Heading into this coming Oscar Sunday on February 9th, catchup on AWN’s coverage of the films and creative teams nominated for this year’s Best Animated Short Film.
Unpredictable is the name of the game when it comes to the Oscar’s animated short film category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ five nominated films are diverse in subject matter, genre and technique — and yet still left out seeming sure-fire pre-nomination contenders such as Theodore Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow and Konstantin Bronzit’s follow-up to his 2015 nominated short, He Can’t Live Without Cosmos.
This year’s filmmakers are a distinct and varied bunch: Siqi Song is a CalArts student from China; Daria Kascheeva a FAMU student in the Czech Republic; Rosana Sullivan a Latina filmmaker working at Pixar; Matthew A. Cherry, an African American from Chicago and a former NFL player; and Bruno Collet, a veteran film artisan from France.
Ahead of the February 9 ceremony, here’s the rundown on the 92nd annual Academy Awards’ nominees for Outstanding Animated Short Film.
Written and directed by Daria Kashcheeva
A student at FAMU in the Czech Republic, writer and director Daria Kashcheeva says Daughter sprang from her interest in psychology, specifically how childhood relationships affect people as adults. The 15-minute film applies documentary camera techniques rare in stop-motion to tell its tale of a woman coming to terms with her childhood experiences as her hospitalized father lies near death.
The original idea was written as part of FAMU’s admission procedure and forgotten for two years before Kashcheeva returned to it when making her thesis film in her preferred medium of stop-motion. “I like to move and touch things, to be dirty; and I think stop-motion is for me,” she shares.
Daughter stands out for its handheld camera motion and rapid pace that are unusual in stop-motion. Kashcheeva says the idea came to her while watching a live-action film — she can’t remember the title — and she began studying the shooting styles to find a way to apply them to stop-motion.
”It was quite tricky,” she says. “I had to find a new solution and I actually found an old camera track and camera mount from Czech Studio and I put it all together and started to make tests.”
She began breaking down the camera work on one of her favorite movies, Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, and got enthusiastic feedback from professionals when she showed her progress at the CEE Animation Forum.
“I really wanted to make it more documentary,” she continues. “I wanted to make a feeling that there is a cinematographer who doesn’t know what I going to be next and who just experiences this situation in real time and follow the situation with the camera.”
Reaction to the finished product has been strong. Daughter won the Student Academy Award for International Schools Animation, two Cristal Awards at Annecy, and just collected a jury award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
After winning the Cristal at Annecy, Kashcheeva says host Marcel Jean told her after the presentation that he had never seen anything like i. “It was a huge pleasure to hear,” she notes. “It was a big thing for me to know that my film works.”
Written and directed by Matthew A. Cherry, produced by Karen Rupert Toliver
Born via Kickstarter, former NFL wide receiver turned filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry’s first venture into animation took off like a shot. Hair Love, a 7-minute short about an African American dad trying to help his young daughter style her hair, set a Kickstarter record for animation by soaring past its $75,000 goal to raise more than $300,000.
Picked up last spring by Sony Pictures Animation, Hair Love was animated by Six Point Harness in Los Angeles and Mercury Filmworks in Ottawa. An illustrated children’s book version was released last May, followed by the theatrical release of the short attached to the studio’s summer movie, Angry Birds 2.
The Oscar nod included an extra bonus for Cherry, with Hair Love voice actress Issa Rae announcing the nominations live on the morning of Jan. 13.
Cherry says he was drawn to animation by the attention to detail and immersive storytelling. “I just find myself really gravitating toward [animation] storytelling in recent years, with movies like Moana, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Coco.”
It was the broad reach that appealed to Cherry for a story with a positive portrayal of black families. “We have had to enjoy movies that haven’t featured us … and I wanted to do something that put a black family on screen,” he says. “Animation just felt like it made sense.”
Written and directed by Rosana Sullivan, produced by Kathryn Hendrickson
Kitbull evolved out of Pixar story artist Rosana Sullivan’s simple desire to manage stress by drawing a kitten acting a like a real cat. The film tells the story of a stray kitten happily scrounging food and living in city backstreets until befriending a pitbull being kept in the same yard. But when the pup is dumped back in the rainy yard after having been severely injured in a dogfight, the kitten helps him escape and the eventually find a loving family to take care of them both.
