Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1993

Our journey in reviewing the Oscar nominated animated shorts has taken me to 1993 Oscars. This was the first time I remember watching any parts of the Oscar ceremony. Before I get into that story, let me first clarify something. The Oscars are an annual thing, so there will have to be a way to designate which ceremony you are talking about. There are generally three ways to do so. The first way is to do the official title, which counts the ceremonies using the 1927-28 one as the first one. So for example one we are reviewing is the 66th annual Academy Awards while the one that just passed is the 85th annual Academy Awards. I don't like this method because it is annoying and requires a lot of math. An alternative method is to do it by year, but even then there are two ways to do so. One is to do it by the year of the ceremony, so in this case would be the ceremony from 1994. The other is to do it by the year the movies they were celebrating came out. So this would be the 1993 Oscars, since the films that were nominated had their release in 1993. This is the way I do it.

With that out of the way, I can now continue my trip down memory lane. (Don't be worried. Pretty soon we'll get to the years before I was born so there will be no more memories.) My memory of it is pretty fuzzy, which isn't surprising since it was 18 years ago. However, I remember my coming downstairs and seeing my mom watching something on TV. I can't remember if she told me it was the Oscars or if I even knew it was the Oscars, but I sat and watched it with her. I don't remember seeing any of the awards, which is just as well since I didn't know what films were in contention.  (I did know about The Fugitive, The Piano, and Schindler's List, but had no idea they were nominated for Best Picture until I became an Oscar fan four years later.) The only thing I remember from that night was that they were giving an honorary Oscar to an elderly redhaired lady. I remember my mom telling me that she was Deborah Kerr and she was in The King and I, but then I'm not sure if that was a real memory or just something that was placed inside because I later found out Kerr received an Honorary Oscar that year. Oh, the tricks memory play on you.

I don't remember what happened after that. My guess is that it cut to commercial and I got bored and left. It was just as well. I don't think I even know what the categories were. Maybe Best Picture and the acting awards, but I didn't know. I was just a nine year old kid. And yes, I did not know there was a Best Animated Short category. I think it would be another two years before I became aware that there was one. And to think 18 years later this would be my favorite category over Best Picture, even though as we all know the Academy is not the best judge for animated short films. So be it. Let's get this show on the road.

A man without features lies in the middle of a white void. He wakes up and establishes his surroundings. He feels the leaves in front of him, indicating that he is in the woods, and also feels features on his face. He gets up and wobbles around, feeling for something that will keep him steady. However, he is besieged by the sounds around him, which his mind perceives as something sinisters monsters attacking him. He gets a stick to try to defend himself, but that turns out to be insufficient. Oe of these monsters chase him onto a log, but soon he is pushed to his breaking point. Blindscape is a film made by British animator Stephen Palmer as an effort to pay tribute to his father, who was blind. Of course, most of the film features the man character stumbling around in the mysterious envrionment, so I'm not sure how much of a tribute it is. Seriously, there is a menacing tone that is present throughout the film. The film is structured in a way where you see the main character constantly in an amorphous background while things like trees or monsters pop in and out depending on how he is perceiving it. It is very interesting way of showing blindness, but it is also somewhat distressing. It makes you think, "Man, being blind SUCKS!" I am sure it sucks, especially if you develop it secondarily. However, it is something that can be overcome. This was much more apparent to me especially since around the same time I saw Blindscape the animated film Out of Sight was making its rounds on YouTube. This Taiwanime film* is similar to Blindscape in that it presents a girl in a formless world after she loses her guide dog, and she must form her world based on sight and sound. However, their portrayal of blindness is one of magic and wonder. Of course that is not to say that Blindscape is bad. Perhaps the feeling of distress is what Palmer wanted to portray. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The animation is very good. It is very detailed, and the effect where things appear as he feels or hears them works well. The sound effects and music are also quite effective in setting the mood. Blindscape is a good film about blindnes. I just find the mood to be quite puzzling.
Where Can I Watch It?
Blindscape is one that is harder to find. I couldn't find it anywhere online, and I still can't. The only place where I was able to find it was on the Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation Vol. 3 VHS tape. Of course, I can't find one of those online anymore.

