Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1977

Hmm. I just realized a certain inherent flaw in my "Who was born in this year" game for these introductions. The fact is, I don't know very many people. I couldn't think of anybody that was born in 1977 that I knew until I cheated and looked up the birthday chart that I've been keeping for people in my med school class. (As it turns out four of my classmates were born in 1977. Actually two of them are no longer with us but with the class of 2014 instead. Such tragedy.) Also, the attending physician for my infectious disease rotation in Akron, OH was born in 1977. Still, I can't keep doing this, as the oldest person in my class was born in 1955, and there were 23 years of animated shorts that came before that.

One thing I can do, of course, is take somebody born in that particular year and talk about their life.

The one person that comes to my mind first is one Harry Leroy Halladay. He was born May 14, 1977 in Denver, CO and played ball at Arvada High School. He was good enough to be drafted in the first round by the defending World Series winner Toronto Blue Jays in the 1995 draft.* He signed quickly and made it to rookie ball. He didn't exactly put up dazzling numbers in the minors, but he kept moving up and made his debut in 1998 where he joined a rotation that included Cy Young winners Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen, future Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, as well as Woody Williams and Juan Guzman. He lasted only five innings in his major league debut and got a no-decision, but he made a splash in his second start, on September 27, 1998. He befuddled the Detroit Tigers, keeping them hitless and walkless through eight and 2/3. He was only an error away from having a perfect game. He was only one out away from a no-hitter, but he made a mistake pitch to Bobby Higginson, Detroit's sole All-Star, who deposited it into the Blue Jays bullpen. Halladay got the next out for the complete game win, but he missed his chance at history.

*The Blue Jays had won in 1993. There was no World Series in 1994, so by 1995 the Blue Jays were still the defending champs.

He started well in his second season, allowing no earned runs in his first five appearances. He allowed 11 runs to the Angels in an April 29 start, and from that point out through the end of the season he had a 4.52 ERA. It could have been higher but there was a time in the middle of the season when he found himself, putting up a 2.17 ERA in 12 appearances, most of them in relief. And then in 2000, things fell apart. He was hit hard all year, even after he was sent down to AAA Syracuse. He was brought up in September where he continued to be hit hard. When the smoke cleared he had a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings, the highest at the time for anybody with 50 innings. He was banished to single-A for 2001, where he hooked up with the late Mel Queen. Queen not only changed the way he pitched, but also the way he approached the game. The way Queen described it, he put Halladay through a training regiment that would make R. Lee Ermey proud. Halladay pitched well in the minor leagues. Seeing the sparkling minor league stats, the Blue Jays brought Halladay back into the bigs. He struggled initially against the likes of the Red Sox and the Yankees, but slowly got the hang of it. He ended his season with a complete game shutout of the AL Central winning Indians. He won 19 games with an ERA below 3.00 in 2002, and then went on to win 22 games in 2003 as well as the Cy Young. He struggled with injuries in 2004, and had his leg broken by a line drive in 2005. From then on he was the best pitcher in the game, winning over 15 games every year and consistently being among the league leaders in complete games and shutouts. He struggled a bit in 2007 and this year, but he is one of the two greatest hopes in becoming the next 300-game winners, alongside C.C. Sabathia.

That worked out okay. I can probably shorten it a little bit. Of course, one problem is that Halladay was a mere baby in 1977. I spent so much time on a pitcher whose peak was in the 2000s that I don't really have room to talk about some of the memorable moments of the 1977 season, namely the turbulent relationship between Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin, memorialized in the ESPN mini-series The Bronx is Burning. They overcame all that to win 100 games and claim the East, then topple the 102-win Royals to make it back to the World Series, where they beat the Dodgers in six games. Reggie himself provided the firepower, knocking first pitch home runs off of Burt Hooton, Elias Sosa, and Charlie Hough for the first three-homer World Series game in 49 years, when the Babe did it in 1928*.

*Albert Pujols would join both of them last year.

