Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Best Animated Short - 1969

Happy Nightmare Night, Halloween, everybody. My friends at the Longview Comic Book Club will probably be hooting and hollering it up at their Halloween party, but me? I'm on a plane going to South Carolina for the fifth and sixth residency interviews. Sure, I'd rather have it be to Atlanta to watch Game 7 of the World Series at Turner Field, but that dream kind of died when the Braves were knocked off by the St. Louis Cardinals. Oh well, at least they got knocked off by the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants. I think I'm less bitter at the Giants ruining the Rangers' World Series hopes than the Cardinals, because the Rangers were so close to the title. And now both Rangers are pretty much going to join the Indians and the Royals as also-rans. It was a good run while it lasted. But I digress. Even though I'm on a plane right now, I have this review up because I'm writing it in advance. There really was no point to this paragraph, but it doesn't matter because the only people that will end up reading this are my sisters, who are more into Japanese anime anyways. So yey, my target audience for this blog is essentially myself! No wonder I've lost the motivation to write it. But I will keep trucking on! We still have 38 years to review, and by golly I'm going to review them!

1969 was a fairly significant year. It was the year of the lunar landing (RIP Neil Armstrong, who died when I was heading to Cleveland for an Indians game). It was the year of the Miracle Mets, led by future 311-game winner Tom Seaver with contributions from future 324-game winner Nolan Ryan. And it is also closer to Disney's The Little Mermaid than The Little Mermaid is to present day.

For me, 1969 was significant because it was the first older (>10 years) year where I watched all of the Best Picture nominees. I completed 1995, 1997, 1999 first, but 1969 seemed like a more significant accomplishment because the films were older and harder to find. Midnight Cowboy was the first film I saw as my parents owned a copy. The explicit sex scenes were shocking to audiences in the late 1960s, but they seemed more like a joke for a 13-year-old growing up in the late 1990s. I watched the Western classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on my mother's recommendation a few weeks later. I found it kind of boring, but at least it didn't put me to sleep like it did my sister. (In her defense, she got only five minutes of sleep the night before, and went swimming earlier in the day.) Shortly after that, I watched Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly!, two years after I watched part of it and a decade before it regained prominence with its appearance in Pixar's WALL-E. That was it until my junior year of high school, when I found Anne of the Thousand Days at the library of my high school. I recognized it as being a Best Picture nominee from 1969 and went home and watched it.

I had only one more film to go, titled Z. Unfortunately, that was a foreign film, and those were harder to find.  I found it at a local video store and promptly rented it and watched it. It was a tense political thriller about a political cover-up involving an assassination of a prominent government official in Greece (although the film was Algerian.) I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the Academy did too as they nominated it for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, a distinction enjoyed by only a few select films (including 臥虎藏龍! Yey!) Unfortunately, its five nominations were the fewest of all the nominees. Butch Cassidy, Hello Dolly and Midnight Cowboy received seven while Anne of the Thousand Days was tops with 10, but was left out of the Best Director lineup. Similarly, the dance drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They received nine nominations, but was left out of the Best Picture race. Indeed, when Oscar night rolled around no film seemed to take command. Anne of the Thousand Days won Best Costume Design. Butch Cassidy won for Best Cinematography, Best Original Song (for Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head), and Best Original Score - Not a Musical. Hello Dolly won for Best Original Musical Score, Best Art Direction, and Best Sound. And then Z surprised people by winning Best Editing, and also captured Best Foreign Language Film while it was at it. Marooned won for Best Visual Effects.

The only Best Picture nominated film that didn't capture a single technical award was Midnight Cowboy, but that's not too surprising considering its only nomination in a technical category was for Best Editing. When the Screenplay awards came up, Midnight Cowboy captured the Best Adapted Screenplay prize, while Butch Cassidy won for Best Original Screenplay, beating out the X-rated Italian-German film The Damned. Anne of the Thousand Days and Midnight Cowboy had a lot riding on the acting Oscars, as they each had three acting nominations, and they all went home empty handed. Goldie Hawn won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the romantic comedy Cactus Flower. Gig Young won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the manipulative MC in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Maggie Smith won her first Oscar for playing the title character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight were both nominated for their roles in Midnight Cowboy, but they both lost to John Wayne, who finally won an Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in the original True Grit.

