Saturday, March 31, 2012

Best Animated Short - 2000

Well, we've reached the final year of the second millennium, or the first year of the third millennium, depending on your stance on these definitions. At any rate, this year's Oscar race started out to be quite special, as the Chinese film 臥虎藏龍 (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) earned ten nominations, including Best Picture.  Yet it ended up kind of a downer. While it won four Academy Awards in the end, including Best Foreign Language Film (the first for a Chinese film), it lost out on the two top prizes. Losing Best Picture was not entirely unexpected, but losing the Best Director award was a bit more crushing. 李安 (Ang Lee) won the DGA award, which should have made him a front-runner. Instead he became only the sixth person in 50 years to win the DGA and lose the Oscar. He would eventually win the Oscar in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, but it would have been better to see him win for a Chinese film.

Anyways, enough of that tangent. This is supposed to be about Best Animated Short. There was something quite different about the race in this category, although this difference was once quite common. What is this difference? Well, there was only three nominees. It was the first time in nine years that happened, and it hasn't happened since. So why was there only three nominees? Well, it would be helpful to review the rules for the short film categories as stated on the Academy Awards website.

So Rule Nineteen on the latest official Academy Award rules is dedicated to the short film categories. The rule has five sections. The first section is on the definition of a short film. It is essentially an original work that is less than 40 minutes and does not include adverts, clips from feature films (so the animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1 would not be eligible), or unaired episodes of TV series*.

*This rule kind of confuses me, since one of the shorts that made it onto the longlist this past year was Thank You, which was essentially an unaired episode of Adventure Time. Maybe because it went through the confusing eligibility criteria, which we'll explore later.

Section II details the two categories, including giving the definition of what the Academy accepts as animation. According to AMPAS, anything "created by using a frame-by-frame technique" qualifies as animation. This includes "cel animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutouts, pins, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects, and drawing on the film frame itself." I'm not entirely sure what "camera multiple pass imagery" is, but other than that and kaleidoscopic effects, I can think of nominees that fulfill most of those other forms. They also specify that anything submitted under documentary short cannot be submitted for the animated short, even if they are animated. And I can think of four documentary short nominees that were largely animated. (There's probably more.)

Section III lists the eligibility requirements. The main method for a short film to become eligible is to have a public showing at Los Angeles County. There's a whole bunch of other requirements regards to how frequently it was shown, as well as the projection and sound rules. It's a lot of specific detail that if I wanted to go into them it'll just be cut and paste from the site. Two other ways a film can become eligible is if it wins a competitive award at an approved film festival. The only way a student film can become eligible is if it wins a Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards. An eligible film can become disqualified if over 10% of it is shown on television, video, or internet before its theatrical release or festival run. This rule was instituted after Richard Williams's A Christmas Carol won in 1972 despite being a made-for-TV special.

Your film might fulfill the eligibility requirements, but it still has to be submitted. That was why Pixar's Hawaiian Vacation and the majority of the Warner Bros. classics (like Duck Amuck and What's Opera Doc) were not in the award scene. Section IV explains how to submit an eligible film. It must be submitted on 35mm or 70mm film, or on a digital format that fits in with the complex criteria listed in section III.A.1. The film must be the exact same as the one that qualified, and must be in English or have English subtitles. Films that advance to the shortlist (will be explained later) must be submitted again in whatever format the first submission was, as well as on DVD. Films that are nominated will be kept in the archives (probably to prevent what happened back in 1945, when Rippling Romance was nominated but is now considered lost. That means they have must have a copy of Lorenzo in their archives!) Finally, this section says that the person nominated with the film will be "the individual most directly responsible for the concept and creative execution of the film," with a cap set at two awards. If there are more than two that fit, then the company that owns the copyright must decide who should be nominated. This is in contrast to the past when the producer automatically gets the Oscar. That's how Walt Disney won so many Oscars, and why Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera never won an Oscar. (All seven of their Tom & Jerry Oscars went to Fred Quimby.)

Finally, section V is about voting! What's the criteria that the voters are looking for? Well, the Academy says "excellence of the entries shall be judged on the basis of originality, entertainment and production quality without regard to cost of production or subject matter." So a cheap but pure inferior work shouldn't technically be nominated over an extravagant but raunchy superior work. Whether or not that's the case is up to debate. Anyways, once all of the qualifying films are determined (the longlist), a Reviewing Committee made up of members of the "Short Films and Feature Animation Branch" will watch ALL of the films (there's usually well over 30) and rank them on a scale of 6 - 10, where 10 is excellent and 6 is poor. The ten highest ranked films with an average over 7.5 will move onto the shorlist. The minimum number of films that can be on the shortlist is six. If less than 10 films get an average over 7.5 but it's still greater than six, then that many films will constitute the shortlist. If less than six films get an average over 7.5, then the next highest rated films will advance to the shortlist until six is reached. To determine the nomination, a "Branch Nominating Committee" made up of all members of the branch will watch all of the shortlisted films. They will rank the films using the same 6 - 10 scale, and the films receiving a score higher than 7.5 will be nominated, with a maximum of five and minimum of three. Finally, to determine the winner, all Academy members who saw all of the nominated films in a theater will get a ballot where they get to vote for one film in each category.

