Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1994

Whee! We're at 1994! Whenever I think of 1994 I always it as the year my youngest sister was born. And now she is 18, about ready to graduate from high school, and starting to complain about how old she is getting to be. (If I had posted the articles at the original intended rate of two a week, I might have been able to post this closer to her birthday.) But in my heart she will always be my baby sister. Awwww. 1994 was also the year that my middle sister received a box of Topps 1994 cards, the ones with my favorite font. I used to sneak over and "borrow" a pack. I ended up opening more packs of those cards than she did. Finally, 1994 was the year of one of the most epic Best Picture lineups in history. Seriously, any lineup that includes Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption is one to be reckoned with.

Of course, nobody really remembers the other two nominees. One was Quiz Show, the Robert Redford-directed drama about the Twenty-One scandal back in the 1950s that picked up four nominations, including Best Picture. The other was Four Weddings and a Funeral, the romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell that was nominated for two awards. That's right, two: Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Sure, The Blind Side and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were nominated for Best Picture with only two nominations, but that's because there were ten and nine nominees in those years. There were Best Picture nominated films in the five-nominee era with only three nominations, like Awakening, The Big Chill, The Conversation, Deliverance, and 12 Angry Men, but the last Best Picture nominee in the five nominee era with only two nominations (as far as I can tell) was Decision Before Dawn in 1951, nominated for only Best Picture and Best Editing.* It wouldn't happen again until 2009, when the Best Picture lineup expanded to ten, allowing The Blind Side and A Serious Man to pick up Best Picture nominations as one of their two nominations.

*Of course, the Best Picture lineup from 1951 was pretty epic as well: An American in Paris, A Place in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire...and Quo Vadis and Decision Before Dawn. Three out of five ain't bad.

I was pretty shocked when I found out later that Four Weddings and a Funeral was nominated for Best Picture with only two nominations. Bullets Over Broadway received seven nominations, including a Best Director nod, and didn't get a Best Picture nomination. The late Krzysztof Kieslowski's masterpiece Three Colors Red snagged the fifth Best Director nomination as one of their three, and couldn't get nominated Best Picture. My personal favorite would have been The Lion King, which picked up four nominations. Okay, so three of them were in the Best Original Song category. Still, it was the highest grossing animated film at the time. It was a beloved film in the Disney canon even then. AND it picked up the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. Alas, it fell victim to the animation bias. I'm pretty sure if there were ten nominees it could have earned one of them.

Then again, 1994 was kind of a weird year for the Oscars. Of 18 competitive categories for theatrical features, the five Best Picture nominees - among the strongest in history - combined for only seven awards. And six of them were by the Best Picture winning Forrest Gump. (The other was Pulp Fiction, which won Best Original Screenplay.) Yes, the awards were pretty evenly distributed that year. The only multiple winners were Gump, The Lion King (Original Score, Original Song), Speed (Sound, Sound Effects Editing), and Ed Wood (Supporting Actor, Makeup.) The rest of the awards went to Pulp Fiction, Blue Sky (Actress), Bullets Over Broadway (Supporting Actress), Legends of the Fall (Cinematography), The Madness of King George (Art Direction), and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Costume Design). Yep, it was an evenly distributed year.

