Oscar-nominated live-action short films often tackle human-rights violations and other issues plaguing society. The animated shorts tend to lean toward lighter fare, such as a celebration of Black hair and single fatherhood in Mathew Cherry’s 2019 winner “Hair Love,” or Pixar’s fanciful 2018 winner “Bao.” However, short-form animation also has a unique ability to spin visual poetry on hard-hitting issues. Speaking to grief, school shootings, and racist violence, an eclectic group of three animated shorts from Netflix prove the power of animation to go deep.
After video of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery went viral months after his death, writer/performer Timothy Ware-Hill dusted off an old poem and filmed himself reciting it while running in his neighborhood, as Arbery was doing when he was killed. The video gained attention of many, including director Arnon Manor, who had the idea to transform the poem into a collage of different animation styles.
Their collaboration led to “Cops and Robbers,” which employed over 40 animators across the globe to create a poignant pastiche of visuals over Ware-Hill’s performance. Blending many animation styles such as 2D, 3D, stop-motion, and Rotoscope, “Cops and Robbers” evokes many of the all-too-familiar videos of Black people murdered at the hands of white police officers and armed civilians.
“Though we often think of animation as being for kids, I think these films are accessible to both adults and kids, and can give parents or guardians a platform with which to begin the conversation,” Ware-Hill said. “That talk that every parent who has a Black child has to give in order for their survival is necessary, and hopefully ‘Cops and Robbers’ becomes a tool to allow that to happen, because they are not immune or exempt to the possibilities of this kind of violence because of their age.”
“Canvas” filmmaker Frank E. Abney III said he watched “Cops and Robbers” with his six-year-old. “We don’t give kids the credit they deserve in terms of what their capacity for understanding is,” he said. “Animation is a beautiful tool that’s been held in this place where it’s for kids, and you can’t tell these type of stories in animation. But these films prove it’s just a medium, a vehicle to deliver a story. Animation has the power to educate and deliver messages in a unique way that’s not hammering it over your head…in a way that’s easier to digest.”
Without dialogue, “Canvas” uses CG to tell the story of an elderly painter grieving the loss of his wife. Every day he sits at the blank canvas in frustration, unable to paint. When his ebullient granddaughter comes to visit, she stumbles onto his secret studio, hidden behind clothes and belongings her grandma left behind. Through the power of her innocent love, he eventually finds his way to picking up the brushes and paint once again. It’s a heartwarming story, and probably the most traditional film of the bunch, but it’s unique in the world of CG animation for its use of Black characters.
“We’ve gotten a lot of messages about the representation on screen,” said “Canvas” producer Paige Johnstone, who said she “had a full breakdown” seeing video of her one-year-old niece watching the film intently. “You don’t see a lot of Black characters in a CG space, it’s not something you see at all, so it’s been especially heartwarming for people to send of videos of Black kids and other POC watching and paying attention.”
After dealing with loss in their own lives, “If Anything Happens I Love You” directors Michael Govier and Will McCormack set out to distill the sharp emotional experience of grief with sparse, hand-drawn visuals. Using black shadowy figures to represent each character’s grief, the film shows two parents dealing with the loss of their daughter in a school shooting.
“Michael started off with this beautiful Jungian visual representation of grief, and I thought ‘Wow, that’s gorgeous and kind of speaks to what loss feels like,'” McCormack said.
“We let the story lead the look,” Govier said. “We knew it needed to be in 2D and in this very scratchy, raw style, and very minimalist. We wanted the film to look and feel like grief. So the film has all of these grey tones in the front end, and then as you move through the film, the colors are always introduced through the lens of grief.”
Whether it’s visual representations of white supremacist violence, the death of a loved one, or the terrifying threat of school shootings, animation has a unique power to quickly create empathy around the most difficult emotions.
“Animation is a perfect gateway to explore every kind of emotion possible, and the fact that we’re seeing greater depth of emotion [shows] audiences want that,” said Govier. “If you look at what Walt Disney did back in the day, all he wanted to do was move away from cartoons. That’s all animation has ever been trying to do. It’s always saying, ‘We’re cinema, we’re capital-F films.’ Every person who puts another brick in that platform is building towards the full validity of this form.”