The 1977 Oscar race is also the stuff of legends. The Turning Point and Julia had the most nominations with 11, but all eyes were on the blockbuster film Star Wars, which had 10 nominations. If Jaws two years earlier marked the beginning of the summer blockbuster, then Star Wars took it to a whole another level. It smashed box office records and quickly became a major part of pop culture. As expected, it came out swinging in the technical awards. It captured Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, and Best Original Score, essentially handing three losses to The Turning Point and Julia. However, when it came time to the Best Original Screenplay award, Star Wars lost out to the little film with only five nominations that nobody noticed. No, not The Goodbye Girl, but Annie Hall, Woody Allen's semi-autobiographical love story that featured non-linear storytelling, breaking of the fourth wall, and the use of mixed media such as animation. Its $38 million gross was less than 1/10 of Star Wars, and had half the nominations, but here it was, claiming the crucial Screenplay Oscar. And then Julia, which captured Best Adapted Screenplay to score at least one victory, had its own triumph against Star Wars. Oscar winner Sir Alec Guinness had received his fourth acting nomination with his for his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, he was knocked off by Jason Robards, who won his second straight Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett. Julia scored a third win in Best Supporting Actress, when Vanessa Redgrave won for her portrayal of the title character. Diane Keaton won the second Oscar of the night for Annie Hall, claiming Best Actress while Richard Dreyfuss won Best Actor for The Goodbye Girl, beating out Woody Allen.

Still, all hope was not lost for Star Wars. Going into Best Director, its six Oscars were twice as much as its closest competitor, Julia. However, George Lucas was stunned when the winner was announced, as it went to Woody Allen for Annie Hall. Allen wasn't even present. He was playing clarinet at a nearby pub. But producer Gary Kurtz was not deterred. There were plenty of films that lost Best Director but went on to claim Best Picture. Why, just five years earlier The Godfather had beaten out Cabaret despite losing the Best Director Oscar to Bob Fosse. There were no such miracles this time. The Academy showed their contempt towards science fiction films, and awarded the top award to Annie Hall. At least Star Wars had a better fate than The Turning Point. Despite its 11 nominations, the ballet movie ended up with zero wins. It set a new record for most nominations without a win, a record later tied by The Color Purple in 1985.

35 years later, this victory by Annie Hall continues to be controversial. Even Woody Allen fans admit that Star Wars had not only revolutionized science fiction, but had brought pop culture to a whole new level. I personally prefer Annie Hall. The neurotic humor and varied storytelling styles made me laugh throughout, while I found Star Wars unbearably dull.

Would the Best Animated Short category produce such controversy? Let's find out.
The Bead Game
In the beginning there was a solitary cell hanging out in oblivion. It divides to form another cell. The cells come together to form more complex organisms. These organisms begin their struggle for survival by attacking and ingesting other organisms. Eventually the organisms become much more complex, but they continue to survive in the same way, through the consumption of their fellow animals. Eventually the animals reach levels of evolution where they can defeat their enemies in more creative and more violent ways. The exploration of history as a series of conflicts is a relatively common motif in these animated films. We've already seen it in several Oscar nominated films, including A History of the World in Three Minutes Flat from 1980 and Grasshoppers from 1990. The Bead Game explores the same theme, and it does it in a different way both dramatically and artistically. The other two films start their mediation with the beginning of human history, but The Bead Game goes back even farther. The first half is basically an exploration of evolution going from unicellular life through fishes through apes, as well as all of the conflicts that go along with it. It shows that conflicts back to the early beginning. The second half deals with human history of war, from cavemen beating each other with clubs to entire armies being annihilated by artillery fire and beyond. Yet director Ishu Patel (of Paradise fame) also explores man's ability to create in both destructive and constructive ways. The Bead Game is stylistically unique because it isn't traditional cel animation, but is more of a stop motion film involving thousands of miniature beads, thus the title. Patel begins with one bead, and he uses more and more beads as the lifeforms become more and more complex. The animation is incredibly fluid and the designs are so complex that its hard not to imagine that Patel cheated somehow, but after seeing his dazzling work in Paradise I'm pretty sure he didn't. Still, I've played with beads when I was a kid, and I have no idea how he did it. The hip beats by J.P. Ghosh in the background is terrific too.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Doonesbury Special
It is the dying days of summer, but that is not the only thing that is ending. Mike Doonesbury, Zonker Harris, B.D., and other members of Walden College have been living together in a commune for several years, but their time there is coming to a close. As they reflect on their lives together they discuss the changing values in the country during the 1970s and their own lives, and prepare for the future. Not to mention songs by Jimmy Thudpucker. Doonesbury is a saga comic strip by Garry Trudeau that began back in 1970. Since its inception its been one of the most politically charged comic strips. It deals with current events in a way that is more like political cartoons than daily newspaper comic strips. (And in fact it won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1975.) I never got into it when I was a kid like I did Garfield, Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes. I later read it a little bit more once I found storylines that I liked*, but I'm still not exactly the most well versed in the strip's early history. That was when the strip first burst onto the scene and made waves in the political world. That was also when Trudeau teamed with the legendary husband-wife animation duo John and Faith Hubley to bring Doonesbury into the world of animation. Since I don't know much about the strip's early history, I can't tell how much it was based on actual strips and how much of it was original. This film is made up of several distinct sequences: the ideologically distinct characters getting into arguments about war, or a philosophical discussion during a football game. The sequences are pretty interesting if you actually listen to them closely, but this is definitely not a film that you'd sit back and watch. It challenges you, but that's what Trudeau had been doing for years with Doonesbury. The transition between the sequences are a bit weak, and I find the Thudpucker songs to be quite boring. However, those scenes are excellent showcases for the Hubleys' artistic mastery. In one scene the camera tracks along Thudpucker's band in super close-up. It's almost like A Legy, only three years earlier. The animation also captures Trudeau's distinctive artstyle, complete with the darkness under the characters' eyes and their unique noses. The voice acting is extensive and well done, including stars like Barbara Harris. A Doonesbury Special is deep, but it is rewarding if you're a Doonesbury fan, or if you're into the ideological discussion from the late 1970s.

