Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1975

So in my last review I tried getting rid of the excess topics in my introductions, and I was able to streamline it quite well! Sure, I didn't talk about baseball as much as I would have liked, but at the same time I wasn't spending two to three hours on just the introduction alone. It's worked so well I'll keep limiting my discussions on the Oscar awards of a particular year. Yeah, I won't be getting to talk about the Big Red Machine and the legendary World Series they had with the underdog Boston Red Sox (which included the memorable Game 6 that ended with Carlton Fisk's home run, a moment that was referenced in the Best Picture nominated Good Will Hunting). Nor would I have the chance to talk about my classmate Brian Barkley, who actually pitched for the Red Sox in 1998. But you know what? I'm okay with that.

1975 was also the start of one of the most common phenomenon in film: the summer blockbuster. By now the idea of having your super-high budget action films with dreams of monumental grosses coming out in the summer seems like common sense. Summer is when schools are out and people would have time to see those movies with the broad appeal. Of the twelve films that reached $1 billion in wordwide gross, eight of them came out in the summer months between May and August. (The only exceptions are Avatar, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.) However, that was not always the case. Back before the 1975 the highest grossing films generally came out either near the beginning of the year or the end of the year. The highest grossing films at that time were The Godfather (March release), The Sound of Music (also a March release), and Gone with the Wind (December/January release, plus numerous re-releases).

And then in June of 1975, Universal unleashed Steven Spielberg's Jaws on unsuspecting moviegoers around the country. Not only did it made people afraid to go in the water, but it also marked the beginning of the summer blockbuster phenomenon. In the past big releases would have really narrow openings before expanding to reach wider audiences (much like Oscar bait films nowadays), but Jaws opened at hundreds of theaters across the country simultaneously. Not surprisingly, it had the highest opening by a film at the time, and didn't take long before it passed The Godfather for the highest grossing film. And two years later came Star Wars to further solidify the blockbuster in our cinematic psyches.

And unlike blockbusters nowadays, which are usually disdained by the Academy, Jaws had a decent level of success at the Oscars. Sure, it got only four nominations, which is the same number as The Man Who Would Be King starring Michael Caine and Sean Connery, The Sunshine Boys starring George Burns and Walter Matthau, and Shampoo with Warren Beatty and Lee Grant. However, Jaws received a nomination for Best Picture. It didn't really stand a chance of winning, as its four nominations were the fewest among the Best Picture nominees, and Spielberg wasn't even nominated for Best Director, losing out to Oscar favorite Federico Fellini (for Amarcord), but it's still a good showing for a summer blockbuster.

And when Oscar night rolled around, Jaws did much better than most people would have predicted. It claimed three of its four nominations: Best Sound, Best Original Dramatic Score, and the key Best Editing award. Unfortunately most of the other Best Picture nominees did pretty well. Barry Lyndon won the Best Adapted Score award, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Cinematography. Nashville won Best Original Song for "I'm Easy," written and performed by David Carradine's brother Keith. Then Dog Day Afternoon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest both claimed the Screenplay Oscars. George Burns claimed Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys, while Lee Grant won for Actress in Shampoo. Akira Kurosawa finally won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film for Dersu Uzula over 20 years after his contributions to film helped inspire the Foreign Language film category.* Cuckoo's Nest also won for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Director (Milos Forman), so by the end of the night it became clear what would win Best Picture: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

*Then again, the only time Kurosawa was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film after it was official instituted came in 1970 with Dodesukaden, a film that was such a financial failure that it sent Kurosawa into a deep depression where he attempted suicide. Interestingly enough he would not make another film until none other than Dersu Uzula.

But then in between all the excitement there was the Best Animated Short category, with a four-film lineup. Which of the films would come out on top?

