AWN’s long-time resident provocateur, Ottawa Animation Festival artistic director Chris Robinson, gets the directors behind this year’s Best Animated Short nominees - ‘Affairs of the Art,’ ‘Bestia,’ ‘Boxballet,’ ‘Robin Robin,’ and ‘The Windshield Wiper’ - to share their insightful answers to his anything but standard questions.
For someone who moans annually about the Oscars and the routinely poor list of nominations (this year’s list is actually pretty good) that don’t even come close to reflecting the wealth and depth of animated short films being made globally, I sure write about them a lot.
To quote the great baller, James Harden, who allegedly whispered these words to the driver as he boarded a mid-afternoon bus to Philadelphia last week: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
Okay, let’s get down to business.
Since I already shared my thoughts last month about the Oscar shortlist for Best Animated Short, it made no sense to write about some of the same films yet again. So, instead, I decided to put together a handful of absolutely brilliant questions and hand them over to the five nominees: Joanna Quinn/Les Mills (Affairs of the Art), Hugo Covarrubius (Bestia), Anton Dyakov (Boxballet), Mikey Please (Robin Robin), and Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper). Here’s what they had to say.
Why is it so special to be nominated for an Oscar versus, say, winning at an animation or film festival? It's long been whispered that some Oscar voters don't even watch the animation shorts. Does that water the experience down at all?
Hugo Covarrubius (Bestia): I think in the case of Bestia, being nominated for an Oscar has an importance that has to do with the visibility of the subject matter on a global level and that it generates dialogue and makes people think about the effects of evil in the world rather than the over-relevance of these awards over others. The impact that Bestia has had in Chile and around the world has nothing to do with its competitive level or whether it is better than others or not. I think it will always be a good experience to be selected for a festival, to meet your colleagues, exchange ideas and thoughts, and even better if you win. I think that in the case of the Oscars, the fact that there are thousands of voters is really a double-edged sword, because, on the one hand, if you win, you will always think that your work convinced those thousands, and if not, you will think that not everyone saw it or did not understand it. It's all so relative that I think it's better not to get upset, otherwise you're easily falling into a game.
Alberto Mielgo (The Windshield Wiper): The Oscars are the award of awards. I can't think of a higher international award, impact, or recognition. There may be festivals that you like more; there may be festivals with greater artistic content and with a better or worse selection of films. Cannes or Venice may have a similar or even higher consideration in certain aspects, but the Oscars, at an international level and for all types of audiences, are the prize of the prizes. And there is nothing comparable. The importance of the Oscars is gigantic. The Academy also does something magnificent, and that is that they give the same importance to all their categories during the ceremony, which does not happen in all the festivals or in all the awards. (*Please note that this response came before #presentall23 industry general indignation.)
I cannot understand how it can be proven that the more than 9,000 members of the Academy do not watch or value our category. These rumours only harm our category, the animation industry, and the awards themselves.
Anton Dyakov (Boxballet): Imagine, an animator sits for years in his working cell. For years, his nose does not stick out into the light of day. He draws a 30-second scene. And suddenly, a call, another, dozens of calls, hundreds of calls... all of a sudden, they are interested in your feelings. "What do you feel? How do you feel?" And he turns to the pile of papers on his desk and thinks, "Damn it seems if this is how things go this year, I won’t finish this thirty-second scene"-and that’s all. I’ll tell you something special. In general, I accept it with gratitude. It is very pleasant without jokes. And the short animation is a live cartridge in a pistol, and the shooter only has one shot. In the feature film, a machine-gun belt. So I consider the shooter who hits the right target with one bullet from a single shot to be valuable.
Mikey Please (Robin Robin): What a weighted question! Ha. It feels like you have your own answer, which I look forward to reading after my own. Personally, I don't think it’s a this vs. that situation. Of course, it’s an incredible honor to have Robin Robin singled out on the Oscars stage. Mind-blowing. Awards feel nice, but they are not the goal. At least they shouldn’t be (see next answer) and though awards are a part of the festival experience, in my experience there are more important benefits and reasons to attend and get involved. For example, Robin Robin came about through a chance encounter with Sarah Cox at the Annecy Festival in the canteen.
Joanna Quinn/Les Mills (Affairs of the Art): We don’t know how many Oscar voters watch all the different categories of films - how can we possibly know? It’s the hype and publicity that make people watch movies; it creates audiences. We have to rely on the integrity and curiosity of the Oscar voters to determine what they watch and how they judge it.
It’s not a question of pitting one audience against another - it’s different strokes for different folks. We believe that we make films which are accessible to a whole range of audiences. We use humor as an essential element, and we are not at all elitist about our audience constituency.
The audience spread for the whole Oscars spectacle is massive and universal, but it doesn’t mean that the viewing public watches all the movies after the spectacle is over - simply the ones that the hype and publicity directs them to.
