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Oscar Nominees 2009: Conversations with the Animated Shorts Directors

Andrew Farago interviews the directors of the five animated shorts nominees for the 2008 Academy Awards.

The directors of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts pose at the Academy in Beverly Hills. All photos © AWN, Inc. unless otherwise noted.

The directors of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts pose at the Academy in Beverly Hills. All photos © AWN, Inc. unless otherwise noted.

Over the course of the past year, I've reviewed more than 50 short films, ranging from the brilliant to the deranged (and at least a few that were brilliant and deranged). I was pleased to find out last month that several of my favorite films from the past year had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and I was especially pleased when I was tapped to interview the directors of these shorts for this pre-Oscar article.

Konstantin Bronzit, Lavatory Lovestory director.

Konstantin Bronzit, Lavatory Lovestory director.

Konstantin Bronzit, Lavatory Lovestory

Andrew Farago: I'm at the Dolby Laboratories Theater in San Francisco for Animation World Network's Oscar Showcase Tour, and I'm speaking with Konstantin...

Konstantin Bronzit: Bronzit!

AF: Bronzit.

KB: Brrrrrrrronzit!

AF: First of all, how did you find out that you were nominated for an Academy Award?

KB: Ron Diamond. He called me at the end of the workday, as I was preparing to leave the office.

AF: How did you celebrate when you received the news?

KB: Normally, in Russia, we do not hug other men. But when I got the news, I hugged everyone. We had a drink at the studio, and it was a good way to end the day.

AF: How long ago did you start work on Lavatory Lovestory?

KB: From start to finish? Probably about three years, but we worked on this and that in between.

AF: Did you imagine that you would receive this much positive attention for your work?

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Lavatory Lovestory © Melnitsa Animation Studio. 

KB: No, not really. You do your best work, you finish your film, then you start on the next.

AF: What was the inspiration for your film?

KB: I have a bad kidney, and I have to go to the bathroom all the time. I am kidding. I go to bathroom... slightly more than other people, and it seemed like a good idea to do a story about the bathroom. And then, I added love story to it.

AF: Bathroom attendant is not a very desirable job, is it? What is the worst job that you have ever had?

KB: I've been very lucky. I've always worked in animation, as assistant, as copier... never anything too bad, though.

AF: How long have you been involved in animation?

KB: My whole life. Since I was born. Twenty-five years, at least. Many, many years of suffering.

AF: Do you plan to continue working on animated shorts for the time being, or do you have other career aspirations? Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms of animation?

KB: For this, there was much drawing, and there was some computer animation... but you have to what is best for the story. That might be 3D, it might be hand drawing, it might be puppets... whatever is best for the story.

AF: What have been the highlights of the AWN tour so far?

KB: It has been a very fast trip. We have seen Pixar and ILM... I met George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, and I have seen a lot of things in a very short time. It has been enjoyable to talk with the other directors. It's complicated, because we all speak different languages, but we are talking about many, many things, not just animation. It is a nice break from work.

AF: Will you be attending the Academy Awards? Whom would you most like to meet when you're in Hollywood?

KB: I look forward to attending. It might be fun to meet... um... I don' know... Brad Pitt? Or Angelina Jolie, maybe. That's a good answer, isn't it?

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Doug Sweetland, Presto (Via E-mail)

AF: First of all, how did you find out that you were nominated for an Academy Award? How did you celebrate when you received the news?

Doug Sweetland: My wife went on their website the morning of the announcements, so I knew before going to work, though my East Coast pals had the jump on me and had already left messages on my phone. East Coast blood runs deep! (And has a time advantage.) That night when I went out to buy myself a lovely pizza slice dinner, I bought a pie for some folks out on the street.

AF: How long ago did you start work on Presto? How large was your crew?

DS: Officially, I began work early in 2007. Unofficially, I had pitched the seed of the concept about 10 years or so prior, when Geri's Game was selected, then shelved it and let it stew while I continued animating. Our crew, which harnessed the awe and might of a hundred Cirque du Soleil's, were no greater in number than 60, and had only one unitard!