*So Out of Sight was made in Taiwan. However, it's appearing on anime sites like Anime-Planet. That got me thinking. Is anime only for animation from Japan? Or can it also encompass animation from Asia? People already use the term "Japanime." Can we also use terms like Taiwanime or Chinanime or Koreanime for animation from those countries?

The Mighty River
This animated documentary describes the history of the St. Lawrence River, the giant waterway that runs through Quebec, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic. It was once full of abundant life and coexisted peacefully with the Indians. However, the natural balance is disrupted once Jacques Cartier claims the land for the French in the 16th century. Thus began a turbulent five hundred years relationship between the river and mankind, one that ranges from harmonious to utterly tumultuous. And it is the recent years that sees the most turmoil. What is the mighty river to do? The Mighty River is from legendary Canadian animator Frederick Back, already a two-time Oscar winner for Crac (1981) and The Man Who Planted Trees (1987). He is also one of the unsung environmentalist in the animation world, as the majority of his films embrace the beauty of the natural world, and man's effects on the ecological balance, both good and bad. This is clearly evident in this film. Back spends the first four minutes describing the majesty of the river and the diverse wildlife. And yet it sets up for the arrival of mankind. The next eighteen minutes is about the tenuous relationship between man and river. He shows us how man's definition of progress in the foundation of trade and industry has an adverse effect on the natural wildlife. Animals are slaughtered for various reasons. The forests are pillaged for their wood and for land. There are scenes where the two parties are in equilibrium, but those moments are few and sandwiched between images of desecration and slaughter. The film ends with a plea for environmental conscientiousness; to protect what we have left of the beauty of nature. It is a theme that is in all of Back's films, and no more so than this one. Animated documentaries feel strange to me. It aims to present a slice of life, but in a way that utilizes a 100% man-made medium. However, the animation in The Mighty River is quite beautiful. The film is full of images of wild animals lovingly rendered in the soft style that is so characteristic of Back (with contribution from Wang Shui-Bo, who would go on to make the Oscar-nominated Sunrise Over Tiananment Square.) There are so many birds, fishes, and walruses onscreen that it makes your head spin. And then you get to see those same birds, fishes, and walruses getting killed and stripped of their flesh in the same animation style. The English version features narration by Donald Sutherland, which is adequate but also somewhat boring. In fact, while the film is beautiful I found myself getting bored over the 24-minute running time. Perhaps the environmental focus is too dry for me. It is a gorgeous film, but not one of my favorites.
Where Can I Watch It?

Small Talk
Two men stand on a busy street corner waiting to cross. One of them is a big rough-looking biker dude, while the other is a quaint, petit little fellow. The biker man turns to his smaller companion and threatens him out of nowhere. Of course the smaller guy does not take that sort of treatment very well and proceeds to knock the antagonist out with a crotch shot and a head butt. So begins the eventful day of Sid, a mild-mannered man with a lot of connections. The day will see him confront a corrupt cop and even the Queen herself! Small Talk is another nominated film from a renowned animator, this time from across the Atlantic. Bob Godfrey has built up quite a name for himself over the years. He produced several children's cartoon series such as Henry's Cat, and also made the Do It Yourself Film Animation Show, which inspired legions of British children like Nick Park. Of course it is with his adult films that won him the most success from the Academy. He won once and was nominated two other times with films that were stuffed with sexual innuendo, both explicit and implied. Small Talk seems rather mild in comparison. The film is essentially a man telling three tales, each taller than the last. Of course each of them is also duller than the last. The stories seem interesting on the surface, but for some reason Godfrey's storytelling acumen failed him this time. While in the past he made mundane films wildly entertaining, in this case he made interesting stories boring. They just sort of plod along offering no real excitement and no lasting lession either. The description on the videocassette says, "the other relates an even more amazing story." However, even that was a whiff, as the film ends on a weak note. The animation from Godfrey fits in with his past style and is crisp and clean, with the latter descriptor fitting in more ways than one. It's well done, but not dazzling. The narration from Godfrey himself is also adequate but nothing to write home about. When you consider the fact that Small Talk was one of the hardest films to find, it is definitely one of the bigger disappointments.
Where Can I Watch It?
As it stands, Small Talk remains one of the harder Oscar nominated shorts to find. Control over Bob Godfrey's animated shorts remains with his family, and they have a pretty tight hold on them. A few of his shorts have leaked on YouTube occasionally, but they've generally been removed. Small Talk was never one of them, at least that I know of. They made it available briefly some time ago, but the issue caused a lot of controversy online and it was quickly removed. Right now the only place I know that has it is the Wichita Public Library, who owns a videocassette of the short as part of their rather impressive collection of Oscar nominated short films.

