Taylor Jessen profiles the five animated shorts nominees for the 2007 Academy Awards.
To see clips from the nominated animated shorts, visit 2007 AWN Oscar Showcase.
The Oscar category of Best Animated Short has, traditionally, been dominated by product from passionate minor-leaguers from outside the Hollywood mainstream. This year the animated shorts category looks like the filmic equivalent your local parking lot: most of the vehicles you see come from just a few majors. In 2007, three out of five nominees are from feature film houses with massive cultural renown and overhead to match -- Disney has released The Little Matchgirl, a re-telling of the Hans Christian Andersen story; Ice Age producers Blue Sky present a Scrat short, Lifted.
In the category of smaller budgets, but big artistic heritage, is Canada's National Film Board, co-producers of the fourth nominee, The Danish Poet; and millions of scrappy indie animators worldwide are represented by nominee #5, Maestro, a micro-budget personal project from Hungary. Together these five vehicles with their disparate means of production are getting the audience they deserve in a program of animated shorts from Magnolia Pictures, along with five fine items from the Oscar shortlist (see Magnolia's website for program details, times and venues). Animation World Network talked to all the nominated directors, and as usual be warned that if you'd like to come fresh to these films as a moviegoer STOP READING NOW because we are -- remorselessly -- about to ruin the surprise.
Roger Allers, most recently the co-director of Open Season, directed last year's animated Disney short The Little Matchgirl. Allers is pleased to no end with the film's fate, and not just because it looks and sounds -- and ends -- just the way he wanted it. Not only did it get made -- a rare-enough success for a short film in a studio environment -- it's now on home video attached to the hugely successful homevid title The Little Mermaid. He does hope, though, that the kids who will be watching Mermaid 150 times will remember to check the DVD supplements. "Does anybody watch those things other than all us film geeks?" he laughs. "I don't know. My mother will watch it."
The Little Matchgirl, a retelling of the classic tearjerker about a girl trying to sell matches who eventually freezes to death in a snowdrift, came together over several years using whatever parts of the massive Disney talent pool that weren't otherwise occupied. "It actually was a kind of catch-as-catch-can production," Allers says. "It was like, 'Let's do this for no money!' I mean obviously they had to pay the color modelists and so on, but basically we used people while they weren't busy with their own projects. We did get to use the Paris studio for quite a while. It was guerilla filmmaking. People came and went."
The short, like Lorenzo, One By One and Destino, was originally conceived circa 2001 as an element in an internationally themed feature-length Fantasia sequel that never quite came together. And as Roger had always loved the original Andersen story, when Don Hahn dangled the opportunity to direct it, Roger jumped. "I had worked on Kingdom of the Sun," Allers says, "and I helped out on Lilo & Stitch for a while, and then we animated a new sequence for the Lion King DVD. That's what I was doing when Don said 'Are you interested in doing something for the Fantasia?' That was a dream come true. Fantasia for me always represented the pinnacle. I like verbal humor, but boy -- it makes it feel almost like a different art when you're just putting images to music. It's like dancing."
The Little Matchgirl fills the screen with rich watercolor textures -- the backgrounds built from real drawings done the usual analog way on paper, the characters colored and textured digitally. Allers credits the look to Disney inspirational artist Hans Bacher. "He came on to help, just to noodle some visual ideas, and he was playing with images of the girl. He often works in ink wash because it's really fast, and I got excited about the way that pigment would soak into the paper. It had a grittiness and a romanticism, a suggestive quality." Allers and art director Mike Humphries went through many grades of watercolor paper to see just how much tooth the paper could have on-screen without being distracting.
Allers and his crew worked endlessly to perfect the color scheme, where the cold of an overcast St. Petersburg winter is made palpable thanks to a palette where basic greys all have slight leanings toward the violets, greens, and blues of a vibrantly-colored world desaturated by a cruel Russian winter. It looks cold, it feels cold, and the texture can be rough and unforgiving -- all pretty daring for a studio famous for kid-friendly fare. "That's the cool thing about shorts," Allers says, "that you can experiment with technique. It makes you stop and think -- how long could we look at this technique? Would we tire over the length of a whole feature?... but I think an audience will travel with it, whatever it looks like, as long as they can stay connected to the characters' experience.