The years between 1830-1860 were especially good ones for Great Britain. It saw the ascendance of a powerful new queen in Queen Victoria. They had tremendous presence overseas, and they were well represented in the realm of politics and literature. Yet one man stood above the rest in terms of accomplishments. His name is Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He overcame critics, opposition, and even his own short stature to become one of the greatest engineers in history. He strung together an awe-inspiring series of construction successes, but an ambitious ship may lead to his downfall. Isambard Kingdom Brunel may be an unfamiliar name to us undereducated Americans, but his name is still celebrated in Great Britain. Ten years ago BBC held a pubic vote on the 100 greatest Britons EVER, and Brunel finished second, ahead of William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Queen Victoria, both Queen Elizabeths, Princess Diana, and John Lennon. Only Winston Churchill finished ahead of Brunel. Sure, it's a popular vote, but for an engineer who would only get blank stares among Americans, that's just goes to show how highly regarded his accomplishments are to this day. Brunel became the subject of an animated musical biographical film from Bob Godfrey (Dream Doll, Small Talk) in one of his most ambitious films. The film takes a look at some of Brunel's accomplishments, from birth to death, focusing on three of his most well known engineering projects: the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the Great Western Railway, and the Great Eastern. Along the way Godfrey paints a stirring portrait of life during the Victorian Era. Yet the best part of the film is not necessarily its celebration of Brunel's many accomplishments, which it does, but that it does so in such a comedic way. The film is full of visual humor, sexual innuendo, and verbal quips. The songs are all wildly irreverent, including songs about Brunel's top hat (which can probably double as a theme song for Professor Layton), and things that Brunel DIDN'T invent. Yet they're all very well done and quite catchy. The animation is a mix between Godfrey's distinctive visual style, matte painting, and historical images. The voice acting is terrific as well. Great is a great film that is entertaining as well as educational, and a perfect way to introduce us Americans about the greatness of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Where Can I Watch It?
Evidently it's available on the Bob Godfrey store. Go check it out there.

Kick Me
Watch as an animator brings tiny little pictures on motion picture film to life. In this case the drawings are of a pair of legs, and it's going to go on one of the greatest adventures that a pair of legs has ever known, from almost getting eaten by a shark to getting chased by an angry baseball. Yet no matter what happens the pair of legs always maintains its playfulness and its penchant for kicking things. However, its well being is threatened when it ends up in a mysterious dungeon and getting chased by a giant, hungry spider. Can it survive? The technique of making drawings directly on pieces of film stock is an old technique. It creates a very unique visual style, but is quite time consuming. One of the most famous creators of this type of animation was the National Film Board of Canada's Norman McLaren. He allegedly used this technique because he couldn't afford cameras. He continued to use it even after starting with the National Film Board. Even in his most famous film Neighbors, which was made mostly in pixilation, had beginning and end credits that was paint on film. Animator Robert Swarthe also used this technique in Kick Me, although it was used less as an artistic endeavor and more of a narrative feature to entertain viewers. When one of the first shots is a curtain printed with the word "Asbestos," you know you're not supposed to take the film very seriously. However, in addition to being entertaining, it is also a decent study of comedy. At least when was watching it much of the humor feels very modern. You've got non-sequiturs, situational irony, breaking of the fourth wall etc. The fact that many of the jokes seem so familiar makes it doubly entertaining. There is also a very good use of different perspectives, especially in the dungeon scene near the end. There is a shot where the spider chases the pair of legs from a first person view. The way the walls move is just like the old 3D Maze screensaver, or early first person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D. It's a fairly remarkable achievement considering this film came out almost 20 years before those things. The use of sound effects is also effective in building up the cheesy feel, and the use of music like the "William Tell Overture" (including the "Ranz de Vaches," or morning theme) is very useful. Kick Me is a very good film that will really make your day.
Where Can I Watch It?
Kick Me was actually a very tough film to find for a while, but I finally found a copy last year. After that it's really come back into public notice, especially after an article on Cartoon Brew helping an animator identify the film from her childhood.

