Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1989

Ah, we have reached 1989. Not only are we at a new decade, but as a popular xkcd comic noted, we have arrived at a year which is closer to the moon landing than it is to present day. Then again, the first year of the Best Animated Short category (1932) is now closer to the birth of Old Hoss Radbourn* than it is to the present day. Beyond the fact that most people born in 1989 would now be finishing college, it was also a rather significant year in animation history, as it was the year that marked the beginning of the Disney Renaissance.

*Charles Gardner "Old Hoss" Radbourn was the earliest born of all 300-game winning pitchers in baseball, having been born in 1854. He began his career with the Providence Grays in 1881, and three years later won 59 games in one year, a record which may never be broken. He was also the first person to be photographed giving the finger back in 1886. He won his 300th game on June 2, 1891 and died in 1897 from neurosyphilis. Yet his spirit lives on - as snarky as ever - on Twitter.

The Walt Disney Corporation had been a titan in animation essentially since the 1920. However, the company ran into some troubled times following the death of Walt and his brother Roy. The films from the 1970s and 1980s failed to capture the financial or critical success of their earlier films. The 1980s were an especially dark time. It began on a sour note with the resignation of veteran animator Don Bluth, who started his own studio in 1979 along with several other Disney animators. The studio would go on to make films like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time, the latter two of which were produced by Steven Spielberg and smashed outgrossed Disney efforts.

Meanwhile Disney Studios tried to get by. The Fox and the Hound was a modest success, and afterward they decided to adapt Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron. The film took several years to make and cost $25 million, which at the time was the most expensive animated film ever made. However, it was tagged with a PG rating (their first for an animated film), and bombed at the box office. It was such a poor showing that there was talk of shutting down the animation division. They decided to proceed with The Great Mouse Detective, which was released a year later. It opened to good reviews, and outgrossed The Black Cauldron. The success convinced Disney to keep their animation division, which led to the release of two major box office hits in 1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the animation/live action hybrid film which broke the $100 million mark despite being rated PG and released under the Touchstone label, and Oliver & Company, which earned $50 million despite mixed reviews.

The success of these films led Disney to proceed with an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid. The film was one of the proposed projects back in the 1930s but was shelved, and had bounced around in production limbo after it was rebooted in the 1980s. With the success of Oliver & Company and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the heads of Disney were more bold in allotting a greater budget for the film. And the extra money was put to good use as the creative minds that survived the Bluth walkout crafted a brilliant story that was suspenseful yet romantic. And the decision was made to make the film into a musical, after which they brought along the team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who turned a play about man-eating plants into an off-Broadway hit. They rafted a soundtrack with a distinctive Caribbean flair.

The Little Mermaid ended up costing an estimated $40 million, which was $15 million more than The Black Cauldron, but chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was convinced it would be a hit, and it was. It opened to fantastic reviews, and while the film fell short of the $100 million plateau domestically, which Katzenberg predicted it would, it still doubled its budget. It received a nomination at the Golden Globes for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy, but it lost to Driving Miss Daisy. Miss Daisy along with four dramatic films (Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Drams, and My Left Foot) kept The Little Mermaid out from the Best Picture race, but it still picked up nominations in score and song for Menken and Ashman. It was the first nominations for films released under the Disney label since The Rescuers and Pete's Dragon both picked up Best Original Song nominations 13 years earlier. And when the duo won for Best Score an Best Song for "Under the Sea," it was the first Oscar wins for Disney since Bedknobs and Broomsticks won Best Visual Effects 19 years earlier.

The Little Mermaid marked the beginning of one of the most artistically and commercially successful eras in Disney history. After a relative dud in The Rescuers Down Under (which still made more money than The Great Mouse Detective), Disney followed with eight films, all but one of which grossed over $100 million domestically. And the one that didn't still grossed $99 million. Each of the films received at least one Oscar nomination, with Beauty and the Beast picking up the exalted Best Picture nomination. It is still known as the Disney Renaissance, and it all started in 1989 with The Little Mermaid.