AF: Did you imagine that you would receive this much positive attention for your work?

DS: Oh, no. I don't know how to express the profound fear of failure I experienced on this show other than to say I worked on story. Anyone else who's worked on story, I believe, will understand what I'm talking about.

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Presto. © Pixar. 

AF: Presto is one of the fastest-paced cartoons I've seen since Tex Avery was in his prime. Was he a particular influence on this film? What other directors, both for cartoons and live action, did you study in preparation for Presto?

DS: First of all, thank you for the comparison. If you had said it was fast like Benny Hill, we would have had to seriously reevaluate over here.

I should say off the bat that following the classic cartoon mold wasn't initially how we started out. That just became the means by which we could most quickly and clearly set up an antagonistic relationship. As soon as it was clear we were headed in that direction, I became really nervous we would only succeed as an imitation. To that end, two influences that I feel helped the short stand on its own are Chaplin and [John] Lasseter. Chaplin, for his specificity of character in pantomime (which is such a clear influence on those classic cartoons) and Lasseter, for both starting the tradition of pantomime in Pixar shorts as well as being clear that our characters should arc and reconcile, completing a self-contained story. I love the ending of Presto, and that's Lasseter.

AF: Were there any other influences that may not be immediately obvious to people watching the film?

DS: Whoops. Did I already answer this? Well, I'll go on to say that being CG, we had to be a bit more realistic about how we dealt with this cartoony action. Whereas Tom can get shaved by Jerry and instantly grow his fur back, Presto can't just, well, magically reappear with new pants. In that sense, we thought of him more like Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies -- not only that he accumulates injuries, but he also goes more and more insane along the way.

We also talked a lot about It's a Wonderful Life for when Presto (spoiler alert!) survives the fall. That awesome scene where George Bailey runs screaming down the street saying hello to Bedford Falls and then kisses that broken banister knob, that's the feeling we wanted to elicit when Presto pats his body and raises his arms with the sparkles floating in the haze behind him.

AF: Teddy Newton's designs for Presto are incredible. At what point did he come onto the production?

DS: It's amazing to me that we had Teddy on the show before we were working in a really cartoony direction. I mean, Teddy can do anything, but it seemed to me that this time around the story ended up matching perfectly to his style rather than him matching his style to the show. Or maybe that's the sign of a great designer, I don't know.

Please let me also credit our brilliant sculptor, Greg Dykstra, who has the genius ability to translate Teddy's drawings directly into three-dimensional clay. Four dimensions if you stare. If you're interested in catching some of Teddy's Presto work on paper, I highly recommend the Little Golden Book of Presto, illustrated by Mr. Newton and at least twice as fast as the short, especially if you flip it.

AF: Have you directed any short films in the past?

DS: Just my student work, which I'd characterize more as simply animating without a director.

AF: What do you find rewarding about working on short subjects, as opposed to feature films?

DS: Oddly, the responsibility. With a smaller crew, there's the room, and need, to jump in and get your hands dirty regardless of your job description. On a feature, so much is covered already.

For instance, as an animator on a feature, you can be one of two supervising animators or two directing animators, or on a separate team of crowd animators or on a team of fixers. And that doesn't even include animating on shots, which is the bulk of the department. On Presto, however, it was just supervisor Andrew Gordon and seven kookoo animators. To keep pushing shots through, those of us who could jumped in and did crowd animation, testing or fixes. I understand I may have had more at stake being the director on the show, but I ended up doing more jobs in animation on the short than I did as a supervisor on a feature. It was totally invigorating to be able to freely dive in like that.

AF: Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms of animation?

