Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1986

We are now at 1986, which was a fairly interesting year, although most of the major events were tragedies. It began with a literal bang with the Challenger disaster, which killed six astronauts and a schoolteacher in their prime. Then in April came the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident in history, and one that still resonates in popular culture 26 years later. Thousands were killed in Cameroon in August as Lake Nyos released a large cloud of carbon dioxide. It was an up and down year for Boston sports. Roger Clemens put his stamp in baseball history for the first time with his 20-strikeout game, and then the Celtics won the NBA finals. And then they went on to draft Maryland basketball star Len Bias, seemingly ensuring a Celtics dynasty. Yet it all came crashing down only two days later when Bias died from a fatal cardiac arrhythmia after trying cocaine for the first time. The Red Sox seemed to make up for the tragedy by getting only one out away from their first World Series since 1918, but then Bob Stanley allowed the game-tying run with a wild pitch (or a passed ball depending on who you want to believe), and then the game-winning run scored when an over-eager Bill Buckner rushed to field a grounder so quickly that the intertia closed the glove, letting the ball slip between his legs.

But the most significant thing about 1986 for me personally was the birth of my younger sister. She was born on July 14, 1986, which means in ten days she'll be turning 26. It's kind of scary to think about it, as neither of us don't think of ourselves as being in the mid-20s already. (Well, late 20s for me.) It also doesn't help that we still maintain our youthful countenance and can probably pass for somebody 10 years younger than us. It's also scary to think of all of the celebrities who are younger than we are. For example, here's a short list of people that are younger than my sister: Usain Bolt, Armie Hammer, Shaun White, Ellen Page, (No Longer Lil') Bow Wow, Rachel Liang Wen Yin, Maria Sharapova, Sidney Crosby, Justin Upton, Evan Rachel Wood, Hilary Duff, Rihanna, Haley Joel Osment, Stephen Strasburg, Jeremy Lin, Derrick Rose, Emma Stone, Rory McIlroy, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Daniel Radcliffe, Michelle Wie, Taylor Swift, Kristen Stewart, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Lawrence. All of them are at least 21, and all of them are younger than my sister.

Over at the Academy Awards, the top films going in were the Vietnam War drama Platoon, and the Merchant-Ivory-Forster costume drama A Room with a View. Both had received eight nominations in a smattering of technical, screenplay, and acting categories. They both had three wins going into Best Picture, along with the Woody Allen domestic comedy-drama Hannah and Her Sisters. Hannah had won two acting Oscars (for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest) and a screenplay Oscar. Room won two technical awards and the other screenplay Oscar. Platoon had two other technical awards, and very important Best Director award, and took home the top award. Other major awards of the night included Paul Newman finally winning his first Oscar for The Color of Money. Marlee Matlin became the youngest winner for Best Actress, winning for the Best Picture-nominated Children of a Lesser God at the age of 21. Aliens won for Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects and earned Sigourney Weaver a Best Actress nomination, a first for a sci-fi flick. The Fly won Best Makeup. "Take My Breath Away" for Top Gun beat out "Somewhere Out There" and three other songs for Best Original Song. And the delightful Precious Images, which is basically a montage of great movie scenes, won Best Live Action Short.