"It's like Don Hertzfeldt's Everything Will Be Okay, which I think is such a brilliant film. I go, 'Oh my God, these are little stick figure guys, and I am so emotionally connected to this story of this little character.' Not that I'm proposing Don do a feature in that style," he laughs, "but it's so interesting how much you can convey with so little."
As happy as he is with the look, he's ecstatic that the short made it past then-studio head Michael Eisner with its original unhappy ending -- a girl lying dead in the snow -- intact. Allers is frankly hoping that the short, which is a uniquely efficient vehicle for breaking an audience's heart, can do some philanthropic good, perhaps as a tool for UNICEF. "I have been beating that drum for a while," Allers says. "I really want this thing to go out there and be an international motivator. The tragedy is that it's still relevant. I would love for it to go out there and do some work, raise some awareness."
Director/animator Torill Kove has just two animated shorts under her belt, each the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. Number one is My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts (2000), and number two is this year's Oscar-nominated short from the NFB, The Danish Poet. It's the story of the wild and wildly romantic circumstances under which her parents met and fell in love, and I'm sorry to have to tell you that she made it up. "I hope people aren't disappointed about that," Kove laughs, "but I think it would have been a much less effective story had it been true.
"I wanted to write something along the theme of the coincidences involved in how people meet, and I thought -- well, why not do my parents? But I was looking into it, and it wasn't that interesting, and not that funny, and it's approaching topics that were a little too private. I felt like it tied me down. But at that point I had already become fond of the idea, so I decided to ditch the true story and make things up." (See January's "Fresh from the Festivals" for a synopsis of the wonderfully out-of-control plot of Kove's short.)
Kove has a clean line style that she says she inherited from her father, who was an architect. Kove was educated in her native Norway before coming to Canada and worked in urban planning before she got into animation, so the brevity of her line had a practical technical use prior to her cartooning career. On King's Shirts Kove did virtually all the images herself, but on Danish Poet most of the animation came from a dedicated team based at Mikrofilm AS studios in Oslo. Kove likes to keep one artistic foot in Norway and knew she'd have a better chance at getting funding by looking overseas as well as in Canada, but the idea of turning over the animation to others still made her nervous.
"At stages I felt a little alienated from the process," she says, "because there were so many more people working on it than I was used to. I didn't necessarily like the idea of just doing the keyframes and waiting for the in-betweening. It always made me a little tense. But almost all the time things came back and looked so nice. Every now and then something came back that I thought was maybe a little over-animated -- but I actually didn't fix anything. I just used everything as it was."
Confusion of national identity is a running joke throughout the short, and Kove, a native Norwegian living in Canada, thinks it's still a pretty universal joke. "Around the world you have these pockets of different nations or different tribes with all kinds of rivalries," she says. "In Scandinavia, of course, it's pretty benign. Nobody's actually out shooting each other. But the funny thing about it is that you develop all these stereotypes for each group of people, but if you line them up next to each other it's impossible to tell one from the next. That's true for all Scandinavians, and it's definitely true for Americans and Canadians for the most part anyway. For a lot of European countries, it's endless bickering between these tiny little countries that are so uptight about their own ways of doing things," she laughs.
The music is by jazz artist Kevin Dean ("My husband, but I would have hired him anyway," Kove says). It's a simple polyphony for voice, piano and horn, reminiscent of traditional Norwegian Gammelstevs that mix modes and coalesce from major to minor. The haunting horn sound comes from a cornetto, a medieval instrument with the buzzing mouthpiece of a trumpet but a wooden body with holes like a recorder.
In what Kove calls the highlight of her career, Liv Ullmann agreed to perform the narration in both English and Norwegian. "We sent a script to her address in Norway," Kove says, "because we couldn't find her agent. And we didn't hear anything, and we were getting nervous. Then three months later she called my producer in Norway, and her first words were, 'I hope it's not too late!' She had been in Florida and had only just received her mail from Norway I have a weakness for voiceover films. It's what I like to do. Sometimes I get the feeling that it's frowned upon a bit in the animation community. I hope there will continue to be room for both narrative and pantomime shorts, because I think a lot of animators are also writers at heart."