DS: There's a [music] video on YouTube I just saw, "Her Morning Elegance," that animates real people in a way I've wanted to do. The idea of contriving timing and events within a real space with real light seems new to me, though I guess it's just pixelation. I don't know, looking at live action cartoon adaptations like Popeye or The Grinch or Dick Tracy, I wonder if pixelating it wouldn't make it just a little more abstract and fantastical. Maybe just a dash of it here and there. I bet if you lace your run-of-the-mill live-action movie with some of that, people would sit up in their seats. I guess it'd be like taking the cheap way of just dropping frames from a hit and doing a Nine Old Men over the entire action. Let me just say, though, that I champion Robin Williams' Popeye.

AF: Have you seen any of the other nominated films?

DS: All but This Way Up, which I can't find anywhere here in the States. I'll catch it soon, though.

AF: Are you in contact with any of the other directors?

DS: Yeah, I met the Oktapodi guys at Annecy last year, so we're buds. I know our movies are now in the great Oscar cage match, but having met those guys back when we were just happy to have made our shorts, I'm totally thrilled for them.

AF: Have you begun work on any new projects since the completion of Presto?

DS: I have, thank heavens, but can't go into it due to a faint grasp of showmanship and an abundance of the superstition that talking about something before it's done will make it suck. But I do thank you for asking. Cheers!

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Smith & Foulkes, This Way Up (Via E-mail)

AF: First of all, how did you find out that you were nominated for an Academy Award? How did you celebrate when you received the news?

Smith & Foulkes: We had a feeling we were down to the last ten, and that the announcement was imminent so we went and hid in a local bar. Then our phones started buzzing. A lot of the guys who worked on the film are working on a commercial job with us at the moment so one-by-one they all joined us at the bar for a cheeky afternoon session. Everybody was a bit stunned to tell the truth.

AF: How long ago did you start work on This Way Up? How large was your crew?

S&F: We started in late 2007 with a view to finishing in April 2008, which was a bit tight but we do love a good deadline to get us going. Production didn't really move into top gear until the start of the year. We had a dedicated team of five or six but a lot of other people at Nexus helped out as and when they could. Modelers were working at Mighty Nice (the Sydney arm of the Nexus studio) during our night so that we had lots to see when we arrived each morning, then we had all day to change our minds ready for them to start all over when we went home. A truly international production.

AF: Did you imagine that you would receive this much positive attention for your work?

S&F: We've had a fair amount of success on the commercials award circuit but we really never expected this much attention for our first real shot at making our own short film. Five months isn't really long enough to make this type of film so we're really glad that people see beyond the odd dodgy render and rushed edit, and just enjoy the story. We knew we would have to bash it out if we were ever going to make it, and I think it shows in parts, but that's all part of the process.

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This Way Up. © Nexus Prods. 

AF: The subject matter for your film is very timeless, and reminded me of classic animated shorts from the 1930s. Were there any films or shorts from which you drew specific inspiration, or was there any particular tone that you were hoping to achieve?

S&F: The film that stuck in our minds was a 1970s British film called The Plank, where two guys have to safely deliver, er, a plank. But neither of us can recall ever actually seeing it. It was just the idea of a very simple task that appealed. Then we took it to as far an extreme as possible. We just wanted to find the right amount of story to tell in eight minutes. I think the work of many British comedy double acts have seeped into our subconscious, especially Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies. All very silly stuff I suppose.

AF: How many short films have you directed in the past?

S&F: When we were at the Royal College of Art we each made two films that were really just graphic experiments in moving images. It kept us happy at the time but left the audience pretty cold. It was then that we hit upon the idea of keeping the visually experimental approach but also telling a story, with some gags. As we got more involved with commercial work we often had the chance to write what we considered our own short films, as we did on Lemony Snickett and the Motorola Bunny. But we were always developing our scripts as well, we just never had any time to put them into action.

AF: Do you plan to continue working on animated shorts for the time being, or do you have other career aspirations?

S&F: I think as a filmmaker you are always looking to test yourself in new ways and the only way to develop your directing voice is by making more films. We learned a lot making This Way Up, things that we'd like to take into a longer form project in the future. We've also been very lucky to work on some great commercial scripts over the years and we've recently been directing much more live action so we'll see where that takes us as well.

