Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1988

1988 was one of the more significant years in the turbulent decade of my birth. It was the year of the Bush/Dukakis presidential race, the year Soviet Russia begins its perestroika movement that will eventually contribute to the fall of the USSR. Lee Teng-Hui and Benezir Bhutto come into power in Taiwan and Pakistan respectively. US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop releases the groundbreaking report that nicotine is addictive, which may or may not (probably not) have led to tobacco giant Philip Morris buying Kraft Foods. And Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270, all victims of terrorism.

In the sports world, the Summer and Winter Olympics were held in Seoul and Calgary respectively. Kirk Gibson, who was almost essentially lame after injuring both lower extremities, hits a backdoor slider off of Dennis Eckersley blowing the minds of Jack Buck and Vin Scully. In the film world, Rain Man was the surprise box office champ, and was later the Oscar champ, taking home four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman. Dangerous Liaisons and the live action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit were big winners as well.

Yet the most significant race may have been the with the animated shorts.

Of course, that may not have been true at the time. I was only four years old when the 1988 Oscars were going on and don't know which categories were more contested and which weren't, but I assume it's the same as usual: Best Picture was the main award while the short categories were afterthoughts. Of course, people probably didn't care anymore once the show started with the debacle that was the Rob Lowe and Snow White medley. Yet looking back, I now think that this may be the most significant Best Animated Short race in the past 25 years.

Why is that? I certainly helps that all three are excellent films. One nominee was voted as one of the 50 best animated shorts by the animation industry, and the other was inducted into the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." And the third film is a fine film itself. However, other years have had great films yet may not have the significance. It also helps that the winner became one of the most significant filmmakers of our time after winning the Oscar, so that any time somebody mentions past winners they usually cite the win from this year. Of course, other winners have gone on to do great things and their races haven't been anymore significant.

What sets this one apart, I feel, is that it was an important crossroad for computer animation. True, the Academy has awarded computer animated films with a nomination in the past. They had done it two years earlier with Luxo Jr. and as far back as 1974 with Peter Foldes's Hunger. Yet this year they nominated not one but two films with computer animation. Sure, one of the films still had traditional cel animated sequences, but this was the first year that the computer animated nominees outnumber the traditionally animated nominees. And for a group who just six years earlier allegedly refused to nominate Tron for Best Visual Effects because of its use of computer animation, this is fairly significant. So you've got an interesting dynamic with this year's nominees: a fully traditionally animated film, a fully computer animated film, and a traditional/computer hybrid that serves as a commentary of sorts.
The Cat Came Back
Old Mr. Johnson is just a regular old man, who likes to sit alone in his house and play his tuba. One day his tuba playing was interrupted by a loud knock on his door. He angrily went out to see what was going on, but the rage dissipated when he saw a cute little yellow cat sitting at his doorway. He brought it in and let it play with his most prized possession: his rattle. Yet when he the cat broke the rattle, his rage returned and he strove to get it away from his life. But the cat came back, the very next day. The cat came back, they thought it was a goner, but the cat came back. It just wouldn't stay away. This funny little Canadian film is an animation set to the popular comic song of the same title. The short itself is quite simple. After an intro of sorts that introduces Mr. Johnson and the yellow cat, the film goes into the various methods that Johnson uses to get the cat away. However, they end up failing miserably, with Johnson ending up farther away from his house than the cat. And each time he gets home, he finds the cat destroying more of his beloved house. The plans begin simply enough, with Johnson driving out to the nearby woods and leaving the cat there, but they eventually become more and more over the top as Johnson is driven to insanity. And each time he gets back home the cat becomes increasingly destructive. Part of the fun becomes what exactly both the desperate Mr. Johnson and the cat will do next. Of course, the other half is the massive volume of visual humor that director Cordell Barker included. They can be obvious, like the scene where Mr. Johnson is on a self-propelled railroad car and runs over a half dozen damsels in distress, or they can be little things that you don't notice until your tenth viewing. Yet they all come together to make The Cat Came Back a delightful viewing experience. This is Barker's first short film at NFB. While the animation contains elements of Richard Condie (who also co-produced and lent his voice to the film) in the character design, and Paul Driessen (3 Misses) in the squiggly lines, Barker manages to come up with his own distinct animation style, one that he maintains in his two later films Strange Invaders and Runaway. The song is also catchy and may stay in your head for days, but it shouldn't be too bad as long as you think back to the misadventures of Mr. Johnson. The Cat Came Back is not exactly a deep film, but the frantic energy and the voluminous humor makes it one of the most popular NFB films, and one of the best.
Where Can I Watch It?