There were a few delightful films nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar, and a few not-so-delightful ones. Let's see what they are.
The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil
New Zealand, 1902. On a dark and stormy night, a drunkard fills an empty bottle of booze with water, inadvertently picking up a frog when he was at it. He then went into the saloon and asks for a bottle, which pockets the bottle before revealing that he had no money. The barkeep wants the bottle back, so the man gives him the bottle filled with water. The plan is a success, and the drunkard rides away with his loyal dog enjoying his newly plundered good. However, what began as triumph soon devolves into terror as the man goes on a nightmarish journey through an alcohol-induced hell. The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil is an interesting animated film from the island of New Zealand. New Zealand has always been like a boring little brother to the neighboring Australia. When people think of Australia they think of the outback with koala bears and kangaroos and dingos and emus and all of the other cool marsupials. New Zealand? That's just the place where sheep and orcs outnumber people. Australia is also a trailblazer when it comes to animation in that corner of the globe. Australian animation scored a huge win back in 1976 when the animated thesis Leisure was nominated for the Animated Short Oscar. It was the first nomination secured by any country in that time zone. And later they went on to win, beating out the likes of Canada's The Street and Italy's Dedalo, which almost nobody has seen. Ten years later, New Zealand evened the score with a nomination of their own. This short was based off of a balled titled "The Devil's Daughter" by early 20th century New Zealand poet Ernie Slow. The ballad was about a drunkard named Jack Skinner who had a run in with terrifying female specter named the Devil's Daughter, and he responded by jumping on his horse and galloped off, creating tons of havoc along the way. The majority of this film echoes that plot, with a drunken man riding through the forest being stalked by nightmarish visions. The animation contributes to the atmosphere, using a combination of silhouette, slow motion, spinning cameras, and ghastly images of skeletons and demons to express the man's frightening hallucination. It's wild and fun, but it may take a couple of viewings to get what exactly is going on. And I'm still not sure what role the frog plays. The voices are all done by New Zealand actor Grant Tilly, and to be honest they don't really fit the short. He gives a lot of characters high pitched and real tinny voices, and they don't really match the art design. Nevertheless, this spooky but high-octane short would be good to watch every Halloween, and to remember that there's more to New Zealand than hobbits.
Where Can I See It?

Een Griekse Tragedie (A Greek Tragedy)
The Greek ruins are some of the most inspiring buildings in history. Not only are they architectural masterpieces pioneering some revolutionary concepts, but they have survived 2,500 years of warfare and invasions. They have outlasted the Macedonians and the Scots and all of the other barbarians throughout history. Yet they are facing their toughest task yet in the caryatids that hold up the majestic structures, who come to life after 2,500 years. How would they adjust to modern society? A Greek Tragedy was made by Belgian animator Nicole Van Goethem, and produced by Cinete, the production company that also helped Paul Driessen make his Oscar nominated 3 Misses (1999). And I will come out right now and say that A Greek Tragedy is one of the films that I just don't get. It seems to be a light-hearted poke at modern society. It opens with a majestic view of the Greek Parthenon, and then pans down to some trash lining the building and flashes a Latin phrase attributed (jokingly, I presume) to Lord Byron: "Quod non fecerunt Scoti, fecerunt Cariatidi." What the Scots didn't do, the caryatids did. And then it goes to show three scantily clad caryatids that come to life, and proceed to destroy a priceless piece of Greek architecture through bad luck brought on by various aspects of modern society. There are some funny slapstick moments in the film involving the interaction between the caryatids and their environment. However, the humorous parts of the film take up less than 1/3 of the total length. The rest of the running time is taken up by the opening which is well done but moves at a snail's pace, and a disappointing ending that went on forever and left me wondering what the heck was the point of what I just saw. The animation is decent but nothing to write home about. The caryatids' design is interesting. They have a goofy expression, a pudgy nose, and they really are scantily clad. Their breasts are visible even when their robes are intact, and they don't stay that way. The music ranges between some cool synthesizer tones and melodies that are grating on the ears. I've seen some sources say that this film is also a commentary on the women's liberation movement. I can buy that theory, but I still don't think it redeems this film. I still have to feel sorry for Nicole Van Goethem. She spent all the work making the film. It became an international success, even winning the prestigious Annency award for animated short. Yet when the Oscar nominations were announced she was not credited with the nomination for the film, having it go to the producers instead. And then she died suddenly in 2000 at the age of 58. She really got a raw deal, but I still think A Greek Tragedy is the worst nominee that I've reviewed thus far, and that's saying a lot.
Where Can I See It?

