2011 was a great year for animated short films. All of the shorts that were nominated for the Oscars had artful animation. My first film, Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest, (http://ingridpitt.co.uk) in collaboration with Oscar-nominee Bill Plympton, was actually among the initial 45 animated shorts that qualified for an Academy Award! See the AWN & Animation Magazine list:
I went to various film festivals in LA and San Diego, showed my film at DreamWorks Animation, and got to see all the nominated short films, thanks to Shorts International, the distributor of all nominated shorts and my own film. My review and filmmaker interviews below for the 5 nominees are in the order from my least favorite to my favorite, with a prediction of Oscar winner at the end.
5. Wild Life (Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby, National Film Board of Canada)
(3 out of 5 starfish)
Wild Life is about a mild-mannered and refined Englishman who travels to Alberta, Canada to be a cowboy and rancher. But, the people that live there don’t take kindly to Englishmen, since they are not suited for a rough life on the prairies of the Wild West. The Englishman is indeed that way, preferring to engage in hobbies like badminton, drinking, bird watching, horse racing, and writing letters. This leaves him little time for tending to the cattle and the ranch.
I didn’t really enjoy this film. Although the 2D animation is pretty good with an interesting style, and reminds me of oil paintings, the storyline was boring and dragged on too long. The “short” film lasted 13 minutes and was mostly talking heads. Wild Life didn’t really engage me and most of the time I just felt bored of the conversations. Finally, this story didn’t have a strong moral or any emotional message. I give Wild Life 3 starfish.
4. Dimanche (Sunday) (Patrick Doyan, National Film Board of Canada)
(3.5 out of 5 starfish)
In the film Sunday, a young Canadian boy’s family tradition is to go to his grandparents’ house and talk with relatives after church in their drab, rural town on Sunday. The kid is bored by his relatives’ incessant conversations, which remind him of the squawking of crows. The boy decides to try something more interesting: He flattens a coin on a railroad track, but a curious, hungry bear gets in the way.
Although this film didn’t have a strong moral or message, the animation was pretty entertaining. There were some funny parts in the film, like when the boy notices that his relatives talk like crows. This film was also done with 2D animation software from Toon Boom Animation, a sponsor for my own short “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest.” I think that the style of animation is simple, expressive, and effective. But the lack of emotional depth made me favor other films more. I think Sunday deserves 3.5 starfish.
“A Morning Stroll”
3. A Morning Stroll (Grant Orchard, Studio AKA)
(4 out of 5 starfish)
Throughout the time periods of 1959, 2009, and 2059, a chicken has a morning routine of walking through the bustling streets of New York and pecking on a door to be let in. Only one man sees this strange occurrence. Although things, habits, and styles change over the century, the chicken’s early morning stroll remains a steadfast routine.
I really enjoyed this short film that shows how times have changed, but some things remain the same. I really like the style of the 1959 segment because it uses few, simple yet expressive lines to tell the story. In contrast, the 2009 segment uses various different lines and vibrant colors to illustrate the scenes. Finally, the 2059 segment uses truly realistic animation to get all the texture and shades to make it more life-like. I am impressed with the director’s creativity in storytelling, and how he constructed the story in three time periods. I noticed the film showed the decline of civilization and manners. In 1959, people were well-mannered and polite to each other in New York. But, in 2009 a man didn’t even apologize when he spilled coffee all over another person’s shirt. I give this funny and interesting film 4 starfish.
I interviewed the British director Grant Orchard, who won the BAFTA Award in the UK for his film. He got the idea for the story when he read a very short story called “The Chicken” (which I read too, researching for this review) in the book “True Tales of American Life” by Paul Auster, about a woman’s encounter with a chicken on a busy New York street. Grant said, “the story has an interesting visual image, and I started to ask myself questions: Why would a chicken walk on a busy street? Where is it going? Who owned it? I decided to do the story in three different ways, and the story would leap forward 50 years. Then the rest falls into place.”
