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
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)
Where Can I See It?
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