The Village
In the middle of a forest lies an isolated village whose inhabitants are as secluded as the village itself. The villagers keep to themselves, pretending to mind their own business, but in reality they know exactly what everybody else is doing. One burly, violent man has his eyes on an elderly man who spends his free time admiring his gold. Meanwhile, the man's tortured wife is attracted to a bespectacled outcast who plants trees, but they were never able to consummate their love thanks to the ever vigilant eye of a nosy neighbor. One day, the violent man decides to kill the elderly man to steal his gold, framing the outcast when he was at it. This sets in motion a series of events that will change the village. The Village is the second film by British animator Mark Baker, whose simple animation style has become a defining characteristic, along with his excellent storytelling skills. He is renowed enough to be one of the non-Japanese animators invited to contribute to the 2003 film Winter Days. (Warning: scene is NSFW). His first film, the Oscar-nominated The Hill Farm (1989) was a series of simple vignettes involving a central cast of characters. The Village is more of a narrative, and what a story it is. It is easily the most haunting of Baker's three nominated films (the third being Jolly Roger, reviewed here). The story itself is quite complex. There is a diverse group of characters, each with their own secrets and desires. Other than the ones listed above there is the priest with a weakness for alcohol, and the prisoner in the dungeon who is held for an unknown reason but is trying to dig his way out. And then there are the ants. Baker manages to make each character distinct thanks in part to his simple but effective character design and use of expressions. And the rest of the story falls into place once you have the characters down. Beyond the story and the character, The Village also deals with a myriad of themes. One that sticks out the most to me is hypocrisy. You have a group of churchgoing people whose only spends time together at church, even with a courtyard on which they can congregate. Yet they spend all of their time locked up in their houses staring suspiciously at each other. The only thing that brings them together is in the condemnation of an outcast following the death of one of their own. The music by Wallace and Gromit composer Julian Nott also adds to the doom and gloom atmosphere. And there are bits of humor to break up the melancholy, but make no mistake, The Village is a serious film, and what I feel is Baker's best.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Wrong Trousers
It's another day in the exciting life of Gromit and his idiot inventor friend Wallace, but this one is extra special for Gromit. It's his birthday! However, Wallace seems more concerned about the dire financial straits they're in, so much so that he decides to rent out a space room, but not before giving Gromit his present: a mechanical pair of pants he calls the Techno Trousers. He built it so he wouldn't have to expend the extra energy walking his faithful friend. Meanwhile, Wallace rents the spare room to a penguin, who takes a liking to Gromit's room and ends up taking Gromit's spot as faithful friend. However, there is much more to Penguin that meets the eye, and it is up to Gromit to find out what it is. The Wrong Trousers is the second film in the acclaimed Wallace and Gromit series. The first film, A Grand Day Out, was a fine film and was even nominated for an Academy Award. However, The Wrong Trousers elevated the series to a new level and firmly established Nick Park as one of the great modern animators. Like its successors A Close Shave and A Matter of Loaf and Death, this film derives a lot of humor from well-crafted visual gags and slapstick, a lot of which stems from playing around with the audiences' expectations, either going contrary to it or rewarding it after a delay. This keeps the comedy fresh throughout the film. It is complemented by a strong story that borrows from several genres, including a crime angle that feels almost noirish that makes up much of the film's second half. It gets to be quite dark as film noirs are wont to be, but there are enough slapstick and sight gags that the mood never gets real serious. The second half of the film is also full of two brilliant conceived climactic sequences: the caper scene and the chase on the train tracks. Both scenes throw plausibility out the window but are breathtaking nonetheless. The animation itself seems cruder than even A Close Shave two years later, but it is still excellent and does not detract from the film. Julian Nott's excellent soundtrack sets the tone for the film. Other than the extremely catchy theme song, the soundtrack also includes many other musical pieces that add to the mood. The Wrong Trousers is a modern classic and one of the finest animated films.
Where Can I Watch It?
Like its Oscar winning successor A Close Shave, Aardman has had a pretty harsh leash on letting people watch this film for free. The only site with the full version is Romanian. However, it is readily available. You can find it on iTunes along with A Close Shave and A Grand Day Out. It is also available on Amazon instant video and on DVD with the Wallace and Gromit: Three Amazing Adventures and Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection DVD sets.
Well, these are my thoughts from the nominated shorts of 1993. It was a decent group of nominees, although for me it two films stand out above the rest: The Village and The Wrong Trousers. The Village is a deep and excellent film that would be a front-runner in any other year. However, it just has to come out in the same year as a masterpiece from one of the top animators. I'm hard pressed to think of any film that could top The Wrong Trousers in terms of the storytelling and entertainment factors. I'm sure my review is far from doing it justice. Naturally, The Wrong Trousers came out on top, a well deserved win.