No Time for Nuts co-directors Chris Renaud and Mike Thurmeier came to Blue Sky Studios from opposite sides of the 49th parallel. Thurmeier is a native Canadian who learned traditional animation at Sheridan College in Ontario, only to be recruited by CGI studio Blue Sky straight out of college. He waited a year for his visa to come through, then moved to New York in the late '90s. "I love classical animation," Thurmeier says. "It's great. But you could see the change on the horizon, and Toy Story had come out -- and Jurassic Park, which was so damn appealing." His first CG project was a single-shot commercial for Hostess Goldfish Crackers, and by the time Ice Age landed at the studio he had been promoted to supervising animator, taking on many of Sid the Sloth's and Scrat's scenes.
Renaud graduated from Syracuse University with a design degree in 1989, and after moving to New York City found himself doing logo designs for the Miami Dolphins, while he continually queried companies with quite different artistic prerogatives. "The real reason I came to New York was to try to break into comicbooks," Renaud says. "So while I was working in advertising and design, I would continually hound Marvel and D.C. with samples." Around 1993, he finally broke into Marvel as a penciller, and a story he later pitched about an earthquake hitting Gotham became a hit crossover title that allowed him to both draw and write the stories. Moving into television, Renaud worked as production designer on The Book of Pooh and Bear in the Big Blue House before his first child and a job opportunity at Blue Sky convinced him to move to White Plains. He worked as a story artist on Robots and Ice Age: The Meltdown before management paired him with Thurmeier to create a new short featuring Scrat, the hyperactive saber-toothed squirrel hero of Ice Age.
"From Blue Sky's perspective, I think it was a case of complementary strengths," says Renaud, "with Mike coming from animation performance, with moving camera as part of his sensibility, and me coming from story, but also having some art direction and design background." Scrat had already had his own short, the Oscar-nominated Gone Nutty, so greenlighting a new Scrat short was an easy managerial decision. Like Gone Nutty, No Time for Nuts was designed not for theatrical release but as a DVD supplement, primarily because the studio was still scrambling just to finish the feature.
Renaud began boarding around September 2005. He drew for a month before Thurmeier joined the team, and then they and an editor worked on the continuity through mid-December. Animation started in January, and the short was locked in June 2006.
"For such a short piece to have the crew we did, and the time, compared to our features, our schedule was probably very luxurious," Thurmeier says. "We were able to noodle the shots for a longer period than even the features, because on the features there's such a volume of material, you've got to chew through it. And Scrat's just fun -- there's a fun energy just working on it. The animators, they know what they're doing. They've worked on this guy. They brought so much to it, and we were just there to help guide them."
"We were doing arrows, cannons, steam locomotives -- something a lot of us never really had an opportunity to work with in the films that we tend to do," says Renaud. "Guys were figuring out ways to engineer nuclear bomb clouds. Everyone really seemed excited and delivered more than we thought we'd be able to ask for."
Timing-wise, the short itself is proof that the animators hit all their marks. Watching No Time for Nuts, it feels like not a single frame is wasted. It's reminiscent of Warner Bros. classics from the golden age of Bugs Bunny, and Thurmeier admits that the bar they're Fosbury-flopping over is set very high indeed. "This kind of cartoony, snappy animation, it's happened a lot of places, but it's not always pulled off perfectly," he says. "Recreating that Looney Toons thing is difficult, but I think Scrat gets pretty close to that same sense of fun."
There was too much good story matter to choose from, of course -- boards of sequences featuring Old West excitement and dinosaur extinctions never made it to animation -- but the only real point of contention came in deciding how to handle the "Scrat and David" tableau. With Scrat's snout taking the place of the best-known attribute of Michelangelo's immortal sculpture, Scrat only had to be sukoshi bit off-model before producer Chris Wedge decided he'd be uncomfortable watching the short while sitting next to an eight-year-old.
"We could have riffed on that shot about 50 different ways," Renaud laughs, "but cooler heads prevailed, and we just stuck with the simple obscuring joke." Now with No Time for Nuts a part of the DVD supplement to Ice Age: The Meltdown, Thurmeier and Renaud have moved on to Horton Hears a Who, which will -- repeat, will -- be coming to a theater near you in 2008. "Come hell or high water," says Renaud, "we are making that date."
