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Oscars: Breaking Down 2015’s Animated Short Contenders

This year's line-up is packed with intimate, personal storytelling.

As usual, this year’s assortment of animated short Oscar contenders is a celebration of intimate, personal storytelling. Every filmmaker leaves his or her fingerprints on the material, making it a rich collection of yarns, all of which have something profound to say, whether big and bold or small and modest. What’s more compelling is the fact that traditional animation dominates the field this year, with only one stop-motion effort and three fully computer-animated productions.

After a viewing of each film, here is a breakdown of the category. Nominees will be announced on Jan. 14.

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The 3D-animated “Bear Story (Historia de un Oso)” is one of the most emotional films on the list. It tells the story of a bear (go figure) who is wrested away from his family and sent off to perform for the circus. That framework serves more as an allegory for Chile’s Pinochet regime, which tore families apart in the 1970s and left director Gabriel Osorio’s grandfather exiled from the country. This narrative is conveyed through a mechanical diorama built by the bear, adding a lot of complexity to the animation, with gorgeous lighting and a lovely music box-like score throughout. This one could be a threat to win.

At four minutes, 45 seconds, “Carface (Autos Portraits),” from Genie Award-winning director Claude Cloutier, is the shortest film in the race. Set to the tune of “Que Sera, Sera,” it features jovial classic cars dancing and singing as oil derricks pump out the black sludge that keeps them running across the globe, the planet slowly sliding toward ruin all the while. The Big Oil polemic was traditionally animated with brushes and ink, though colored digitally. It’s also one of two films produced with the National Film Board of Canada that made it onto the list.

Speaking of which, the other NFB project — “If I Was God…” — comes from a filmmaker who has already been nominated in this category twice before: Cordell Barker (1988’s “The Cat Came Back” and 2002’s “Strange Invaders”). The one stop-motion film in play, it’s a personal story about a seventh-grader daydreaming of deity-like powers, how he might wield them to punish his tormenters and create a perfect day for his schoolboy crush. The claymation production also features a touch of papier-mâché here and there, making for a varied aesthetic experience.

“Love in the Time of March Madness” — a competition selection at the 2015 Annecy International Animated Film Festival — is yet another personal story, about a taller-than-average girl growing up with all the awkwardness that brings. It’s a black-and-white, traditionally animated piece that makes interesting M.C. Escher-like shifts in perspective throughout, with co-director Melissa Johnson’s dry first-person narration telling the tale. Despite lacking color, it’s incredibly striking.

Phuong Mai Nguyen’s “My Home” also played Annecy this year, though not in competition. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy, Hugo, troubled by the sudden presence of a man with a bird’s head moving in on his family. This causes a rift between Hugo and his mother and leads to an abstract narrative that is essentially about the hardships of a recomposed family. The film is computer-animated, though it has a painterly aesthetic.

A CalArts thesis project, “An Object at Rest” is one of the shorter entries, the story of a stone’s journey through millennia. The stone observes the industrial revolution and the civil war, turns up as a fossil on display at a museum and is ground into parts for a satellite and launched into space before finally finding a little peace and quiet. It uses computer-assisted watercolor work, which gives it a hand-painted vibe, and while it doesn’t hit with a heavy message like some other contenders, it still has something to say about human civilization.

“Prologue,” from celebrated animator Richard Williams, could certainly be strong in the race. It’s a short but powerful (and violent) hand-drawn depiction of the Spartan-Athenian wars through the eyes of a young girl, and an idea that first came to him when he was a teenager. It makes an unflinching statement about the horrors of combat and is meant to be expanded into a feature at some point. Williams, by the way, already has three Oscars to his name: one in this category for 1972’s “A Christmas Carol” and a pair for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” for best visual effects and special achievement for animation direction.

The last Pixar short to be Oscar-nominated was “La Luna” in 2011. “Sanjay’s Super Team,” from director Sanjay Patel, is likely to end that brief drought this year with a computer-animated (naturally) tale of intergenerational differences that doesn’t shy away from religion. Indeed, Hinduism — and Patel’s intimate history with it within his family — is crucial to the story’s richness. This is also sure to be the most widely viewed entry on the list as it’s paired with Pixar’s latest feature, “The Good Dinosaur,” hitting theaters this weekend.

The Annecy grand prize winner for shorts this year was Konstantin Bronzit’s “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos,” so it has already been heralded by the animation community. It’s comparatively long (just over 15 minutes) and tells the emotional story of a pair of inseparable friends who chase their dreams of becoming cosmonauts. There is no dialogue in the piece, but it doesn’t need it, as it conveys that emotion and the relationship with silent grace.

Lastly, the third and final 2015 Annecy competition selection on the list this year is Don Hertzfeldt’s trippy “World of Tomorrow.” At 16 minutes, 29 seconds, it’s the longest contender of the bunch, focusing on a girl named Emily who meets a clone of herself from the future. This is all conveyed with stick figure characters in quite the abstract package, one that has already won prizes at festivals around the world, from Sundance to Glasgow. It also won Annecy’s audience award. Hertzfeldt was nominated in this category once before, for 2000’s “Rejected.”

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