*As I was growing up I mostly ignored Doonesbury. I did remember one particular strip from August 1, 1993, because not only did we have it on the back of a Peanuts comic from the same day, but the words that the model Bill Clinton said play out as something like a song. Three years later there was an issue of Time magazine with Mike, his daughter Alex, and the marijuana character on the cover. The cover story was about marijuana usage, and how parents should talk to their kids about it when they used it themselves. At the very least Zonker is seen smoking a joint in A Doonesbury Special. I continued to leave it in the margins until 2006 when the Washington Post Magazine profiled Garry Trudeau and Doonesbury in a story about his bold portrayal of the war in the Middle East. That led me to revisit the strip, and I found that there were many storylines that I found quite interesting. I especially identified with the newer generation of Alex, Jeff, and Zipper, since I'm about the same age as them. And with the announcement that the strip would focus more on these characters (although they have already), perhaps I'll read it more regularly now. 

Where Can I Watch It?

Jimmy the C
It is late at night. A lonely man sits at his desk reading. He was once a naval officer and a peanut farmer, but now he is in Washington DC serving as the President of the United States. Yet the affairs of the nation is the last thing on the mind of James Earl Carter. He thinks back to his home state of Georgia, and breaks out into song, singing "Georgia on My Mind," sounding suspiciously like Ray Charles. Desperate, he imagines himself running back to Georgia, with the Moon to keep him company. If Will Vinton is the most decorated claymation animator by the Academy during the 1970s and 1980s, then Jimmy Picker is surely  second. He had won an Oscar in 1983 for his work Sundae in New York. I had blasted the film for its annoying song and obscure cameos, but admitted that it had good animation and nifty visual humor. Jimmy the C is a film from earlier in Picker's career, and it plays out as kind of like an opposite of Sundae. Both films do feature caricatures of important government officials singing songs to express their sentiments. In Sundae I found the song by the Ed Koch caricature to be incredibly annoying with its little speech quirks and modifications. Picker didn't have this problem with this film, as he uses a recording of Ray Charles, who popularized the song. It's a wise choice. Plus, the amount of characters were sparse, with only the Jimmy Carter caricature, and an anthropomorphized moon and the state of Georgia. That is not a bad thing. However, the animation here isn't quite as good as it was in Sundae, possibly because it came six years earlier. It does have good lip synching to the Ray Charles song. And there isn't as much to see that makes the film very interesting. Singing peanuts are a nice touch, but they're kind of boring, especially after seeing what happened to Mr. Peanut in Logorama. Nevertheless, I like Jimmy the C much more than I liked Sundae in New York. It lacks the inventiveness of most of Will Vinton's films, but it's a good piece of satire from the turbulent late 1970s.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Sand Castle (Le Château de Sable) 
In a sandy desert, there is nothing but sand. After an especially vicious sandstorm, a creature climbs out of the piles of sand, a sand man. He surveys his surrounding, but no matter where he looks he sees sand, sand, and more sand. Not liking what he sees, he builds a couple of creatures out of the sand: a snake-like and a starfish-like sand creature. The snake-creature  creature has the power to spit out sand, and the starfish-like creature can flatten sand. The sandman builds more creatures, and he reveals his his special plan. They will use their skills to build a majestic sand castle. The Sand Castle is an inventive stop motion animated film by Co Hoedeman, who was born in the Netherlands but emigrated to Canada, where he made this film while with the