Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1963

So a few reviews ago I tried limiting my introductions to just talking about the Oscar ceremonies for that year, but even with that I was still making my intros just about as long as the actual reviews themselves, which is a problem because for one thing I find reviewing Oscar history much more interesting than the films, mostly due to the fact that I've seen numerous times. Furthermore, it is essentially doubling the time I take to write one of these reviews. And when I'm faced with something that is going to take up to 8 hours in a day, I'd rather do something else like watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or play The Sims 3. Meh. Maybe I'm just still trying to come to terms with my three-month hiatus.

Oh well. I guess we'll give this Academy review thing another shot.

So much has been made about Argo waltzing to Best Picture without a Best Picture nomination, only the second time it's happened since those confusing days of the early 1930s. (Driving Miss Daisy being the other.) There were, however, a few years when this seemed much more likely, as only two Best Director nominees were nominated for Best Picture. It's happened five times in the modern era of 5 Best Picture Nominees (1944-2008), and I bring this up because 1963 was one of them.

The Best Picture nominees that year were the rollicking English comedy Tom Jones (10 nominations), the  Taylor-Burton epic Cleopatra (9 nominations), the Western epic How the West was Won (8 nominations), the Sidney Poitier drama Lilies of the Field (5 nominations), and the immigration epic America, America (4 nominations). Of those five, only Tom Jones and America, America received Best Director nominees, as the other three went to the Paul Newman vehicle Hud (7 nominations), the religious drama The Cardinal (6 nominations), and the Fellini flick 8 1/2 (5 nominations).

The diverse distribution of Best Picture and Director nominations was a sign that the competitors were very evenly matched, and the results were similar. Cleopatra was the big winner of the night going into the final two Oscars, sweeping the color technical categories and winning an Oscar for Special Visual Effects (defeating famed animator Ub Iwerks, who received his only nomination for The Birds). How the West was Won followed closely behind, capturing Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Screenplay. The black and white technical awards were split, with 8 1/2 Best Costume Design, America, America winning Best Art Direction, and Hud winning for Best Cinematography (for Chinese-born cinematographer 黃宗霑, better known as James Wong Howe.) 8 1/2 also won Best Foreign Language Film, while Hud also picked up two acting awards, with Patricia Neal winning Best Actress and Melvyn Douglas winning Best Supporting Actor. Sidney Poitier made history by being the first African American to win a lead acting Oscar when he won for Lilies of the Field.

Meanwhile, Tom Jones wasn't doing as hot. It had the most nominations with 10, but three of them came in the Best Supporting Actress category, and all three lost to Margaret Rutherford in the airport drama The V.I.Ps. Its only two wins were for Best Substantially Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay. However, as hard it is for a film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, it's even harder for a film to win Best Director without a Best Picture nomination. No film has done that since the 1920s. Hud may have had a shot to break that streak, but it all went to naught as Tony Richardson went on to win Best Director for Tom Jones.

Going into the final category, Tom Jones was tied with How the West was Won with three wins, while Cleopatra led with four. Tom Jones was certainly a front-runner with a screenplay and a director win, but How the West was Won had a screenplay win and a win in Best Editing as well, so getting the historic win certainly wasn't out of the question. Furthermore, Tom Jones was a comedy, a genre that is usually scorned by the Academy. Not this time. The other two films couldn't overcome its lack of a Best Director nomination, and Tom Jones worked its way to the win.

But while all this was going on, another epic battle was being waged on the sidelines, the battle for the coveted Best Animated Short Oscar. These are the competitors. Which will emerge victorious?