Section VI basically says that only nominated films can use the term "Academy Award" in their advertisements. A film like The Cat Piano which was on the shortlist but was not nominated cannot advertise with "Academy Award shortlisted film." (How The Cat Piano received a lower average score than The Lady and the Reaper or Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty I will never know.)

Unfortunately I couldn't track down older rules, but I assume that the rules probably hadn't changed much in the past twelve years. So in other words, a year with only three nominations like 2000 must have had only three films receive a score higher than 7.5. So what were those three films? Let's find out. One...two...three! Three! (Fun fact: the role of Mr. Owl in the old Tootsie Roll Pop commercial was filled by Paul Winchell, who appeared in the Oscar-winning Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day and the Oscar-nominated Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too)
Father and Daughter
A man going on a voyage takes his young daughter to the sea where he is departing. As he is about to leave, he doubles back to give his daughter one last hug before setting off for good. The girl watches him leave before going home alone. The years go by, and the daughter constantly returns to the spot where she last saw her father. Even as she grows into adolescence and adulthood, the daughter yearns for another chance to embrace her beloved father. Will she ever get that opportunity? This profoundfilm from Danish animator Michael Dudok de Wit (also known for 1994's The Monk and the Fish) explores several difficult themes, mainly love, loss, and longing. These topics are frequently explored in films, not just animated shorts, but rarely are they dealt with as effectively as this film. de Wit uses images to express the daughter's continued love instead of words, and this makes this film both universal and powerful. The film is divided into several segments, each with the same general structure only a few years apart. The daughter always returns to the spot where she had her last contact with her father, and looks out into the sea, awaiting her fathers return. There are obvious differences in each segment. In one she's at a social outing with her friends, stopping to look once they pass the point. In another she's become a mother and is taking her kids out to the spot with her husband. There are subtle differences as well. In almost every segment the daughter passes another lady, and as she gets older the person she passes becomes younger, symbolizing the advancing age of the daughter. The use of bicycles as a mode of transportation, especially the spinning of the bicycle wheel, is also symbolic of the passage of time. There are a lot of symbolism, yet unlike Madame Tutli-Putli in 2007, Father and Daughter is not weighed down from all of the metaphors. de Wit's luscious animation style consisting of largely brush strokes, his use of color, and Normand Richard's music also adds to the atmosphere. However, this is one film that demands your complete attention in order to pick up on all of the intricate details. I watched a low-resolution version the first few times I saw this film, and I didn't fully appreciate it until I got my hands on a higher-quality copy. Now I understand the depth of this fine film, although it is a bit too much on the tragic side.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Periwig-Maker
London, 1665. The Yersinia pestis bacteria is running rampant all over Europe. A secular wig maker locks himself up in his room, believing that the bacteria is spread through aerosol vapors and bodily fluids rather than a supernatural curse. His life changes when he notices a young red-headed girl across the street whose mother died of the disease. She plays around his shop before succumbing to the disease. After she dies, her spirit pays the wig maker a visit, throwing his beliefs into turmoil. That night, he goes to the mass grave to pay the girl a visit. This is another depressing piece, this time a contemplation of the meaning of death and the source of a pandemic, this time the bubonic plague. It is a loose adaptation of the Daniel Dafoe novel A Journal of the Plague Year. Most of the film features the wig maker writing into his journal, narrating his thoughts, which are lifted almost directly from the Dafoe work, although in scattered order. I haven't read the novel, so I don't know if the moments with the girl was in the original work. In my opinion the scenes where the wig-maker is narrating is a bit dry - I just don't think Dafoe's dense prose works as effectively when narrated - while the scenes with the girl inject a sense of humanity into the story. You get a much better sense of how the plague affects the citizens from watching the girl than the perspectives of the isolated wig-maker. For what it's worth, the narration by Kenneth Branagh is quite good, although it doesn't really elevate the story. The stop-motion animation, done with puppets similar to the style of Burton/Selick, is very well done. The movements are fluid, and they exude emotion through action instead of facial expressions. It's a film with high production values, but seems a bit lacking in heart.
Where Can I Watch It?