Technological Threat
The lives of workers in an office staffed by canine-like animals wearing different colored suits will change forever one day when one of them suffers a heart attack while working. Rather than call EMS, the gruff cigar-smoking boss replaces the worker with an a more efficient robot. The boss replaces the other workers with robots for different random reasons until only one is left. By this time even the boss has been replaced. When the boss leaves to go back to the office, the remaining canine worker gets his revenge against the robots, but one of them is not going down without a fight. Bill Kroyer's Technological Threat seems to serve two purposes. On one hand, it is an effective commentary about the increased reliance of technology on our lives. On the other hand, it is a well-executed tribute to the slapstick films of Tex Avery. And it does both of these very well. Technological Threat tackles the question as to the role that technology will have in our futures. While it is probably a stretch to think that people were really worried that their jobs would be outsourced to robots with the mental capacity of humans in the near future, but it does foreshadow our increasing reliance on technology, which make things easier and more efficient. This analogy works in virtually any profession. The robots could easily represent the emergence of electronic medical records (EMR) in the medical field over the old paper charting represented by the wolves. And of course it works as an allegory as to the rise of computer animation over traditional animation. The animation of the film is a clever tribute to this debate. The film is a mix between traditional cel animation and computer animation. The robots and the backgrounds are computer animated while the canine workers are done in the traditional method. Yet the entire film has the traditional 2D look and feel to it offering the hope that perhaps the two media can co-exist. Even without the analogies and the animation, the film works well as a tribute. The nod to Avery is evident in the first shot, as the office workers sitting at the desk resemble a simplified version of the wolf character in Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood. The boss character also looks like Poochini in Avery's Magical Maestro. And the film is full of the slapstick that has made Avery's films so beloved. Sure, Technological Threat doesn't quite have the same lasting humor as the real Avery films, but it's a lot better than the dumb The Wacky World of Tex Avery show that was on TV around a decade later.
Where Can I Watch It?

Tin Toy
In a brightly lit playroom, a crisp new tin toy named Tinny is eagerly awaiting the child with whom he'll be spending the rest of his life. To his dismay, his new owner is a terrorizing, slobbering monster named Billy, whose preferred method of playing with toys is sticking them in his oral orifice, covering them with his saliva, and then smashing them violently against the floor. Tinny turns to flee, but he is a toy one man band, and every step he takes only captures Billy's attention. Can he find his way to safety? Tin Toy is one of the shorts made during the first few years after Pixar split off from LucasArts. On the surface it's essentially just a cute little story about toy trying to get acquainted with his new master. It doesn't break much ground from a storytelling standpoint. Rather, what makes Tin Toy such a groundbreaking film is in its technical side. Computer animation has been around for years, and Pixar itself has already made critically acclaimed CGI films that brings emotion into anthropomorphized inanimate objects. However, Pixar has always tried to push the envelope on a technological standpoint with their short films. With Tin Toy, Pixar was wanting to try out two new programs: an animation program called Menv (Modeling ENVironment), better known today as Marionette, and a 3D rendering program titled PhotoRealistic RenderMan. Pixar still uses both pieces of software in their animation. However, while Marionette is available only at Pixar, RenderMan is used throughout the industry to help render digital effects. It played a part in the Oscar winning visual effects for Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, and helped Pixar co-founders Ed Catmull and Loren Carpenter and top executive Rob Cook pick up a pair of special Oscars that nobody really cares about. As such it was more visually impressive than the Pixar films that came before, and still looks good after almost 25 years. Moreover, the idea of life seen through the eyes of the toy eventually led to Pixar's flagship series Toy Story. In fact, Toy Story rose out of the ashes of the proposed sequel to Tin Toy. It even made significant technical history of a more dubious note. Pixar wanted to challenge themselves by making a human character with realistic features but completely animated. They ended up with Billy, the most terrifying creature to appear in an animated short on this side of the Sandman. I know that was John Lasseter's goal with Billy, to make him appear scary to Tinny, however the terror goes beyond that. The uncanny valley was an idea in robots and animation where once human characters go beyond a certain point of photo-realism, it becomes repulsive to human observers. Several researchers have cited Tin Toy as being the film that led to the uncanny valley being taken seriously in the film industry. In spite of Billy, Tin Toy is still an important milestone in the history of Pixar.
Where Can I Watch It?
They don't have Tin Toy readily available online, but it's still not a hard film to watch. You can buy it on iTunes, or you can watch it on the DVD for Toy Story, or on the Pixar Short Films Collection - Volume 1. For now, here's John Lasseter and Bill Reeves's Oscar speech.

