, but if you pin it on John Cannizzaro, it fits like a glove! And, true to the childs imagination, the young John Canemaker on-screen imagines his father encased in a glove. Considering the number of realities colliding in that moment Johns adult memories of a real event, his adult evocation of a childhood visual play on words, and real dialogue copied from a transcript following the finger of truth can be vertiginous.
The voice of Johns father, who died in 1995, is played in the short by long-time Brooklyn character actor Eli Wallach. Canemaker played himself on the scratch track. We kept my voice for a long time, and then Peggy and I both agreed that I wasnt hitting the emotional points as well as they could have been. So we fired me, he laughs. Eventually they secured a performance from John Turturro. In the end, farming out both roles to actors actually was the most emotionally truthful move. John did get his father to tell him his life story before he died, and he captured it on tape; but the short is more than a biography its a post-mortem confrontation that father and son never really had. In terms of its emotional payoff, its a fiction so despite how intensely personal it is, Johns own voice in the piece wouldnt have been appropriate.
Canemaker is a professor at NYU, where he directs the schools animation program. Hes always busy with books and articles and gained notoriety most recently for his coffee-table histories The Art and Flair of Mary Blair and Winsor McCay: His Life and Art. Hell do more shorts if he can find the right subject matter, and if he can do them honestly. Truth to subject matter has been the through-line of his career, and if anything the tenets even stronger in him now for having aimed it at himself. When I wrote Walt Disneys Nine Old Men, I told stories that they never would have wanted told, Canemaker says. I just felt it was lessening them as artists, as human beings, to try to sugar-coat stuff, or to avoid it. So I figured, whats good for the goose is good for the gander, and I thought I should not do any less with my life.
Been toiling in the animation trenches for years? Résumés a half-mile long and still you cant get your shorts in the festivals? Better skip this paragraph, because the first quote from Oscar-nominated animator Sharon Colman isnt going to be pleasant. This is my first proper film, Colman says on the phone from the London office of her current employer, Tandem Films. I messed around during art school, and I made a short film at film school before Badgered. But it was all sort of practicing to get to where I am now.
That was a short practice period, all right: Badgered, which Colman directed and animated as a personal project at the U.K.s National Film and Television School, is justifiably joining this years roster of Oscar competitors. Badgered is a soon-to-be-classic comedy item where woodland creatures meet mayhem in the great outdoors, featuring three missile, two crows and a badger named Malcolm who only wants a pleasant nap.
A native of Loch Lomond, this young Scotswoman studied illustration at the Glasgow School of Art before attending NFTS, where she and a willing group of industry professionals worked together to produce Badgered over a year from January to January 2004-2005. The traditionally-animated short originated in pencil drawings, later improved with acrylics and charcoal and laid on top of watercolor backgrounds, all composited in After Effects.
The images have the wonderful tactility of rough paper, with the colored fills dancing with that randomness that only real paper gives. Oddly the animator says the surplus of texture wasnt entirely intended. The crows get away with it, Colman says, because its just part of their nature. Theyre scruffy. But I tried using charcoals with the badger, but every time he moved the texture was too alive. Because hes such a slow mover, it didnt fit I dont even know if Im completely satisfied. I think it works okay.
With a waltz for a main theme, a gaggle of nutty sight gags, some spot-on timing and an arms-control theme, its highly reminiscent of another festival favorite from Manitoba. Could Colman perhaps have been influenced by The Big Snit? Youre my hero for saying that, Colman says. I really do love that film. I think its so cleverly written. And I didnt want to copy it, but to be at the same level as Richard Condie, thats something.
And she earns it; just look at the badgers eyes move, or the way he makes a sleep circle before he lies down, and youll see the same close pantomimic observations that made Condies short such a jewel. Part of that came from watching Orca, the family dog, who passed away mid-production. I took it really badly, Colman says, so I dedicated the film to him. But he wasnt really the model for the badger. Although I was looking at Orca a lot, because he was an old dog. In fact, despite the ring of truth to Malcolms belabored movements, Colman had never actually seen a badger in the flesh until late in postproduction when, omen-like, she passed one by the side of the road whilst cycling home late at night.
The endlessly versatile Rupert Degas, whos brought bliss to the very young as the voice of Scrambler on Bob the Builder, does all the voices in Badgered, and he earns huge laughs without saying a word of any known human language. My flatmates father knew him he was like a friend of a friend, Colman says. We avoided the agent and we met up for coffee. I showed him the storyboard and he loved it. And he just started crowing in the coffee shop. So I thought, This is the man.
Colman now lives in East London, where shes joined the Tandem Films collective, having directed spots for several TV campaigns as well as co-directing the whipsmart video for Jamie Cullums Get Your Way. But having left the hothouse environment of scholarship, she cant recommend NFTS enough for up-and-coming animators. Its such a professional setup, she says. I was working with a composer, an editor, a sound designer. We were all working for very little money. We were doing it for the film. They were very passionate about it, and its fantastic support.
