I recently had the privilege of attending a local theater that played the animated shorts nominated for the 2012 Academy Awards, as well as a few “Highly Commended Additional Films.” Since talking about animation is probably my second favorite activity beyond doing animation (sometimes they swap and talking about it is first!) I wanted to give my thoughts on each of the shorts. Understand that these are just my opinions, though! I have no Academy voting rights.
“Sunday” is one of the films available to watch online, so I had actually already seen it beforehand. I must say, watching it on a giant screen was a completely different experience, and MUCH better. I almost wished I had seen it for the first time on the big screen instead! I also noticed that the timing, which I found slow the first play through, was much improved when I was seeing it again and in a traditional theater setting. The animation was extremely stylized, as was the art, and everything fit together well.
The story was “slice of life” with a bit of imagination/fantasy thrown in. It was a film that, if you’ve experienced the classic “Sunday” being described (church, visit to grandparent’s house, large family gathering yammering on about things you don’t care about as a kid, finding some way to amuse yourself), you find very compelling. My wife did not have that same childhood experience, and as a result she didn’t find it nearly as fascinating as I did.
Overall I’d say this was an excellent short and absolutely deserving of an Oscar nod. While I don’t know if it can win against its competition, I enjoyed it.
Nomination #2: A Morning Stroll (7 Minutes)
Previous to the theater trip I had seen a trailer for “A Morning Stroll” online, and I did not have very high expectations as a result. After seeing the short, I felt the trailer was one of the worst examples of a film trailer I’ve ever seen in my life. It was almost completely different from the film. The trailer seemed to be for people who had already SEEN the film, not the other way around. Terrible trailer, very amusing film.
In this animation we have three glimpses through time. Each act is a man walking down a city street, bumping into another man, and then continuing towards the corner where a small chicken appears. The chicken walks down the sidewalk past him, much to his confusion, and pecks at a door. The door opens and the chicken disappears inside. The first time it is set in the past, and the style is simplistic line art. The next go around, set in 2009, is a 3D cel-rendered shot. Finally far in a post-apocalyptic future the rendering is highly detailed and much more realistic (though still plenty cartoony).
This was a great example of how a very simple concept can make for a very compelling film. It was not complicated, and it did not overstay its welcome. One thing that is always at the forefront of my mind when watching animated shorts (and sometimes movies in general) is editing. What could be cut without being a detriment to the film and story? A Morning Stroll had very little that should have stayed on the editing room floor, and I appreciate that. (Some, still, but little compared to the other shorts.)
Overall with A Morning Stroll I came away very pleased with the film, and in terms of animation I think it was probably the second most “well done.” Or rather, the second most complete. The stylized look of some of the others make comparing the animation directly difficult. I did like this film, though the level of gore and rather disgusting visuals during the “future” act were a turn off to me.
Nomination #3: Wild Life (14 Minutes)
Of all the shorts, “Wild Life” was probably the most “artsy.” It was done in the style of an oil painting, where you could see the broad brush strokes and textures. It is the tale of a young, naive Englishman who goes to Canada during the early 1900s, to become a “rancher.” In actuality he lives in a shack while writing letters to his parents exaggerating how wonderful things are while he slacks off and enjoys life. It is the classic tale of the ant and the grasshopper, because when the harsh winter rolls around he is ill-prepared.
The animation in this short was very well done given the style, and for the most part the story unfolding was entertaining. This film could, in my opinion, have used quite a BIT of extra time in the editing room, as some sections were far, far too stretched out for their own good. I found my mind wandering, and that is something you should always try to avoid your audience doing when creating animation, especially a short.
Overall I enjoyed Wild Life, minus the length, and could absolutely see it taking home the victory at the awards show because of the level of “art” that it displays. With such stiff competition still to come, though, it probably won’t.
Nomination #4: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (17 Minutes)
A day later as I write this, I’m still very torn on The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. On the one hand, it was the only film I saw that completely sucked me in to the point where, when the ending came about, I found myself returning to reality and thinking “Oh, right. I’m in a theater. That wasn’t real.” So in that regard I have to give it extremely high praise. At the same time, though, until I reached the level of letting go and becoming absorbed, I was furious with the lack of weight in the animation. In 3D animation, getting things to feel a sense of weight is not only difficult but extremely important. I don’t think Mr. Morris achieved that. I found myself noticing heavily (har har) that things did not have the level of squash and stretch they needed to really feel the pull of gravity, which is always something that frustrates me personally when watching animation.