Gary Rydstrom, an Oscar-winning, 20-year veteran of sound design, is now officially a story guy. "I had a well-timed mid-life crisis," he says, "and I just changed jobs. I was very lucky. I wanted to make a movie, and I knew the people here at Pixar so well from years of working with them. The opportunity came up, and I can't imagine a better place to do it. You don't feel alone making anything. You've got this nice support network all around you."
Rydstrom, who came to Pixar to direct a feature whose production is now officially underway (the logline is still secret), started down the traditional Pixar feature path by first tackling a short film. He pitched three ideas and Lifted was the winner. Production started in mid-2005, they took on various crewmembers as they finished their assignments on Cars, and Lifted finally wrapped in summer 2006.
The only technology going for a test-drive in Lifted is probably a new Jiggle program, used here to animate the gelatinous instructor Mr. B. "There's this wonderful program they came up with here where you pick a section of the character, and you tap on it, and it'll resonate," Rydstrom says. "You can decide how much you want it to resonate in the different regions, if you want it to stay away from the face, maybe, or resonate less in the arms, whatever you want.
"Also we had characters you saw into. We wanted to see some bubbles, like they were made of hair gel. We wanted an excuse to pull the expressions for the student character in all sorts of wild ways, and this gelatinous semi-transparent material seemed the perfect excuse for going Chuck Jones or Tex Avery on the facial expressions."
Rydstrom identifies the three main characters in Lifted as Ernie (the abductee), Mr. B (the instructor) and Stu (the student). "We call the instructor Mr. B because I had a teacher I worked with as an assistant for years who gave every student a B no matter what," Rydstrom laughs. "And the student is like a 16 year old. When you're 16, your emotions aren't really that controlled, and you put someone like that through a horrible experience -- when Jeff Pidgeon did the storyboards, I collected 30 or 40 different emotional states that he would draw Stu in. That was one of the threads of the short, to see how many different emotional states we could put the poor guy in."
Rydstrom has logged thousands of hours behind control panels, and the panel in Lifted is a real bastard. "We made the world's worst user interface," he says. "It's a tiny thing, and barely in the movie, but it made me laugh thinking about it -- we have Stu go through a manual to try to get a sense of what toggle to use, but each page is just a range of black dots. There's 10,000 toggles on that thing, and no writing. It's literally an impossible thing to use. For years I would sit behind these big sound mixing consoles that to anyone who didn't know how they worked looked absolutely impossible. And it was surprising to me after it was over how much I had made a movie about wanting to beat up a sound mixing console. So that's eventually what I made."
As a sound guy he couldn't resist having some fun recycling a few favorite sound effects -- as Ernie falls out of bed at the end of the short he delivers the classic Wilhelm scream, and the hologram noise is a lift from Star Wars -- but Stu has the best backstory. "Stu's voice is mostly my dog, who's an Irish terrier puppy who hates being petted and touched and loved on," Rydstrom says. "And every time you try to pet him or love on him, he makes this groan. It doesn't sound like a dog at all. It sounds like an upset human. It's perfect. Occasionally when Stu screams, or does something a little more human, then the voice is me, but most of him is my dog. Because my dog asked for no money."
Lifted's score is by prolific Pixar favorite Michael Giacchino, for whom Rydstrom has nothing but praise, although he thinks he may have abused the composer in one regard. "There's something that we call 'Theme from Lifted' that we use whenever Ernie is being lifted successfully into the spaceship, or the ship is flying away, and then something always goes wrong," Rydstrom says. "Michael never got to write the end of this theme. So if we ever feel like it, maybe we can get back on a stage and have Michael write the end of 'Theme from Lifted'. But right now it doesn't exist. It's unwritten and unperformed. Again, think of the money we saved."
