Animated shorts discover fest route is not only road to Oscar

Competitve category includes Pixar, Disney's Dali

Imagine an Oscar category with films inspired by legendary artists Dali and Giacometti. Then add a cartoon about tadpoles, a piece about sheep from the artist who designed “Toy Story’s” Woody the Cowboy, and top it off with the continuing adventures of an “Ice Age” critter. You soon realize this is a distinctive year in the contest for animated short film.

The competition was a long time coming for at least two entrants — Disney’s “Destino” and Pixar’s “Boundin’.” “Destino” was 57 years in the making — conceived by Salvador Dali and Walt Disney in 1945 and recently completed at the behest of Roy Disney. “Boundin’ ” is the first Academy submission by 70-year-old Bud Lucky, an animator on the original “Sesame Street.”

Pixar’s “Toy Story” director John Lasseter, an Oscar winner himself for the 1988 short “Tin Toy,” explains, “Bud Lucky was one of Pixar’s first animators, and he’s worked on all our films. ‘Boundin’ is about a sheep that’s proud of his fluffy wool coat. But then he gets sheared and becomes pathetic until he gets some sage advice from the great American jackalope.”

Unlike past Pixar shorts, which qualified for Academy consideration by being theatrically released with the studio’s features, the just-finished “Boundin’ ” squeaked into the Oscar race after Pixar arranged special screenings at L.A.’s Laemmle Theaters.

Qualifying this way is a popular practice for animated short filmmakers, whose only other road to Oscar qualification involves winning a “best-of” prize at one of the 47 film festivals that the Academy recognizes. Since that can be a lengthy process, several entrants this year took the Laemmle route, including Blur Studios (“Rockfish”), Film Roman (“The Amazing Jorge”) and indie animator Rachel Johnson (“The Toll Collector”).

One high-profile submission this year did have the benefit of a theatrical run, however. Sony Imageworks’ tadpole tale “Early Bloomer” screened with “Daddy Day Care.” Director Kevin Johnson admits, “I’m guilty of going to several viewings of that movie!”

With “Early Bloomer,” Sony is banking on the momentum begun last year with its first animated-short Oscar winner, “The Chubb-Chubbs!,” now in feature development. (See story, page A6.)

Aardman’s Nick Park notched seven nominations and three Oscars in this category — with 1990’s “Creature Comforts,” 1993’s “The Wrong Trousers” and 1995’s “A Close Shave” — and then made his feature debut with “Chicken Run.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” says Park, “that the best animated short Academy Awards helped both myself and Aardman achieve the international recognition the studio now enjoys.”

Another contender on that track is Blue Sky’s Carlos Saldanha, who directed this year’s animated short entrant, “Gone Nutty.” Although it follows the further adventures of an “Ice Age” character, it was completed long after that movie’s release, qualifying with the Academy by winning the L.A. Short Film Festival.

As has often been the case with computer-generated shorts, it served to test new CG technology, and the benefits keep accruing. Saldanha, who’s now directing the next Blue Sky/Fox feature “Robots,” reports, “We’ve been able to use techniques from ‘Gone Nutty’ in our new film.”

The experimental nature of many animated shorts has always made them naturals for the festival circuit. In fact, it was the surreal, Daliesque bent of “Destino” that prompted Disney to follow the festival route for qualifying the film.

As “Destino” producer Baker Bloodworth admits, “At first, we weren’t sure what we had.”

The piece features tuxedo-clad eyeballs, ants that turn into bicyclists, and clocks that melt via CG. Director Dominque Monfery’s small French crew worked with Dali’s 135 storyboards and 15 paintings to remain as faithful as possible to the 2-D animation style that Walt Disney and the artist had envisioned.

Amazingly, 95-year-old Disney animator John Hench consulted on the project he’d helped Dali develop more than a half-century ago.

While “Destino” understandably turned heads at film festivals, it had strong competition from one of the year’s biggest festival winners, Sam Chen’s “Eternal Gaze.” The 3-D, CG black-and-white film, which imagines the final days of sculptor Giacometti, won so many prizes it qualified four times over for Academy consideration. Despite this success, Chen sees himself as an Oscar underdog.

“There’s really stiff competition this year. Short films have been a category in which there’s been room for experimentation, but I think it will be inundated by Hollywood stuff. Everybody who wants to make a CG feature wants the tagline that says: ‘Based on the Academy Award-Winning Short.'”

If ever there was an Oscar category in which underdogs can succeed it’s the animated short, believes John Lasseter.

“Every year there’s a ‘Rocky’ story among short films. It’s the one Oscar that anybody in the world can win.”