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Oscar Animation Nominees Explain The Big Ideas Behind Little Films

The filmmakers behind this year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts talk about innovating in two to 18 minutes.

Feature-length animation Academy Award nominees venture outside the computer-generated norm this year with charming exercises in old-school techniques like Song of the Sea, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and The Boxtrolls.

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Following suit, contenders in the animated shorts film category also take daring departures from Hollywood convention. Now available for viewing on Vimeo on Demand, the films (see trailers below) use everything from wall paintings to pencil drawings to animate stories of uncommon charm.

Representing three of the films, Oscar nominees from England, Holland and Berkeley, California explain how they meld theme, technique and narrative to craft quality entertainments clocking in at 18 minutes or less.

“The Dam Keeper”

Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi, who quit Pixar to form Berkeley-based Tonko House, created an 18-minute fable about a lonely pig child burdened with a big responsibility.

Origins Story: In a joint email, the filmmakers say, “We discussed stories from our childhood and came across the memory of a story called The Little Dutch Boy, about a boy who saves his town by sticking his finger in a leaking crack of a dike. The story inspired the idea of a character whose job was to save the town every day, without the town knowing.”

Why Short? “The short format is like a poem,” explain Kondo and Tsutumi. “What we chose to not show in the story was just as important as what we decided to share. Originally we wanted to tell the story in eight minutes but by the end of the editing of our story reel, it had ballooned up to 18 minutes.”


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Tech Specs: “Our animators worked primarily in a software called TVPaint,” the filmmakers say. “Each frame of animation was painted in Photoshop. We did pre-visualization in Maya, comped scenes in After Effects and edited in Avid.”

Formative Influence: “One of our greatest influences is Hayao Miyazaki,” say Kondo and Tsutumi. “We revel in the fantastic worlds he creates because they feel so believable and tangible. The late independent filmmaker Frederic Bach influenced us because he was always conscious of the power of animation to make greater statements that point to the social or ecological issues of our world.”

“The Bigger Picture”

While studying at London’s Central St Martins School of Art, Daisy Jacobs, worked with Christopher Rees and Christopher Wilder to make seven-minute short The Bigger Picture about two brothers and their aging mother.

Origins Story:The Bigger Picture is loosely based on the last years of my grandmother’s life and the conflicts that arose in the family as her need for care increased,” Jacobs says. “Also, as a student, I sketched and painted the residents of a local care home and that made a deep impression on me.”

Why Short? “The original storyboard was almost twenty minutes long and a visiting tutor, the wonderful Osbert Parker, kept saying ‘Make it shorter, make it shorter!’” Jacobs recalls. “He was completely right because this particular story suits a simple format with no sub-plots; it becomes almost universal.”


Tech Specs: “Basically, our tools were paint and tape,” says Jacobs. “We chose them because they were cheap. We started with a full-size real set and I painted the characters life-size on the wall and animated them without using guidelines or pre-drawn frames. Christopher Wilder built and animated the 3-D arms and legs. My background is in painting and illustration and I’ve always painted very large and very fast, so it’s natural to animate in the same way. Chris can make anything out of a cereal box, so he was born to do stop-motion.”

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Formative Influence: Jacobs says “As a child, I was read to every night–Treasure Island, White Fang, Huckleberry Finn–and I pictured everything vividly in my mind. I think that hearing stories, and telling them, is an inherent human need. Stories help us understand ourselves and make sense of the world around us.”

“A Single Life”

Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins and Job Roggeveen met as students at the Design Academy in The Netherlands, then formed their own studio in 2007 before collaborating on A Single Life, a dialogue-free two-minute piece about a woman and her magic record player.

Origins Story: “As students we listened to a lot of music,” Roggeveen explains. “One night while listening to a record, it skipped. The idea arose that, instead of the record skipping, we might have traveled a tiny bit in time. Then we started discussing what could happen if your life would be attached to a record? The idea stayed with us for a long time. In 2013 we wanted to start a new film project and we came back to this idea.”

Why Short? “We made the film for a Dutch competition to be shown in front of big blockbusters, so the limited time of the film was given as two minutes and 15 seconds,” says Roggeveen. “For our concept, that works really well: the film is funny but also reminds people of their own mortality. Your life could be over in a minute! With a short film like this, the shock at the ending is even bigger.”


Tech Specs: “Our studio started out as a stop motion studio,” Roggeveen says. “After a few years we noticed that 3-D animation allowed us to be quicker and more flexible, but we still love that tactile look where you feel like you can touch everything in the film. The storyboard was made with pencil drawings. Then we put them on a timeline and start filling in pieces of animation until the film was done.”

Formative Influence: “We’re big fans of Charlie Kaufman,” says Roggeveen. “His films are so creative and not predictable. We also really like Wes Anderson films because of all the great details in the background. The production design in his films was a big influence for A Single Life.”

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“Feast”

Nominees Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed made this Disney six-minute short about a puppy and his food.

“Me and My Moulton”

In this 14-minute short, Torill Kove revisits her childhood in Norway, where she grew up with two sisters and eccentric parents circa 1965.

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.

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