Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1991

So one thing about writing these reviews is that they take a lot of time to write. Before starting this project I wrote a couple of reviews for the nominees for the current year, but it never really registered how long they take, as I wrote them only once a year. When I started this project it became clear that I underestimated how long it would take to write these reviews. In the beginning a review of five nominees was taking me a good three hours. This includes the time it takes to watch a short to jog my memory of it and writing the review. Now it's taking me five to six hours. I'm spending a lot more time per short, and I don't even think the quality is getting any better. (Of course if I had any regular readers, which I don't, I might be able to get some feedback, *hint hint*)

However, hopefully things will be getting better. After all, we have left the era of five nominees and entering into the Golden Age of Three Nominees. In the 20 years between 1992-2011, five nominees were the norm. There were only two years where there were fewer than five nominees: 1996 and 2000. Conversely, in the 27 years between 1965-1991, three nominees were the norm. There were only four years with more than three nominees: 1968, 1974, 1975, and 1977. I went over the rules for this category as it currently stands in an earlier post. It states that any three to five films that fulfill a certain score criteria gets a nomination. I have no idea why there is this disparity in the number of nominees. Was there a rule change sometime between the 1991 Oscars and the 1992 Oscars, one that changed the number of nominees (with exceptions) or one that changed the score limit? Did people just grade harder? Unfortunately I hadn't been able to find the answer, as I can't find the Academy Award rules from back then.

Nevertheless, 1991 was a milestone year for animated movies at the Oscars. Before then an animated film has never been nominated for Best Picture. There have certainly been animated sequences in Best Picture nominated films from the past. There was the famous scene where Gene Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945, the same year Tom & Jerry won the Oscar for Quiet Please), although maybe people nowadays remember the scene as played in Family Guy. There was an extended animated sequence in Mary Poppins (1964) that includes the Jolly Holiday song, the Penguin Dance, and the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious song. And the Best Picture winning Annie Hall (1977) had a short animated scene. Plus there were several Best Picture nominees with animated credits. Yet those films are still primarily live action films, with animation being an extra added bonus. In over 60 years of Oscars there had not been a completely animated film nominated for Best Picture.

However, in November of 1991, Disney's Beauty and the Beast opened to rave reviews. Critics were wowed by the mature storyline as well as with the terrific animation, which was mostly traditional cel animation but showcased some impressive computer animated effects as in the jaw-dropping ballroom sequence. It was nominated for Best Motion Picture - Musical and Comedy at the Golden Globes, an honor previously awarded to the half-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and the animated The Little Mermaid (1989). While those films wound up losing, Beauty and the Beast achieve a milestone by becoming the first animated film to win the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture. A few days later it was announced as one of the Best Picture nominees, alongside Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, and The Silence of the Lambs. Alas, it walked away with only the two music awards, the only awards traditionally afforded animated films, while The Silence of Lambs took home the big awards of the night.

There was hope that there would be a place for animated features in the top award at the Oscars, but for the next 18 years they kept getting shot down. Films like Aladdin, The Lion King (which won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture), Toy Story, Toy Story 2 (which also won the GG), Chicken Run, Shrek, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E were all shut out of the Best Picture race. It wasn't until the Academy voted to increase the number of Best Picture nominees to 10 before the 2009 Oscars that Up managed to pick up the Best Picture nod. A year later Toy Story 3 joined the crowd. Naturally, they had no shot of winning. 75 years after Snow White introduced feature animation, animated features still occupy a Rodney Dangerfield spot in the Oscar race. But for one Oscar season in 1991, they had a chance to hope.

At least animation still has a chance to shine every year in the Best Animated Short category. Here are the nominees from 1991.
'Twas early in the spring when he decided to go for to work up in the woods in North Ontar-I-O. And the unemployment office said they sent him through to the Little Abitibi and the survey crew. And the blackflies, the little blackflies, always the blackfly no matter where he goes. He'll die with the blackfly picking his bones. In North Ontar-I-O, I-O. In North Ontar-I-O. Back in the 1940s, Canadian folk singer and songwriter Wade Hemworth was working on a surveyor in the northern part of the country. His experiences there, especially the ones involving the insects in the region, led him to write "The Blackfly Song." Over 40 years later, Canadian animator Chris Hinton used the song for an animated short. He listened to the fast-paced and upbeat song and crafted an equally fast-paced and upbeat short to complement the song. It features a hapless young protagonist (young Wade?) struggling with the blackflies that swarm around him day and night as he was working on the dam project. The animation is colorful, with a serene colored pencil look. It is also full of visual gags. The protagonist goes through extreme lengths to escape the flies with no success. Forest animals play musical instruments. And anthropomorphized blackflies follow him no matter where he goes. The film is delightful and it should entertain viewers both young and old. However, the real charmer in this film is Wade Hemsworth's Blackfly Song. As mentioned it's fast-paced and upbeat, and it's got a chorus that will stick in your head for hours. And before you say that's a bad thing, the song is just so catchy and homely that you don't mind it. Overall Blackfly is a fun little short from our neighbor up north. It's not going to change your life or anything, but it is good for lifting your mood if you've had a bad day. It reminds you that no matter what happened to you, at least you weren't swarmed by blackflies who will pick your bones and give you onchocerciasis.
Where Can I Watch It?

