Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1981

We have now begun the fourth decade through the annals of Best Animated Short. And so far I have reviewed all but one of the nominees. Since we are going backwards we have arrived at the year 1981, a year that I seem to remember being as pretty tumultuous, not that I was alive for any of it.

The year began on a rather high note, as 52 American hostages were freed after being held for well over a year in Iran. This happened just as Ronald Reagan was being sworn in as President in the US. However, only two months later Reagan is shot by an insane murderous psycho who was hopelessly in lust with Jodie Foster. Thankfully, emergency medical care was much improved since the James Garfield assassination 100 years earlier and Reagan survived. The Space Shuttle program launched in April when Columbia lifted off, but only after three workers died from asphyxiation during a test run. The first reports of a strange form of pneumonia immunocompromised homosexual men came out. The disease would later be classified as Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome. 114 people were killed when a walkway collapsed in the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October. He wasn't as lucky as Reagen. And two months later 900 civilians were killed by the El Salvadore army during the Salvadorian Civil War. And MTV is unleashed upon unsuspecting viewers of cable television. On the brighter side of things, Sandra Day O'Connor becomes the first female justice of the Supreme Court. And Prince Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer for the largest royal wedding until 30 years later.

Even baseball wasn't immune from the tumult. Only a month and a half after the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history (a game that featured future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs), the major leagues went on strike over the issue of the free agent compensation draft. It was an acerbic issue that left major league stadiums unfilled for two whole months. After extended negotiations, the players lifted the strike on July 31. Since the number of games remaining after the strike was about the same as the number of games before, the owners decided to be creative and split the season into two halves. The leaders at the time of the strike has automatic entry into a Division Series against the leaders in the second half of the season. And if a team won both it has to face the team that finished second in the second half. Thankfully all eight of the division leaders were different, so no team had the chance to lose a series to a team it beat in both the first and second half. However, the Reds, led by future 311-game winner Tom Seaver, had the best record in all of baseball, but missed the playoffs as they finished second in both the first and the second halves. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals were only 20-30 when the strike hit. They went on a tear in the second half and finished first, but their overall record was still below .500.

In the first ever Division Series (13 years before the idea would be reintroduced by Bud Selig only to be delayed thanks to another strike), the first half leaders rolled to easy victories in three of the four series. The only second half winner to win were the Montreal Expos, making their first and only post-season appearance in their 40+ year history. The team rode an all-star lineup of Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines to the second half title, then knocked off the defending champion Phillies in the full five games, with Steve "Not Captain America" Rogers beating future-329 game winner Steve Carlton in games 1 and 5. The Expos went on to face the Dodgers in the NLCS. They took the series to the full five games, but a Rick Monday home run, a dominant performance by rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela, and a one-out save by Bob Welch sent the Expos packing. The Dodgers went on to knock off the hated Yankees in the World Series for their first title since 1965. Meanwhile, the Expos went on to 13 years of futility before the 1994 strike ended their best hopes at a title. Eighteen years and one city change later the franchise is still waiting for another postseason opportunity.

Meanwhile, in the world of cinema, Raiders of the Lost Ark was the king of the box office. Harrison Ford took his Han Solo charm into the swash-buckling, snake-fearing archeologist Indiana Jones. It even did well at the Oscars, picking up eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Steven Spielberg. However, it was behind On Golden Pond, which received 11, and the Soviet epic Reds, which received 12. When Oscar night rolled around, Raiders came out swinging, capturing Oscars for Art Direction, Editing, Visual Effects, and Sound Mixing, plus a Special Achievement Oscar for its Sound Effects Editing. However, it lost the Oscar for Cinematography to Reds, and John Williams's now-legendary score lost to Vangelis's equally-legendary score for the period piece Chariots of Fire.