My rankings (by quality)
The Wrong Trousers > The Village > The Mighty River > Blindscape > Small Talk

My rankings (by preference)
The Wrong Trousers > The Village > Blindscape > The Mighty River > Small Talk


  1. "Is anime only for animation from Japan? Or can it also encompass animation from Asia? People already use the term "Japanime." Can we also use terms like Taiwanime or Chinanime or Koreanime for animation from those countries?"

    I would rather we didn't. In the end, the wording itself as "Anime" was really Japan's way to shorten the word "Animation" down to a portmanteau they could say easier and us less characters to write (though when it came to domestic productions, prior to the "anime" distinction they were using "Terebi Manga" (or "TV Comics") to describe those works going back to the 1960's. I don't really like to separate animation from other Asian countries in the matter you suggested as it just sorta seems ingrating to me (of course we've already been through that as novice fans of anime in the past).

    "Perhaps the environmental focus is too dry for me. It is a gorgeous film, but not one of my favorites."

    Yeah it might not be for anyone not into the issues presented in the film. I think "The Mighty River" tries very hard to top what Back did with both "Crac" and "The Man Who Planted Trees" yet forgets the kind of personal love or relationships we see develop in those other films.

    Shame I didn't catch "Small Talk", but had seen many of Bob Godfrey's other films anyway. It is a shame the family hasn't quite come to terms with how to deal with releaseing the films in any form whatsoever (either on a physical media or digital). They would rather sell them for a price, yet the means to do so doesn't quite fit in with the age and accessibility of the material itself (which I feel should be either free online with a watermark or sold in a compilation set with some nice background info/extras). That would seem reasonable to me personally.

    Of the three Mark Baker films I've seen, I would recommend "The Village" personally out of them all for it's narrative (and one that leaves me still reeling at the end).

    1. I'd rather them make it available at a price than make them not available at all.

    2. Too bad Channel 4 took down it's YouTube channel sometime last year. Miss the library of short films it contained.

      Here's "Small Talk" uploaded by the animator of the piece for Godfrey!


    Blindscape is back