Luxo Jr.
A Luxo-brand desk lamp was sitting on the desk, just chilling, when a yellow and blue ball with a red star comes rolling along. The lamp pushes it off but it keeps rolling back. And then the lamp's young child comes bouncing along, chasing after the ball. It continues to roll it around, and in its excitement it jumps on the ball and balances on top of it. Yet joy quickly turns to sorrow as the ball deflates. What is it going to do for fun now? Luxo Jr. is the first film by Pixar Animation Studios, one of the most renowned in animation history, after it split from LucasArts. Pixar began in 1979, seven years before Luxo Jr. as The Graphics Group. It was part of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm. It was created to work on digital media and computer animation, the latter of which was pioneered by co-founder Ed Catmull. They worked a little bit on films such as Star Wars: The Wrath of Khan, but their main focus was developing hardware that would overcome the technological limitations that stunted the development of computer graphic. The resulting product was given the name "Pixar Imaging Computer," with Pixar being a faux-Spanish word using pixel as a root. (Pixar was picked because Pixer and Pixir looked terrible.) The definition, according to co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, is "to make pictures." In 1983, the the company that would become Pixar made one of their major hires. John Lasseter had been an animator at Disney. He had worked on the Oscar nominated Mickey's Christmas Carol, and had friends who worked on Tron. He was blown away by the computer animated lightcycle scenes, and became a firm believer in the role of computers in animation. He threw himself into a computer animated adaptation of the storybook The Brave Little Toaster with cel animated characters against a computer animated background. Yet when he tried to pitch the story, not only was the project canceled, but he was also given the pink slip from Disney. However, he had made connections with Catmull earlier, and was hired by the Graphics Group as an "interface designer," but what they really wanted him to do was to help make animated shorts to show off the capabilities of computer animation, which the Pixar Imaging Computer will revolutionize. Lasseter's training as an animator allowed him to merge the technical side of computer animation with the expressiveness from animation. The resultant film, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B., became a massive hit when it premiered at SIGGRAPH in 1984.

In 1986, the Graphics Group left Lucasfilm to form their own company which would produce and sell the Pixar Imaging Computer. The process was aided by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who capitalized the new company with $5 million. He spent another $5 million to purchase the Pixar Imaging Computer technology. The new company adapted the name of the product that they would sell: Pixar. With a new company selling a new product, Pixar decided to build upon the success of The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. and make another short film for SIGGRAPH to show of the graphical capability of Pixar's hardware. Lasseter had liked drawing lamps. While coming up with ideas for the short film, he eventually thought about what a baby lamp would look like. He thought through how they would be different or similar to adult lamps, and the idea for Luxo Jr. developed itself. The "Luxo" in the title was the manufacturing company who made Lasseter's lamps. The team had only six months to make Luxo Jr. before SIGGRAPH, and they worked around the clock. They put most of their focus in the characters, which were the lamps. They had to act like actual inanimate lamps, but also possess a personality of their own. The film was completed in time and debuted to great acclaim. The film was only 2 and a half minutes long, of which a minute was dedicated to credits. Despite only 90 seconds of actual activity, the film presented an engaging and funny story of a parent and child playing together. It also featured dynamic lighting effects that featured the use of shadow mapping. More importantly, it infused personality into an inanimate object. Sure, people could do things like that with stop motion animation, but the fact that Pixar was able to do this with a computer was mind-blowing to computer engineers. As Ed Catmull described it, most animators looked at computers as robots out to steal their work rather than a tool that they can use. The fact that Pixar animated a touching family moment using a computer contributed to a paradigm shift in the use of computers in animation. After the success of Luxo Jr., Pixar continued to make animated shorts for SIGGRAPH, with Red's Dream, the Oscar winning Tin Toy, and Knick Knack. However, the shorts didn't help with the sales of Pixar's hardware. After four years of losing money, Jobs sold the hardware division and focused their efforts on animation. The company brought the Luxo family back in a series of shorts for Sesame Street, and worked on various commercials. That helped tide them over while they worked on Toy Story, which was released in 1995, and they've been on the top of the animation world ever since. And yet Luxo Jr. remains one of their most influential films, and it's not only because Luxo Jr. and his first ball make an appearance in almost every Pixar film. It was the film that showed the world that there is a future in computer animation, and that Pixar would be at its forefront. Furthermore, it's still an entertaining film 26 years on. The story is tender and funny, yet it packs more emotion in its 2 minute running time than A Greek Tragedy did in six. Joy, sadness, and disappointment are all there in those two lamps. And it holds up well on an audio and visual standpoint.
Where Can I See It?