So these are the three films that made up the historical Best Animated Short race of 1988. All three are pretty good films, but they each have their strengths and their weaknesses. For example, The Cat Came Back is a rollicking affair, but don't expect it to be especially deep. Technological Threat is deep, but it doesn't have the pizzazz as say The Cat Came Back. Tin Toy may not be deep either, but it broke ground in technology and visual storytelling in CGI animation. I would have personally gone with The Cat Came Back, but the Academy was so dazzled by Pixar's effort that they made Tin Toy the first computer animated film to win a Best Animated Short Oscar. This result would certainly go a long way in making this a landmark year, but I think it can still be considered a historical year even if The Cat Came Back had won.

My rankings (by quality)
The Cat Came Back > Tin Toy > Technological Threat

My rankings (by preference)
The Cat Came Back > Technological Threat > Tin Toy


  1. 1988 certainly seemed like an interesting year for animation surely, and I recall being impressed with seeing Roger Rabbit on the big screen when I was 10 or 11 at the time.

    I certainly noticed the Condie/Driessen influences in Barker's work on this short, but also saw what made him different from the others with his approach to action and staging. I don't have much else to say that has already been said about this film, other than this was another classic I use to see a lot when some channels like Showtime needed something to stick on to fill time between movies (though Nickelodeon often played it too).

    "Sure, Technological Threat doesn't quite have the same lasting humor as the real Avery films, but it's a lot better than the dumb The Wacky World of Tex Avery show that was on TV around a decade later."

    Ugh! That's all I have to say for that! Let's never speak of that show again!

    There's an amazing anecdote about "Technological Threat" I remember reading about that the film almost got lost during it's production. When it was produced, both the hand-drawn animation plus the vector-plotted drawings were sent overseas to a Korean studio for both ink & paint plus camera work (The studio itself mostly handled a lot of subcontracted Saturday morning stuff anyway). Bill Kroyer supervised the entire trip to and back from there so that the consistency would be managed correctly, but wanted to hold onto the camera negatives on the way back on a plane, but had to surrender the only copy of the film at the customs dept. in LA, and had it missing for a few days I think until it was eventually found. If he had only had it go through the usual luggage dept. this might not have happened but he didn't want to take chances here.

    Incidentally the canine designs in this film were from Rich Moore, who recently directed "Wreck-It Ralph" for Disney. Other noted animators on this include Rob Minkoff (The Lion King), Chris Bailey (Kim Possible) and Gregg Vanzo (The Maxx).

    That baby certainly makes the rounds for years by those who critique it's flaws and strengths at a time when wanting to render a human being with CGI was never attempted on a scale like that before. It was a lesson I'm sure Pixar learned best once they matured to a point where making a film like Toy Story was possible.

    Though while I accept that you don't want to show the short for this entry, I do like that the Academy did include a clip of their Oscar win on YouTube anyway.

    Incidentally, the opening theme used for "Tin Toy" was the opening to the popular children's program "Captain Kangaroo" on CBS for many years prior to Tin Toy, called "Puffin' Billy".

    In terms of ranking, all three shorts rank very high for me, and it's hard to really pick out which one I liked the most. They all have their strengths and weaknesses and I probably lean towards Technological Threat more myself with Tin Toy at the bottom, but that's just me and my love for "Traditional" animation I suppose, certainly from this point on we'd see more computer-generated works continue to emerge onto the scene from the commercialized/industrial sector it had originated in.

  2. Hmm. Never heard that Technology Threat story, but it certainly is interesting. Thank goodness it was eventually found. And I didn't notice Rich Moore's name in the credits, but it's certainly interesting because I really enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph. I already saw it twice.

  3. He's been at it for quite a long while such as on The Simpsons.

    Of course Bill Kroyer would go on to direct "FernGully: The Last Rainforest", but I'm sure people knew that already. I first became aware of this guy though in the late 80's for his animation on the main titles of some movies like "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" or providing animation for other sorts.

    The story itself was one that was included in the Voyager LaserDisc collection, "The World's Greatest Animation" compilation. It was one of the still-frame gallery features on the disc alongside two audio commentaries by noted animation critic Charles Solomon and the late William Mortiz.

  4. 1988 was my year and a good one too

    Brad Bird was the "special thanks" in Technological Threat which I got on my iPod now (ala Shorts International)

    1. Does make you wonder what did he say or do to get Bill to put his name in.