Here are three other films that made a mark in the 1989 Oscars. They are the three films nominated for Best Animated Short.
Five men identified only by numbers on their coats stand on top of a platform that balances precariously over an endless abyss. Any time one of them moves, the other four must adjust their position to prevent the entire platform from toppling into the oblivion. To pass the time, they fish over the edge. One day one of them hooks onto something big. It turns out to be a mysterious box that plays music. The addition of the music box threatens to throw off the finely tuned equilibrium, especially since everybody wants to listen to it. Can they find a new balance? This intriguing film is from Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein, twin brothers from Germany. It is a classic example of a low budget film that made good. According to an interview they gave in Oliver Cotte's Secrets of Oscar-Winning Animation, they built the film set at their parents' house using parts of a ping pong table for the platform and hand-crafted puppets. They simulated the movement of the platform by changing the height of piles of books beneath the platforms which they hid underneath a piece of cloth. The entire film cost them only around 5,000 Marks. As such, the stop motion animation is also not as fluid as some other films. However, they made up for this weakness with a solid story and great stylistic design. The brothers don't give you much back story on these characters. They just drop you right in and show you the sort of life the characters leave, but don't tell you why or what the numbers mean. This allows viewers to fill in the blank. It is important to note that the film was made when Germany was still split. The brothers lived in West Germany, but I'm sure the communist East Germany cast a major pall over them during their childhood. While they didn't confirm or deny it in their interview, it's possible that the entire thing is meant to be an indictment of the Communist society. Then again, you can take the politics out and the film is still an effective social commentary about teamwork vs. selfish gains. The design of film is also very good. The film is dominated by a drab gray color: in the sky, on the platform, and on the coats the men are wearing. The only color is on the music box. The men themselves are tall and lanky with sunken eyes and skeletal fingers. All of these plus the sound effects give the film a haunting feel, which goes well with the film's message. Sure, the music box may seem like kind of a dumb prize to lead to all of the drama, but these are people whose only sources of entertainment is fishing off the side of a platform. Still, Balance is a deep and brilliant film in spite of its humble beginnings.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Hill Farm
On a remote hillside there lives a farmer and his wife in a humble farmhouse. Their assistant, a strong young shepherd who likes to sleep, lives across a valley. His job is to make sure no animals get eaten by the giant bear, who lives beyond the valley. Every day they take care of their animals. One day, their well has run dry. Even worse, they are visited by a couple of unusual visitors: a group of tourists who stand around taking pictures, and a hunting group. And then there's the giant storm. These chaotic elements serve to undermine their routine. Can things ever go back to normal? The Hill Farm is the first film by British animator Mark Baker, whose credits also include the Oscar nominated The Village (5th favorite Oscar nominated film from 1992-2001) and Jolly Roger. This film is much more episodic than the other two. Rather than having a specific plot, this film features a series of events related to a quirky cast of characters. The individual episodes themselves are quite interesting and full of rather dark humor. You never know what's going to happen next, but you're always itching to find out. For example, in one scene the group of tourists take a particular liking to one of the farmer couple's chickens. They take dozens of photographs of it, but then the farmer's wife comes over and picks off the chicken. She then nonchalantly breaks its neck and proceeds to pluck it. The head tourist is so devastated that he passes out. It is these types of fun stories that keep things interesting. Baker also uses his simple animation style as almost a storytelling device. Not only are the character and set design quite simple, but they are able to interact in a way that defy reality. For example, during the storm the wind threatens to blow the farmhouse away, but the shepherd comes to the rescue by grabbing the base that keeps it from flying off. Then the house comes crashing down once the storm ends abruptly. It's not realistic, but it's more than possible in Baker's world and you come to accept it. The film as a whole has a rather serene feel to it, and even at close to 18 minutes it doesn't feel too long. The music complements the action well, and is actually from Julian Nott, who frequently collaborates with Baker, and is also starting his more famous collaboration at around the same time: with Nick Park in the Wallace and Gromit films. The Hill Farm is not the deepest film out there, but it is an easy film to watch, and great for when you just want to kick back and relax.
Where Can I Watch It?

