Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1996


The year was 1996. That year saw an event that happened only a handful of times before, and has yet to happen since. From our review of the rules for the Shorts categories we know that the number of nominees can range from 3 - 5, based on how many of the shortlisted films achieve a certain benchmark. It's easier to get three and five nominees. If three or fewer films reach the benchmark score, then the top three films will be nominated. If five or more films reach the benchmark, then the top five films will receive nominations. The only way there can be four nominees is if exactly four films reach the statistical benchmark, no more, no less. That might explain why there have been 35 years with three nominees and 31 years with five nominees, but only nine years with four nominees.*

*Back in the early days of the category they didn't seem to have any limits on the number of nominees, so there were two years with six nominees, two year with seven nominees, and one year with a whopping ten nominees. That's going to be a fun review to write. -_-

I don't have much memories about the 1996 Oscar race, since it was the last year where I didn't follow the Oscars at all. I did read Time magazine almost religiously back then, so I was familiar with the films that were in the running for Best Picture, including The English Patient, which the dynamic duo of Corliss and Schickel ranked as the number 1 film of that year. It went on to win a staggering nine Oscars, which would have been tied for third at the time. Yet of the three films that won nine Oscars, The English Patient was the only film that lost any of its nominees. Yes, Gigi (1958) and The Last Emperor (1987) both went 9 for 9, and held the record for most wins by a film that swept all of its nominations until The Return of the King won all 11 of its nominations in 2003*.

*West Side Story could have accomplished that feat 42 years earlier, if only it didn't lose the Screenplay Oscar to Judgment at Nuremberg. I mean, Judgment at Nuremberg was well written, but it still saddens me to see how close West Side Story from being up there with Ben-Hur and Titanic and Return of the King.
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Canhead
Jay Clay an his spunky dog Blue are explorers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. While stopping for a rest, the weary Jay Clay is dismayed to see that his bag of provisions is empty. While Jay bemoans his misfortune, Blue goes exploring a mysterious howling coming from the direction of a group of head statues made out of head. When Jay comes out of his fetal position, he notices that Blue has gone across an large, so Jay feels sadder and lonelier than before. Yet his day goes from bad worse when one of the can head statues comes to life and becomes a demonic monster. What's the poor guy to do? Jay Clay was a claymation character created by animator Tim Hittle, who worked on stop-motion with Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and CG animation with Pixar. He was conceived in the 1970s, and had even appeared in a couple of episodes of Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s. Canhead is the second film in a trilogy featuring Jay Clay in the post-apocalyptic world. It was notable for Hittle because it presented a new way of making stop motion films. As Hittle states when he posted Canhead on YouTube, "This was shot with a 3 frame video assist frame grabber. You had 3 concurrent frames at any one time, 2 stored and one live. A breakthru in stop-mo, it allowed for more flourish and control." I don't have the technical knowledge to know exactly how it worked, but Canhead is very fluid compared to many other stop motion pictures. Another thing that makes Canhead unique is how Hittle makes this landscape using everyday items. The monster is a tin can with washers for eyes and bolts for ears. Then again all of Hittle's films have this quality. I'm not completely sold on the story, although I seem to be in the minority on this one. Hittle has always used Jay Clay as an avenue to explore psychological breakthroughs. (I mean, an early Jay Clay short on SNL is known as "Jay Clay gets depressed" and involves suicide.) However, I never got that about this film until I watched it on Vimeo and Hittle said in the description that the monster was a manifestation of Jay's psychological despair. I probably should have picked up on that, as Hittle makes it known in his use of colors and the weird scene in the middle where Jay briefly becomes a monster himself. However, it was lost on me. It probably didn't help that the first time I saw the film it was without sound, so I substituted a song in my library of approximate length. Of course, I think I prefer it over the original soundtrack. While the saxophone solo is great, I just found it distracting from the film in general. Overall, it's still quite a good film for its design and its experimental filmmaking techniques.
Where Can I Watch It?


Quest
In a world made up completely of sand, a sand being wakes up from a deep sleep. He checks a bottle lying near him only to find that it is empty. He hears the sound of dripping water and is determined to find the source. He digs in the sand but begins sinking into the hole he dug. Thus begins the quest for this hapless little sand figure, one that will take him to a world of paper, a world of rocks, and finally a world of metal. All along the way he is led by one goal: the quest for water. Will he survive the treacheries of the various landscapes and find the source of the water? This German film is another stop motion entry in this year's Best Animated Short race. It use more or less traditional techniques, so fluidity of the animation may not be on par with Canhead or even the Wallace and Gromit films. However, it is still technologically impressive. The various worlds that our sand hero traverses are all well designed and full of motion. For example, flying paper and falling rocks are all over the place in the worlds of paper and rock respectively, while the world of metal is an intricate factory landscape full of working parts and machinery. The worlds are vast and it's almost mind blowing to think of building the sets and manipulating them frame by frame. The sand hero is a little bit on the ugly side, but the filmmakers manage to fit a lot of emotion into his actions as well as his dot eyes and simple mouth, so much so that you come to care for the thing. It also helps that the sand being's quest for water is similar to the unwavering human desire to seek out something better for themselves. From this context we come to identify with the being, and the story that seemed relatively simple on the surface becomes that much more powerful. The ending is also terrific. It serves as a prime example of cosmic irony, and also harkens back to the beginning, completing the circle. It puts a solid period on the tale of the sand being. On the whole, Quest is a good contemplation of the human condition done with stop motion on technologically marvelous sets.
Where Can I Watch It?