Monsieur Pointu
One day Monsieur Pointu's fiddle decides that he didn't need his master to play. He can play just fine on his own. He got Pointu's shoes and hat in on the act. When Monsieur Pointu finally came around to play some music, his fiddle began giving him a tough time. It soon became a battle of wills between musician and musical instrument. Who is going to hold out the longest in the end? And with Pointu's hat still on the trick it soon becomes a three person/thing affair. Monsieur Pointu is the stage name of Paul Cormier. No, it's not the head coach of Dartmouth College. Cormier was a popular folk entertainer in Canada, having performed for decades. He is quite a renaissance man, being proficient in not only music, but also in dance and in miming, all of which he displays in this film from the National Film Board of Canada. This film is done mostly in pixilation, which we've already seen before in films like Manipulation. It's basically animation with real people done using still photographs. It originated in the early days of animation, although the most notable proponent is Canada's Norman McLaren (the same Norman McLaren that I mentioned in the Kick Me review.) His masterpiece, the Oscar winning Neighbors, was filmed completely in pixilation, just as this film from 24 years later. That's how they achieve effects such as having the fiddle fly through the air. Not only that, but directors Bernard Longpre and Andre Leduc also included a lot of trick photography much in the same vein as Georges Meliles (from Hugo fame.) They used stop edit to have Pointu's hat change, and some other effects to have Pointu's head lift off from his head. The effects are nice, and the pixilation was well done, but overall the originality of the film was kind of lacking. The film is 12 and a half minutes long, but I got bored about halfway through. While there were six more minutes of effects to be seen, they just weren't interesting enough for me to anticipate them. Overall Monsieur Pointu is a technologically impressive film that is slight in content, and that's just too bad.
Where Can I Watch It?

A man pushes a large boulder up a hill. It's backbreaking work, but the man perseveres. After all, the boulder is only half the size of his body. Yet as he gets further up the hill, a curious thing happens. The more the man pushes, the larger the boulder gets. By the time he gets near the top, the man is just a fraction of the size of the boulder. Why is this man pushing the boulder to the top? Why is the boulder getting bigger? And can the man make it? If you're a fan of Greek mythology, then you've probably heard of the story of Sisyphus. He was the king of Ephyra (which would later become Corinth, where the Apostle Paul visited during his evangelism, and later received two of his most famous epistles.) He was an able leader, but also a terrible person. He was greedy and killed people for fun. When the Greek gods heard of this, they tried sentencing him to the underworld, but he used deceit to get out of it every time. Finally, they got tired of him, and promised his freedom if he can roll a boulder up the hill. However, this was a punishment in disguise, as the boulder would roll down the hill every time he got close. His futile efforts led to the word sisyphean (meaning endless task), and the subject of several pieces of art over the years. One of these arts was this film by Hungarian animator Marcell Jankovics. He kind of changed the myth, giving Sisyphus the satisfaction of getting the boulder to the top, but this seems more of a study of the animation of movement than a literal interpretation of the myth. And it was pretty impressive. The entire film is essentially just Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the the hill, done in stark black ink on a white background. The drawing of Sisyphus alternates between detailed, so detailed that you can see his muscles, and abstract. At one point he briefly turns into a swirl. It's fascinating to watch. The soundtrack is mostly just the sound of the stone being rolled up and his anguished grunts. It's a bit annoying, but it really gives off a feel of the effort that he is using. Sisyphus is a solid film that is both artistic and interesting.
Where Can I Watch It?
If you're a fan of football (or heck, if you're even a fan of the Oscars), then it's likely that you've seen Sisyphus, or at least part of it. One of the commercials for Super Bowl XLII (the legendary one where the Giants beat the Patriots for the first time to keep them from getting a perfect season) was a GMC Yukon Hybrid commercial where there was a man pushing a stone up a hill. That's right, GMC was able to take about half of Sisyphus and work it into their $5 million commercial. And considering that Super Bowl was seen by almost 100 million people (it was the most watched Super Bowl at that time), that means 100 million people were able to watch Sisyphus, well half of it. Less than a month later, they replayed it during the Oscars, where I saw it and made note of it on my live blog. Anyways, if you're interested in watching the entire film, here it is:

Well, that's four nominees, three of which I really liked. Monsieur Pointu has the great special effects, but it bored the heck out of me. Sisyphus is visually stimulating, but it seems a bit slight compared to the other two. Kick Me is hilarious and at least I felt that it took humor into a different direction. And Great is, well, a great biography about one of the most important figures in British history. Ultimately, I feel that Great wins out. The animation, the humor, and the music all push it over the top, making it one of the best animated short films out there. And judging by the fact that it won the Oscar, the Academy agrees.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
Great > Kick Me > Sisyphus > Monsieur Pointu


  1. GREAT
    It is a shame that Godfrey's is that well-guarded these days. The family realy could save everyone's time by sticking the films up on a site they could operate and simply stream them for free with a watermark like the NFB does, and if people were more interested in getting them on DVD or download a personal copy, there's that option too. Unfortunately nobody seems to see eye to eye there and so we have to keep looking!