The story, though, was compelling with a great sense of wonder and interest. It wasn’t a new story, and in many ways it was predictable. That didn’t matter much, though, because it was so imaginative and lovely to watch (aside from the weight issue).
Overall the feeling of “Oh, right. I’m in a theater” that I experienced made this a standout among the shorts for me. I only wish I could have liked it more, and that the low-gravity feel wasn’t there. If the weight issue had been fixed, this would have been my Best of Show easily, and I won’t be surprised in the slightest if the presenter of the Best Animated Short award stumbles over the lengthy “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” when they read the winner.
Nomination #5: La Luna (7 Minutes)
“It isn’t fair.” That’s what my wife said as we left the theater, discussing which our favorite shorts were. In her opinion the geniuses at Pixar had swooped in and taken the gold with a team that, frankly, couldn’t be matched by non-Pixar studios. And I understand where she’s coming from. When you see the best of the best, it can sometimes seem unfair, as if they are this hulking giant who no one can even compete with.
I reminded her that Pixar was once a struggling studio under mountains of debt, saved by a bundle of money from Steve Jobs before they had to close their doors. Once upon a time, they were not “Pixar: The Invincible Giant.” Through hard work, fantastic story telling, and a fanatic attention to detail they rose to become an unmatched pool of animator talent and skill. I don’t think her opinion changed, but it’s good to see both perspectives.
And truly, Pixar had stolen the show yet again, with the fantastic La Luna. The composition was incredible. The characters were lovable and compelling. The story was like a dream you might have (a good one). Unlike all the other films, I couldn’t find a single place where editing was needed, and for me that’s extraordinarily high praise. I don’t think I even need to mention that the animation was world-class, do I? It’s Pixar.
If La Luna does not win the award, I’m not sure what the criteria will have been of the people voting. It was the most complete of all the films, and frankly in a class of its own. That shouldn’t take away a speck of outstanding achievement from the others, mind you! This was just on another plane. Whether that’s “fair” or not given the brilliant artists Pixar has collected I will leave up to you (and my wife). For me, La Luna is the winner of the Best Animated Short for this year’s awards. (Out of the nominated films, of course. Read on to see a potential victor over even La Luna, that wasn’t nominated!)
Highly Commended Additional Films Also Shown
Commended Film #1: Skylight (5 Minutes)
Give these guys the award. What do you mean it wasn’t nominated?! A TRAVESTY, I say.
If I put away my biases for how much I loved this little short for a moment, I understand why this wasn’t nominated. Okay, so it wasn’t the best, and probably shouldn’t technically stand among the nominated group. That said, it was an absolute joy to me. And when you boil it down to the essence, isn’t that what animation is all about?
Skylight is a sort of PSA (Public Service Announcement) done in an old-timey camera style (which honestly got overused a bit here) on the dangers of holes in the ozone. It was brilliant. The humor and timing had my laughter echoing off the theater walls. In fact, I know for a fact that I was laughing the loudest of any of the audience, and I didn’t even care. Let them think I was crazy, I was having a blast.
The animation was limited, I think. It was very well done animation, but there wasn’t a lot of it. I say “I think” because I was too busy enjoying myself to notice, and again, that’s the highest praise I GIVE and what animation should be about. It had its issues (the camera effect overuse, for example), but of all the shorts of the night, this one was the best for me. It lightened my heart and brought me happiness. And for that I thank them.
(By the way, if anyone from the team is reading this, you guys almost PERFECTLY nailed the timing. For goodness sake get rid of the after-credits bit. It’s fun, but the stronger ending is the Elephant sounds! I was in tears laughing at that point, and the turkey just took away a touch of that mirth.)
Commended Films #2: Hybrid Union (4 Minutes)
And it’s all downhill from here… I’m not sure if I would have liked Hybrid Union more had it not followed the absolutely incredible Skylight, but enjoy it I did not. It felt like an exercise in early 3D animation to me. The characters were completely unlikable. Though it was only four minutes, it felt like it dragged on for an hour. Not in a good way.
I always feel bad when speaking poorly of animations. As an animator, I KNOW how much work and passion you put into this medium of ours. It pains me to tell someone that all that hard work didn’t amount to something I enjoyed, because I can understand completely what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that criticism. What I’ve learned over the years is that you need to hear the bad stuff along with the good. And when it comes from a source that means well and isn’t being unreasonable or snobbish, the best thing you can do is listen.