In some of the other awards of the night, Rick Baker won the inaugural Makeup Oscar for An American Werewolf in Paris, his first of seven Oscars, second only to Alan Menken for Oscars by a living person. Burt Bacharach won his third Oscar for contributing to the theme to Arthur (the original, with Dudley Moore). Chariots of Fire and On Golden Pond took home the Screenplay awards, with the former also winning for Costume Design. Sir John Gielgud and Maureen Stapleton won the Supporting role Oscars for Arthur and Reds respectively. On Golden Pond swept the Lead role Oscars, with Katherine Hepburn winning her record fourth acting Oscar, and Henry Fonda winning his first, 41 years after his first nomination (for The Grapes of Wrath). He was too ill to attend the ceremony, and would pass away less than five months later. Warren Beatty also won his first Oscar, this time as Best Director for Reds.

So by the time the Best Picture Oscar came around it was a pretty strong deadlock. Raiders had won the most awards at the point with four, but most of them were technical Oscars. Its lack of a Screenplay Oscars pretty much doomed its chances. Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond, and Reds were tied with three. Chariots of Fire won a few scattered awards: Screenplay, Score, and Costume Design, but with only seven nominations it didn't seem like much of a front-runner. On Golden Pond won a Screenplay Oscar and two acting Oscars, but it too lost Best Director. Reds won Best Director, but with the most nominations it also lost the most awards, including the crucial Screenplay Oscars. Still, Reds was the front-runner going in, and even with all of its losses it still seems like the front-runner. However, the tumult of 1981 continued when Loretta Young, herself an unexpected Oscar winner (in 1947 for The Farmer's Daughter) announced that Chariots of Fire was the Best Picture of 1981. It still remains one of the more shocking wins in Oscar history.

So with all of the chaos surrounding 1981, could the Best Animated Short Oscar be a source of stability?

One winter morning in Quebec, a lone farmer came walking out with his mule trailing him. He sees a nice, strong tree and proceeds to chop it down, and it falls with a "Crac." He saws off the branches and takes it back to his farm where he turns it into a rocking chair that he presents to his fiancee. The couple is married, and the chair plays witness to the wild wedding party. Over the years it sees the growth of the family and the changing of the seasons, but those are not the only changes that the chair witnesses. Frederic Back should be a familiar name by now, having made the Oscar winning The Man Who Planted Trees (ranked 9th overall in 1982-1991), as well as the Oscar nominated The Mighty River in 1993. With Crac, Back presents a visual history of Quebec as seen through the eyes of a rocking chair. The rocking chair is the central character to the tale. The title itself an onomatopoeic word representing the sound the tree that would become the chair made when it fell. While still an inanimate object, the chair is anthropomorphized with a face that the farmer painted. While the chair is usually smiling, it would still display expressions of shock or sadness when the situation necessitates. The chair becomes an effective character that you could relate to. The chair may be the central character, but the plot is essentially everything that is happening around it. Most of the events is related to the family. Babies are born and eventually grow up. In one touching scene the children are seen using the rocking chair as a plaything. Meanwhile there are hints at the changing of the world around them. Trains and planes are seen in the background. The animation is terrific. It has the same soft look as many of Back's other films. The character design is much simpler than with The Man Who Planted Trees six years later, but it is still very appealing. And of course there are many scenes celebrating natural beauty like he has in his other films. The music by Normand Roger is very good too, with twangy tunes and slower beats and some French Canadian (I assume) songs thrown in. When I first saw the film I thought it was slow moving and boring, but I have warmed up to it. It is a masterful work from one of the greatest animators of our time, and has influenced no less than Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the founders of Studio Ghibli.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Creation
In the beginning there was nothing. Actually, there was not quite nothing. There was a powerful and glorious God, but that was it. He was lonely. Being surrounded by darkness darker than 100 midnights would do that. However, God created light, which He saw is good. From the light He created the Sun and the stars and the Earth and the Moon, which He saw is good. He got down to the Earth and created the mountains, the seas, the plants, and the animals, which He saw is good. Yet He was still lonely. Would His final creation do the trick? The Creation is another film from Will Vinton Studios, which we saw last week with The Great Cognito. This film is a loose adaptation of the first chapter of the Bible: Genesis 1, the one where God creates the Heavens and the Earth. This film takes a little bit more liberty with the wording, especially with giving God a reason for His wondrous creation, but it still maintains the majesty of God creating the world. And the words are accompanied by powerful claymation from animator Joan C. Gratz, who in 11 years would win the Oscar for Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase. Like with her Oscar winning film, Gratz forgoes the 3-dimensional puppet claymation for a flat 2D look, but that doesn't make it any less powerful. The images are incredibly detailed and move with a fluidity that you don't expect from modifying colored clay. There are also several excellent transitions that foreshadows the transitions in Mona Lisa. James Earl Jones, only a year after his role as Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, supplies the narration. His baritone voice and precise enunciation provides a powerful force behind the film. The music by frequent Vinton collaborator Billy Scream (that name always gets me) and jazz musician David Friesen provides excellent accompaniment to the narration. The Creation is a powerful film about the most powerful event in history.
Where Can I Watch It?
Yeah, good luck finding it online. I was never able to do so. However, around two years ago I did find out it was part of the VHS tape Will Vinton's Best of the Festival of Claymation, a collection of Vinton shorts that also includes The Great Cognito and the not-nominated but still good Mountain Music and A Christmas Gift. And it has a claymation parody of Siskel and Ebert as dinosaurs. It's highly recommended.