    I'm not too big on "Great" myself, optiong for some of Bob's other greats out there like Henry 9 'til 5 or Instant Sex, but obviously he's been very well known for Roobarb & Custard too (which I use to watch on tape in the 80's).

    The pair of legs at first when they're drawn kinda resemble the omega symbol in science, yet the versatility given to it's movement and expressions were handled very terrifically. This film could've been such an easy excercise in the Norman McLaren mold but proved itself well enough to stand on it's own as a kind of tribute to America's "Golden Age" of animation.

    I managed to buy a copy on 16mm film myself of this classic, since I recall some cable channels like Nickelodeon use to play this one 30 years ago on TV. It's still amazing to see today, though I sometimes wonder how much of it would go over the heads of today's viewers unaware of things like projectors getting jammed resulting in the emulsion evaporating out of frame? Probably not a whole lot, but it's something that was common back then, such a very Tex Averyesque sort of thing to do! I think I was the first to ID the film on Cartoon Brew since I had already bothered to make the film available in private elsewhere from my copy.

    Incidentally, Robert Swarthe went on to do visual effects work on several noted films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and others, but dropped out by the mid 80's, a shame since he seemed like he had great potential there, but maybe the approaching computer revolution didn't favor his assistance. He also produced an animated short called "K-9000: A Space Oddity", which I wish I did have a print of that too, my public library had it listed in their film catalog back in the 90's. Sounds like an interesting spoof from what I've read about it. Maybe you'll find it someday!

    I see Monsieur Pointu is gone as well, but don't fret, the NFB has our back too!

    I first saw Sisyphus long before the Super Bowl involvement, care of a pal I know who worked on such classics as Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Toy story, on a disc featuring other of Jankovic's work for Pannonia Film. he's rather a very versatile guy in the field and has often been called the father of Hungarian animation I think.

    Here's some of his earlier work in animation of interest to view!
    PASSION (animator, 1961):
    INAUGURATION (1969):
    S.O.S. (1970):
    WATER OF LIFE (1971):
    FIGHT (1977):
    PROMETHEUS (1992):

    He directed Hungary's first animated feature film in 1973, titled in English as "Johnny Corncob", strangely scenes from this film ended up on a Hanna-Barbera music video compilation set to the song "Crazy Love" by Poco. Still not sure how it got into H-B's hands at all though perhaps there was a deal to release/dub the film through them that didn't come to fruition.

    His life's worth he managed to finish after so many years was a epic feature film called "The Tragedy of Man". I still haven't seen it, but here's a trailer!

  3. Chris, you seem to forget that running a website making Bob's films available isn't cheap. We tried, people didn't want to pay £1.50 for the films - what can we do? Also, as for Great, the site's owner should do some research into the copyright behind the film before blaming the family for not making it available.

    Getting good quality copies of these films isn't cheap.

    1. Hi. Thank you for the reply and to share a little bit more about the distribution of Bob Godfrey's films. You're right, I should have done more research about the copyright. I didn't mean any disrespect when making that comment, I was just disappointed that it was so difficult to watch such a great film. I apologize for my comments.

    2. I mean no harm to "Anonymous" comment myself, it is true how tough it could be to distribute any of these nowadays, especially on your own. One company I noticed that's been trying to produce awareness of short films online is Shorts International. Might like to look into them in case something comes up.

  4. Kick Me: Norman McLaren' s Looney Tunes

    I wonder if it's entirely drawn on film?

    Still love it

    1. I would say it's a combination of drawing on film and opticals. He certainly put a lot of effort into having the drawn images and backgrounds colored in different colors, not to mention the brief live-action bits with the film melting in the projector as well.

  5. Great info.

    Also the use of Hanna Barbera sound effects

  6. "Great" is now available to pre-order as a digital download or Blu-Ray/DVD from

    The reason the film was unavailable before is because it was not owned by The Bob Godfrey Collection. If you would also remove the copyright infringing video, that would be very much appreciated.

    1. Thanks for the info. I'd much rather have an official download than a copyright infringing video.

    2. It wouldn't surprise me if it has taken quite a while to sort out those issues to bring "Great" back into the picture. Sometimes rights like those do tend to go nearly forgotten over the years.