Animation festivals, on the other hand, cater to the already converted: knowledgeable, wised-up audiences and aficionados, or fellow animators and filmmakers themselves - basically one’s peers. Awards at festivals, of course, depend on the judgment of your peers, with the sole exception of audience prizes, and we value them greatly - why wouldn’t we? Festivals are mostly deliberately competitive, like many other forms of public entertainment, and like all competitions there are winners and losers.
What do you think the Oscar nomination will bring you in the future?
Hugo: I think it raises a lot of expectations for a new project, but sometimes I like to think about how this experience gained can be passed onto future generations of creators. I think if I have to take advantage of anything with this nomination, it's precisely that. I think it would help a lot to not think about other things, like being frustrated that your next project doesn't have the same success as the last one. And maybe everything will resurface in a more spontaneous and organic way.
Alberto: The importance of an Oscar nomination as a filmmaker is enormous. I personally fight to dignify and honor the art of animation. Winning is not only about enjoying your “Oscar moment,” but having the opportunity to speak to that room, to those producers, to those investors, to those gigantic figures of cinema and to an international audience so we can celebrate our category and our particular animation industry.
Anton: I don't know what this will bring me in the future. And most importantly, I don’t want to know, otherwise the adventure is devoid of intrigue!
Mikey: It’s true that the accolade, like all others, is a stamp of legitimacy. Hopefully, it’ll help us make more films. Having a better chance of making more films is the real prize behind any prize.
Joanna/Les: Again, who knows? Sometimes, "success" at the Oscars is an enabler or an incentive to produce more - one never knows. It also depends on how accessible the films are to audiences, and of course on other factors like the entertainment value or the effect a very strong film can have in changing people’s perception of things that they’ve never really encountered or thought about before. If your movie is successful, the title and names of the creative team will be on record and will live on publicly, and perhaps even attract funding, which is really important for individuals or small companies. It might even enhance one’s reputation as a creative individual if your short film has the fortune to become influential or even seminal, but usually this only happens in the rather insular world of animation festivals.
Do you think it really brings any long term, meaningful attention to the art of animation? Does that even matter?
Hugo: I think it depends on what we do as animation makers. If we worry about getting attention by creating films that generate a lot of sales instead of changing the way we perceive our reality, I think we will be spinning in an eternal loop where we won't have the possibility to invite the audience to be seduced by other forms of storytelling.
Alberto: It does, A LOT. This year the five nominees are not necessarily commercial or mainstream. This is already a celebration: big news that the Academy takes adult animation as a serious art. It says that the Oscars can do something for us and say both internationally and out loud that our art can be used to make ALL kinds of genres and narratives.
Anton: I can only hope so. I am a supporter of the diversity of forms, artistic styles, approaches to directing. And such attention to small independent works seems to me to increase the chances of meeting a viewer who is completely not involved in the author's animation and an author who does not work in the mainstream. There is hope.
Mikey: It would indeed be a wonderful thing for more people to discover the incredible art of short-form animation. Having attended hundreds of short film screenings (not a scratch on your own count, I’m sure), each time I’m blown away by the wealth of artistry and the unique perspectives short-form animation offers. At the same time, I feel like it’s a great cultural loss that these works remain, on the whole, fringe affairs. Anything that brings short-form animation into a mainstream viewership, be it the Oscars, festival experiences that engage the public or an anthology series on a streaming platform, is surely a good thing.
Joanna/Les: The way the Oscars brand somehow generates universal attention is of course undeniable - you can meet a Mongolian shepherd in the middle of the vastness of the Gobi Desert, and you say the word “Oscar” and they will recognize it. Whether that qualifies for meaningful attention is debatable, and whether short animated films live on significantly outside of the independent animation world again is questionable. However, let’s not forget the example of multi-Oscar winner Nick Park’s short Aardman films like Creature Comforts, or the Peppa Pig phenomenon, thought up by three very talented individuals, two of them brilliant animators. Mark Baker got three Oscar nominations for his short animated films such as The Village, The Hill Farm, etc. Certainly, these successes enhanced the careers of those particular animators and brought lots of attention to certain types of short animated films in a way that previously only the big American studios were able to do with feature-length animated films or cartoon series.
And most importantly, what are you going to wear... or should that be “who” are you going to wear?
Hugo: Ha ha ha. For the day of the ceremony, I'm going to wear a classic and not too pretentious tuxedo. For the other days, lunches, dinners, meetings, I will alternate between daytime-formal looks and the way I always dress, in black, I think.
Anton: The political situation, the coronavirus and vaccinations, plus the US consulates closed in Russia, what will I wear? What will I wear? God forbid I swim to the USA and there I’ll put on what will be from dry clothes - although they probably won’t let me in there without a tuxedo!
Mikey: I’ll have my toddler pick something out.
Joanna/Les: As yet we have no idea, but Joanna wants to be all sparkly.
The Oscars will take place on March 27th. Whether the short animation category is televised, and in what format, remains to be seen.