Automania 2000
For several years now, scientists have been working on advancing the field of technology, improving the standards of living for humans everywhere. Yet none of the inventions had been more influential than that of the automobile. Scientists have come up with faster cars, longer cars, and specialty cars. The increased prevalence of the cumbersome cars eventually led to complete standstill of all mobility. People are forced to spend their entire lives living in cars. It seems like a paradise, but wait until scientists unveil their ultimate invention. The Hungarian-born John Halas is one of the foremost animators in Great Britain. He made a formidable team with his wife Joy Batchelor, and together they made several films together. They worked on the first two full length animated films from the British Isles, the naval training film Handling Ships and the adaptation of Orwell's Animal Farm. Later on Halas focused on producing, where he produced the Oscar nominated Dream Doll and the Masters of Animation series that contains the only clips of the Oscar nominated Dedalo that I can find. In between he continued making short film, and Automania 2000 was one of them, and won him the only Oscar nomination of his career. It paints a picture of a science-dominated future where cars have become so prevalent that people spend their entire lives within the confines of their automobiles. The film tracks the progression of scientific progress to that point, highlighting the unique types of cars produced and showcasing the utopian society where economy and warfare are dead and people spend their lives receive free goods from corporations. On the surface the film seems like a fairly standard satire, with the specialty cars and the "car dweller" lifestyle being presented as gags. At the same time Automania 2000 plays out as another Orwellian fable. I cannot help but think about how the way of life of the "car dweller" mimics the life under the rule of Big Brother in 1984, with any thoughts of freedom being tossed aside as people are placated by free smokes from Tobacco Inc. It's a lot deeper than I remembered. Unfortunately the gags are not very funny at all, as many of the specialty cars are downright stupid. The animation is decent but nothing special. On the other hand, the narration by American-born British actor Ed Bishop is terrific, and the ending is darkly excellent.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Critic
The Columbia logo appears on the screen as viewers settle into their seats. However, instead of a film, numerous geometric shapes appear on the screen played against selections from Bach's French Suite #5. The randomness onscreen is especially grating to one member of the audience, a 71-year old man from Russia. As the visuals continue on screen, the man continues to express his annoyance out loud, frustrating those around him. Abstract animation has a particular niche in animation history. More than any other types of animation it is the production of art for the sake of art. It is timeless, as a piece of abstract animation made in 1924 could look very similar from one made in 2004. At the same time abstract animation is much more inaccessible to general audiences, ones that want to see some sort of story with their films. This discrepancy between art and entertainment was what comedian Mel Brooks as he set off to do this project. At the time Brooks was a comedy writer and stand up comic whose 2000 Year Old Man skit with Carl Reiner. According to an interview, Brooks got the idea for The Critic while watching a film by the great Canadian abstract animator Norman McLaren and listening to an elderly man complain and moan the entire time. He went to his friend, the Oscar nominated animator Ernest Pintoff, and got him to agree to make a McLaren-esque segment of abstract animation. When Pintoff was finished he showed Brooks, who ad-libbed the lines of the agitated critic and those around him. The end result was a film that was as funny as it is deep. The visuals by Pintoff are typical for most abstract animation: vibrant, colorful, and completely obscure. Yet it is Brooks's mostly improvised lines that makes the film a joy to watch. His caustic comments are hilarious both for its content and also because how well it reflects the thoughts of audiences of the film. As many other actual critics with much more insight than me have pointed out, this diverging interaction between the critic and the creator really gets into the meat of the meaning of art. If you're interested in that deeper level of understanding I'm sure there are many scholarly works talking about this in more depth. For me, I enjoy the film for the bold humor that never gets old. It's a must-see for anybody that's ever been a fan of Mel Brooks or even comedy in general.
Where Can I Watch It?
There was a really high quality version that appeared on YouTube in the past, but I guess it got removed or something. Here's one that's been on YouTube for five years instead.

Igra (The Game)
A girl and a boy appear in a room that is littered with construction paper, colored pencils, and some ink. Armed with the familiar tools of drawing, they get right down to it. The boy's colored pencil loses his tip and attempts to switch one out from the girl, busy sharpening her own pencils. The girl catches him but offers to let him borrow the pencil sharpener. However, the rest of the day is not defined by such friendly actions, as both the boy and the girl spend the rest of the day trying to best each other with their drawings. Can they ever find peace? Dusan Vukotic was the famous Yugoslavian animator that made history in 1961 when his film Surogat (The Substitute) became the first foreign film to win the Best Animated Short Oscar. We'll be reviewing that classic in a few weeks time, but I'll say for now that while it had excellent storytelling, it didn't do what Vukotic tried to do in Igra, and that is to tackle issues relevant to the present period of time. The early 1960s was the height of the Cold War, with tensions between America and the Soviet Union reaching a boiling point. Indeed, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened the global landscape in the year Igra was made. Vukotic was behind the Iron Curtain, but he could see the threat the conflict could have on the world. So he made Igra*, an allegory for the conflict being presented as a game between two kids. On the surface it seems like a war between the sexes, with the girl drawing something feminine like a flower and the boy countering with something masculine, like a car to run over the flower. However, it isn't as though the girl is presented as weak. Midway through the film the girl gets an avatar in a character she created, who can hold her own from the boy's constant volleys using ingenuity and some violence if need be. The battles start out innocently but escalate to the point when the boy is dive bombing the girl's house. The final ending is very stark and serves as a potent warning at the cost of the unchecked and wanton destruction. It may have been a much smaller scale, but the message remains. The film is a combination of live action shots and animation, with the live action shots focusing on the boy and the girl at play and animation allowing for their drawings to come to life. It is done very well, as the animation reflects the simplicity of the children's drawings, and the children can affect the action by modifying the drawings or the paper. The film also has effective use of background colors that match with the construction paper and also convey emotions. It is weak in the audio department, especially as the kids' voices were mixed in afterward and sound very unrealistic. Still, Igra is a powerful and well made film that touch upon the global landscape at the time.

