Shorts are proving ground for rising toon helmers
Breakout directors. Cutting-edge techniques. Revolutionary storytelling devices.The animated short films from major toon studios, typically seen in front of toon tentpoles or as homevideo extras, are often home to all three of these things. Whether it’s the deceptively simple appearance of “Day and Night” or the reimagining of classic characters in “Coyote Falls,” these projects frequently become workshops for some of the best emerging ideas under a studio roof. At places like Pixar or Blue Sky — where oodles of talented artists come to work each day — the opportunity to make a short is only earned after a rigorous pitch phase. Someone might pitch for years before they’re chosen. “I had been turned down so many times,” says Teddy Newton, “Day and Night” helmer. “But I kept my pitch for this short very simple and just used 12 drawings and John (Lasseter) said, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ before I was even finished.” Things aren’t often much easier on the approval side, where considerations of time and money make it possible to select just a limited number of ideas — or just one — to develop. “It’s incredibly difficult because there are often so many great ideas and you want to encourage talent and give that talent a place to express itself,” says Vanessa Morrison Murchison, prexy of Fox’s feature animation unit. “That’s why we are open to anyone from any department bringing in an idea.” Though these shorts make their studios proud, they’re not a profit center. Their value is often more in nurturing talent, discovering new technologies or creating excitement for a future release or project. “I think (higher-ups) want to see who can take responsibility and lead a project,” says Newton. “That can be tricky because it’s a different thing to be able to lead people toward something than to draw or do any of the other things that need to be done while you’re working on a film.” When it came to reinventing classic Looney Tunes characters for the short “Coyote Falls,” working on a short was a way to ease into that process and get audiences interested in a new Looney Tunes TV show that will air in 2011. “We know how much audiences love these characters because we grew up with them, too,” says Sam Register, executive VP creative affairs for Warner Bros. animation. “We wanted the characters to be true to who they are and also take them into the future with CG, so this short was an opportunity for us to get them interested in seeing more.” Murchison sees this exploration of beloved characters the same way. “Our ‘Ice Age’ characters are beloved by audiences and they want to see them in a variety of ways, so it’s worth it to create an extra experience because of the excitement it generates,” she says. “And some of our best directors, like Chris Wedge who made ‘Bunny’ and went on to do ‘Ice Age,’ came from doing a short. So we win in lots of ways by making these films.”
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