Lifted will open in front of Ratatouille this summer -- again, spliced into reel one of the feature so no exhibitor can skip it -- and Rydstrom is thrilled. There's so much eye candy to behold there's no wrong place to focus your attention, but Rydstrom does offer one suggestion. "If anyone wants to watch the movie only looking at the antenna on Stu's helmet, you can learn a lot about his mood," he says. "The shape of his antenna actually mirrors his moods through the whole movie. And at the end when he's going to drive home, and he's doing okay, it's finally straight up. But until then it's either crooked or bent into a question mark or God knows what. So there's a whole level of Lifted, the story as told through Stu's antenna."
Hungarian Oscar nominee Géza Tóth has been working as an animator for 15 years, 12 of which he's spent as head of the animation department of the University of Art and Design in Budapest. "Actually I'm quite lucky -- I gained experience from many excellent filmmakers, such as Marcell Jankovics, one of the most famous Hungarian animators, or Jerzy Kucia, who's Polish, or the Russian Yuriy Norshteyn. And I worked for John Halas as an assistant," Tóth says.
In recent years Tóth has had the most exposure in Europe making over 140 station idents for a Hungarian music channel, but prior to his Oscar-nominated short Maestro he'd never animated in 3D CGI. "I have tried a lot of techniques -- plastic puppets, traditional animated films, and some experimental techniques like scratching on film or pixilation," Tóth says. "Generally I have no recognizable graphic style in my films, because usually I'm hoping to find the most appropriate visual style to fit each story."
Maestro, the bulk of which unfolds in a single continuous shot in a dressing room, shows a bird-like puppet in front of a mirror getting ready for some unknown performance. The camera makes three and a half circuits around the room, circling the main character as a mechanical arm comes out of the wall and helps the bird handle its various toiletries spread on the counter before him. There are obvious big tricks unfolding in the short -- mainly the big reveal at the end as we discover what's outside the room -- but there's more subtle trickery happening as well, particularly in the camera movement. The arc of the camera's glide takes it around the room at a variety of heights, and on one pass it actually passes into an impossible space behind the mirror looking out, a gag only possible in a virtual environment.
The setting for the short, a wood-paneled dressing room that turns out to be the miniature birdhouse of a cuckoo clock, was inspired by household items Tóth played with growing up. "I grew up with old pictures and furniture in a household that used a lot of antiques, and I found that these objects all have their own tales to tell. We had a clock quite similar to the one in the short. I was always charmed by it. But of course I never saw it from the inside."
The character, meanwhile, was borne out of a visit Tóth made to an aging denizen of the Hungarian Opera House. The furniture and accoutrements in the room -- right down to the glass jars -- are exact copies of what Tóth found in the dressing room of the ancient opera singer. "His personality gave me the idea for the bird's nature," Tóth says, "and the greasy hair was the final touch."
Maestro turned out to be Tóth's first foray into CGI animation, but they went with CGI only after all alternatives were exhausted. "Originally we couldn't decide between doing it in puppet animation or 3D CGI," Tóth says, "but we decided to go with the latter because it gives an interesting arc to the scene as it builds on the one camera movement." The dramatic arc and the literal arc of the camera fold into one another in Maestro, since the camera's movement isn't fluid or continuous but divided into hundreds of one-second steps, circling the room like a giant clock's gear. "It's his time ticking away -- tac tac tac," says Tóth.
Tóth grew up with many opportunities to see animated shorts, most of the material coming from his native Eastern Europe. "I grew up while the Communists were in Hungary, and we saw many Russian films," Tóth says. "Actually I like them now, still. Maybe it's the melancholy, the kindness of these films, that still charms me. And I saw many of these films on the big screen, because where I was growing up in a little town in the countryside, my primary school was in the same place as the cinema. So every afternoon we saw many, many animated films. The Eastern European animation film culture was really strong then."
Now that he's an Oscar-nominated animator, Tóth says there may be a DVD compilation of his earlier films in the works. In the meantime, for the past few years he's been touring with a multimedia project incorporating 2D computer animation with live performances of works by Béla Bartók. "I adapted The Miraculous Mandarin and Bluebeard's Castle," Tóth says. "The project's been performed in many places, always with a symphony orchestra. It's an interdisciplinary experience -- I'm working with the orchestra, and I synchronize the picture with the score using the computer. I'm led by the conductor, just like a solo musician."
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. Mmm, bran muffins!
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