*Igra is a Croatian word that can mean 'game' or 'play'. Vukotic often uses multiple languages in his title screens, and used the word 'play' as the English word, although most people go with 'game'. It's listed as 'Game' on the Academy databases, so that's what I'll go with. Then again Surogat is listed as Ersatz on the Academy database, which is the German word used, so I guess I'm being inconsistent. It's just like Nudnik #2 and Here's Nudnik, or The Longest Daycare and Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare.'
Where Can I Watch It?

My Financial Career
A timid and anxious man has one major fear in his life, and it is going to the bank. Everything about the bank sets him into a nervous state where he becomes a babbling idiot, and he tells a story of his most embarrassing experience in a bank, when he tried to set up an account where he can deposit his salary. However, his anxiety and the inexplicably suspicious behavior that followed led to increasingly awkward moments. Can anything go right for the man in his visit? My Financial Career is an adaptation by the National Film Board of Canada of one of the most famous works by the British-born Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. The tale of a timid man and his woeful visit to the bank has been posited as being a tale about the common man's view of economics, and that certainly is a possibility, but as an aspiring psychiatrist I like to see it as a study in anxiety, one of the most common psychiatric conditions. Anxiety is a reaction to a stressful situation with particular physical and behavioral manifestations. It is similar to but slightly different from fear, which is more of a reaction to a dangerous stimulus. Some anxiety is beneficial, but excess anxiety is detrimental. The entire tale is built around the narrator's anxiety toward the banking institution. While it doesn't make much mention of his physical symptoms of the anxiety, his nervousness is clearly visible by what he says or do, many of which the narrator qualifies with the benefit of hindsight. I find it to be an interesting case study, but I suppose I don't find it very funny. Anxiety is a real and debilitating problem for millions of individuals, and as such I don't find much humor from the narrator's condition. The adaptation itself is well done. It appears to have been animated with cutouts, against fairly simple backgrounds. The characters themselves appear to have been around the turn of the century, which is appropriate considering the story was written in 1910. The text is taken pretty much straight from the original short story, and the narration was handled by National Film Board filmmaker and frequent narrator Stanley Jackson. My Financial Career is certainly an interesting film but unfortunately doesn't really progress much beyond that.
Where Can I Watch It?

A solid white player piano stands in a dark room, oblivious to the transformation that it is about to undergo. It opens up and begins to play, and as it plays it begins to change. Colors begin appearing all over it, as the facade, the keys the hammers, and even the paper music for the player piano begin to develop vibrant colors. These changes eventually affect not only the piano but also many things that are close to the piano, including a sculpture of a woman's torso. Carmen D'Avino was one of the titans of abstract art and animation. D'Avino got his start as a painter and eventually progressed to making short films. Pianissimo is one of his most celebrated works. It is a vibrant work where a bland white player piano is transformed into a colorful work of art. The film is done in pixilation as the parts of the piano gains color and even gets deconstructed and re-constructed. The colors appear quite fluidly with intricate designs. The most interesting parts was when D'Avino took the paper music for the piano and colored in things at random using the lines that determine the notes. Unfortunately, perhaps its due to the age of the print that the copy I saw was taken from, but the colors look downright garish now. And I'm not exactly sure what the point of the sculpture of the torso is, but it's a bit unsettling, especially since during those scenes the music turns from the jazzy piano score into a somber tune with strings. Some of the sound effects that are tossed in seem random and strange, such as farm or city noises appearing during the paper music scenes. Still, the artistry that went into Pianissimo is undeniable. I suppose it's interesting that this film was nominated the same year as The Critic, which also deals with experimental film. While Pianissimo is not quite as formless as the abstract work of McLaren, it can still be quite trying for viewers accustomed to storylines, and it may seem to drag even though the six minute running time is only half of that of Igra. Still, Pianissimo is a great work of art from a master of the craft.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, those were the combatants. And how will they go down? In my opinion, there are two films that stand out. The Critic and Igra. One was a witty commentary on one of the most frustrating genres of art, while the other was a biting piece of allegory that remains powerful even after 50 years. Ultimately The Critic wins out due to the fact that it is much more watchable, much more succinct in its presentation, and provided one of the first glimpses of the comedic genius that is Mel Brooks. And the Academy agreed, awarding the Oscar to The Critic and its producer, Ernest Pintoff. That's right, even though The Critic was Mel Brooks's baby, the Oscar went to somebody else. But all is not lost. Brooks would win an Oscar of his own five years later when he won Best Original Screenplay for The Producers.

