The Oscar race for Best Animated Short offers several mainstream studio contenders, led by Pixar’s China-flavored “Bao” and a pair of DreamWorks projects that launched its new shorts program: the CG “Bilby” and the 2D “Bird Karma.”
In addition, Pixar story artist Trevor Jimenez made the semi-autobiographical, hand-drawn “Weekends” in his spare time; former Disney Oscar winner John Kahrs (“Paperman”) ventured into VR with the Google Spotlight short, “Age of Sail.”
“Bao,” which explores empty nest syndrome, is also semi-autobiographical. It’s from story artist Domee Shi (“Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”), the first female to direct a short at Pixar, who is currently developing a feature, guided by her mentor, Pete Docter, the studio’s new chief creative officer.
“Bao” is about a Chinese-Canadian woman who gets a second chance at motherhood when one of her hand-made dumplings comes to life. Shi grew up in Toronto and the short reflects her upbringing as the only child of Chinese immigrants. (Her mom, Ningsha Zhong, a real-life dumpling master, served as consultant.) Animating the delectable Chinese meals proved the biggest challenge, but story wise, Shi delivered Pixar’s first WTF moment when mom eats her dumpling child to prevent it from leaving the nest.
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“Bilby,” a hilarious survival story set in the Australian outback, and directed by DreamWorks animators Pierre Perifel, JP Sans, and Liron Topaz, grew out of the cancelled rock’n’roll “Larrikins” feature. It took the central character as inspiration: a desert-dwelling marsupial (aka bilby), and placed him in a new story about protecting a cute little chick from hostile predators. Although it starts out with a documentary vibe, the madcap short quickly descends into a “Looney Tunes” brand of chaos, with a montage of escalating attacks.
But “Bilby” became a great testing ground for the studio’s innovative Moonray path trace renderer (with great naturalistic lighting for fur, grass, mud, fire, smoke, dust, and water), as well as the new Sprinkle and Locomotion systems. The former created rich and detailed debris and the latter allowed for varied animal locomotion during the stampedes.
With “Bird Karma,” director William Salazar (“Kung Fu Panda”) got to finish a short he started more than 20 years ago about a long-legged bird that takes a liking to a multi-colored fish. But instead of becoming friends, the bird eats the fish, which results in some really bad karma.
Salazar took inspiration from “The Scorpion and the Frog” fable and insisted on keeping the hand-made, watercolor look. The problem, though, was tweaking the DreamWorks pipeline to handle the digital demands of a 2D aesthetic. They kept the lines rough and sketch-like. For the paper texture, the team used transparency, where the white of the paper comes through the painting and you have layer upon layer of water color.
For “Age of Sail,” the most ambitiously immersive VR experience yet at Google Spotlight, an old sailor (Ian McShane), adrift in the Atlantic in 1900, finds redemption by rescuing a young Victorian woman (Cathy Ang). Kahrs was intrigued with the spatial possibilities of capturing the undulating waves in a believable way. It was like translating David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” on the open ocean, completely in the round. But he also wanted dialog (a first for Google Spotlight), which he managed to convey off-screen while claiming the 3D experience as his own.
However, for the flat version submitted for Oscar consideration, Kahrs made use of the repeatable action already animated along with the conflict between the crusty sailor and fearless young lady. It thus became a distinctive experience.
Jimenez (currently boarding Docter’s upcoming feature) made Weekends” through Pixar’s co-op program designed for standalone work. It’s about a young boy in 1980’s Toronto shuffled back and forth between his divorced parents, alternating between domestic drama and surreal imagery as an attempt to process the confusing experience.
Jimenez enlisted artists both inside and outside of Pixar to first do all of the backgrounds as charcoal line drawings. He did most of the animation himself. Overall, he adopted a rough, messy look inspired by the Oscar-winning animated short, “Father and Daughter,” only with a lot of wide, panoramic shots. He imbued the color palette with reds for his father’s home and pale green for his mother’s, creating an emotional arc between them.
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