AF: Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms of animation?

S&F: We've never seen ourselves as being restricted to any particular technique. We both started off with a graphic cut and paste attitude to making images and since then we've worked in 2D, 3D, stop-frame, puppetry and live action. The fun is to choose the technique that fits the script. 3D offers limitless possibilities in modeling, texturing and rendering, so no job need look the same as the last.

AF: Have you seen any of the other nominated films? Which ones impressed you the most?

S&F: I took my son to see Presto and he laughed hilariously all through it. So I guess that's pretty stiff competition. And Oktapodi almost could be a Pixar short, such is the tightness of the script and delivery of the gags. Maybe it's the "Year of the Slapstick."

AF: Will you be attending the Academy Awards? Whom would you most like to meet when you're in Hollywood?

S&F: Yeah we're off to the party. It all sounds fairly surreal. Would be fun to hassle a few of the great directors about their view of the world.

AF: Have you begun work on any new projects since the completion of This End Up?

S&F: This End Up? That sounds like a rather smutty version of the original. Might be a sequel in there.

AF: Oops... sorry about that.

S&F: Actually we have just finished a Super Bowl Coke commercial [Avatar], and we're developing longer form scripts of our own as well.

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Kunio Kato, La Maison en Petits Cubes

AF: First of all, how did you find out that you were nominated for an Academy Award? How did you celebrate when you received the news?

Kunio Kato: [Via his translator Takizawa Tsuyoshi] I received a telephone call from Mr. Ron Diamond from Acme Filmworks. Afterward, the president of our company took us out for a celebration.

AF: How many people worked on the film?

KK: It was 15 people, altogether. We spent four months developing the story, and another eight months for production.

AF: Did you imagine that you would receive this much positive attention for your work?

KK: No, not at all. This has all come as a complete surprise.

AF: What was the inspiration for your film?

KK: I had a vision of house with many levels, each stacked one on top of the other. From that idea, I created an illustration, and that became a seed of the film.

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La Maison en Petits Cubes. © 2008 Robot Communications, Inc. 

AF: How many short films have you directed in the past?

KK: Two... maybe three.

AF: Do you plan to continue working on animated shorts for the time being, or do you have other career aspirations?

KK: I'll continue working on animated shorts for now, but if the right story comes up, I'd like to direct a feature animation film.

AF: Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms of animation?

KK: No, I'm happy to pursue my own style of animation.

AF: What have been the highlights of the AWN tour so far?

KK: Meeting all other nominees and Mr. Ron Diamond has been a great pleasure.

AF: Will you be attending the Academy Awards? Whom would you most like to meet when you're in Hollywood?

KK: Yes, I will. I'd like to meet Mr. Mickey Rourke. His performance in The Wrestler was very impressive, and it seems that he put a lot of his own life experience into that role.

AF: Have you begun work on any new projects since the completion of La maison?

KK: I'm still working on story development for several other projects. Nothing that I'm ready to discuss yet.

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Emud Mokhberi, Oktapodi

[Editor's Note: Although the Academy only allows two directors per short film, Oktapodi was directed by six men: Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi. Mokhberi and Marchand will represent their film at Sunday's Oscar ceremony.]

AF: How did you find out that you were nominated for an Academy Award? How did you celebrate when you received the news?

Emud Mokhberi: I was online at 5:30 in the morning, L.A. time, since that's when they were supposed to make the announcement. We already knew that we were on the short list for Oscar consideration. I kept hitting the "refresh" button until about 5:45, when I got the news.

Then I called the other directors, who were in India and in France, and I gave them the news. We all screamed a bunch. After the screaming, the guys in France and India had to go to work. I spent the rest of the morning on the phone with friends and family.

AF: How did the six of you come to work together? Where was the work completed?

EM: This was a school project. All of us were at Gobelins, in the l'école de l'image. Our group came together about a month and a half into the school year. Four of the directors had already worked together, and the two of us hooked up with them since we all had similar goals with our animation.