And what does all that have to do with the Best Animated Short Oscar? Nothing whatsoever! This has just been in my mind for years and I figure now's the best opportunity to get it out of me. Anyways, onto the nominees!
The Big Story
It is the 1950s, and a frustrated young reporter for The Daily is complaining to his editor that all of these big stories are happening all over the country, and all he gets are the gimmick stories. He wants the big stories, like about a Rocky Marciano fight happening that night. However, the editor is old school and wants the young man to wait his turn. The young reporter decides to try blackmail on the editor. The two go head to head, but they are interrupted by a veteran reporter. And what he has to say doesn't please the young man at all. The Big Story, at least the version that I've seen, is only 97 seconds long. It is, as far as I know, the shortest nominee, although the version I saw lacks any credits that can add a couple of seconds if they do exist. It is, appropriately enough, one of those one-joke shorts. Much of the joke stems from the fact that all three of the characters are caricatures of Kirk Douglas, the 1950s film star who is probably best remembered today as being the father of Michael Douglas. Still, he had an impressive film career of his own, having collaborated with Stanley Kubrick in Paths of Glory and Spartacus. This film depicts him at three stages of his career. At less than two minutes long the film moves quickly, with rapid-fire dialogue in a faux Kirk Douglas voice. It makes a lot of references to America in the 1950s, although it's not very exact in the historical events, but this film was made in Britain anyways. As a caricature the filmmakers are able to use Douglas's distinct look for humorous effect. And the film has good timing. 1/3 of the film passes by before revealing the joke, which is a good move. It makes me kind of sad that I have to spoil it like this. But I'm not going to spoil the punch line, which is solid. As I mentioned, The Big Story was a British film. It was made by two puppeteers who worked on the immensely popular British TV show Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show centered around caricatures. And they made this film look good. The Kirk Douglas puppets look like the real deal yet keeps its caricature feel, and the animation is very fluid. Overall, The Big Story is not a very deep film, but it's good for what it is, a one-joke short celebrating/caricaturing one of the great Hollywood film icons. Well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?

Bob's Birthday
Bob Fish is a dentist working in Britain, and he is turning 40. While his wife Margaret is busy preparing a surprise party, Bob is in his office seeing patients who are reminding him how terrible it is to turn 40 and lusting after his assistant, who is trying to kill bugs that have been terrorizing their office plants. After contemplating about his new age milestone he goes home to his wife, not knowing what she has planned. Her frequent efforts to surprise him are unsuccessful as Bob is more interested in discussing the direction of their life together and complaining about their acquaintances, the same ones that are hiding in the living room. How will this eventful night end? I first saw Bob's Birthday when I was 12 years old, possibly the worst age to watch this film. It was the summer of 1997, when all I would do is sit at my aunt's house watching Cartoon Network, back when they showed cartoons. One of their shows was one called O Canada, which I thought was kind of funny. What does Canada have in terms of cartoons anyways? Needless to say I was too young and ignorant to know about the National Film Board of Canada and the millions of Canadian dollars they put in to recruit world class animators and fund their films. Anyways, Bob's Birthday was the first short in the first episode that I saw. It started out promising, with a colorful palette and an amusing character design with oblong heads, large spherical noses, and chubby fingers. Then they started talking. A minute in, Bob quotes Rennaissance poet Thomas Campion. And the rest of the film was Bob discussing his life with Margaret. I was 12 and all of this flew way over my head. The only things that I would remember from the short were the visual gags: the insects plaguing the plant and the scene that Cartoon Network censored with a maple leaf. Naturally I did not walk away impressed. A year later, I was reading a magazine in a waiting room for an orthodontist's appointment when I read about a new show in Britain called Bob and Margaret, based on the Oscar-winning film Bob's Birthday. I was stunned. Bob's Birthday won an Oscar? Seriously? When I went home I told my sister about this and we both shared a good laugh. It would be seven years before I gave the film another chance, and another seven years have passed since then. I am now closer to my 40th birthday than I am to that day when I saw Bob's Birthday for the first time at my aunt's house. And my opinions on the film have changed. While I still don't have enough life experiences to relate to Bob's intentions and frustrations, I at least sort of understand it. The juxtaposition of the colorful characters with the grave topics of life and relationship strikes me as being odd, but I appreciate filmmakers Alison Snowden and David Fine's efforts to use animation as a vehicle to voice such a serious topic. And there are a lot more excellent visual gags to spice up the humor than the ones I remember. Do I find the film hilarious as many reviewers have said about Bob and Margaret? No, I do not. But I will admit that this is a good film. It's just not for the kiddies in more way than one. If you're an adult, however, it's well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's been on YouTube for over a year, so I am going to embed that for now. However, I do know that NFB has removed other copies in the past, so I will link to the NFB site where it is available from the source and is more secure.