Also available on DVD with the Animation Show of Shows

La Salla
An opera singing man child spends many happy hours playing in his room of wonders, where he can do things like fire toy cows at a painting or his French-speaking wind up bottle toy. However, every so often a hand comes out from a devilish head in the door carrying an apple. After one interruption from the hand with the apple, he opens the door to confront the being. However, the hand reaches out and punches the head clean off his body. Having been separated, the man's head can only watch hopelessly as his body ruins everything. How can he get himself out of this tragedy? La Salla, which is French for The Meeting, is a film from legendary Canadian animator Richard Condie. Condie is best known for his Oscar nominated film The Big Snit, a bizarre tale about a Scrabble game in the midst of nuclear armageddon. As strange as The Big Snit was, La Salla blows it out of the water. On the surface it's a mediation at the meaning of temptation when we already have everything we need, a worthy lesson. However, Condie fills it with enough crazy non-sequiturs to make you head spin. The toys described above barely scratches the surface of the what the man can do in his room. Furthermore, the man sings all of his lines in an opera format. Since he sings in French, there are English subtitles that appear well after the line was sung. Sometimes it was used for effect. For example, when he opens the door he sings, "I'll show you are powerless against me," but the subtitle doesn't appear until after he gets his head punched off. Of course, sometimes it just disguises how strange the lines are. "Moments ago I had everything, now there's a cow in my nose" gets my vote for the craziest line ever to appear in an Oscar nominated short film, but you wouldn't know it without subtitles because it is sung in opera form. La Salla is also Condie's brave venture into 3D computer animation. Of course, the animation quality probably looks dated even from 1996 standards, but perhaps that was deliberate. The Condie character design with the big nose and the round teeth is present, but there are 2D images of Condie faces in the background. The sound effects also add to the craziness. The man has a toy plane that uses the screaming sound effect from The Big Snit. On the whole, La Salla blends the line as being incredibly awesome and incredibly terrible in that it becomes both at the same time. However, you can't deny the fact it is a bold piece of work from a master animator.
Where Can I Watch It?
I can't embed it like the other videos, but the NFB has it available on their website.

Wat's Pig
One night, a sinister man comes into a castle to steal a pair of twin infants. When he is discovered, he drops one in the castle, and drops the other on his escape route. The latter baby, Wat, is found by a loving pig. Many years later, the former baby is a spoiled prince while Wat is working as a peasant farmer while taking care of the pig who raised him. However, war breaks out, and Wat is drafted into the army and goes into battle. After fighting a losing battle, he returns home to find that his pig had been kidnapped. In an effort to save her, he and his twin are reunited for the first time. But the enemy army is advancing. Can they win the battle? And will Wat save his pig? Wat's Pig is a claymation film from the Peter Lord, a co-founder of Aardman Animation, best known for the Wallace and Gromit series. It is an interesting film about the character contrast between a pair of twins separated at birth and raised in completely opposite environments. It's the good old nature vs. nurture debate. Around half of the film is done in split screen to show the differences in the characters' living situations and character. It shows them waking up in the morning, preparing for war, and reactions after the war. This was a very clever technique that works extremely well in this particular case, especially in the moment when the brothers are reunited. The other half of the film done in full screen serves to advance the plotline. The only complaint is that the titular character, while an adorable sow, doesn't even play enough of a role to count as a MacGuffin. The only purpose she had appears to be raising Wat, and being the driving force that led to the reunification between brothers. Still, that doesn't really mar what was otherwise an excellent story. The animation is terrific, exactly what you would expect from an Aardman film. The character design is well done, and the skies are essentially flat backgrounds made up of colored pencil, which works much better than you would expect from the description. The film is told with almost no spoken words. The only words are one word phrases uttered by characters like "Me?" The soundtrack is light and does well to carry the film's mood, although it is by no means as catchy as Julian Nott's classic Wallace and Gromit theme. Still, Wat's Pig is a great film that is a worthy part of the Aardman canon.
Where Can I Watch It?

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So this was one year where there were no traditional 2D animated nominees. Three of the four nominees this year were done in stop motion and La Salla was 3D computer animation. As far as I can tell, this was the only year in the 80-year history of this award with no 2D animation nominees. All four films also explore the human condition, with Canhead being a study on psychological barriers, Quest being about man's quest for its desire, La Salla is about temptation, while Wat's Pig explores the nature vs. nurture debate. All of them do the job well. Quest is probably the best from a technological standpoint, but Wat's Pig had the best filmmaking and storytelling. In the end this came in the era of emerging technological advancements in animation. The Academy seemed to have been more impressed by the technology, as it awarded the Oscar to Quest. However, all of the films were good.

My rankings (by quality)
Wat's Pig > Quest > Canhead > La Salla


My rankings (by preference)
Wat's Pig > Canhead > Quest > La Salla

1 comment:

  1. I'm more famliar with an earlier short that Tim Hittle made in the early 90's called "The Potato Hunter" (also featuring Jay Clay and Blue). I should see more!

    Too bad "La Salla" would be Condie's last animated film to date, he certainly left an interesting collection of short films over the years including "The Big Snit" and "Getting Started". I noticed he later provided a voice in Cordell Barker's "Runaway" from 2009.

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