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Immersed in Movies: Talking with the Shorts Oscar Nominees

Immersed in Movies: Talking with the Shorts Oscar Nominees

I recently chatted with the Oscar nominees for Feral (Daniel Sousa), the Annie-winning Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan), Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz), Possessions (Shuhei Morita), and Room on the Broom (Max Lang). We discussed personal connections and challenges. Interestingly, all five of the films explore the theme of adjusting to change in our lives.


Talk about what Feral means to you personally about human nature.

Feral is a film that took a very long time to make, since I mostly worked on it in my spare time over the course of five years. It was also a very difficult film to make and challenged me in many ways, both technically and personally. There were a lot of late nights, a lot of dead ends, and a lot of times when I thought that none of it was worth-while. Because of that, it encapsulated a whole chapter of my life that I can now look back on with clarity and feel an enormous sense of accomplishment. It’s very rewarding that it’s been recognized as much as it has been, not just by the Oscar nomination, but also through its festival life leading up to the nomination.

What was the research like?

The film started as a re-telling of the Kasper Hauser story. (There is a great Werner Herzog film based on it). Kasper was a German boy who had spent his entire childhood devoid of human contact, chained to a basement. After he was found, he never fully adjusted to society, and he was treated as a sort of curiosity by others. When I started researching the story I realized that  there have been numerous reported cases of these children. There’s also the wild boy of Aveyron, which inspire Truffaut’s film Wild Child. The children in these stories, having survived in isolation for years, were in turn feared as savage and evil, or mythologized as messengers from an idyllic and unadulterated world. This world was imagined as a realm in which nature and man were still undifferentiated, where a purity of soul and a connection with the divine was still possible. These were the ideas that fascinated me, and I wanted to examine the wild child’s experiences and memories, and to reflect on our culture’s views of this phenomenon.

How did you make Feral

I always like to start a project by painting, allowing the imagery to emerge without worrying too much about plot or continuity. I came up with several images that started to resonate, and then it was a matter of translating that sensibility into animation. I tried several techniques and approaches, and just through experimentation and trial-and-error ended up with the process that worked the best. The rough animation was done in Flash. Each frame was then lightly printed on paper, and retraced in pencil. The drawings were then scanned and composited in After Effects, mixed with painted textures that had been scanned separately. The backgrounds were also hand-painted on Illustration board and scanned.

Why do you think Feral has resonated?

That’s a mystery. I wish I knew. I just tried to be honest in what I was trying to say, and not compromise my vision in the process. Maybe by being true to my vision I was able to tap into something a little more universal that resonates with other people as well. That’s my hope anyway.

Get a Horse!

What’s the reaction been like in seeing this unique hyrbrid representation of Mickey?

It’s been great to see people react to it in a theater: they gasp at Mickey coming out of the screen; I’ve seen some little kids reach up into the air for the animals as they swing out. So we’e got a range of reactions from critics and cinephiles and at the same time kids whose first movie this is. 

What’s been the great takeaway for you?

It seems like in a way I’ve come full circle. I loved this kind of animation and left it for prime time TV for many years and then got involved in features. This goes right to the heart of what I love about animation to begin with. And to utilize so many aspects of Disney’s ability is pretty great. I don’t think they could’ve made this short five years ago. It’s a real interesting time in animation where live-action and animation are merging and we’ve actually merged two types of animation and use 3-D. It’s exciting that there are all these stories you couldn’t tell before.

You couldn’t have flipped the screen back and forth like that five years ago.

It originally started out as a zoetrope in number of the storyboards, but for some technical reasons it didn’t work. It relies on a revolving image that doesn’t give you the sense of timing for the jokes. And then somewhere along the line, John Lasseter had the very good idea of responding our to chalked up picture and saying, ‘You should take the bits of music from that old section and use them for each little flip so that it becomes this slightly modern-day remixed sound of the original bits of music…It was so great to see the hand-drawn animators and CG animators work so closely together. And that one shot of them going in and out of the screen four times was awesome, led by Eric Goldberg, Adam Green, and Bruce Wright.

What do you think about this as a meta experience?

It really does span a huge amount of years, doesn’t it? I think without that touchstone of the Iwerks shorts, we could have easily gotten lost along the way. But there’s something about that original 1928 Mickey that rings so true. And that’s the spirit that infused us amid the modern-day [portions]. And the opportunity to do something in 3-D that people hadn’t seen before [was thrilling]. I personally love all of those moments that take you out of the movie, like The Purple Rose of Cairo, and how the filmmakers stuck to that idea and made it work for that moment. What also started coming out that I didn’t realize as we were working on the early versions of the shot was that CG and 3-D would change the meaning of the 2D. You start thinking about it and animation is animation. And there are all these little ripple effects that are interesting.

Mr. Hublot

Is this an homage to Tati’s Mr. Hulot?

Yes, in French it’s the circle window in the boat, Hublot. And the first character has a window just in front of his face. We changed the character but we kept the name.

Are you a fan of steampunk?

I think it’s a very interesting universe but I’m not such a big fan. It’s just an inspiration. It’s something between steampunk and French and European sensibility.