When Best Director rolled around, Butch Cassidy was in the lead with four Oscars. Hello Dolly had three, but it was not nominated Best Director, diminishing its chances for Best Picture. Z had won two Oscars while Anne of the Thousand Days and Midnight Cowboy won only one. However, Midnight Cowboy broke through with a Best Director win for the late John Schlesinger, making it an interesting race between the Western and the film that resembles a Western but isn't really a Western. And to the surprise of many, Midnight Cowboy took home Best Picture as well. It won in spite of its explicit sexual content, which led to the harshest rating in the newly formed rating system by the MPAA.

There is no such controversy over content in the Best Animated Short race, however. That's not to say that they're all G-rated (there is one film that bucks that trend), but at least it doesn't have people in bed.

It's Tough to Be a Bird
A red bird with a New York accent is flying through the sky, carefree as can be, but his peace is quickly shattered by a gunshot. The bird survives the attack, but bemoans his fate of being a bird. He talks about how difficult it is to be a bird, with constant attacks by hunters. Yet he knows that birds have been an integral part of human history, and proceeds to talk about it all. However, will that help the birds get respect? Back when Walt Disney's short animation division began dying down in the late 1940s and 1950s, he began to finance another genre: nature documentaries. His "Tru-Life Adventures" series was almost as successful at the Oscars in the 1950s as he was with his animated short films in the 1930s. In 1953, Disney set a record with four Oscars in one ceremony, and three of them were for documentaries. Overall documentaries were responsible for 10 of Disney's 22 wins. Ward Kimball, one of Disney's celebrated animators known as the Nine Old Men, made It's Tough to Be a Bird in 1969. It was an educational film that combined nature with animation and jokes, making it almost like a tongue and cheek companion to the Tru-Life Adventures films. The film is mostly episodic, with the red bird jumping from topic to topic with minimal connections. He begins with an amusing song about how it's tough to be a bird, but then delivers his hypothesis about how humans target them just because they can flight and humans cannot. He delves into the evolution of birds, and talked about their role in history and culture. Then after a short reprieve where he is attacked, he discusses extinction and which birds are extinct or close to it. Then he moves onto birdwatchers, and after complaining about how everybody loves to see beautiful birds, talks about the Buzzard Festival in Hinckley, Ohio. There are so many topics with minimal transition between them that the film lacks cohesion. It feels disorganized, as though it was thrown together randomly. It's kind of annoying, which is too bad, because there's a lot of good information and decent jokes. There are three visual styles in this film. The film uses a lot of live action footage. Then it has some standard animation, usually limited against a sparse background. Finally the film makes use of the Monty Python-esque animation style, animating with still images or with older paintings. The highlight of the film comes in the last two minutes, when the film goes through a madcap sequence of scenes related to birds, almost all using this style of animation. It's completely random, but also quite entertaining. The film is mostly narrated by actor Richard Bakalyan, who does a decent job but his accent is kind of grating. Overall It's Tough to Be a Bird is a decent educational film that is fun to watch, but nothing much beyond that.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's a Disney film so they're probably very protective of their copyrights. There's a version of the film split into three parts on YouTube that's been there for close to three years. Unfortunately they disabled embedding, which is just as well because who wants to see three videos embedded side by side? Hope you don't mind clicking on the videos individually.

It's Tough to Be a Bird Part I
It's Tough to Be a Bird Part II
It's Tough to Be a Bird Part III

Of Men and Demons
A farmer makes his living off the land. He tends and raises his crops, which he uses to make hay. His life is defined by routine, but in a nearby mountain a trio of demons representing the elements of nature wants nothing more than to disrupt his routine. They succeed, leaving the farmer despondent, but the farmer meets a mate, and together they build something more technologically advanced. The demons comes by causing mischief again, but they only serve to power their machines. But when the demons adapt to ruin the progress, can the farmer and his mate make things right again? John Hubley was the legendary animator that started out with Disney before moving on after the Disney strike, eventually becoming a pioneering member of the UPA Studios. After Joseph McCarthy ended his UPA career, Hubley teamed together with his wife Faith, where they made imaginative films using their children's recording as inspiration, and films about human life, such as Voyage to Next (1974). Of Men and Demons is another example of the latter film. It is a parable about the battle between nature and technological progress. The farmer, representing mankind, begins with an agricultural lifestyle. Nature, portrayed as demons of water, fire, and lightning, destroy his way of life. However, he picked up where he left off after finding a mate (not sure who she represents...Lady Industry, if that is such a thing) and industrialized the production. However, the demons counter by representing the pitfalls of industry: pollution. Still, like humanity, the farmer and his mate finds a way. The film ends with a reference to the digital revolution that was just getting started in the late 1960s, and it was quite a progressive viewpoint from back in 1969. The story is quite interesting and flows very smoothly. The animation is of the more limited type that Hubley has become known for, but there is still plenty of detail in some of the technology. The design of the demons is akin to many of the Asian-style demons, especially the boss lightning demon with three (five in one shot) eyes and six arms. The story is wordless and driven by some very nice music, although there are a lot of grunts on the soundtrack that I feel adds character to the film. Of Men and Demons is a solid film, and might just be my favorite film from John Hubley's post-UPA days.
Where Can I Watch It?
I saw Of Men and Demons online somehow early on when I was watching the films, but after that I had the hardest time finding it to watch it again. In the end I finally found a DVD with John and Faith Hubley's films titled Art and Jazz in Animation that had the film. And naturally somebody posts it on YouTube two months after I bought the DVD. Oh well. The video was uploaded just over a year ago so I guess I can embed it.