“It evolved out of a more personal experience about connecting,” she explains, noting that the story intentionally tugs on heart strings and tear ducts, while the 2D animation — a first for Pixar — plays to her own sense of nostalgia. “I grew up on 2D animated shorts and features and I wanted to capture that,” she says.
But figuring out how to make a 2D short at Pixar on a very tight schedule was a big task. Sullivan says they ended up gutting the CG pipeline to simplify it into a more skeletal form for 2D.
Response to the short, which premiered in January 2019 and can be seen on Disney+, has been positive. “People started to connect to the themes of empathy and trust,” Sullivan remarks. “People of all ages were able to connect with it. … We were happy a lot of people resonated with it.”
Written and directed by Bruno Collet, produced by Jean-François Le Corre
“Unlike the traditional cartoon or computer drawing, I find that puppets have a real presence,” says Bruno Collet, writer and director of his stop-motion short, Mémorable. “They exist for real! This was important to give the characters some depth.”
And depth is evident in Mémorable, in which an aging artist succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease and his world transforms and changes before his eyes in ways shaped by the art he loves.
It’s a unique approach and a tale Collet says he was compelled to tell.
“Without being personally, or in my immediate family, affected by Alzheimer's disease, I quickly realized that its development was exponential,” he states. “It seems to choose victims according to rules which are currently unknown to us. Whatever your social layer, your old profession, your life of excess or ascetic, this neurological degeneration can choose you and destroy your life. I had to deal with this subject, but I still had to find the angle with which I was going to do it.”
That angle came from the works of William Utermohlen, an American artist with Alzheimer’s who drew portraits of himself as the disease progressed to chronicle its impact. “This experience was decisive for me,” Collet says.
The film took about nine months to make and features uniquely styled puppets evoking the artwork of Vincent Van Gogh, Alberto Giacometti and Edward Hopper. The result impressed audiences — winning the Best Short Cristal at last year’s Annecy — as well as doctors and neurologists familiar with the disease. “They thought I had done a lot of research,” he shares. “It is not so. It was just by listening to some testimonies from people living with the sick that I wrote and invented this scenario. I am the first surprised that this story rings true for many spectators,” Collet adds.
Written and directed by Siqi Song
Watch the full film on the Sister website: https://songsiqi.com/sister-ampas
Sister is a story Siqi Song has wanted to tell for a long time. Born as the second child in her family long before the Chinese government officially relaxed its one-child policy in 2013, she was always aware of the lengths her parents went to have her. “My life is kind of like, I don’t take it for granted because I know I was lucky enough to get born and live a life,” she reveals.
While an animation student at CalArts — she graduated in 2016 — Song says the idea came to her when she was talking with another student from China who told her he always wanted a little sister and used to imagine how different she would make his life.
“I realized this was a really powerful moment,” says Song, who also studied art at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Song says she applies the skills she honed there sculpting and painting to making her films by hand in stop-motion. She prefers to make her puppets and sets out of wool, which she says is easy to find, apply color to, and plays well with light.
“I can create imagery that is more traditional,” she notes. “I think it’s a relatively easier material to work with. It is soft, but it is manageable.”
Running 8 minutes, Sister features a man recalling his childhood in 1990s China, playing with and teasing a younger sister who is revealed to have never been born because her parents had to abort the pregnancy under the one-child policy. The film premiered last summer at Annecy and has been honored with awards by Anima — Brussels Animation Film Festival, Aspen Shortsfest, Austin Film Festival, HollyShorts Film Festival and been nominated for awards at fests including Santa Barbara and Sundance.
Song says audiences have surprised her by laughing during the first part of the film when the young boy is playing with a sister they don’t yet know is imaginary. “I do want people to feel the joy of having a little sister in the first part of the film,” she states. “It surprised me when people were laughing and enjoying her existence…part of me thinks that’s why it works.”