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Bill Kroyer’s Thoughts on Visiting the Oscar Tour

Animation (thank God) remains the last bastion of the individual artist. It is still possible to make a film with little money and a few dedicated friends and supporters and have that film stand toe-to-toe with the productions made by the major studios.

Bill Kroyer poses for a pic with Little Matchgirl's Don Hahn and Roger Allers at Sony. © AWN Inc.

Bill Kroyer poses for a pic with Little Matchgirl's Don Hahn and Roger Allers at Sony. © AWN Inc.

Ron Diamond has created as new Oscar tradition: his yearly tour of the major West coast animation studios by the nominees for Best Animated Short Film. In a few short years this has become such an established event that all of the nominated films are represented by their respective directors, producers or both. At studios, which include ILM, Pixar, PDI, DreamWorks. and Sony, all five of the nominated films are screened for crowds of enthusiastic employees. The nominees have a chance to meet their professional counterparts and see their facilities.

Taking part in this tour is not a trivial thing, and I’m not talking about the singular difficulty of just achieving the status of Academy Award Nominee. There is the much more mundane obstacle of coming up with the money to take several weeks of unpaid leave and pay for travel costs.

Animation (thank God) remains the last bastion of the individual artist. It is still possible to make a film with little money and a few dedicated friends and supporters and have that film stand toe-to-toe with the productions made by the major studios.

While the nominees from Pixar, Disney and Blue Sky enjoy the painless financial support of their parent companies, many of the folks who worked on Maestro (Geza M. Toth, Hungary) and The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, co-produced in Canada and Norway) had a more personal travel experience. They flew coach and paid their own way to bask in the Oscar limelight. I can picture a live-action director throwing a hissy fit over such a predicament, but animation people? They just do it. Don’t you love ‘em?

Ron Diamond invited me to spend a day with the tour, in part to compare the pre-show buzz of the animation nominees in 2007 to the experience I had in 1989 when I was nominated for my short film Technlogical Threat.

That year, I shared the spotlight with John Lassiter (Tin Toy) and Cordell Barker (The Cat Came Back). But there wasn’t much of a pre-show spotlight to share. I recall the three of us getting together with our wives for dinner – and we split the check.

Bill Kroyer has a chance to have lunch with Kajsa Naess of Mikrofilm and Marcy Page of the NFB. © AWN Inc.

Bill Kroyer has a chance to have lunch with Kajsa Naess of Mikrofilm and Marcy Page of the NFB. © AWN Inc.

The animation industry has exploded since then, and with that explosion has come new and well-deserved attention to the artform’s honorees. At each stop on the Ron Diamond tour, the entire program of films is screened in 35mm, the nominees answer questions from the audience, tour the facility and have a catered lunch. These visits are squeezed between the various press and interview events.

The day I tagged along, the nominees visited Sony Imageworks, and, in an excursion that speaks volumes for the new esteem animation enjoys, CAA, the Creative Artists Agency.

CAA has just moved into their sleek new multi-million dollar headquarters in Century City, and we were informed that our program of five films was to be only the second screening to be held in the spanking new state-of-the-art theater. The rust showed a little when the projectionist managed to reveal the tail leader on Lifted, but otherwise the room lived up to its look.

In the Q&A that followed, you might have guessed that no questions were asked about the making of the films. The agents wanted to know about the marketing of the films. Who watches shorts? How do they make money? What’s happening to the industry in general?

Happily, the Academy’s new program of theatrical releasing the nominees, the advent of short films on iTunes, and the general health of the animation business made the answer a positive one.

At Sony, the Q&A was notable for the lack of questions. Ron said that it was not unusual to have very few questions from studio audiences. Why, you may ask? Maybe people don’t want to give the impression that they don’t know more than the guy sitting next to them.

I remember years ago at the Academy’s “Bake-off” (the night when the Visual Effects branch views potential FX nominees) when Richard Taylor had the same experience when he presented Tron. That picture featured the first-ever use of high-end computer graphics in a motion picture, and it was a certainty that not one member of the audience had ever used the technology. I can attest to that because we literally invented it as we made the picture.

Yet, in the Q&A, only one question: what kind of camera did you use?

Why no others? Richard always suspected that no one wanted to reveal they were behind the curve. There is another side to this, of course. Many of the animation crew in today’s audience actually do know how these films are made because they use the technology every day.

Then there are the human elements…

The Little Matchgirl is unusual for a Disney film – it has a tragic ending. Director Roger Allers fought for this, and it took literally years for him to achieve it. He accomplished it in a simple way – he outlasted the opposition. Management at the studio changed, but Roger’s vision will now be on film forever.

Maestro has the distinction of having the shortest credit list of any film. Director Geza M. Toth of Budapest, Hungary, had to teach himself how to use the software that he used to create the film.

Gary Rydstrom, director of Lifted, is famous for being the premiere sound designer on most of Pixar’s features. He could not attend the Sony screening because he was, we were told, behind schedule on a Pixar film with a release date of 2013.

Bill Kroyer (right) gets a chance to chat with No Time for Nuts director Chris Renaud at Sony. © AWN Inc.

Bill Kroyer (right) gets a chance to chat with No Time for Nuts director Chris Renaud at Sony. © AWN Inc.

Chris Renaud got a chance to direct No Time For Nuts because he won a competition at Blue Sky to come up with a new Scrat concept. Chris, a former comic book artist, boarded the whole film himself.

Torill Kove, director of The Danish Poet, made the film as a co-production between Canada and Norway by virtue of her own personal friendships. Although currently residing in Montreal and working at the National Film Board of Canada, she went to art school in the tiny coastal village of Volda, Norway, where she met the future founders of Mikrofilm, a tiny studio in Oslo that split the work with Canada.

Spending even a day with these nominees reminds me and reassures me of one of the enduring joys of animation. The artists really love their work, and that love translates into a common bond that trumps any barrier of age, distance or nationality.

In my mind, that’s the real benefit of the Ron Diamond tour. The industry is healthy, the industry makes money, the industry creates product. But what makes it special to those in it is that the industry makes art. The creators of the five honored films represent that in a very personal way.

This pilgrimage to the studio doesn’t serve as just a publicity event or parade of kudos. It’s an exercise in connection, a chance for all of us to bask in the glow. Not the Oscar glow, but the glow of remembering that we belong to a community of artists that can create something special.

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