The world reminded me of Brazil.

Ah, Brazil is definitely an inspiration. I love that movie. Another important inspiration was [Belgian artist] Stephane Halleux’s mechanical sculptures and characters. I worked with him and I took his characters to make something possible in animation and to give more emotion to characters. And according to that, we have created the world of Mr. Hublot. The 3D version is warmer than the sculptures. It’s poetic.

Talk about Mr. Hublot, who lives alone in his apartment and is afraid of change.

This is a slice of life for Mr. Hublot. Nothing important happens in his life until the dog [Robo Pet] comes. There is no enormous message but he has to make a choice when the dog grows too big: So he has to change something: Is it the dog or is it the house? It is the silent movie and it is difficult for animators to put emotion when there is no dialog, so I decided to put the internal voice in the storyboards. We recorded my voice and Mr. Hublot is speaking what he’s thinking. For example, when Mr. Hublot was near the window with the dog and has OCD, I said, “A dog…what, what what is a dog?” And this helped with the timing.

What has been the response when you screen the film?

The poetry. And a lot of people were impressed with the amount of detail for a short movie on a low budget. The atmosphere, the sensibility. For me a very important scene was when the dog was growing and growing and growing. And in 3-D, those shots are in front of us in a theater, and it’s like watching a piece of life with Mr. Hublot and Robo Pet. I think it works very very well.


How is this personal for you?

It is because I was born and raised in Nara, the birth place of Japanese culture. I was interested in nature, culture, history, folk stories, and tradition there. “Tsukumo-gami” are things that existed for a long time that it develops a self-awareness and soul. This is a unique idea that things have souls. For example, when you lose an important thing on your desk, without becoming frustrated you should think of it this way. “It is trying to come back to me!” Then you won’t get so frustrated or you’ll be happy when you see them again.

Why does it resonate? 

This is very Japanese way of thinking that every possession has its own soul. But at the various film festivals, I felt certain that the feeling is acceptable to the people in the world. We didn’t know how to translate the words, such as “Itadakimasu.” “Gokuro-sama”(these are appreciative words) and “Tsukumo” (Japanese title of Possessions). I asked my close friend from America who knows Japanese culture and language. I talked to him on the phone and he understood the small nuance and translated the words for me.
And the look of colors and textures?

“Stuff” cannot be ignored, so I used the sounds such as “Ding,: “Bang,” and “crack,” and expressed its presence. I also tried to express their reality like mass and depth using texture and patterns. At such time, I’ve got an idea when my wife bought “Chiyo-gami” (Japanese paper with colored figures) for our child. Then we used “Washi”(Japanese paper) or “Chiyo-gami” for all the characters. 

Talk about playing with the traditional ghost story.
I believed that the challenge of creating Japanese folk stories as a style of entertainment could only be done in by short film. In case of short films, there are two ways of creating them. One is to have a large volume of ideas so that it overflows from the plate or to concentrate and simplify the story so that it will fit on the small plate. Possessions is the latter, we made it very simple, nothing extra is added. I’m attracted to flashy styles such as “Hyakki-yagyo” or “Utagawa-Kuniyoshi,” because I really like Japanese ghosts. But the time format is too short for that, and it meant I can’t create the Japanese ghosts that I imagined. It was very hard to make it short, but I think I was able show the entertainment that is told through Japanese folk stories. It would be great if I can be a trigger to the start of a boom for original anime like those times. 
Room on the Broom

How is this personal to you?
I remember wondering what is going on on the broom, and at the same time, I was adjusting to becoming a new dad and all the responsibilities with a new life. And it was funny, at some point we realized that it was about that: these changes in your life with a new member. And here it was like when you get a brother and you’re not an only child anymore. And you have to share. So that’s when we started brainstorming. We wanted to make sure of the dynamic on the broom. I always say it’s filling up the space between the pages. We also didn’t want to contradict the book. There’s a moment in the book when the cat slowly moves back on the broom. And we thought we can actually make something of that. That’s something we know as a kid when everyone’s fighting to sit on the front seat of the car. 
And so that’s how we developed the story and, then look wise, it’s obviously quite similar to The Gruffalo and based on that look, but we wanted to have much smaller sets to have a higher level of detail and we wanted to have epic landscapes. But a really nice surprise about the textures — the uneven things and the scratches — added a human touch. By making it smaller it became crisp. And we used a combination of techniques: some is CG but some is animated by hand and some is actual footage that was shot. It’s a bit of a patch work with sets and CG characters and painted backgrounds. And it was much harder to animated a human character — we hadn’t done that before. We were lucky to have such a good team.

Talk about this very unusual witch that breaks the stereotype.
She travels and helps others and was a challenge to design but she’s such a great role model. Every time I watch it with my daughter, I’m so happy to show her that there’s more to aspire to than being a princess. And it’s so nice to portray a witch like that. When you look back in history, they are never just people who are different — they were burned. Coming back to the feeling about the film, it’s about change and we started with that family motif, but our production was a bit like that too.

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