The animation industy as we know it originated with shorts. But as the studios shifted their efforts to features, the short-subject scene became the province of indies such as Pixar, Aardman and Blue Sky.

Today, Disney, Paramount and Fox are in business with those companies, and the big-studio animated short is back, reconceived as the proverbial carrot to test out new talent and keep creative types interested.

Disney is proffering two contenders — the computer-animated “Lifted” from its Pixar Studios, and “The Little Matchgirl,” hand-animated in Disney’s traditional style.

According to “Matchgirl” producer Don Hahn, Pixar’s penchant for nurturing talent on shorts has become contagious. “Pixar’s meritocracy has migrated to Disney, though ironically the old Disney culture was built on shorts. They’re wonderful training grounds, and a ‘cleansing sorbet’ between feature films,” he says.

Practice was what drove first-time director Gary Rydstrom to tackle “Lifted,” his comic take on alien-abduction movies. “‘Lifted’ didn’t help just me,” says Rydstrom, who gave up his Oscar-winning sound design career to work at Pixar. “It also allowed a top-quality animator, lighter and producer to take leadership roles they hadn’t had before. It provided us all with an intensive way to learn.”

“Lifted” will play in theaters before Pixar’s next feature, “Ratatouille” — that pic was co-directed by Jan Pinkava, a 1997 Oscar winner for the short “Geri’s Game.” 

Notably, nearly all of 2006’s studio shorts were directed by first-timers. New York and Los Angeles auds caught “First Flight,” in which an engineer helps a baby bird get off the ground, before “Over the Hedge” in theaters. That short was helmed by animators Cameron Hood and Kyle Jefferson.

“They workshopped and storyboarded their ideas, and built lots of internal enthusiasm,” recalls Bill Damaschke, head of creative development for DreamWorks Animation. “Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to make ‘First Flight’ while we were doing ‘Over the Hedge’ and ‘Flushed Away.’ We used every moment of downtime. Resources are always an issue, but if someone has a great idea, we’re open to it.”  

A similar attitude led Fox’s Blue Sky to let fledgling writer-director Chris Renaud make “No Time for Nuts,” featuring the popular “Ice Age” character Scrat, alongside veteran animator Michael Thurmeier. Producer Lori Forte was looking for a short to put on the DVD. “We asked for ideas, and Chris had a great one, so we gave him the opportunity to direct,” she says. “Studios are looking for shorts that let inhouse people step up. Everyone on this short got a bump-up to a new position.”

To qualify for Oscar consideration, an animated short must play in theaters or win an award at a qualifying film festival. Though studios often create their shorts as a value add for DVDs, most qualify them for Oscar consideration by arranging for a brief theatrical run.

For instance, Disney’s “Little Matchgirl” appears as an extra on the “Little Mermaid” DVD. According to Hahn, new technology is creating further incentive for Disney to produce shorts: “With iPod downloads, shorts become things you can walk around with.”

Operating independently of the majors, indie studio Blur uses shorts to test not only talent (holding internal contests to choose a short worth financing) but also technology. “Each costs about $1.5 million,” says Blur co-founder Tim Miller, who hopes the company’s system will enable it to follow Pixar’s path to feature films.

Four of Blur’s previous efforts have made Oscar’s short list, including 2004’s nominated “Gopher Broke,” and this year the studio enters the race with its Victorian farce “A Gentlemen’s Duel.”