I was trying to find the dress, says Anthony Lucas, whos an hour late for our phone interview due to a pre-Oscar shopping trip. Finding the dress for your partner is an epic, and it just got out of control this afternoon. So sorry if Im delayed. I just walked in, actually. Im a bit vague. Ill pipe up. Hopefully Anthony, the little woman, and the little clip hes selected to represent his little Oscar-nominated mini-epic The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello will make a big impression for the ABC telecast. That is, if the actual creators of these five lauded short films are shows on TV along with clips from their films. That is, if the clips are shown, either. Its hard to see animated shorts these days, in full or in part, and Lucas for one isnt content to bitch and moan.
Taylor, I just spent six or seven months collecting all of Australias best animated shorts on DVD, Lucas tells me with equal parts pride and aggravation. The people who are bringing out Jasper in Australia, I convinced them to bring out this collection of the best of the best Australian animated shorts. After informing him that he is now going to heaven, I insist that America needs the same thing, only weekly, and on cable. Well, go do it! he laughs. You just need six months! It may not pay for you to do it, but it could be done. But youd have to do it as a love job.
Lucas grew up in an un-artistic family where leisure time was defined by sport and cowboy movies. Dad managed a sheep station in the middle of Australia for 10 years, and at home they barely looked at art, let alone talked about it. There was a replica Van Gogh on the wall, and that was Art, Lucas says. But you didnt talk about it. You just said it was pretty. If you talked about it, you were probably gay.
He of course fell in love with the original King Kong at the local rep cinema in seventh grade, which is more or less a required back-story for any successful stop-motion animator, but the kernel of his aesthetic has always been firmly rooted in the 19th century. Lucas is endlessly inspired by literature of the period, and he name-checks Poes Descent into the Maelstrom and Vernes Mysterious Island, where adventure is mixed in equal parts with horror and mystery. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, theyre always trying to find something mysterious, Lucas says. Theres Volcania, where the hideout was. Thats absolutely an influence. The Disney matte painting of that island, the little nuclear power plant in there oh! Id pore over that. Freeze-frame it, and wish it had more detail, and wish they did more with that scene. Oh, I was so besotted with that.
Originally a stop-motion animator (check out the recent Spike & Mikes Cutting Edge Classics DVD for his plasticine short Slim Pickings), Lucas made a living for 10 years doing ads and childrens TV in a familiar stop-motion style. He stumbled on the silhouette technique during prep work for a stop-motion short, his character parts lying in wait under camera. Just by accident, the lights went off, and I had it back-lit on a piece of Perspex, he says. And I thought, hey, this is working.
His first work in silhouette, Shadowlands, gave a name to his technique, and SBS Television hired him to do a popular series of station identities in Shadowlands-style. Riding on their success, he raised money to make a six-minute Shadowlands short called Holding Your Breath, which eventually made it to Cannes. He knew the format would support something bigger, and he entered into a three-year process with writer Mark Shirrefs to develop the script for Jasper Morello.
Pitching the story to investors was tougher than they expected, despite the handy visual aids. No one got it, Lucas says. I just had to say, Look, theyre on a ship, and theyre going out on a journey. Thats it. Thats all you need to know. Because everyone judges things from scripts here. Australias got quite a hangup with the script. Ive tried for ages to convince them Look, a visual script, like what Pixar does with some of their treatments, is a really good way to write an animated film. But here, they just want the written word when youre pitching the project. A few pictures is all right, but too many Ooh, no, its a bit artistic.
Lucas and his crew of 10 rented a studio for 18 months, turned away all their advertising clients, and focused on Jasper Morello. It was scaldingly hot in summer, they were flooded out in winter and his star designer Jacob Winkler got a stomach tumor. He ended up in hospital, and someone bought him a book on medical procedures from 1920, Lucas laughs. Because thats the kind of place we were. So he picked out some images from that, and part of it he used for the tumors on the plague, and part of it he used for reference for Amelias face.
With the success of Jasper Morello, and the added imperatives that come with turning 40, Lucas has decided its time for a change and the whole studio is now on mothballs while Lucas and Shirrefs concentrate on writing two Jasper sequels, plus a feature film version. (Obviously this answers the question of whether Jasper survives at the end of the short, although Lucas says maybe things dont turn out quite the way Jasper wants.) Hes quite enthusiastic about the production process ahead of him, although frankly hes not sure hell be able to give up his usual controlling nature to make way for the constraints of a feature pipeline.
I love controlling, Lucas laughs. I mean, thats the whole point of doing it. Were all going to shuffle off this mortal coil soon enough. Its like you enjoy writing, I assume, but if you then had to dictate it to someone else, and they write the article - why the hell would you do that? Thats a fucked idea. So I dont understand why as a director I must give up all these things. Why give away all the fun jobs?
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. To turn this tag into a haiku, fold at line A.