Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Best Animated Short - 2001

So we've come to the ceremony ten years ago. This was the year that Lord of the Rings made a splash onto the scene, leading people to wonder whether or not this would finally overcome the Academy's bias against science fiction or fantasy films that cost Star Wars a Best Picture Oscar. (In the end, it wasn't.) This was also the first year of the Best Animated Feature Oscar, which Shrek pulled off the win over Monsters Inc. But it wasn't a total loss for Monsters Inc., as it helped end Randy Newman's streak of nominations without a first win at 16, when he won for his song "If I Didn't Have You." (The record is now at 20, held by sound mixer Kevin O'Connell). And then there's the Best Animated Short category. This was the first year when I became aware of the nominees of the year. Before then the nominees had always been nameless art-house independent films that I never really cared about, and that the popular stuff never gets nominated (more about that in a later entry). Then a few days before the Oscars, I went to IGN and saw this article showcasing the Oscar nominated animated shorts. They seemed interesting, but I wouldn't watch them for another five years, except for one of the nominees which I saw later that summer.

Fifty Percent Grey
A soldier wakes up in a mysterious white room with nothing but a television. The soldier has a bleeding chest wound over his heart, which hints at what this might be, and the television confirms it. The environment soon drives the soldier mad, and he blows his brains out, but his situation becomes progressively worse. This darkly comic short kind of follows a similar narrative structure as A Morning Stroll from 2011. We follow the soldier through three different environments, where they seem almost the same but has some differences that make this short interesting. It's not just the message on the televisions that are different, but the televisions themselves get progressively worse. And the soldier's condition gets increasingly worse, not just mentally but also physically as he continuously offs himself. There really isn't much of a message, but the film is incredibly entertaining and has a great ending. The computer graphic animation is crisp with a lot of detail on the televisions and the soldier itself. The environment itself is appropriately simplistic. The sound is also minimal, but effective when used. It's not going to remain with you, but it's well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?
Also available on YouTube if you can't stand the subtitles.

For the Birds
A flock of small blue birds begin congregating on a telephone wire. They all have individual personalities and get into some internal bickering, but they get interrupted by a large dim-witted bird trying to get in on the fun. They forget all of their differences and join together in making fun of the large bird's appearance. However, when the larger bird continues to ingratiate himself, the smaller birds resort to crueler methods, culminating in all out violence, but is that the best method? This short represents an technological milestone of sorts for Pixar. They were able to animate extremely detailed items in movement, which consists of not only the individual feathers on the birds, but also the wheat field in the background. It's the sort of gorgeous detail that you gloss over, but certainly aided in Sulley's fur animation in Monsters Inc. The sound editing is also good, with individual squeaks for the little birds and a loud honk for the big bird. I'm probably in the minority on this, but it is in the story aspect that I think this film falls short of some of Pixar's great shorts. It's not a bad story in any means. It's certainly a cute story, and it is more subtle in presenting its message on acceptance and prejudice than Boundin' or Day & Night. However, the story just feels kind of underdeveloped, leaving it kind of flat. It doesn't help that I found both the big bird and the little birds to be annoying. It is nifty that Pixar had given some of the little birds distinct personalities, but sadly these personalities are present in only the thirty second introductory shot, which is probably the best part of the short. So while it's a technological achievement, I'd say For the Birds falls just short of becoming a classic.
Where Can I Watch It?
There seems to be many versions on YouTube, but most have different soundtracks or the incomplete film. It is available on the Pixar Shorts DVD, as well as the DVD and the Blu-Ray for Monsters Inc. I believe it is also available on iTunes.

Give Up Yer Aul Sins
In 1960s Ireland, a TV crew has come to a Bible class to film the pupils telling a Bible story. In the end, they picked a young girl named Mary to tell the story of John the Baptist. So she tells a tale of John's last days, from his imprisonment to him hearing about Jesus's works confirming to him that Jesus is Lord, and his eventual execution by King Herod at the insistence of Herod's niece. It is quite common to take old recordings and make an animation from them. The Hubleys won two Oscars and was nominated for several more by animating recorded conversations. This film used that old strategy, taking a 30-year old recording of a young girl telling the tale of John the Baptist and animating it. They also threw in an intro of a teacher talking to her class about the assignment as the opening credits play. It gives a chance to explain what is going on. However, the sound quality of the recording is not ideal, so there is a massive drop in quality between the introduction and the story itself which is kind of distracting. The story itself has a distinct charm from being told by a little girl, but she speaks with such a strong accent that you pretty much have to follow the animation to know what exactly is going on. The animation itself is quite simple. It's got the sepia-tinted look with base scratches to give it the appearance of being from the 1960s. It cuts between young Mary telling the tale and the tale she is telling. In both there is a sort of a goofy feel to the animation, as though it is how the young girl imagines it. It's no masterpiece by any means, but it's an enjoyable nostalgic romp, great for Bible studies.
Where Can I Watch It?

