Animated shorts have never been bigger. Starting today, ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures are screening the five nominees theatrically in North America and Europe for the eighth consecutive year along with the live-action and doc short nominees; they continue to sell briskly on iTunes; and, for the first time, the Academy has opened up the voting to all members, and will be sending out DVD screeners, which will offer greater exposure.
And this year's crop is the most compelling in years:
- "Adam and Dog": a gorgeous hand-drawn reworking of the Genesis story from Disney animator Minkyu Lee ("Wreck-It Ralph"), who made it independent of the studio without a producer or a budget.
- "Fresh Guacamole": a culinary stop-motion delight by PES ("Western Spaghetti") and the shortest short ever nominated in Oscar history at a minute and forty-five seconds.
- "Head over Heels": a poignant stop-mo student work by Timothy Reckart about a disagreeable husband and wife literally living on top of one other.
- "Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Daycare": a "Simpsons" first as a short and in 3-D, in which Maggie hilariously gets the spotlight in an adventure at the Ayn Rand School for Tots.
- "Paperman": Disney's innovative black and white hybrid directed by John Kahrs about love at first sight between two commuters in '50s Manhattan.
While "Paperman" is the clear frontrunner for both its clever conceit and its bravura technique (integrating hand-drawn lines on top of CG animation using a new digital in-betweening and motion tracking interface), "Maggie Simpson" is a strong contender for its brilliant wit and breakneck speed. Plus there's no telling how much weight the "Simpsons" brand will carry with the Academy at large.
With "Maggie Simpson," the popular franchise definitely reaches new artistic heights, as the toddler gets diagnosed with average intelligence at the day care but longs to be grouped with gifted children. She finds her way by rescuing a lonely cocoon from Baby Gerald, who smooshes butterflies and frames them.
"Jim [Brooks] just wanted another way to experiment with the characters," explains director David Silverman, who is busy helming the final episode of the 24th season. "We started spit-balling and thought it made the best sense to center it around Maggie as a standalone without any of the adults. It was interesting to isolate Maggie from the setting and we started thinking about the old 'Feed the Kitty' cartoon by Chuck Jones or Tom and Jerry in general."
The 3-D was just an experiment but they figured out how to create cool dimensional levels during clean-up using After Effects with the help of expert stereographer Eric Kurland and some compositors. There's a marvelous pop-up book, "Goodnight Cocoon," which uses 3-D to good effect. In fact, Silverman says they had an idea of creating an Inception-like dreamscape with the pop-up that proved too complicated.
"The Baby Gerald sequence was very Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin-like," Silverman adds. "Tough guys doing tough things. But what was added later was Maggie's 'Pagliacci' moment. Jim said that Maggie should be wailing and I reminded him that she doesn't talk; then I said she should be pantomiming like 'Pagliacci,' and so I went and found a Karaoke version on iTunes.
"The hardest part was getting all the ideas in there. We wanted to show the separation between the genius class and the dumb class and that had a daunting feel at first. But then one of the artists thought of this pull-out part that we developed where you keep revealing more and more."
"Head over Heels" has to be considered the dark horse for its dramatic merit. Interestingly, the genesis was the Rembrandt painting, "Philosopher in Meditation," which has a spiral staircase that's symmetrical. "It looks like someone on the ceiling could use the underside of the stairs to climb down toward the floor," explains Reckart, an American animator living in New York who made the short as his graduate project at the National Film and Television School outside of London.
"That image led to the idea of two people living in the same house, one on the ceiling and one on the floor. And from there, I glommed onto the idea about the political disagreement in the U.S. getting more angry and hostile and used that as a metaphor with this marriage. I really think we should push for understanding in our disagreements instead of demonizing. So you have two people that see the world differently and they have to find a way to live together."
What really helped Reckart was an internship at Aardman, where he made several hundred eyebrows for the Oscar-nominated "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." Indeed, over lunch with animator Ian Whitlock, he learned Nick Park's secret for snappy animation that solved some dicey problems on "Head over Heels."
Speaking of dicey problems, LA animator PES (Adam Pesapane) continues his fascination with mixing inanimate objects in "Fresh Guacamole," which was commissioned by Showtime and took $50,000 and a team of techies to create.
"I come from an Italian family and my mother's a cook so I've always grown up around cooking and food and prep," PES states. "And I had this idea that I would substitute inanimate objects for ingredients for a food dish based on their similarities, how they looked and sometimes on other associations. With 'Fresh Guacamole,' I've always had a fantasy of an avocado as a hand-grenade that could use to blow up the produce department of a food store."
The trick was finding the right associations, but PES has come up with some terrific visual puns from dice to a baseball to Christmas lights.
For Kahrs, the trick with "Paperman" (full short is here) was finding the right technique to tell his winsome valentine. "He wants to feel loved and find a connection in this world, but ultimately the technique has to be in service of the story," Kahrs suggests. "I think when we were showing John Lasseter the early tests, we could tell he was looking at the screen and wondering: Is this a distraction or do I believe these characters are alive? Am I forgetting about all that technology and just immersing myself in the story? I think I passed that litmus test.
"But I was really stunned to discover that the answer for the characters in 'Paperman' with regard to the eyes and the pupils was nothing but a single black disc. And that had the most dimension and depth and expression in it. So we played with irises and pupils and highlights. Those animators know what they're doing, that a really simple black circle can draw you into the gulf of emotion. The power of the hand-drawn line was crucial. There are no technology boundaries for 2D artists: they're just drawing what looks right."
Right now Kahrs has been testing the interface to see how well it works with color in the hopes of developing a new love story as an animated feature. But, again, the technology has to fit the story. "I'm trying to do something really ambitious: I'm trying to pin down the story so it's just as compelling as it was in 'Paperman.'"
Master animator Glen Keane ("Tangled"), who has left Disney to pursue his own independent hybrid experiments, helped Kahrs with the drawing of Meg, the stunning object of the Paperman's desire. "What was so cool is that the volume and spatial things that are happening now were making my drawings better," Keane says. "I remember thinking that any time technology has crossed my path, if it's right, it forces you to draw better."
Lee was certainly trying to cross a different, less commercial artistic path with "Adam and Dog," which is about the genesis of man's best friend, even when it comes between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Lee first came upon the idea when studying at CalArts. While waiting for a friend in the ER, he read a "National Geographic" article about dogs evolving as a more docile subspecies of wolves.
"I remember thinking that this phenomenon must've happened all over the world and that it was a beautiful idea that it was written in their genetic code to be close to humans," Lee explains. "But I wanted to pursue a more alternative narrative style than we are familiar with in American animation. I like a different kind of pacing in the description of the moment, more observational than plot-driven. This is just me, but I believe more recent American animation can feel very eager to please the audience at all times, which sometimes results in snappy, ADD cutting."
Lee looked to Tarkovsky, Malick, Godard, and Sofia Coppola for inspiration. He was also enraptured with Russian animator Yuri Norstein's" Hedgehog in the Fog." In fact, he was able to incorporate a similar sense of innocent wonder and mysteriousness of nature in "Adam and Dog." Lee also invited half a dozen friends at Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks to help with the animation in their spare time, though he admits the he wasn't a very practical producer. As of now, he's spent more than $30,000.
Before leaving Disney, Keane served as unofficial advisor on Lee's short. "I was really moved by this dog because I felt like it expressed something that I always wanted to see in that Genesis story, which is that when Adam and Eve are sent out of the Garden, God starts to leave them alone. And the dog is a commentary about the faithfulness of their creator never leaving their side."
Keane says it's all about expressing something deep inside you about the human condition. All five shorts do precisely that.