Grant studied graphic design originally, and never quite liked the idea of doing just one image at a time. He liked comics and found out he could make animation films by using sequential images as in a comics. Grant’s favorite part of making animation is the animatics stage where he can flesh out ideas about the story.
Grant gave some good advice to aspiring animation directors like me, “Find something that really stimulates you and do it…Don’t always do what people expect you to do, and just do your own thing.” When I asked him what he would do to celebrate if he wins the Oscar, he said that he would treat himself to a good night’s sleep after the long, exhaustive process of making his film!
2. La Luna (Enrico Casarosa, Pixar)
(4 out of 5 starfish)
A young Italian boy learns about his family’s unusual job on the moon. He discovers a magical world of shiny, golden stars on the surface of the moon, and at the same time feels stuck between his arguing father and grandfather, who quarrel over things like how to wear a hat and how to hold a broom. He is not sure if he should follow the example of his father or his grandfather, or to find a way of his own.
This 4 starfish film ranks second on my list because it really shows the magic of childhood wonder. After watching the film, I thought what if NASA hires this family? Maybe that will solve all their financial problems?! I first heard about the film at the LA Shorts Festival last year when both “La Luna” and my own short “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest” premiered. The film shows that other people’s ideas are not always right, and that you can find your own way to do things in the midst of an argument.
I asked the director of La Luna, Enrico Casarosa, a few questions over a phone interview. He got his inspiration for this magical film from an Italian story where a man climbed a ladder up to the moon to get milk because that’s what people thought the moon was covered with, and from Wallace and Gromit eating cheese off the moon. “I always enjoyed stories about the moon, and what strange explanations of what the moon was made of, and what is there. I thought it would be fun to come up with my own version.” The argumentative father and grandpa were actually based on his own family from Italy, who disagreed a lot during his childhood.
I asked Enrico how three people could sweep away the entire surface of the moon. He explained, “The moon is not very big once you are there. Also time is different on the moon.” His advice for aspiring animators is to “tell stories that you really care about and connect to, and stories with real messages to people.” In La Luna, the actors spoke a made-up language, or “gibberish,” which the director told me was very hard to come up with.
If Enrico wins the Oscar, he would celebrate with the whole Pixar team that made the film, and with his wife and his 4-year-old daughter. He also mentioned that he is working as the head of story on a new Pixar feature about dinosaurs, directed by Bob Peterson (co-director of Up, voice of Dug the dog in Up). I saw director Bob Peterson talk about this dinosaur film at the 2011 Disney D23 Expo, and look forward to seeing the finished film.
“The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore”
1. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (William Joyce, Brandon Oldenburg, Moonbot Studios)
(4.5 out of 5 starfish)
After a devastating hurricane, a young author and book-lover named Morris Lessmore loses all the pleasure in life. But, after seeing a miraculous vision of magical flying books, he discovers a sanctuary of knowledge and joy with flying books in a library. There, he has many exciting adventures, including fixing old books and discovering the joys in life again through stories. He opens the library and shares his joy with others.
I first saw this film at the Burbank International Film Festival in Sep 2011, and knew instantly that it was a “Perrific!” film. The beautiful animation is absolutely magical, and the music is brilliant. The deep message behind the rather whimsical story shows the healing power of stories and books after a devastating hurricane. Something I noticed in the film (at 10 min 10 sec) was that Morris misspelled the word “weasel” as “weasle” as he was writing in his book. A dictionary confirmed that there is no such word, although this is a trivial flaw. I wondered why Morris misspelled this word even though he is such a literary man. I would have given the film 5 instead of 4.5 starfish without this flaw.
I interviewed the directors William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg by email and the lead animator, Jamil Lahham, by phone, and they gave some insight into how they made the film. The directors told me how they incorporated deep emotional and the whimsical elements into the story, “We try to find hidden magical details in all aspects of the world around us and as artist it’s our duty to shed light on them. The emotional components of our stories are magnified based on our observations. Sometimes the wondrously beautiful things in our world are layered in sadness.” When I asked him how his children influenced him in his filmmaking, Brandon said he has two kids, age 6 and 9, “All of us in the studio with children always look to our kids for objective observations. They are always on point and razor sharp. They have a ‘Kid Logic’ way of cutting to the heart of our story problems and often offer solutions that we would have never found.”