Korova (The Cow)
On a snowy Russian night, a young boy runs up a hill to the stable where his family's cow just gave birth to a healthy young calf. The boy watches happily as the cow tends to her child. His mother leads it to a bowl of milk and all seems well. However, a few months later the boy's parents makes a fateful decision to sell the calf. This devastates the cow who becomes listless when plowing season begins. The boy tries to cheer the up the cow by offering to become her child. The cow goes berserk and runs away. The parents are unable to find her.  What is to become of the cow? The boy finds the answer in a dream. This is the film that introduced the international animation world to Russian animator Alexandr Petrov, whose paint on glass technique as well as his storytelling style made him a distinct artist. It won him the first of four Academy Award nominations, which means that this is the fourth time I am reviewing a Petrov film. [The others in case you don't remember are Rusalka (1997), the Oscar winning The Old Man and the Sea (1999), and My Love (2007), which ranked 7th in my rankings of films from 2002-2011.] Since I've done so many of Petrov's other films I don't really need to comment much on the animation. It is just as well done as the others despite coming about a decade or more earlier. The colors are crisp and the art is detailed. The plot of this film is based off of a short story by Russian writer Andrei Platonov. It illustrates the hardships faced by Russian peasants, when things are so difficult that it is more cost effective to sell a calf to a slaughterhouse than to have another animal to feed. Most of the plot is relatively straightforward, but Petrov is known for projecting his characters' dreams and fantasies on the screen. In this case he only has one such scene, which is the boy's dream, but he uses it as the climactic scene. It not only shows the boys adoration of the cow, but also the cow's fate. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing as well. Still, while the film is quite deep it's not an example of the most enjoyable experience. The film moves at a fairly slow pace. It does have brief bursts of action, but it may still be boring for some of the less initiated viewers. The story is also quite depressing. And I think the boy is kind of annoying. Still, it is a beautiful film from the master of paint on glass animation.
Where Can I Watch It?
This was actually quite hard to find online, and usually it's Russian without subtitles. They do have it dubbed, and I guess that's as good as any.


There's not much I can say about this set of nominees, except none of them are from the US. Balance is from Germany, The Hill Farm is from Britain, and Korova is from Russia. Then again none of the nominees from 1990 or 1991 are American, so this is the first of three years without a single American nominee. There was only one US nominee in 1992, Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase, and of course that one went on to win. Of course, it's a good thing that after 30 years of being dominated by the studio system, the Academy has embraced foreign animation.

Anyways, of these three films Balance is a grand piece of social commentary, Korova is gritty realist film, and The Hill Farm is just fun to watch. Of course, Balance is also an easy watch as well. It combined both depth and entertainment, and for that is the best of the bunch. And of course the Academy agreed, giving the Lauenstein brothers the Oscar. So for all of you aspiring animators working at your parents' house, if you make a great film you may find yourself standing at the Shrine Auditorium someday holding an Oscar.

My rankings (by quality)
Balance > Korova > The Hill Farm

My rankings (by preference)
Balance > The Hill Farm > Korova


    According to an interview they gave in Oliver Cotte's Secrets of Oscar-Winning Animation, they built the film set at their parents' house using parts of a ping pong table for the platform and hand-crafted puppets.

    I did sorta wonder what that platform was made out of. It sorta looked like foam underneath though you don't get quite a good shot of it besides the surface but it's pretty facinating how they did it.

    I first saw this as part of a festival compilation tape called "The International Tournee of Animation Vol. 4", and interestingly having the scant dialogue heard in the film redubbed into English, which I see a copy of on YouTube as well. Since I see the embedded link is no longer working, this might be a good substitute for now.

    There's not much I can say about this set of nominees, except none of them are from the US. Balance is from Germany, The Hill Farm is from Britain, and Korova is from Russia. Then again none of the nominees from 1990 or 1991 are American, so this is the first of three years without a single American nominee.

    You better get use to it for a while!

  2. Thanks for finally wrriting about > "Best Animated Short - 1989" < Liked it!

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  3. I see you put Hill Farm Part One instead of Balance