National Film Board of Canada. As Hoedeman said in an interview, he meant for it to be a film about the power of teamwork, and that is definitely the case. In the film you've got about a half dozen different creatures, each with their own skills, and they all utilize their skills to get this castle built. None of the creatures can do it on their own, but their powers complement each other. There are some incidents, but slowly but surely the sand castle comes together. Each of the creatures are interesting and charming. There are the creatures built like Geodude but remind me more of the Kashira (rolling heads) in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) because of their grunting. My favorite is the three legged creature that sounds like Goofy. (No idea if that was deliberate or not.) The stop motion animation is quite dazzling. If you've ever been to the beach then you know sand is a tricky thing to work with, but Hoedeman's works around that to create some fluid and likely action. The music by our good friend Normand Roger is varied, cute, and often quite catchy. The only problem I have with the film is that it is a touch on the boring side. The characters and the message is nice, but there action on screen is quite limited. The ending is pretty powerful. I'm pretty sure that kids will love it.
Where Can I Watch It?

Four nominees? Yes, it is the first year since 1992 with more than three nominees, and the first since 1996 with exactly four nominees. It's quite a different scenario after years with only three nominees. I'm not sure what exactly led to the extra nominee, but as we'll find out it's not the only year with extra nominees, but it's still pretty unusual. Now, how would I rank these four nominees? Well, Jimmy the C is a good work, but it doesn't quite match up with the others. It's harder to pick between the other three. The Bead Game is tremendous stylistically and packs a pretty good message. A Doonesbury Special is a serious mediation at how current affairs shape our beliefs with a set of familiar and somewhat beloved characters. The Sand Castle has tremendous stop-motion animation as well as a good message about teamwork, but it's kind of boring. I may have to go with The Bead Game in the end, because it combines great animation with a great message, but the Academy went with the other National Film Board of Canada, The Sand Castle. It is the first win in this category by the National Film Board of Canada (in 14 nominations), the first of three straight wins (also Special Delivery and Every Child), and six overall (also Bob's Birthday, Ryan, and The Danish Poet.)

My rankings (by quality)
The Bead Game > The Sand Castle > A Doonesbury Special > Jimmy the C

My rankings (by preference)
The Bead Game > The Sand Castle > Jimmy the C > A Doonesbury Special


  1. I was born in 1977, about 8 days after the death of Elvis Presley!

    A book was released on the special that gave you a running script of the plot plus photos, drawings and other assorted facts associated with it.

    Even an LP was released of Jimmy Thudpucker's music with the couple tracks heard in the special!

    By the way, I think the special's gone, but here's a YouTube link for now while it lasts...

  2. One thing I should point out is that when the Doonesbury Special was being produced, John Hubley had passed away early in 1977. The rest of the production on the film had to be finished by both Trudeau and his wife Faith. Some thought the widowed Faith couldn't handle such a project on her own but she had proved them wrong. She would go on to produce more short films up to her death in 2001.

    Prior to doing A Doonesbury Special, John had went to London where he tried to work on the film "Watership Down" for Martin Rosen, but creative differences led to his return to the states though much of the intro of the film is said to be his work.

  3. Hi, you make mind blowing ideas and a spectacular article hereanimated intro

  4. Bead Game did deserved an Oscar nod, but I couldn't find it on the 78 Oscars on YouTube.