Strange Invaders
Roger and Doris is a happy Canadian couple living with their dog. The problem is, they want to be parents, but Doris can't quite conceive. However, the lives change when a strange creature falls through their roof. It is a little boy who can say only one word: Peanut. The couple dotes on the kid while ignoring their dog, but then the kid begins exhibiting strange behaviors, eating everything except food and interrupting their sex. Roger tries to distract the boy by showing him the telescope, but that only leads to more erratic behavior from the boy, making Roger and Doris's lives a living nightmare. What are they to do? This animated film from Canadian animator Cordell Barker (best known for the Oscar nominated The Cat Came Back from 1988) is described best by the word bizarre, and we're not just talking about the story, which is indeed pretty strange. The animation adds to the weirdness, from the off-kilter character design to the shot design; from the eerie simplicity of the artwork to the actions of all the characters, not just the boy. Barker is not afraid to be incredibly cruel to his characters (as fans of The Cat Came Back would attest), and he seems to take pleasure at torturing poor Roger and Doris. It makes for a pretty funny piece that is unnerving at the same time. The theme song is essentially a remix of the famed Flower Duet (Sous le dome epais). It is also quite peculiar, but well done, incorporating the feel of two major themes in the film, outer space and babies. It's an enjoyable romp as long as you can stomach the its eccentricities.
Where Can I Watch It?
Not a very good quality version, but hey if you don't like it, go to the NFB website!

Stubble Trouble
Poor Og. The humble caveman is trying to perform his Darwinian duty of passing on his gene, but the lovely cavewoman he is trying to woo is not interested in his musical abilities, using his facial hair as an excuse. Og goes to shave, hoping it would win him the girl, but he finds that no matter what he does the stubble always grows back. He tries more outlandish ways of getting rid of his facial hair, but to no avail. Is he ever going to find his one true love? This quaint little piece is rather amusing. It's quite entertaining to see the various methods that poor Og tries to fight off the sorrows of his rejection. As the film is set in the faux prehistoric age of The Flinstones where dinosaurs and cavemen co-exist, all of his methods have that related theme. The animation style is simple, yet fluid and energetic. It always has a form of processing to give it the feel of being a cave drawing, which I think is rather effective. The soundtrack is also excellent, highlighted by a catchy drum beat. It's not a very deep film, in fact it may be the slightest in this rather light year, but it's thoroughly entertaining.
Where Can I Watch It?
As a loyal reader mentioned, this film is available on the website of Calabash Animation, who made the film. I'm not tech savvy enough to be able to embed it, but you can find it here.

Well, here they are, the first Oscar nominated shorts that I had read about. It feels like a rather light year. None of the nominees are incredibly deep, and only one of them can qualify as technologically groundbreaking, which is the Pixar film For the Birds. So there's no argument that it's the best film, and as expected it won the Oscar. This was Pixar's third Oscar in four nominations in seven films in this category, and it seems like nothing can topple their momentum. And yet that was the last time they won an Oscar in this category. Could it have been the introduction of the Best Animated Feature category that led to the Academy choosing to award Pixar in that category? Perhaps, but it is in my opinion that some of the later Pixar shorts aren't quite as good as the earlier ones. Could it have been that they've been focusing less time on the shorts compared to their features? That is a possibility as well. In the end, nobody but the Oscar voters would know the true reason why Pixar hasn't won in this category. Ah well. Anyways, the nominees this year may not be the deepest works, but they are all very entertaining, and well worth the time to watch them.

My rankings (by quality)
For the Birds > Strange Invaders > Fifty Percent Grey > Give Up Yer Aul Sins > Stubble Trouble

My rankings (by preference)
Stubble Trouble > Fifty Percent Grey > Strange Invaders > Give Up Yer Aul Sins > For the Birds


  1. I best remember this time as when I finally got a home computer in the house and "Fifty Percent Grey" was one of the shorts I bothered to download from the official website of the producer/studio behind it (where they told you to go to get the full production credits since they were rather cheap on not providing those on the film itself). I think this film was part of a series in Ireland that focused on different subjects/themes (I recall at the time going to the Irish Film Board's webpage to find out about this, it sounded like something the National Film Board of Canada had with it's "Canada Vignettes" series in the 70's), this just happened to be the one film that got a nomination for it's unique approach perhaps.

    I always sorta dig that devolution of the TV sets and home video players in "Fifty Percent Grey". I think the first one is a widescreen CRT monitor with a DVD player, the second is TV appears to use a LaserDisc player and the third, VHS. Those wounds though as the guy wakes up immediately heal themselves, usually leaving holes in his clothes were the shots ran through. The tagline for the short by the way is "Between good and evil, black and white, heaven and hell, in the end it's all shades of grey."

    Interesting to note another film produced in Ireland also got nominated the same year too (Give Up Yer Aul Sins"). From the looks of it, the same group also produced films reaturing other kids telling Bible stories as well. I guess the one film became popular enough to put out a short series involve the same darn premise!

    You could embed NFB videos in your blog entries if you like instead of YouTUbe. Just click on the "share it" link and you should get the code. That should work just as effective as possible.

    The GoogleVideo link for "Stubble Trouble" appears to not be working at the moment, though I found a link on "Rutube" at the moment. Upon seeing this, I thought the animation seemed quite familiar until I saw who made this. The studio itself, Calabash Animation, has mostly done commercial work for many cliants like Little Caesar's Pizza (the bouncy animation gave it away for me). They even have a good copy of the short on their site!

  2. Awesome. I always seem to have trouble when embedding from Google Video.