During this final week leading up to Sunday's 85th Academy Awards, I was reminded of the extraordinary meta-experience that underlies several of this year's nominees. In the end, at least for me, it's not about the frantic Oscar race and ultimately who wins and who doesn't but about the joy of making and watching the movies and how they capture the zeitgeist.
For instance, at Tuesday night's Academy shorts program, the animation directors discussed their personal experiences: Minkyu Lee mentioned the metaphysical in his exquisite take on the Garden of Eden, "Adam and Dog"; PES explained the weird sensation of physically chopping objects and then creating the pixilation for "Fresh Guacamole"; Tim Reckart described the tactile concreteness that you can only get from stop-motion in building a world of existential unease in "Head over Heels"; David Silverman remarked that pantomime and 3-D offered new frontiers for "The Simpsons" franchise in "Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Daycare"; and John Kahrs admitted that even though he's a CG artist, he was seduced all over again by the graphic power of the line drawing in "Paperman."
The meta-experiences certainly come through in watching all five animated shorts, particularly on the big screen at the Academy: Despite the shame of being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are not alone — the dog rushes to their side. Whether it represents God or a symbol of compassion for humanity to embrace, the lasting impression is powerful. The power of creativity is very much on display in the briefest of shorts in Academy history with "Fresh Guacamole." Embracing compromise through a cherished object (a pair of ballerina slippers) and the memory of a long lost love helps put a crumbling marriage back on track in "Head over Heels." Maggie's discovery that she's a gifted child by ingeniously saving a butterfly is the magical journey of "The Longest Daycare." And the discovery in "Paperman" is that love at first sight is attainable through persistence, sacrifice, and the magic of drawing. It's pure Disney and the hybrid breakthrough may prove to be a greater meta-experience for the studio.
By sheer coincidence, on Tuesday I also spoke again with Peter Lord about directing the surprising best animated feature nominee, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." He enthused that it's the most satisfying creative experience he's ever had at Aardman, not only because he got to have fun playing with pirates in the witty romp about camaraderie, but also because he got to push the craft of stop-motion in Bristol.
Because they finally have full integration of CG and rapid prototyping under one roof at Aardman, Lord was able to be a more creative and effective captain of his own ship, so to speak. And through it all, he stayed true to the tactile quality of stop-motion and the provincial British wit in keeping with the Aardman ethos. For Lord and Nick Park, it's all about not disguising the technique and maintaining a rough energy. That's why they continue to shoot on double frame. It's immediate and full of life.
The same is true at Laika in Oregon, the most devoted stop-motion studio in the industry, where they reached new creative and technical heights with "ParaNorman." Thanks to rapid prototyping and other advancements, Laika achieved a newfound verisimilitude and naturalism, but the real strength of "ParaNorman" and it anti-bullying story about zombies was in the performance of the animation. The movement was more polished; the expressions were more life-like, yet it was still convincing as stop-motion.
Meanwhile, with the third stop-motion nominee, Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," he attained a more traditional experience with the technique while exploring a black and white retro world of monsters and memories. It's the most personal movie he's ever made, imperfect yet joyful in its celebration of individual creativity and anti-bullying in its own right.
Creativity and responsibility were at the heart of both "Brave" and "Wreck-It Ralph." Mother and daughter repair the fabric of their bond and save their kingdom in the uneven yet gorgeous Scottish folk tale, while two unlikely video game characters unite in an act of bravery to save their world. But for Rich Moore, "Ralph" was also about embracing the Disney legacy and bringing it into the 21st century with new vitality.
As for the live-action best picture nominees, I was particularly struck by the transcendence in both "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi." They bridge the past and present to help us find meaning and purpose in these difficult times, and I came away awestruck. It's not easy to convey inner and outer worlds simultaneously, but Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee did so with insight and joy. Somehow Lincoln summons the strength to help repair the great divide in his family and in the nation, and Pi and Richard Parker reach a greater understanding about co-existence.
It was a pretty good Oscar season after all.