Because of the way they're playing the Boston area and how my time is working out, I'll be seeing the three groups of short films nominated for an Academy Award this year in three different locations, and thus it will be difficult to find which one is the biggest draw. I suspect it will be this one - we're fed animated short subjects from a very early age, so what might seem like an insubstantial size for live-action films is perfect for animation.
Plus, animation is a medium where every second counts - and costs. Each 1/24 of a second requires the same time and expense, whereas with live action the costs go down once you're on set or on the ground, to the point where overshooting and then cutting down is not just practical, but the expected way to do things.
Looking at this year's nominees (and a pair of near-misses added to fill out the program), it's worth noting not just how much computer animation has taken over the medium - that's old news - but how the recent practice of making almost all animated features in 3D may be filtering its way down into the shorts category. One of the nominees was lucky enough to get a wide exhibition in three dimensions, and even if none of the others were actually produced with that in mind, the filmmakers are clearly thinking about how they want us to process the sensation of depth as we watch their works.
"Madagascar, carnet de voyage"
Take the first film shown in this program, "Madagascar, carnet de voyage" ("Madagascar, a Journey Diary" in English). The eleven-minute short is initially presented as a scrapbook of a trip to the African island nation, but as pages turn we see that they are not ordinary pages - some snapshots are animated, while others extend out of or into the page once they are no longer being presented as a head-on view. Soon, the camera zooms into one and we're presented with something resembling a conventional narrative, although filmmaker Bastien Dubois will often change animation styles on us, or remind us that we're inside his journal by showing the passage of time and space with a page turn, or scribbling notes in the margins.
It's a nifty device that Dubois plays with in a number of interesting ways, but which never overwhelms the actual content, mostly involving a trip to a small village to witness a Famadihana ("turning of the bones") ritual. Even without the stylistic embellishments and impressive rendering, it is like hearing about a journey from a friend who is both a keen observer and a skilled storyteller, and that's a beautiful thing.
The next film presented, Geefwee Boedoe's six-minute "Let's Pollute!", is almost completely the opposite: It's tongue-in-cheek, designed to emulate the flat visual style and earnest tone of the educational cartoons of previous decades - in short, about as intentionally two-dimensional as a movie can be. The gag is that pollution and poor environmental stewardship seems to be something modern civilization regards as its right and duty, as if there were instructional videos on how to go about it.
It's pretty good, doing a nice job of not overstaying its welcome while still delivering a bunch of good gags in its short running time. Many of them are gross-out gags, making this the film in the category that feels most likely to be part of a Spike & Mike show. For the most part, it delivers its satire with more sugar than vinegar, pointing up the absurdity of our bad habits without being a complete scold.
Where "Let's Pollute!" is the shortest of the nominated films, "The Gruffalo" by Max Lang and Jakob Schuh is the longest, clocking in at twenty-seven minutes. It's also the most conventional, adapted from a children's book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, featuring a number of celebrity voices, and with a relatively conventional design sense compared to the other nominees.
There is, however, nothing wrong with that. It's very nicely produced, and removing the time necessary to process stylization lets Lang & Schuh slip plenty of wit into their fable and still have the young ones it's intended for follow it. In it, a squirrel (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) tells her kids a story about a little brown mouse (voiced by James Corden) who, crossing the woods to get to a tree full of nuts, must pass a fox (voiced by Tom Wilkinson), an owl (voiced by John Hurt), and a snake (voiced by Rob Brydon) who would each eat him. He bluffs his way past by claiming he's meeting a monstrous Gruffalo, only to find himself in trouble when the predators compare stories and find something's up just as he's discovering that this beast (voiced by Robbie Coltrane) may not be entirely imaginary.
It's a charming, funny little story, polished up nicely but still featuring plenty of occasionally dark British humor. It's easy on the eyes and ears, and when it's all done, kids will have learned an important lesson about how vital it is to be able to lie convincingly.
"The Lost Thing"
Meanwhile, quirk is the name of the game in "The Lost Thing", in which Shaun Tan and co-director Andrew Ruhemann tell the story of a boy (voiced by Tim Minchin) who, while looking for bottle caps on the beach, discovers a strange Thing. It's a large, many-tentacled cephalopod living in what looks like a red diving bell, but friendly and good-natured. The people around him seem to have no reaction but annoyance, if they deign to notice it, so the boy sets out to find a place where it belongs.
The film certainly has a distinctive look - the boy's city looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil only grayer, with even the beach looking over-regulated and joyless. It's actually a nifty design, filled with oblong buildings that seem to loom over each other and confusing signs, but there seldom seem to be any corners where something wonderful can be hidden... at least until they find one. The characters are impressively realized, as well - there's just enough color to distinguish the boy from the rest of the gray and dreary humans, while things that might appear monstrous are given cheerful life.
"Day & Night"
Pixar's "Day & Night" will probably be the one nominee that most people watching the Oscars wind up rooting for, just because it's the one they are most likely to have seen (playing in front of what is likely the year's biggest box-office success will do that). And it's not a case where the general public is cheering on an inferior product; director Teddy Newton (who also contributed gags to "Let's Pollute!") takes a nifty idea and executes it very well indeed.
Part of the charm to "Day & Night" is that it's something that really can only work in animation (or maybe comics) - its avatars of night and day are effective designs because their detail has been swept away, and they can move like two-dimensional cartoon characters, with that two-dimensionality allowing their silhouettes to work as windows into a three-dimensional world (a fairly stunning effect when it was projected in 3D before Toy Story 3, which still looks good in conventional cinemas). It's a nifty blend of cartoonish fun and joyous discovery of how to appreciate one's differences, and though it explicitly states its theme in the end, it does so with such sincerity that even jaded audiences should appreciate it.
Moritz Mayerhfer doesn't come right out and say what he's getting at in "Urs", one of two extra shorts added to the program to pad it out a bit. In this ten-minute German film, a strong young man and his elderly mother are the last people remaining in their village, blighted by drought and famine, and when their last goat dies, Urs decides to take his obstinate mother across the mountains in hope of finding a better life.
Though not a nominee, it could bump some of the others out of the running and I suspect few would have any objection. Like many of the others, it seems to intentionally work the difference in perception between 2D and 3D, as flat backdrops seem to gain texture as Urs presses into the unknown. What little speech there is tends to be inarticulate grunts, but the characters' body language is very expressive. And there's an impressively sad, unavoidable truth to how the film's theme of having to drag those unwilling to change, even in the face of inevitable disaster, to something else plays out.
"The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger"
The final film shown in this showcase is another honorable mention, though "The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger" may have been considered in part on the strength of filmmaker Bill Plympton's career. It's not a bad film by any means - much of Plympton's trademark dark humor is present and effective, and there are few who can get more laughter out of fewer images in a montage than he can. Plympton packs a great deal of comedy and adventure into six short minutes.
On the other hand, it certainly looks somewhat half-baked. Though Plympton has been using digital tools for a while now, this is the first time where they seem to have markedly changed his style. The thick black lines and bright, solid colors mean that the simplicity of Plympton's style doesn't serve to focus the eye on what's important, but rather makes the audience wonder what sort of primitive software he's using.
Still, when the biggest complaint is that one of the honorable mentions isn't quite up to its creator's usual high standards, it's a pretty good selection. If the choice of the award winner were left in my hands, I would probably select "Madagascar, carnet de voyage" (and I might have substituted "Urs" for "Let's Pollute!"), and that's what I'll be rooting for on the night of the awards.
Seen 25 February 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #7 (Special Event)