If Oscar season has worn you down, there was an air refreshingly free of cynicism on Tuesday night in Beverly Hills at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater when Brad Bird stepped onstage to present an evening of the Oscar-nominated shorts, all of which are currently in theaters and available on demand, to kick off a week of celebration in anticipation of the Academy Awards. Having now added “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” to an impressive resume that already included “Ratatouille” and “The Iron Giant,” the director was cited by Academy governor Jon Bloom as the perfect host for the collection of live-action and animated shorts, but it wasn’t just his professional credentials that made him ideal, but as Bird himself noted, his status “as a longtime Oscar watcher [who has had to] endure the yearly dissection of what’s wrong with the Oscars.”
“It always seems to stem from looking at the Oscars as a TV show and not a celebration of film, which is what it is,” Bird said upfront. “There’s all these lameass suggestions like 'You should cut the sound Oscars, the cinematography, the shorts…’ Everything but the actors and best picture, basically. But to those of us who love the medium, the craft, the art of film, we can’t imagine not celebrating every key part of the process.”
Of course, the nominated shorts encompass all of those things – as Bird would say, “If feature films are a product of a night’s worth of dreaming, these are products of power naps” – and he presided over two separate panel discussions – one for the animation nominees and one for the live-action – that described what went into making them.
For the delightful live-action short “Time Freak,” director Andrew Bowler and wife/producer Gigi Causey decided to spend the money they had stashed away for an apartment in New York City after getting married to tell the story of a neurotic time traveler who can’t get past all the small mistakes he makes by going back just a day. In the case of the Norwegian black comedy “Tuba Atlantic” director Hallvar Witzø, it was all those pesky seagulls in his backyard “that have wingspans of five meters” that were “shitting in my fresh water” and memories of his grandfather whose brother traveled across the Atlantic to New Jersey that inspired his tale of an old man with six days to live whose only pleasure in life is picking off the birds at his oceanfront cottage while awaiting death.
Children’s author William Joyce and Branden Oldenburg also took some devastating news and made something beautiful out of it with the animated “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (which is currently available for free on iTunes). The Shreveport-based Joyce recalled that the film was born out of “how we think stories can redeem and save you and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the whole city of New Orleans was grey. It had lost its color. And we found drifts of books washed around in the detritus of the storm.” As a result, he and Oldenburg transport their titular bookworm, and by extension the audience, from the colorful French Quarter as it’s being ravaged by the storm to a dreary black-and-white wasteland that suddenly becomes alive when he discovers a home with plenty of reading material inside.
An excuse to play around with what Joyce said was “all the things that make us happy,” the short provided an opportunity to use a bunch of different forms of animation from 3D computer animation to 2D to using miniatures for sets since as Oldenburg explained, “One thing is computers do things so perfectly, so cleanly that you’re constantly battling it to make it imperfect, to make it dirty and feel the hand of the creator.” Clearly, that struck a chord with everyone sitting on the animation panel since even the most-CG heavy short “La Luna,” Enrico Casarosa’s tribute to growing up with a father and grandfather with very different guiding principles, tries to look as much like a moving watercolor painting as possible after he pitched it to Pixar using only watercolors and sketches.
In the reverse situation, the Canadian short “Wild Life,” an offbeat portrait of a remittance man castigated from his upper crust family in England to forge for himself on the North American frontier, was actually conceived as a computer animated short by filmmakers Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby since their last film “When the Day Breaks” took such a long time with every frame drawn by hand. But as Forbis explained, “We were unable to find anything that had the depth that we really yearned for, so we started working with real paint…[to get the] accidents and mistakes and randomness that we were really missing.”
Joyce and Oldenburg actually went one step beyond, not only creating new methodology out of old technology to get the handmade effect of their film, but then using the assets to create an iPad app for a more interactive experience, as well as one that would make their short profitable, which is a rarity. Still, the conversation between animators quickly turned to a killer app that’s currently not on the market – the “Zombie Breakdance” iPhone game that’s a main plot point in Grant Orchard’s highly amusing “A Morning Stroll,” which takes the daily routine of a chicken that walks down the street in New York before being invited into a mysterious home and spreads it across a 100-year span of time from 1959 to 2059. Orchard said the idea came from a film that would open with “some intellectual weight” – in the form of a quotation from the New York Times Review of Books – and grows “more and more unsophisticated, but the visuals become more and more sophisticated” which evolves from simplified black-and-white sketching in 1959 to three-dimensional computer generated characters and landscapes in the future. Producer Sue Goffe suggested half-jokingly that “We’re in discussions” for the game in which the main human character in the film circa 2009 taps on his screen to make the undead pop-a-lock.
While there were two films on the live-action side that were made as thesis projects – including “Tuba Atlantic,” which ironically may have been the most accomplished of the five, and Max Zähle’s German-Indian adoption drama “Raju” – perhaps the most intriguing backstory to a film made by a newcomer was the one of “The Shore,” made by “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George. He wasn’t onhand for the panel, but his daughter and producer Oorlagh George was, which was quite appropriate since the film stars “Luck” actress Kerry Condon as a daughter who nudges her father (Ciarán Hinds) into telling her the story of why he and his best friend from his youth stopped talking to each other and ultimately pushes them towards a reunion. George said the film was based on a true story that her father had heard from his uncle, but while every film he made has tried to have it “squished into the middle of it, this was finally the opportunity for him to just do justice to that story.” She later added that as a story of reconciliation in Northern Ireland after years of political turmoil, “There isn’t a lot of media that reflects right now where this amazing reconciliation is taking place… and it’s his first film in Northern Ireland, so it was his first time working at home.”
Indeed, these shorts gave off that feeling of home no matter where they were made around the world. One of the best exchanges of the evening was when Patrick Doyon, the French-Canadian animator of “Dimanche (Sunday),” a bittersweet coming-of-age story set in a depressed part of Alberta, was talking about the central young boy only hearing gibberish when he was around adults speaking to each other, to which “La Luna” director Casarosa excitedly interjected that the older characters in his film, who are also indecipherable, would understand the adults in “Dimanche.”
However, on this evening, what was beautiful was how everyone was speaking the same language.