It’s been 15 years since Pixar won the Oscar for best animated short (Ralph Eggleston’s “For the Birds”). Wouldn’t it be fitting if Alan Barillaro’s fine-feathered “Piper” ended the drought? That would give Pixar four Oscars (alongside Geri’s Game” and “Tin Toy”).
However, “Piper” faces stiff competition, particularly from Theodore Ushev’s much darker “Blind Vaysha” from the National Film Board of Canada, which has earned a dozen Oscars.
The other three contenders range from Robert Valley’s bleak “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” (Vimeo’s first Oscar nom), the melancholy Western, “Borrowed Time” (made independently by Pixar’s Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj), and the introspective “Pearl” from Oscar winner Patrick Osborne (Disney’s “Feast”), the first VR nominee from Google Spotlight Stories.
The rite of passage for the adorable sand piper continues a long Pixar tradition of incubating innovative tech in its shorts program. In fact, this sweet tale of the hydrophobic baby unconventionally began as an R&D project in photorealism.
But supervising animator Barillaro (“WALL·E,” “Brave,” “Finding Nemo”) first wanted to get a handle on tools and technique before formally pitching his short. He observed thousands of sand pipers along the Northern California shore, and experimented with the bird from “Brave” by shaping it into a different character on a tablet.
Barillaro then approached “Finding Dory” director Andrew Stanton and advocated more sculpting control for animators. This was applied to water and sand while rigging required more regional controls for nearly 7 million feathers.
Ushev, who specializes in linocut block printing, ambitiously recreated the century-old process for his short adapted from the story by Georgi Gospodinov about a woman cursed with a left eye that sees the past and a right eye that sees the future.
The existential conundrum about the misplaced present is brilliantly visualized through bucolic European landscapes and Benedictine architecture.
Ushev used a Wacom Cintiq graphics tablet to follow the principles used in linocuts, animating each color separately on different layers and then superimposing them to create compositions that resemble engravings.
Pixar’s first off-the-shelf CG short (from its University Co-op program) concerns a mournful sheriff who returns to the scene of a tragic accident he can no longer escape, as painful memories keep flooding back.
Animators Coats and Hamou-Lhadj wanted to do something completely off brand and got the studio’s blessing. The short boasts a beautiful Monument Valley landscape right out of John Ford and Sergio Leone, and its gaunt-looking protagonist evokes a caricature of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef.
And it addresses themes of guilt and mortality in ways that are more adult and less commercial than the Pixar norm.
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes”
Music video artist Valley offers a searing, semi-autobiographical portrait of a self-destructive daredevil dying in China, who reaches out to a childhood buddy (the filmmaker) to help him get a liver transplant.
Animated at Passion Pictures, entirely in Photoshop, for a gritty, graphic novel-like look, Valley’s 32-minute short spans 25 years and contains 19 songs (necessitating a Kickstarter campaign).
The result is like watching the American Dream gone to hell, with Nick Carraway trying to keep Jay Gatsby alive along with his idol worship.
Osborne continues his fascination with home movie-like experiences with this 2D version of his VR short: a musical road trip between a father and daughter told inside their ’83 Chevy Citation.
Made at Evil Eye Pictures and Google ATAP, the short puts the viewer inside a limited space but with a changing background through the decades.
But Osborne made the 2D short first to help inform the 360-degree VR version. He composed the work by shooting with a mobile phone and then edited it together, which became a weird back and forth between 2D and 3D aesthetics and storytelling.