A cartoonist sits down at his work station and draws a cartoon head. He decides he doesn't like it and wipes it away. He then draws a cartoon body, but dislikes that as well and wipes that away too, spilling some ink in the process. The abandoned animated character comes to life, bouncing into the frame, with the ink coming along for the ride, aping his movement. The character decides to have some fun with the ink, turning it into a ball. However, his misadventures with the ball catches the attention of the animator, who decides to have some fun with his creation, much to the latter's dismay. The theme of animators interacting with their creations is one of the oldest in animation. It was featured in Adam, one of the nominees from 1992. It was also present in Gertie the Dinosaur, one of the earliest animated shorts dating back to 1914. Animators from back then have been trying to insert themselves in their creations, which Winsor McCay did at the end of Gertie. Using a combination of pixilation, which is essentially stop motion animation with live actors, 2D and 3D animation, British animator Daniel Greaves made Manipulation one of the more memorable entries in this sub-genre. There have been many cases in the past of live actors interacting with 2D animated chracters where the animation is added after the fact (like the scenes from Mary Poppins I linked to earlier), and also live actors interacting with stop-motion characters, like with Jiri Trnka's The Hand. But I can't think of any pieces of animation with such a level of interaction between 2D and 3D as with Manipulation. Not only is the animator in this piece doing things to this character, like stretching out his arms and letting them hit his head, but the character is doing things to the environment. In one scene the character gets angry and punches the paper, leaving a dent. The animator is also able to lift the character straight from the page and torment him there. And the torment that the animator dishes is quite sadistic, which adds an extra degree of fun to the experience. Even though the character is quite non-descript, with a round head and a chubby nose, by the end you'll feel somewhat sorry for the guy, even as you laugh at his misfortune. Sure, Don Hertzfeldt's Genre, which came five years later, used essentially the same technique with better jokes. However, Manipulation is still a groundbreaking work that is quite enjoyable even 20 years later.
Where Can I Watch It?

An old man and an old lady live in the same apartment complex. They see each other in the elevator but otherwise don't interact. The old man lives alone with his cats and plays with a troupe of musicians, while the old lady lives above him and works on models of the Titanic. One day after returning home, the old lady decides to take a bath. She fills the tub, but unbeknownst to her the pipe has been leaking water, and water has been dripping into the old man's apartment. He pays her a visit to fix things, but what happens during the visit will change both of their lives. Strings is a film by Canadian animator Wendy Tilby, who later teamed up with Amanda Forbis to create two memorable, Oscar nominated films in When the Day Breaks and Wild Life. It kind of reminds me of When the Day Breaks as it seems to comment on the that people have with each other, even if they don't acknowledge it. At least that's what I think. It's not quite as dreary as When the Day Breaks, but it does challenge me in the same way as the 1999 film did. Especially with the ambiguous ending. Normally it doesn't really bother me when a film ends this way, but it kind of irritates me in this case. I think it's because most of the film set me up for some sort of confrontation, but it didn't quite work out the way I thought. Furthermore, I'm not entirely sold by the film's title. Sure, the film is full of references to strings: the strings that are part of the elevator that the characters ride, the strings that the old lady uses to complete her model, the man is part of a string quartet. Heck, even the animation is full of thin lines that are reminiscent of strings. (Maybe they are actual strings.) Still, I don't really see the connection thematically. One can probably say that it references the invisible strings that tie us together, but that seems tenuous to me. Maybe I just don't get it. At any rate, I'm not going to complain about every aspect of the film. The animation is quite marvelous. It is done in the paint on glass style that is most famously attributed to Alexandr Petrov, but Tilby uses it quite effectively. The animation may not be as detailed as Petrov's works, but it is still fluid and charming. I just wish I could say the same about the story.
Where Can I Watch It?


With only three nominees there is less to compare. Blackfly is entertaining but not very groundbreaking or deep. Strings is beautiful and deep, but it nudges too close to the border of confusing. Manipulation gave viewers the sort of interaction between animation and live action that was rarely seen, and it is quite entertaining on top of that. I know there are a lot of Strings defenders out there, but I personally think Manipulation was the best this year. Apparently so did the Oscar voters, as Manipulation came away with the Oscar. This sort of validation was good for Daniel Greaves, as he went on to make Flat World, which is even more ambitious and more entertaining than Manipulation.

My rankings (by quality)
Manipulation > Strings > Blackfly

My rankings (by preference)
Manipulation > Blackfly > Strings


  1. Not much to say for 1991 from me, they're all pretty good in my book. Two NFB contenders and one for merry ol' England!

  2. I liked Strings (now one of my favorite NFB fims on my Anddroid app).