Well, it's pretty easy to tell which films I found charming and which film I didn't. The Frog, the Dog and the Devil was good, although the climax seems a bit confusing at times. A Greek Tragedy had some funny moments, but the film plodded along and didn't seem to get anywhere. Yet as I said it won the prestigious Annency award so I always get the nagging feeling I'm missing something. To me, Luxo Jr. was the cream of the crop for this year. Not only did it revolutionize the use of computers in animation, but it also arguably had a more substantial story than the other films. Alas, the Academy disagreed. They either felt that A Greek Tragedy was legitimately the better film, or they were still scared of computer animation. Either way, A Greek Tragedy won the Oscar for the producers instead of van Goethem. To me, both of those injustices were the real Greek Tragedy in the Oscar race of 1986.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
Luxo Jr. > The Frog, the Dog, and the Devil > A Greek Tragedy


  1. Funny looking back at '86 since I still kinda enjoyed the good things in the year besides the tragedies it unfolded.

    "New Zealand has always been like a boring little brother to the neighboring Australia."

    Today they're Peter Jackson's meal ticket! :-P

    The voices are all done by New Zealand actor Grant Tilly, and to be honest they don't really fit the short. He gives a lot of characters high pitched and real tinny voices, and they don't really match the art design."

    Arguably the movie doesn't need any dialogue whatsoever given the narrative pacing along that tells the story perfectly without words. The atmosphere alone is one that deserves more than one viewing obviously, but I feel it's worth it myself for a lot of those optical effects that pretty saw saw the way out by the 90's thanks to computers anyway.

    The New Zealander website "NZOnScreen" has a good copy of the short to watch, plus a little clip about how the lighting effects were created for the film.

    Nevertheless, this spooky but high-octane short would be good to watch every Halloween, and to remember that there's more to New Zealand than hobbits."

    Which is pretty much sealed as I see it. New Zealand did make one animated feature film based on popular comic strip called "Footrot Flats", though much of the work was also handled by a studio in Australia anyway.

    New Zealand also had a cute little animated short played on public television meant to tell children to go to bed every night that was a honored tradition for many years, featuring a kiwi (don't ask why a wingless bird has workable arms, it's a cartoon after all) and a cat as they wrap up another day of broadcasting and sleep on a satellite dish turned around like a bowl, set to the Māori lullaby, "Hine e Hine".

    Maybe someday!

    "And I will come out right now and say that A Greek Tragedy is one of the films that I just don't get it."

    You're not the only one! Many critics also have stated their confusion over the point of this film too.

    "Their breasts are visible even when their robes are intact, and they don't stay that way."

    That's not all we see!

    "Yet when the Oscar nominations were announced she was not credited with the nomination for the film, having it go to the producers instead. And then she died suddenly in 2000 at the age of 58. She really got a raw deal, but I still think A Greek Tragedy is the worst nominee that I've reviewed thus far, and that's saying a lot."

    Let alone the one chance a Belgian film won an Oscar at all. I see Van Goethem's earlier work involved being a background artist on several adult animated features from Belgian cartoonist Picha ("Shame of the Jungle" and "The Missing Link"). A year after "A Greek Tragedy", she would make another film that I've seen called "Vol van gratie" (Full of Grace), involving two nuns who walk into a porn shop and bought 'candles' they thought would liven things up back at a church with unexpected results. Still, for what it's worth, I enjoyed what I saw of her work and thought it was sad to hear of her passing while she was working on another short film in the process. Here's a short video of her work (though in Dutch).

    I see the film's gone off YouTube at the moment, but here's a spare...

  2. It is interesting though that the film that seemed more lightly to win the Oscar based on innvoation/technique alone (Luxo Jr.) would lose to A Greek Tragedy in the end. I would've gone for Bob Stenhouse's "The Frog, The Dog & The Devil" personally based on it's moodiness and design.

    1. Even if FDAD won, it wouldn't be as bad as AGT.

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  4. It's back

  5. Are you going to do Best Live Action Shorts (Documentary and/or Drama) Blog if you do ran out of animated winners and nominees?

    1. Nah. The Live Action and documentary shorts are hard to find and I'm not passionate about them. I was thinking about Best Animated Feature.

  6. Or animated shorts that got snubbed by Oscars?

    (You already got The Cat Piano, Oink, What's Opera, Doc?, Canary Row, Rhapsody Rabbit, You Ought To Be Pictures, Porky In Wackyland and The Band Concert).