The Janitor
A plump man comes waddling onto the scene apologizing profusely for something that happened. He's carrying a broom, indicating that he works as a janitor. Yet he's not just any janitor. He just so happens to be the celestial janitor employed by none other than God himself. He goes on to tell the true story of two seminal instances in the history of the world, at least how he sees them. He tells about how he accidentally led to the Flood, and his involvement in a particular incident with God's Son. The Janitor is a student film of Vanessa Schwartz at CalArts, where she essentially animates a monologue of the same title by charactor actor Geoffrey Lewis as part of his performance troupe Celestial Navigations. The monologue itself is interesting enough, taking an irreverent look at a few important Biblican events. I suppose it may be slightly offensive to Christians, as it takes the position that God really is not in control of everything, as these situations are evidence of events that don't exactly go according to His plan. Then again it's also meant to be somewhat a light-hearted piece of a blowheart boasting about his accomplishments. The musical accompaniment fits with this analysis, as it is essentially the type of music you expect to be playing with the appearance of a pompous braggart. Lewis's use of accent along with a somewhat slurred speech almost as though he is inebriated is also a further indictment of the janitor's character. Schwartz kind of plays into this characterization by animating him as an almost pathetic figure with a pot belly and pencil thin extremities spending most of his time doing things that are almost as irreverent as the stories that he is telling. The animation itself is fairly interesting, being basically pencil drawings set against a bare, white background. The animation of the janitor himself is simple, almost as if it is a rough sketch, but then there are scenes of the Earth that is incredibly detailed. The Janitor is an interesting take of an amusing monologue, as long as you are fine with the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?
That is, if you can find it. This was a tough short to find. It was not available online. In the end I found it on a VHS tape put out by Spike and Mike's Festival of Sick and Twisted Animation. I don't even know if I can find it online anymore.

The Monk and the Fish
A monk is standing on the edge of a pond contemplating the meaning of life (or just thinking about how hungry he is) when all of a sudden a fish comes jumping out of the pond. The monk excitedly goes back to his monastery and grabs a fishing rod and a bucket. He stalks the fish and tries to catch it, but to no avail and he ends up in the water. He tries using a net with the same results. He obsesses about the fish and is unable to focus on his meditation. He uses increasingly despearate measures to catch the fish. Finally he chases the fish down the aqueduct outside the monastery. Where will the fish lead him? This film from Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit (who would go onto make the Oscar winning Father and Daughter and help animate the Knight's Tale in the Oscar nominated The Canterbury Tales) is surprisingly deep. I am not well versed in religious teachings, but from what I can see The Monk and the Fish tackles some fairly profound truths and presents it to the secular crowd. We never find out why the monk is so dead set on catching the fish, but that doesn't matter. What really matters is that his obsessive focus towards a materialist goal of catching the fish is affecting his spiritual life, and it takes a fish to show him the errors of his ways. Yet de Wit combines this message with a light-hearted that is quite funny, especially with his animation of the monk, who is plump through and through and moves with a certain cadence that is almost like a mix between dancing and bouncing. The animation quality is excellent. It is animated with a smooth watercolor look that gives it a feel of serenity even with the monk's frantic movement. The backgrounds are simple and complements the story. The monk's movement is also well timed to the music, which was made by French composer Serge Besset and based on Arcangelo Corelli's La Follia. It's a great score with a Renaissance Italian feel, and the flute solo is sublime as well. The Monk and the Fish is an amazing work by a master animator and well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?

