By Kira Formina
It’s the first day of the Northern-California leg of the annual AWN Oscar® Showcase Tour, a crisp, foggy morning in San Francisco. At about 9:20 am, already running a few minutes late, the four of us pile into the van on the way to Electronic Arts. Ron Diamond, the inexhaustible host and promoter of this unique event, takes the wheel as Tim Reckart navigates, while Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly and I are in the back.
This year, Ron is bringing five Oscar nominated shorts to the studio screens: Minkyu Lee’s Adam and Dog; Reckart’s and O’Reilly’s Head Over Heels; PES’s Fresh Guacamole; David Silverman’s Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare; and John Kahrs’ Paperman.
Unfortunately, the day is already missing one of its expected: Minkyu missed his flight and will be detained indefinitely. So far, only one film is represented in the van. Tim and Fodhla (pronounced Folah) are the respective director and producer of the award nominated stop-motion Head Over Heels; he - an Arizona native and Harvard graduate; she - a classically red-haired Irish girl from County Carry with a delightfully distinctive accent; both are in their mid-twenties and have partnered up while studying together at the National Film and Television School in London, the same academy that brought about grads like Nick Park and Mark Baker. In fact, Head Over Heels was Tim and Fodhla’s final student project; however, that did not stop it from receiving the Grand Prize at Brazil’s Anima Mundi festival in 2012, leading up to the Oscar nomination. “We teamed up because both had the same vision for the film,” Fodhla tells me as we speed past the ponds and lawns surrounding 209 Redwood Shores Parkway, EA headquarters; she loved the story and Tim is a renown director of Claymation from way back.
It is now an exceptionally sunny day in the South Bay; we park and step inside EA’s dark lobby. There, we are joined by Simpsons director David Silverman and his friend Paul Barnett (not part of the official tour, but a fellow veteran film producer/director nonetheless); finding out that Paul is a fellow Irishman hailing from Donegal, he and Fodhla quickly strike up a conversation that spans their two familiar continents.
Shortly after, we are joined by hosts Susie Greene and Julie Wynn, both art directors at the EA All Play division. Julie acts as guide as we officially start the tour, weaving in and out of the Mission Impossible and Mission Control buildings, the impressive gym and game rooms, stopping to look at the numerous patents, awards and billboards in glass displays along the corridors. “There are 14 thousand people roughly, and some of them are quite rough,” Julie jokes about the global number of EA employees.
Before long, it’s time for the film screening. While we wait, Tim spends his time answering his ceaselessly ringing phone - sure sign of celebrity - and talking to David all about the tricks of the trade, from optics, to camera lenses, to just plain animation.
Meantime, the seats get filled up and the lights dim. Time for the show!
Playing third in the set of the five nominated shorts, Head Over Heels instantly lives up to its name as the audience falls for this whimsical yet relatable story of an elderly couple living upside down of each other; the intelligent humor of the piece hushes the enthralled room; the exclamations of amazement then come over as yet another trick is pulled off on the Escheresque stop motion set. Clearly, this is one of the most textural and visually intriguing of the nominated works.
The Q&A session proves just that: the first questions are, “How large are the models, and how did you film upside down?” (“Just under a foot”, and “flipped it on the monitor” are the answers, by the way).
Fodhla had already mentioned earlier that the project took roughly 15 months from idea to finish, and involved at least 9 core team members to put together, all volunteers. But where did the inspiration come from?
“I had spent 2 years in England while my girlfriend was in Boston, so there was the experience of being in a long distance relationship with a girl who was very different for me as well” Tim explains. “Then there’s this Rembrandt painting I saw with this kind of spiral staircase....and thought you could have a film where somebody is living on the floor and somebody is living on the ceiling.”
Switching from the sentimental/philosophical to the downright goofy, David’s Simpsons short got just as many positive reviews. Always the joker, David admits “my wife has a unibrow” when asked about his inspiration for the film.
A popular question at both the EA and, later, Apple screenings dealt with the fact that all five are “silent films,” accompanied only by music and zero dialogue. All the directors agreed that it was partially due to the cost (“not having performers makes it a little cheaper,” plus “not spending time on lip sync”), but more importantly due to the “universal appeal” of the silent short: “dialogue is actually quite an inefficient medium,” Tim adds. In the Simpsons case, David explains, “We wanted to try something completely pantomime and Maggie was the logical choice for that.”
On the technical aspects of the film, David continues, “We were experimenting with 3D on top of traditional animation in a much more aggressive way than it’s usually done; we broke down the characters...for example, drawing Maggie: the head was on one level, the pinky was another level, [her] eyes and nose were on one level, the bow on another, and so forth...”
Similar questions and comments came up at the lunch following the Q&A, held at the next door Sofitel and accompanied by EA’s Michelle Graham and Robert Mouck, both art directors.
“I know I’m always inspired by the [Show of Shows] each year; and you can see the energy levels [around here] go up for at least two or three days afterwards,” Michelle says. As for any direct usages for that inspiration, Michelle adds, “we’re always looking for ways that we can innovate within our constraints...to find a new look, a new feel to our games.”
Robert agrees, saying that the 3D polished look is not always the best way to go; part of improving games is to make them more human and tactile. That is where seeing independent animation plays its role.
The tour at Apple, hosted by Doug Werner, was a similar “clash” between the producers of functionality vs. those of entertainment. Ultimately, it’s the same process in the end, David comments; what’s easy about reaching these two Bay Area audiences is that the production pipeline remains the same, no matter if you’re putting out software or an animation.
But in the end it all comes down to good storytelling. It is a strange feeling to watch the same films several times in one day and observe audiences reacting the same way in the same places in the story. So whether it’s the bittersweet Adam and Dog, or the side-splittingly funny Simpsons, the short animation lesson and vibe remain the same.
Let’s see what Day 2 brings...