My ranking (by quality)
The Critic > Igra > Pianissimo > Automania 2000 > My Financial Career

My ranking (by preference)
The Critic > Igra > My Financial Career > Automania 2000 > Pianissimo   


  1. AUTOMANIA 2000
    "Later on Halas focused on producing, where he produced the Oscar nominated Dream Doll and the Masters of Animation series that contains the only clips of the Oscar nominated Dedalo that I can find.

    He was also president of ASIFA (International Animated Film Association) as well from a period between 1979 to 1988. He certainly had a lot on his plate over the years.

    "On the surface the film seems like a fairly standard satire, with the specialty cars and the "car dweller" lifestyle being presented as gags"

    The one shot where you see a mom and her kids watching TV from inside their car always felt kinda prophetic when you have to consider how possible it became by the year 2000 to have a TV and/or DVD player in your minivan.

    Nice to know who narrated the film since his name doesn't pop up in the opening credits. One person of note to mention is that of animator Harold Whitaker whom worked with Halas and other studios during his carreer. He has a specific style and approach to his work that is very unique and hardly inmitatable as I see it. Here's a few examples...

    Both Whitaker and Halas wrote a book together that's still in print called "Timing for Animation", it might be worth checking out!

    The theme of future concerns for technlogy trumping human endeavours has been a theme in Halas' work, even into the age of computers he would revisit this in his 1981 film "Dilemma"...

    Here's a film he made about the avant garde artist, Moholy-Nagy...

    "The Columbia logo appears on the screen as viewers settle into their seats. However, instead of a film, numerous geometric shapes appear on the screen played against selections from Bach's French Suite #5."

    Well it's not like they were expecting a UPA cartoon like they were a decade ago! The film certainly is mocking the sort of non-objective forms of animated art that had been pioneered by the likes of Oskar Fishinger, Norman Mclaren, Len Lye, Mary Ellen Bute, Harry Smith and others. These people and their works were very influential to the experimental set that might not otherwise had gotten much recognition in the Academy by this point in time, especially in the animated short subject category that only recently started opening up to the foreign and independent artists from a time of being mostly studio dominated (and works that typically would be "objective").

    The short was originality leaked on a web page that was owned/maintained by some film director who did commercials and music videos I recall, as the videos were in Quicktime format (I saved that clip myself). I bothered to go on Archive dot Org as the original site appears to be gone now, but here it is (and it's all there, glad they had the gigs to save it)!

    Of course if you had to go for the shoestring/poor man's method, here's a site that offers a very crappy version of the short with frame break-ups and other imperatives!

    Here's a nice little piece from PBS's site of Mel Brooks mentioning the making of this short...

    One person of note to mention here, though he's not nearly as big as Brooks or Pintoff is that of animator Bob Heath. Later in his career he set up a sort of correspondence animation school that sold animation supplies and a specific book called "Animation in 12 Hard Lessons" that went through the details on each assignment you would do. It's considered though rather basic since it relied more on standard limited TV-style approaches in design and animation, but it's details on timing and camera movements made it quite valuable.

    I mentioned already Gerald Potterton worked on this baby (the later director of 1981's Heavy Metal). I recall first seeing this one some time after South Park debuted on Comedy Central in 1997, and recall thinking how the use of paper cut-outs on this short and plot reminded me too much of what typically happens in a South Park episode, yet the design aesthetic employed here is far from the approach South Park uses to depict a more childish view of cut-out animation (or something you would make as a grade school project). Certainly the modern/abstract look was still in vogue at this time. While the view of anxieties is duly noted going back on this film, perhaps the original author wasn't aware of such a problem during his time while writing this piece. I was amused at the use of words and approaches in speech the guy uses like when he says "alone" in a specific tone and try to dissect what others thought of him.

  3. MST3K's (my favourite series) Kevin Murphy said The Critic was his introduction to riffing.