The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin
Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful penguin named Cinderella. Despite her beauty, her hateful stepmother kept her as a servant. One day the family receives an invitation to a ball held by the young king. Cinderella wants desperately to go but she is kept home. However, Cinderella's fairy godmother comes, gives her a makeover, and makes a carriage out of a pumpkin, warning her to come back before midnight. Cinderella happily goes to the ball, where she is picked by the king for the first dance. However, soon it is midnight. Cinderella rushes out but drops her slipper. Is Cinderella doomed to her old life? Cinderella is one of the most popular fairy tales in history. The general structure of the story, with a girl that is forced to hard labor only to escape through her kindness and beauty, has been present since antiquity. The story as we know it today with the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, and the slippers was first ascribed to Charles Perrault in 1697 in his Histoires ou contes du temps passe, better known today under the subtitle: Mother Goose Stories. There have been dozens of adaptations through the years, the most famous being Walt Disney's Cinderella in 1950 (one of my favorite movies growing up.) This one by the National Film Board of Canada certainly ranks as one of the most unique. It is a fairly straightforward retelling, except all of the characters, even the mice that becomes the horses, are penguins. I have no idea why they made the decision to make everybody penguins, but penguins are cute so this is a fairly cute film. Except for the evil stepmother and stepsisters. They can get pretty scary when they are angry. Furthermore, they put Cinderella through more physical and emotion torment than the Disney version, although Cinderella has more attitude. The animation is rather simple. It doesn't have the fluidity as the Disney version, but it is effective, as the entire film is told through the images. There is a some visual humor too. I don't think this film breaks any ground, but it is a good adaptation of the tale, and it's a must-see if you like penguins.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, these are your nominees from 1981. Of the three, Tender Tale probably doesn't match up to the others. The animation is not as vivid as the other two, nor is it as deep. It is harder trying to decide between Crac and The Creation. Both films are well animated and tell a good story. The Creation is more interesting to me, but then again I found Tender Tale even more interesting so that doesn't mean much. Crac is a much deeper film, so while it may not finish on top for personal preference, it is better in quality. And of course Crac ends up winning the Oscar, so at least there is some stability from 1981.

My rankings (by quality)
Crac > The Creation > The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin

My rankings (by preference)
The Tender Tale of Cinderella Penguin > The Creation > Crac


    "The music by frequent Vinton collaborator Billy Scream (that name always gets me)"

    I'm sure it does (could be a stage name for all I know). The technique Joan Gratz uses here is essentially using clay as paint and moving it on a piece of glass much in the same manner that Alexander Petrov used oil paints for his work. One of the more unique films to come from Vinton's studio then and that technique would show up again in a segment from "Claymation Christmas Celebration" in 1987.

    Although you didn't mention the animator by name, the guy behind this film is Janet Perlman, whom has been a unique female Canadian animator for many decades with films like this.


    Best Of The Festival Of Claymation (featuring The Creation, Great Cognito and so on)