Walking (En Merchant)
Almost everybody is able to walk at some point or another. However, while most people can put one foot ahead of the other to propel them forward, everybody does it in different ways. Some people take hurried steps while hunched over. Others walk in a more relaxed style. Join Canadian animator Ryan Larkin as he explores the many different ways that people walk. Who knows? Maybe you'll start becoming conscious of the way you walk. The animation of movement is one of the more difficult tasks for animators. The great animator Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki once dedicated a whole chapter in a book talking about different ways to draw people running. According to Miyazaki, the animation of movement is challenging because it wouldn't look realistic unless one toys around with the physics of movement. Furthermore, different characters should have different styles of moving. Well, Ryan Larkin certainly has the animation of movement down. Yes, this is the same Ryan Larkin that Chris Landreth interviewed for his Oscar winning film Ryan, and Walking was one of the films that Landreth asked Ryan to discuss. It is certainly more of an experimental film. The film is essentially an observation of people and how they move. It is split up into three sections, each with increasing amounts of movement and decreasing amounts of detail. Initially there are images of people standing around. Both the characters and the backgrounds are quite elaborate. Next Larkin animates them walking. There are several different styles of walking, but they look quite natural. Meanwhile the background has disappeared, and soon the clothes have too. Finally, the people begin walking more briskly until they are finally running. They have lost their individual features and seem more like the silhouette characters that were in Erica Russell's Triangle. Meanwhile, the individual sections are separated by a repeating image of a guy hunched over, walking with hurried steps with his hands in his pockets. The man made up of many unrelated drawings with similar shapes, giving it a dynamic look. The film's construction is quite remarkable, and the images are visually dazzling. Unfortunately, being an experimental film I find it more on the boring side, but I appreciate the sheer technique that went into the film's creation. And the soundtrack is quite soothing as well.
Where Can I Watch It?
Embedding the French Canadian version because it's actually from the National Film Board of Canada. Nothing safer than getting it from the source, amirite? It's a story without words so you won't be missing much.

So, there you have it, the three nominees from the last year in the 1960s. I think I made it pretty clear that I was most impressed with Of Men and Demons from the three films. Walking is more visually impressive but I found it to be kind of boring. It's Tough to Be a Bird was interesting, but the lack of a cohesive structure really makes the film fall apart for me. Apparently the Academy didn't think that way, because when all was said and done they gave the Oscar to It's Tough to Be a Bird. Ward Kimball became the first person at Disney to win a Best Animated Short Oscar other than Walt Disney. Meanwhile Ryan Larkin was left to his own devices and eventually fell down a spiral of drugs and decadence. Chris Landreth gave him some exposure and eventually revived his career, but his lifestyle caught up to him and he died in 2007. Tragic.

My rankings (by quality)
Of Men and Demons > Walking > It's Tough to Be a Bird

My rankings (by preference)
Of Men and Demons > It's Tough to Be a Bird > Walking


  1. Sad to hear you didn't care for "It's Tough To Be A Bird". Arguably a lot of this was Ward Kimball's fault anyway but it surely shows I guess in the production if he wasn't up to try to make a straightly educational film and went for something of his own tastes in the process. I enjoy that sort of free-willing quirkiness myself, especially with his short "Dad... Can I Borrow The Car?", later expanded into an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney.

    Pixar would later pay homage to Kimball's work with the Ratatouile short "Your Friend, the Rat".

  2. Great Blog!!!
    ... and talking about Of men and Demons