For our film, we wanted to do something funny and fast, with a big crescendo toward a big finish. We also wanted to do something new and fresh with 3D animation.

AF: How long did it take to complete the film?

EM: The whole project took seven months from idea through execution.

AF: What was the inspiration for your film?

EM: There were many inspirations, but the main one was that [co-director] Olivier Delabarre saw an illustration of two octopi by Peter de Sève. Olivier then threw out the idea that we could tell the story of two octopi in love, who got separated, then tried to reunite. We agreed that there was a lot of humor that would come through in that story.

And the octopus isn't a common protagonist, so our story would be unique in that regard. We're all influenced by a lot of current animation, too. The "Scrat" shorts by Chris Wedge of Blue Sky are a pretty big inspiration. Anything that's really driven by character.

AF: Was it difficult to make your characters expressive and appealing given the restrictions of the octopus body?

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Oktapodi. © Gobelins. 

EM: The lack of mouth made it harder for the characters to emote, but we agreed that we wanted to stay true to the real animal, what it is, and what it can do.

Actually, in our research, we found lots of things that octopi can do that people don't realize they can do. Everything that they do in our film, like leaving their tanks, launching themselves -- those are things that they can do in real life, to an extent. We actually left some of their skills out of the film, since we didn't want the audience to think that we were being unrealistic.

With the design, everything had to come from the eyes. We had to make the eyes big, and very expressive. We also needed to make the creatures empathetic, so that the audience would care about them. Usually, when you see an octopus in a movie, it's all tentacle-y and slimy, and is some sort of monster or alien. Creating empathy for them is a challenge.

AF: How many short films have you directed in the past?

EM: Most of us had directed at least one animated short before. I'd done one live action short by myself prior to this.

AF: Do you have any interest in experimenting with other forms of animation?

EM: We incorporated some 2D into Oktapodi, in the scene where the chef was chopping up the octopus. The story lent itself to using 2D for that scene, and we're open to using whatever is best for the story.

In the future, we'll probably stick with 3D, since that's what we've trained in, and we really want to see how far we can push the envelope. I think we know 3D well enough that we're more comfortable pushing the boundaries in that style.

AF: What have been the highlights of the AWN tour so far?

EM: The whole tour's been a highlight. We got to go to Pixar and show our film to Brad Bird, Ricky Nierva, Andy Jimenez and Dylan Brown. We spent the night at Skywalker Ranch, and spent the next day at the THX labs. We met George Lucas -- that might be the highlight.

And we just went to the Disney Archives, and saw artwork from Steamboat Willie, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White... it was very inspirational, and we all wanted to head right back to our studios and start animating.

AF: Will you be attending the Academy Awards? Whom would you most like to meet when you're in Hollywood?

EM: Yes, I'll be attending. Because I live in L.A., I was able to go to the nominees' luncheon, so I already got to see some stars. I wanted to talk to Danny Boyle, but he had a mob of people around him constantly.

The other guys want to see Penélope Cruz. [laughs] And Sean Penn. And George Clooney, who does espresso commercials in France. I'd like to talk with some directors, personally. Andrew Stanton, John Lasseter, Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson. It should be really fun.

AF: Have you begun work on any new projects since the completion of Oktapodi? Is there a lot of pressure on you due to the success that Oktapodi has achieved?

EM: I've still got my senior thesis to work on. I could have submitted Oktapodi, but I wanted to make sure that I'd have to do at least one more film by myself.

All of us want to work together again, and it's going to be different this time, because we'll have to find a producer, and deal with financials. But we're looking forward to it. We really want the opportunity to do the kind of film that we'd really like to make, with no time or subject restrictions.

The pressure is there, but it's not our main concern. Sure, we want our next film to live up to Oktapodi, but mostly we want to work together and make the film that we really want to make.

Andrew Farago is the gallery manager and curator of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and the creator of the weekly online comic serial The Chronicles of William Bazillion.

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