This film felt extraordinarily preachy. I’m not sure if it meant to be, though I can’t imagine it accidentally ended up that way. It felt like Cars 2 in that it had a message that came first and a story that dragged along behind it. The best stories will leave you with a message, but it won’t beat you over the head with that message. With Skylight, for example, it was clearly saying to stop poking holes in the ozone, but it was also charming so you didn’t feel like it was wagging its finger at you.
Hybrid Union was not enjoyable to me. I would not watch it again given the opportunity. Though seeing what is ahead of me to write about, I almost have to give it high marks just by comparison…
Commended Film #3: Nullarbor
I really don’t want to write my thoughts on this short. I’m going to push through because I’ve come this far in the editorial, but I struggle to find one nice thing to say about this film.
The characters were ugly. Not appealing ugly, but ugly ugly. The style of rendering was ugly ugly. The pacing was ugly. This was an ugly film. Anyone who knows me knows I was not a huge fan of “Rango.” It was not appealing to me. I thought the characters were over rendered and under designed. I felt the exact same way about the look of Nullarbor, except it wasn’t as well done as Rango
The editing (or lack there of) was a disaster. It dragged and dragged and dragged. What could have easily been a 5-6 minute short with the same development stretched well beyond what was reasonable. I’ll give it this: The animation itself was pretty well done. There were a few issues, but for the most part they did a good job. And thinking about it, the composition wasn’t too bad either, as I didn’t really notice any glaring flaws there.
When the credits rolled at the conclusion, I thought I’d seen the worst of it for the night. It didn’t occur to me that anything else they might show I would dislike more than Nullarbor. Then Amazonia began to play.
Commended (by who? HOW?) Film #4: Amazonia
I went to see the shorts with a few friends. As we all walked back to the car, opinions on each of the films differed among the group. Some things were better liked by one friend, and disliked by another. But there was a unanimous agreement when it came to Amazonia. It was terrible.
I really don’t know where to begin. The animation itself should have been decent enough, but it wasn’t. I’m not exactly sure why, and that confuses me since I study animation constantly. It was perhaps OVER animated? Maybe? I can tell you that the design work was certainly over-designed. It seemed to take the ideas of “cute” and “generic” and mash them together into some sort of super hybrid. The rendering style was the exact opposite of Rango, if that makes sense. It was the brightest colors they could find and the most cartoonish textures imaginable. It was TOO cartoonish, if that’s even possible (which I guess it is, after seeing this short). And this is from someone who absolutely, positively loves cartoons. The more colorful (usually) the better.
Spoiler warning: The story made next to no sense at all. It should have. It wasn’t a complicated story in the slightest. Yet the entire time it was playing I only grew more and more confused. The ending almost saved that one aspect. It turns out the characters were performing a sort of play. However it was as if you went to watch a play without knowing it was a play and the actors were all extreme novices who figured they had better over-act as much as possible so the audience wouldn’t misunderstand how they felt. Is a character sad? Make him SUPER SAD. Happy? Make him INSANELY HAPPY. It was too much. Way too much.
I think that it could have been passable if they set up that you were watching a play before hand. If that wasn’t some surprise twist at the end, you might have given this over-acting a free pass. Maybe. I’m not sure. As it is, it didn’t work at all. If you watched it on YouTube, among all the bad stuff on YouTube, it would have been decent. Good, even. When you sit it down at the end of an evening of the world’s best and most compelling animated shorts, it looked like a complete disaster. There just wasn’t any comparison.
I want to go back and watch Amazonia many more times, to try and understand just WHY it was such a mess to me (and the group I was with). I don’t know if I want to understand it more than I DON’T want to ever see it again, though. Clearly a ton of work went into this film. I am so sorry that it was entirely void of enjoyment for me.
It doesn’t seem right to end a review (or an evening) of great animation on such a sour note, so I will share a link to the website of Skylight right here. Sadly it isn’t the full film, but it’s a great taste of the brilliance something so simple can achieve. Here’s the lesson to come from all this: Don’t over-think, and don’t overdo. Animation is as much about subtly as extreme action. If your idea is great, it doesn’t need padded with bells and whistles, it will BE great. Just give it your all and don’t overcomplicated things!
The 2012 Oscars air Sunday February 26th at 7PM Eastern Standard Time. For more information, visit the official website.