Animator Don Hertzfeldt was commissioned to produce a series of commercials for the Family Learning Channel and the Johnson & Mills Corporation. His commercials were filled with surreal and absurd situations, often accompanied by blood and guts. Needless to say, they were all rejected. All of this rejection has a negative effect on not only the animator, but also the characters that he create. What will happen when he is rejected for the final time? If you're reading this entry, chances are you've already seen Rejected. I first saw it back in 2003 at the urging of a college classmate. I didn't realize it was nominated for the Oscar until after I saw it. (Shows how much I paid attention to this category three years earlier.) I must confess that I wasn't too impressed by the film in my first viewing, but the randomness of the humor grew on me upon repeat viewings. Each of the commercials are little vignettes that don't make sense and has nothing to do with whatever they're advertising. It is probably the perfect example of non-sequiturs, the literary device where a situation has nothing to do with what precedes it. I had trouble understanding it before, but it became clear after watching Rejected. Each moment is classic, but the highlights are a 90-second sequence where a fluffy thing dances with its companions before drowning in blood from its anus, as well as the final destructive climax. In spite of its inanity, Rejected is a rather profound and personal work, depicting Hertzfeldt's dislike of corporations and advertisements. The film is animated with the same simple stick figures that has come to define Hertzfeldt's work. There was some effective use of colors at times (mostly with blood), and the climactic scene features an exciting combination of animation and camera techniques reminiscent of the Oscar-winning Manipulation (1991) as well as Hertzfeldt's earlier works like Ah, L'amour and Genre. I'm just babbling by now. At any rate, Rejected has become a cultural phenomenon, possibly due to its dark nonsensical humor. If you haven't seen it, you should at least take time to watch it. If you've already seen it, you should take time to watch it again.
Where Can I Watch It?
Embedded the one with the text commentary, because it is from Don Hertzfeldt himself.

If you think about it, this year was a major downer emotionally. All of them deal with depressing themes: loss, death, and mental instability. Rejected is the funniest of the shorts (Father and Daughter injects some humor while The Periwig-Maker is dreary throughout), and by virtue of that it's easy to see how it's become my favorite. However, Hertzfeldt's themes and styles are so different from the leanings of the Academy that it's quite amazing that it was nominated at all, especially considering how they've ignored his later works, including the critically acclaimed Bill trilogy. Not surprisingly, Father and Daughter took home the Oscar, and I can't quibble with that decision. It is a tremendous film from all standpoints: deep emotional story, excellent storytelling, fantastic filmmaking construct, and lovely animation. However, it doesn't strike a chord with me as much as another great film that deals with love, loss, and longing: 2008's La Maison en Petits Cubes. I can't really explain why.

My rankings (by quality)
Father and Daughter > Rejected > The Periwig-Maker

My rankings (by preference)
Rejected > Father and Daughter > The Periwig-Maker

Anyways, an announcement of sorts. It's taking me a lot longer to write one of these reviews than I expected, and I'm finding that I can't keep up with this two reviews a week pace. So we'll be switching to one review a week (on Wednesday) until I get better at this. Yeah, I know that it may make it a lot harder to get all of the reviews up by the 81st Best Animated Short Oscar, but I figure there's nothing wrong with that.


  1. Well, we've reached the final year of the second millennium, or the first year of the third millennium, depending on your stance on these definitions

    Most would rat on me for getting it wrong if I said 2000 so I usually have to go with 2001! It was also the year I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the big screen with measily English subtitles! Toledo never had it that good!

    2000 certainly had some great contenders didn't it (probably being sarcastic on a few)? I loved Father and Daughter the first time I saw it from a VHS copy a friend sent me.

    "Each of the commercials are little vignettes that don't make sense and has nothing to do with whatever they're advertising. It is probably the perfect example of non-sequiturs, the literary device where a situation has nothing to do with what precedes it."

    Adult Swim brings this to mind. :-P

    I didn't really care for "Rejected" when I saw it, and still am not a big fan of that sort of thing either. I typical took it as the concerns of an artist not wanting to 'sell out' him or herself to that big corporate world that otherwise is really the only way one could make a living anymore in a profession they may like to do at all. Some indie animators often have had their share of doing such ID's or advertising spots for big clients over the years (Bill Plympton is no stranger to that many times over but he gets to work in his style always). I think the only film from Hertzfeldt I ever liked was "Lily & Jim", if only for it's "He Said/She Said" approach to a blind date gone sour.

    One thing to note on the decade that followed is the obvious transition from the photochemical process of film to the impermanence of digital technology that I still find it sad to go through at all. There'll still be one or two films that may make the use of film in some form or another (conversion to or distribution of), but it's final days were numbered.

  2. That's true. You know when even Studio Ghibli is doing their films on the computer that the old way of using film is on the way out.

    1. True enough, thought one Ghibli does do in their films if you bother to noticing the image itself, they like to add a bit of film-like jutter of the frame itself as if it was a film being projected in an analog sense even though it's a digital application itself. I noticed this with Ponyo and Arrietty (though I think Ponyo was projected off a film print when I first saw it anyway).