Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Best Animated Short - 2014: The Shortlist

Well, today marks an important milestone in the Best Animated Short race: the announcement of the shortlist for nomination. Each year films are qualified through festivals or qualifying runs, and the animation branch of the Academy sit through all of the films and rank them, and the ten highest ranked films make it to the shortlist for a larger branch to review. This year 58 films qualified, and today the Academy had released the ten films that will be moving on to a select screening in December. Eventually anywhere from three to five films would receive a coveted nomination.

Unfortunately, for the second straight year in a row we didn't get a full list of all of the qualifying films, but Cartoon Brew did preview some of the more highly regarded films from the festival circuit, which I previewed earlier. But even that was not foolproof, as two of the shortlisted films were not previewed in the earlier thread. But even still, these are the films that could end up with nominations this year. Let's sit back and preview all of them in more depth, just like what I did in 2012 and 2013.

The Bigger Picture
The National Film and Television School is recognized as one of the top film schools in the world. It's the alma mater for some of the greatest animators in the business, including Nick Park, Mark Baker, and Alison Snowden. Nick Park had gotten started on his Oscar nominated Wallace and Gromit in a Grand Day Out while still enrolled at the school, and both Alison Snowden and Timothy Reckart had gotten nominated for Second Class Mail and Head Over Heels respectively, both made when they were still students. Daisy Jacobs is hoping to join in the group of NFT students to get nominated for thesis film. Billed as being a "life-sized animated short," it tells the story of two brothers as they try to take care of their elderly mother. The film is life-sized in that the puppets are not seven inches but seven feet tall, but more importantly it details an aspect to aging that many other films like Up and It's So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House doesn't really address, and that is the burden it places on caretakers. At least that's what I'm thinking, having not exactly seen the film for myself. From the trailer it seems like it has an appealing style, combining both stop motion and 2D animation to tell a story with a lot of symbolism and emotion. I mean, that scene of a character sucking his mother and all the furniture itself is a sign that this isn't a standard film. Sadly it's not yet available outside of film festivals, although with the festival screening schedule ending later this month, here's hoping it will be available online or on DVD soon.

A drunk guy goes stumbling out of a bar drunk, and the next thing he knows he is hurtled through an existentialist experience that takes him from birth to death and pretty much everything in between. And there's a fox. At least that's what I get from watching the film's rather ambiguous trailer. It appears to be a profound work on the sort of contemplation about life that one would get while on death's doorstep. It seems to be a film that is jam packed with symbols and metaphors (a film that my sister would hate). According to one site it took five years to complete, which combined with its profound message has traditionally been something that appeals to the Academy, as long as they are not driven away by the film's abstract nature. It's scheduled to run in festivals until the middle of December, but here's hoping that the filmmakers put it up online shortly after that.

The Dam Keeper
Set in a post-apocalyptic world of sorts (I would assume) inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, The Dam Keeper tells the story of a young pig who is tasked with an important job. He has to wind up a windmill designed to keep the poisonous fumes out of their hidden valley (of the wind). Despite this, he is ignored by the adults and bullied by his peers, but the pig would not be stopped in dedicating himself in saving the lives of others. Yet the arrival of a new animal (a fox) would change the life of him and his town forever. At least that's what I think this film is about. It's a film by a Japanese and a Japanese American filmmaker, both of whom have had served as art directors for Pixar films. They took their intensely vivid art style and applied it to the film creating a film of breathtaking beauty. The film's story on its whole seems somewhat like a heartwarming tale with an inevitable tragedy, and you really can't go wrong with a world of anthropomorphic animals (unless you're Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis and make a heavy existentialist film like When the Day Breaks.)  This could end up being a major player at the Oscars. It's festival run is scheduled to end the end of the month, so here's hoping to see it in its entirety soon.

