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Oscar Animated Shorts Nominees, Ranked: Memorable Characters Define Frontrunners Like ‘Dear Basketball’ and ‘Negative Space’

Kobe Bryant's controversial "Dear Basketball" is the frontrunner in a race that features lots of great character work.

“Dear Basketball”


The animated shorts race is defined by memorable characters: A dance between young and adult Kobe Bryant in “Dear Basketball,” a father and son bonding over ritual packing in “Negative Space,” a collection of lost and found schoolyard objects thwarting a bully in Pixar’s “Lou,” a mysterious wolf recounting the unusual bonding between Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White in “Revolting Rhymes,” and a wacky amphibian takeover of a mansion in “Garden Party.”

“Negative Space”

Despite the backlash against Bryant for his sexual assault charge back in 2003 and the limited scope of his short, “Dear Basketball” remains the favorite to win the Oscar. That’s due to the irresistible pairing of the former Lakers legend with former Disney legend Glen Keane, who directed the short. However, “Negative Space” could pull an upset for its inventive animation and resonating theme.

Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:

“Dear Basketball” (Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant)

Keane has always been drawn to the human body in motion, and there’s no denying the beauty and grace with which he captures Bryant’s athleticism with his hand-drawn flights of fancy. It’s animation in its purest form, equating basketball with dance (an outgrowth of Keane’s balletic, Oscar-nominated “Duet”). But, in adapting Bryant’s retirement poem as an abstract expression of his fairy tale-like dream come true, Keane creates an inspired dance between the young and adult versions of Bryant. It’s deceptively simple yet effective.

“Negative Space” (Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata)

This poignant work about a father and son bonding over the shared ritual of suitcase packing for his frequent business trips is the most acclaimed nominee, winning 52 awards throughout 137 festivals. With life imitating art, the Baltimore-based duo of Porter and Kuwahata worked out of France in adapting a poem by Ron Koertge. They not only became expert packers but also efficient stop-motion craftspeople. Interestingly, the clothes are more animated and vibrant-looking than the father and son. They move, fold, or slither elegantly like characters. But every shot had a change of scale, which proved to be the biggest challenge, with the need to rebuild or rotate objects.

“Lou” (Dave Mullins and Dana Murray)

For a comical chase with a schoolyard bully, director Mullins and his team at Pixar had to figure out a way of animating a pile of lost and found objects into a unifying character. Baseballs became Lou’s eyes, a book became his mouth, a baseball mitt and slinky became his hand and arm, and a hoodie became his body. But to get Lou to hold together required special rigging with attachment points, since the objects constantly shifted around and pulled apart. The key was treating it like stop-motion, where each pose was done on frame. And the result was a funny yet poignant story of loneliness and redemption.

“Revolting Rhymes” (Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer)

In adapting the mischievous collection of poems by Roald Dahl, directors Schuh and Lachauer (Oscar-nominated separately for “The Gruffalo” and “Room on the Broom”) pulled together a shared universe of familiar fairy tale characters in iconoclastic situations. The wolf (a marvelously animated creature) sits in a cafe and recounts the strange tale of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White becoming best friends to a babysitter. It’s a decidedly contemporary morality tale with a fresh twist about female empowerment and survival. Sure enough, the directors turn the unconnected stories into a cohesive whole without disrupting the flow or the rhymes. The CG animation was done at Magic Light’s Berlin studio and Triggerfish Animation Studios in Cape Town.

“Garden Party” (Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon)

The surprise entry is the French student short from MOPA, which accomplishes a bizarre amphibian takeover of an abandoned mansion with wit and documentary-like realism. Directors Claire and Grapperon strove for photoreal believability by placing the frogs in a real-world situation, contrasting innocence with danger. It was like an absurd version of “Planet Earth.” The issue of scale was obviously tricky, though, placing the tiny frogs in such large spaces. But that was part of the great charm of the piece. A final, horrifying twist offers the only bit of stylized animation, revealing the versatility of the animation.

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