A pair of male and female dancers express their attraction for each other with a series of dances that ends with a kiss. However, a mysterious figure appears as a black triangle. It comes between the two dancers and turns out to be a dancer dressed in black. The dark figure seduces the male dancer and sends him into a dark prison of sorts. However, he is rescued by the other dancer who appears as a square. The three dancers go on to do a series of dances that express their individuality and intimacy. Yes, this is a film centered around interpretive dances, and it works better than you would expect. Yes, I don't really get what exactly the film is trying to portray, but it is an artistic work that features some interesting designs. The dancers can appear as detailed human characters, or they may be abstract figures in the shape of humans. Sometimes they don't even resemble humans at all but amorphous beings. Sometimes the dancers are separate, but there are moments when they tranform into a larger whole. And it is almost impossible to tell whether or not the characters are male or female. I'm not sure if it is important. It's all fairly confusing, but the characters move with a wonderful fluidity that you forget you have no idea what's going on. The use of colors and shapes both basic and abstract in the film's design adds an element of emotion and mystery into the film. It's the sort of dance film that you can make only with animation, making it an effective use of the medium. The music is also very good, going from a sweet tune reflecting the sweet romance to an approach with darkness, but never losing its terrific beat. Triangle is very good for being an animated abstract dance film, although at eight minutes it may run a bit too long especially since I never really completely get what's going on, but it's well worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?

So after spending so much time on the 1994 Oscar ceremony in general I've finally finished the Animated Short nominees. To be honest I really can't say that any of these nominees are among my favorites, but they are all great films that are well worth watching, but then again I believe that about every single one of these nominees. Bob's Birthday ended up walking home with the Oscar, but I am personally more partial to The Monk and the Fish. Both are fairly deep contemplations on life presented in a relatively humorous way, but I felt de Wit's film told it in a slightly better way. But that is just me.

My rankings (by quality)
The Monk and the Fish > Bob's Birthday > The Big Story > Triangle > The Janitor

My rankings (by preference)
The Monk and the Fish > The Big Story > Bob's Birthday > Triangle > The Janitor


  1. Reminded a mention of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" shows up in an episode of "Bob & Margaret" later on, but that's not important to this post!

    A copy of "The Big Story" I got did have end credits anyway, it's basically the sound of the typewriters in the newsroom banging away as the credits go by (white text over black background), I'm sure the film last for a good 2 minutes with the end credits. For years I thought the guys who made "The Big Story" where behind the Lipton Brisk Iced Tea commercials but apparently neither of their names pop up for that.

    Though you don't mention this otherwise (since I've also had a copy of this too), there was a pencil test shot prior to animating the puppet figures that rendered the characters as hand-drawn (2D) drawings. It's pretty facinating to watch this and see how nearly flawless it was in it's final form (no doubt they used head replacements for the lip movement and expressions).

    It was probably for the best you got to see "Bob's Birthday" at all back in '97 on Cartoon Network's "O Canada" presentation (censoring aside). At that point in time I was already in college when that was on, but I thought it was nice to see something a little different and unique showing up on Cartoon Network than the usual commercialised productions (a year before they did a special called "A Night of Independent Animation" which featured several works from East Coast animators I remember watching). O Canada would last for a few years, though the NFB library utilized was between the years 1948 to 1996 and not every animated short from the NFB library was shown during it (one I recall pretty rare that showed up at least once or twice was Les Drew's "The Energy Carol" from 1975).

    I did see "Bob & Margaret" when they debuted on Comedy Central around 1998 (one of the earliest South Park VHS releases had a promo for it that showed a clip from "Bob's Birthday" since I suppose they had nothing to show for the series just yet, it was the bit with Bob in the kitchen getting ice for his drink while telling Margaret things). The TV series is so-so, though while I liked the short that preceeded it, the writing of the series seemed pretty bland and painfully obvious to me how routine things become over time. The show apparently was big enought to last four seasons (52 episodes total), though halfway through the run, the production shifted from being a UK/Canadian Co-Production to an all Canadian production, and the Fishes moved from England to Toronto, Canada (with Bob getting a new voice actor to replace one that did it before). I don't think I saw those later episodes however.

    Noticing "Triangle" as well reminded me both that and Bob's Birthday were also productions that Britian's Channel 4 was involved with. Their name hasn't come up in the blog just yet, but their reputation for animation was legendary. The streak lasted almost 20 years until the dawn of the 21st Century and simply never repeated again. There's a book about it if you can find it somewhere called "British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor" by Clare Kitson.

  2. The Janitor is now available on Vimeo ala Vanessa Swchartz