Glen Keane is kind of a big deal in the animation industry. He was inspired to embrace art through the influence of his father Bil Keane, the creator of The Family Circus (Glen was the inspiration for Billy), and later entered Cal Arts. From there he got a job with Disney, and became a renowned character animator, having played a crucial role in animating the lead characters in films from the so-called "Disney Renaissance" from The Little Mermaid to Aladdin. He eventually left Disney early in 2012 where he started doing work with Motorola to work on a series of "interactive hand-drawn animation" alongside Jan Pinkava, director of the Oscar winning Geri's Game. I'm still not quite sure what exactly that means, but Duet is Keane's first film in the series and the third film overall. The film itself is not yet interactive, but it's so far the only film available in its entirety online, and it's still quite dazzling. It tells the story of two characters, a girl and a boy (well and the boy's dog so make it three) as they live their lives on separate paths, often coming together until eventually they finally intersect. It's an interesting concept that is made even better with Keane's excellent skills at animating movement in his characters. The characters' lives becomes like a dance (although the girl becoming a ballerina may be a bit cliched) and becomes a visual feast. It's even more impressive when you consider that the animation entire film is pretty much done by Keane himself. I still don't know what interactive hand-drawn animation, will be like, but Duet is a great first solo work from an animation master.

Duet may the only film that's available online so far, but it won't be the only film to be screened to the public for long. Feast is the latest animated short film by Disney, to be played before screenings of Big Hero 6 starting this Friday. It's appears to be a film about a dog that is fed grand, Babette's Feast-esque meals that has to deal with a change in food not to its liking. The animation itself appears to use the technique found in Disney's Oscar winning classic Paperman in that it combines 3D CGI animation with a 2D style, this time done in soft watercolor-type animation. That's really all I know of it, but from what the trailers look like it seems to combine three elements that people really like: food shots, lots of action (even if it's just characters running around, but the camera follows it in such a way that it really creates a sense of motion) and an adorable little puppy. Who could resist that sort of a combination, although I really would have to watch Big Hero 6 this weekend just to see what the film as a whole is like.

Bill Plympton is a legend in the animation world. His work using colored pencils (with the exception of a few of his film) and his zany, often surreal humor has become such a defining style that it's got its own name, Plymptoons. He's been nominated twice in the past for Your Face and Guard Dog, and has been on the shortlist in recent years with Guide Dog in 2006 and The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger in 2010. Well after a few years and an animated feature film, Plympton finally has a chance for a third nomination in this category with his film Footprints. Unfortunately, Plympton is also known for keeping much of his films under wraps, so all we have for this film are a few scattered screenshots. It appears to be about a guy that sees mysterious footprints and has wild imaginations of what it could be from. Of course knowing Bill Plympton it's going to be something much crazier than anyone can ever imagine. According to Cartoon Brew, Plympton has struck a deal with Shorts HD to have some of his films made available, including his two Oscar nominated films and his most recent shortlisted film before this one. Here's hoping that they will make Footprints available soon.

Me and My Moulton
Torill Kove is a Norweigan animator living in Canada and makes films about her native country for the National Film Board of Canada. She is known for her relatively simple character designs where the faces are just dots for eyes and a line or circle for mouths, but also for her touching stories full of warmth and humor, which can sometimes be dark. These aspects were well displayed in her previous work like the Oscar nominated My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts and the Oscar winning The Danish Poet. She returns to the Oscar shortlist with Me and My Moulton, a film about a girl in Norway growing up with two sisters and parents who were rather unconventional and the difficulties she faced in being brought up in a home environment that isn't exactly like any of her peers. All of these conflicting emotions come to head when she and her sisters ask her parents for a bicycle. This film may or may not be autobiographical, but it certainly promises to be an interesting and heart-warming film. And as for the title, it just reminds me of my old #nintendo buddy and Knight of Hyrule Brett "Gameqber" Moulton, but it's probably a reference to a bicycle. The National Film Board of Canada had made the film available, but only through download. They had three shortlisted films last year and all of them were online before nominations were announced (and of course none of them made it.) Maybe Me and My Moulton would suffer a different fate.

