Five nights before the February 25th award ceremony, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kicked off Oscar Week by screening this year's nominated live action and animated short films in front of a sold-out crowd at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. All but two of the directors were on hand to join the post-screening discussion hosted by Taylor Hackford, who hyped the audience by claiming, "You'll never have a better time watching movies than you'll have tonight."
Hackford, who won an Academy Award for his live action short "Teenage Father" back in 1978, praised the ten nominated shorts for being "ambitious, very ambitious films" and solicited insider details about inspiration and craft from the attending directors and producers.
The animation half of the program began with Torill Kove's extremely charming "The Danish Poet," a 15-minute Norwegian and Canadian co-production narrated by Liv Ullmann. Kove, the sole female among the thirteen nominees present, was previously nominated for her 1999 short "My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts." While "The Danish Poet" tells the story of how the narrator's parents met, Kove confessed that her "low tech" film (which took three years to complete and consists of hand-drawn cell animation) is not in fact autobiographical.
Gary Rydstrom described his hilarious five-minute Pixar short, "Lifted," as "drivers-ed meets alien abduction." The seven-time Academy Award winner, who modestly described himself as one of the "top eighty" sound guys in Hollywood, joked his film's a revenge fantasy about "me wanting to beat up a mixing board." Indeed, his hapless alien hero spends the entire film failing to master the spaceship's massive control panel.
The Pixar short was followed by the seven-minute Disney contender, "The Little Matchgirl," directed by Roger Allers, who previously directed "The Lion King" and "Open Season." A dramatic retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story set in Czarist Russia, the short is classic Disney animation--with a very un-Disney-like ending. The filmmakers invested three years experimenting with alternate endings before the short could be released with the original tragic ending.
Hungarian animator Geza M. Toth said his inspiration was to "make a film that is successful." Well, he succeeded with the five-minute long "Maestro," Toth's first exploration into the world of 3-D computer animation. The story of a singer prepping for his big moment has a terrific ending that had the filled-to-capacity theater rocking with applause.
"No Time for Nuts," a 20th Century Fox production starring "Ice Age" breakout character Scrat, was the final animated short screened. While co-director Michael Thurmeier was unable to attend the screening, his directing partner Chris Renaud admitted that the inspiration for the time-traveling adventure came from the two's admiration of classic Daffy Duck cartoons. From start to finish, the seven-minute long film took eight months to produce.
After a brief intermission, the live action films unspooled. First up was a half-hour Spanish production funded by UNICEF and shot in Senegal, "Binta and the Great Idea," an appealing tale about a little girl whose cousin wants to attend the village school. Through a translator, director Javier Fesser remarked that none of the children or adults appearing in the film had ever seen a film before.
"I was watching 'The Simpsons,'" replied Basque filmmaker Borja Cobeaga, when asked how he came up with the idea for "Eramos Pocos." The 16-minute story showcases a loutish father and son who become even bigger slobs when the woman of the house abandons them. The filmmaker also revealed the actress, who plays the grandmother in the film, will be walking the red carpet with him on Sunday night.
While "Helmer & Son" director Soren Pilmark will be at the award ceremony, he was working the night of the Goldwyn screening. The film's executive producer Kim Magnusson explained that everything about the nomination has been a surprise for actor-turned-director Pilmark, who didn't even know the 12-minute Danish family saga had qualified for Academy consideration since the short has not yet begun its festival run.
Australian director Peter Templeman, whose 19-minute "The Saviour" centers on a Mormon of questionable morality, had several actors with him at the screening. When questioned if his film might have autobiographical elements, Templeman responded with a resounding "No."
The final film of the evening drew the biggest reaction from the packed audience, despite being projected slightly out of sync. American filmmaker Ari Sandel's audacious 21-minute musical comedy, "West Bank Story," transplants the all-singing, all-dancing cinema classic to the West Bank, where the Sharks and the Jets are now staff at rival falafel stands, Kosher King and Hummus Hut. Sandel let the audience in on a secret: the film was actually shot in nearby Santa Clarita, California.
In addition to the Beverly Hills screening, the Academy will show the nominated shorts at the William G. McGowan Theater in Washington DC on Saturday, February 24. The McGowan will also be screening the documentary short subject nominees on Sunday, February 25.
After the ceremony, the shorts will get additional exposure as they tour cinemas nationwide. Apollo Cinema has organized a program of the nominated documentary shorts while Magnolia Pictures and Shorts International are already blanketing the country with theatrical engagements for the live action and animated shorts. Additionally, all of the nominated live action and animated shorts except "Lifted" are now available for downloading on iTunes.
As for predictions of who will be taking home the gold statue on Oscar night, if the audience reaction at the Goldwyn Theater is any indication, "West Bank Story" is a lock for live action. Animation is impossible to predict, as all five played extremely strong. Regardless of Sunday night's announcements, every one of these ten short films remains a winner.
[Kim Adelman is the author of "The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to Short Films.]