Lead animator Jamil Lahham, who worked on Sony’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” right after college, gave me some great advice about animation, including “watching old cartoons to learn about how people made traditional animated films.” He also suggested sketching people (including your friends) that you see in coffee shops, school, and other places. He said, “Keep active, draw, and watch old cartoons.” He kept Morris’s actions and movements very similar to Buster Keaton, a famous silent film actor, who expressed his emotion with his eyebrows, body movement, but rarely with his mouth.
How did the directors come up with Morris’ contradictory-sounding last name “Lessmore?” According to Jamil, director William Joyce often comes up with funky names for his characters. In this case, Lessmore represents his philosophy, less is more, “Morris moves less, talks less, but emotes more. There is less acting, but more communicating.” I think the opposite might be true, more is less. I noticed that the films nowadays often have more talking, more acting, more movements, but less emotional impact like “Morris Lessmore.”
I also enjoyed playing the iPad app of this film, which had many interesting features, including the film itself, a mini-documentary about the making of this film, and an interactive storybook that even taught me how to play “Pop Goes the Weasel,” the theme song of the film, on the keyboard. I also got the iPad app of Moonbot Studios’ next animation short called “Numberlys,” a story about numbers and letters that is really fun.
“If we bring a trophy home it will be like taking the Stanley Cup on tour.” said director Brandon Oldenburg when I asked him how he would celebrate if they win the Oscar.
I noticed that 3 out of 5 nominees are silent films: “Morris Lessmore,” “A Morning Stroll,” “Sunday,” and “La Luna” is almost silent with only “gibberish” spoken. Indeed, less is more. With less dialogue, the films engage us more on the characters, their emotions, and the true meaning of the story.
My predictions for the best animation short Oscars for 2012: Among the 5 nominees, I think “Morris Lessmore,” “La Luna,” and “A Morning Stroll” have real chances of winning. My personal favorite, “Morris Lessmore,” is the frontrunner and most likely to win the Academy Award. “La Luna” and “A Morning Stroll” are less likely to win, but have equal chance of upsetting the frontrunner.
Among live action shorts nominees, I predict “Raju” (about a German couple adopting an Indian boy in India) to win. I saw it at the 2011 Student Academy Awards and then at LA Shorts Fest a month later. My mom and I are also invited to attend Shorts International/ShortsHD’s 2012 Shorts Awards in Hollywood on Feb 24, honoring achievements in short films. I hope to meet many directors, especially those I interviewed!
Watch all the Oscar-nominated shorts (animation, live action, documentary) at a theater near you BEFORE the Oscars on Feb 26, visit Shorts International website for theater listing, and even predict winners and win prize for yourself:
http://theoscarshorts.shorts.tv/locations.php (theater listing)
http://theoscarshorts.shorts.tv/predict.php (predict winners)
http://www.shortsinternational.com/ (watch trailers)
If you live in San Diego, you can watch me predict Oscar winners in this and other categories on ABC 10 News Live at the Oscar Night America – San Diego official Oscar party/charity event on Feb 26, 2012:
Copyright 2012 by Perry S. Chen
Perry S. Chen is an 11-year-old award-winning child film critic, artist, animator, TEDx speaker, and entertainment personality, currently in 6th grade from San Diego. He started reviewing movies at age 8 in 3rd grade using a kid-friendly starfish rating system, and has been featured in CBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, CCTV (China Central Television), Variety, The Young Icons, The Guardian, The China Press, etc. He was a presenter at the 2010 Annie Awards for Animation, and has written movie reviews for Animation World Network, San Diego Union Tribune, Amazing Kids! Magazine, and his own Perry’s Previews blog.