The Numberlys
Moonbot Studios, based in Shreveport, Louisiana (only an hour of where I live) and founded by artist William Joyce burst onto the scene with their wildly successful and Oscar winning film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. The film paid tribute to the city of New Orleans, relished in the beauty of reading, and also had an interaction with an online story app. When Mr. Morris Lessmore was released online the film was prefaced with a commercial for another app in development called the Numberlys. The app was launched in late 2012, but after two years of production, the short film to go along with the app is finally ready. The Numberlys is set in a world of numbers, where the only way to express yourself is through numbers. However, five characters working on the production team for numbers are not satisfied with mere numbers, and strive to change their world by creating new a new system. Mr. Morris Lessmore was popular for being a story for kids that contain the depth that appeal to adults. From the trailers it seems to capture the feel of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, although the folks at Moonbot were aiming for the 1939 World Fair, which is kind of similar. It seems to utilize the animation style of their previous film in combining live models with CGI animated characters. Let's hope that Moonbot makes the film available soon.

A Single Life
"When playing a mysterious vinyl single, Pia is suddenly able to travel through her life." That's pretty much all the information we get from the website of the film's creator, the Dutch group of Job, Joris & Marieke. The trailer gives us a little bit more information. It features a woman starting a vinyl record and gets ready to eat a pizza, and the next thing she knows the pizza is eaten and she is sitting there with a puzzled look on her face. Apparently that's what it meant by "traveling through her life." The TIFF description says "Pia begins to travel through space and time, experiencing her own reality at different ages and stages," which could be an interesting, although it could be another film that attempts to understand life and its fleetness. The animation itself has a kind of a crude CGI look, which could be deliberate, but really this film could go any way with how it does with its concept.

Symphony No. 42
The interaction between human and nature has been an important concept in film and entertainment for years. It's been a critical element in most of the works by Studio Ghibli, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and almost all of their films in between. It was also addressed in many of the recent Oscar nominees as well from Feral last year to Adam and Dog in 2012 and so on. And now we have another film that attempts to address this important topic, from Hungarian film student Reka Bucsi. The film supposedly has 47 different short vignettes about the connection between mankind and nature. The trailer shows only a few shots of nature and some of the human element. One of the most compelling (or at least interesting) shots features a fox looking intently at a moving diagram of an atom. It doesn't really tell us much about the film itself. I will say that it may be called Symphony No. 42, perhaps as a reference to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but the music is definitely not from any Symphony No. 42 but from Beethoven's 9th Symphony that featured so prominently in Don Hertzfeldt's classic Oscar nominated film Rejected. Still, it has played in a LOT of festivals, and has gotten high praise from most people that watched it. I will say that the title seems kind of misleading. Will the Academy go for it? And can the festival run end and the film gets posted before the Oscar nominations?


Anyways, ten films, all with the hopes of being in the final nomination list and ultimately getting the chance to join classics like Magoo's Puddle Jumper, The Crunch Bird, and A Greek Tragedy as Oscar winners. But really, I'm sure all of these films are great and they don't need an Oscar to prove themselves to the world, but it certainly would be nice. Some notable films that didn't make the shortlist from the list posted by Cartoon Brew included Pixar's Lava (making it the second straight year that Pixar missed the shortlist, following The Blue Umbrella last year), the abstract anime film Futon, Annecy Short Film winner Man on the Chair, the curious Rabbit and Deer, and Konstatin Bronzit's We Can't Live Without Cosmos.

As for the films on the shortlist, it's really hard to say anything when you've only seen one film in full. I do note that foxes seem to be featured in three of the films, so there is something about foxes. Maybe that's a sign, maybe that's a coincidence. I've been terrible at predictions in the past, so here are films that may end up getting the shaft. From my history three or four will probably end up with nominations

The Bigger Picture
The Numberlys
A Single Life

So I imagine most of those will get nominated. I wish they would actually post some of the films soon so I'll have something else to go by, but here we go.

Let the Best Animated Short race begin!

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