Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation

The Dam Keeper
When I posted my Oscar predictions on Saturday morning, I joked about how I had not seen any of the films nominated for the Short Film categories and so just guessed wildly about which of them would win. I make the same joke every year, and it's more or less as funny each and every time (i.e. mildly). I'm far from proud of my ignorance about these categories, but it remains the case that I rarely get to see any of the nominated films unless they play before a Pixar film or something.

This year, that changed. As I was reading something on Indiewire yesterday, I got pop-up ad say that the short films were available to rent or buy via Vimeo and, after recovering from the shock of encountering the only worthwhile pop-up ad in history, I decided to break my streak and actually watch the damn things. Below are my thoughts on all five nominated films, ranked from best to not quite best, since none of them are bad.

The Dam Keeper (dir. Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutumi)

This was almost impossibly lovely, and felt like a Studio Ghibli film that had accidentally been made in America. Like that studio's films, The Dam Keeper mixes a fantastical setting - it takes place in a village of anthropomorphic animals in which a young, apparently orphaned pig is tasked with turning a winch which powers a windmill that keeps a mysterious and ominous cloud (called "The Darkness") from descending on the town - with very real and raw emotions - the pig is bullied by his classmates, who seem unaware of the important role he plays in protecting their town.

The rules of exactly why the pig does this and how this situation has arisen are never fully explained (it actually reminded of Desmond's task in the hatch on Lost in that sense) but that's not really important. What is important is the way that Kondo and Tsutumi create this gorgeous world that looks like a charcoal painting come to life, then use it to explore the friendship between the pig and a fox who has just started at the local school, and how that relationship has ramifications for everyone in town. It also functions as a poignant, even gut-wrenching metaphor for depression, an idea that is hammered home by Lars Mikkelsen's opening and closing narration.

Of the shorts, I found this to be the most emotionally satisfying since it used its simple, broad style to dig into themes of loss, loneliness, creativity and friendship. I found it to be profoundly moving, and while I don't think it will win, I'm immensely glad that I got to see it.

Feast (dir. Patrick Osbourne)

Another one that works on the heartstrings and does so very effectively, this Disney short that played before Big Hero 6 in cinemas is almost unbearably cute. Beginning with a scene of an adorable dog named Winston walking sadly through the rain, it proceeds to detail his adoption by a man who feeds him a french fry, then shows the man's romantic relationship through the eyes of Winston, who only really notices the changes in his home life when it affects the different kinds of food he gets to eat.

Animated in a style that reminded me of the cel shading in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, it has an appealing mix between the warmth of traditional animation and the precision and energy of computer animation. It's a pretty perfect aesthetic for a story about an adorably hyperactive puppy.

The Bigger Picture
The Bigger Picture (dir. Daisy Jacobs)

This is probably the most visually innovative of the shorts, and I was kind of blown away by it. The Bigger Picture is a mix of stop-motion and painting in which images on the wall of a set are animated while physical objects are moved in front of them. You can see that interaction in the image above in how the character on the right's arm is a real prop while the rest of him is a 2D image on the wall, but a still doesn't really do the effect justice. The style of the film allows it to have both moments of surrealism and expressionism - such as a scene in which the younger of the two brothers vacuums up his mother, his brother, and all the props in the house - and provides opportunities for more dynamic camera moves than you'd expect to see in something that was purely hand-drawn.

The story itself, in which two brothers cope with the mental and physical deterioration of their mother, is secondary to the style, but the script is packed with moments of dark, distinctly British humour (one brother is introduced with the line "I thought about sex every moment of the day until I hit forty. Now all I think about is death," and the film ends with the two brothers almost literally laughing in the face of death) and it comes up with plenty of opportunities for the style to serve the vivid, sometimes angry fantasies of its central character.

A Single Life
A Single Life (dir. Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, and Job Roggeveen)

The shortest of the films, this Dutch entry is built around a very simple idea: a young girl gets a record, puts the needle down, and discovers that by manipulating the song, she can control time. When the record skips, the slice of pizza she's about to eat suddenly becomes half-eaten. When she spins it forward, she finds herself older and heavily pregnant, then not pregnant when she runs it backwards, then holding a screeching baby when she moves it forward again.

Like I say, it's a fairly simple idea, but one which A Single Life explores pretty fully in a mere two minutes. It's a short, sharp dose of inventive comedy that uses its ideas to make up for the somewhat limited nature of its animation.

Me and My Moulton
Me and My Moulton (dir. Torill Kove)

As I said at the top, none of these nominees are bad, and they're all pretty strong (something that can't be said about a lot of the nominees in other categories) but Me and My Moulton is the one that falls short of great and ends up being merely very good.

A Canadian film about three sisters, their desire for a bicycle, and their gradual discovery of hard and inscrutable truths of adulthood. The narration is deliberately childlike in a way which at times proves a bit much,  but at others makes for graceful and funny digressions, such as one in which the film demonstrates why her father is unfit for military service by having him swinging his arms out of time with the rest of a swathe of soldiers. The visuals have a gentle humour to them that fits the digressive storytelling, and it's a thoroughly pleasant, and ultimately bittersweet account of small moments, kind of like a Raymond Carver short story as animated by Martin Handford.

Final Thoughts

After watching all the nominees - which is an incredibly fun way to spend 50 minutes - I still think that Feast will probably win, even though it's not my favourite (but only by a very slim margin), because it has the right balance between visual inventiveness and emotional satisfaction. Plus, I imagine that The Academy is probably composed more of dog people than pig people, even though that is one of the few demographic metrics about the organisation that we don't yet know.

In a broader sense, watching this tiny smattering of short films reminded of what a potentially inventive art form animation is, and how bland mainstream animation is by comparison. Now I love a lot of computer animated films, and some great films have been made using that style, but when you can do literally anything with animation, and you can tell stories using a vast array of styles, it's kind of awful that most animated films stick to a very rigid form.