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Oscar-Animated Short Nominees Break With Tradition

This year’s nominees for animated short run the gamut of emotions, from tragedy to joy. In many cases, they also stretch the bounds of what’s traditionally expected in animation.

Nominee Theodore Ushev, director of “Blind Vaysha,” notes that indie animation typically has thought-provoking, darker, themes, but may have flown under the Acad’s radar in the past. “I see enormous progress in the Academy’s choices,” Ushev says. “It’s evolved in a good direction recently, really recognizing the differences and diversity in the art of animation. Animation is not only for kids, not only for entertainment. I made my film for kids from 9 to 99.”

Fellow nominee, “Borrowed Time” co-director Lou Hamou-Lhadj, echoes Ushev’s view: “We were a bit frustrated with the lack of breadth in stories told through animation in America, and wanted to contribute to the medium by helping illustrate that it isn’t merely a children’s film genre, as much of the public perceives it.”

Ushev’s “Vaysha” tells the tale of a girl who sees the past with one eye and the future with the other, unable to live in the present. It’s based on a short story by Georgi Gospodinov. “When I read it, I could immediately see it as a film,” Ushev says.

He uses a digital linocut technique in which the colors are animated separately, giving it the look of a moving Van Gogh painting. “I wanted my film to have the look and feel of an old book, like a fairy tale from your great-grandfather’s attic.”

Hamou-Lhadj and Andrew Coats’ “Borrowed Time” is the story of a weathered old sheriff drawn to the site of a tragic event that has haunted his life. It has the expansive look of a classic Western.

“We grew up watching films like Sergio Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy, ‘Butch Cassidy,’ and some of the more recent films like ‘Unforgiven’ and ‘There Will Be Blood,’ and really loved the iconography,” Coats says. “The visual and graphic quality of the storytelling in the genre naturally excited us as we come from the completely visual medium of animation.”

Adds Hamou-Lhadj: “We wanted to champion American animation as a medium to tell any story. What better way to do that than to target something uniquely American?”

“Pear Cider and Cigarettes” by Robert Valley is another non-traditional animated film. It is a gritty tale of Valley’s turbulent relationship with a hard-living friend. The short has the look of a moving graphic novel, which is how the project began. Valley did all the animation himself, and at more than 30 minutes, it is the longest nominee.

Patrick Osborne, who won an Oscar for the Disney short “Feast,” is a nominee again with his Google Spotlight Stories Pearl,” which follows a father and daughter through the years from the confines of their car. The film is told in 360 degrees, which proved a challenge.

“Making a film in 360 degrees means that you can’t be 100% sure that the audience will notice every piece of your film,” Osborne says. “You are, in a sense, giving up some of the directing duties to the audience. To counteract that, the story must be directed more like a play than a typical film.”

The technique works well to tell the nostalgic tale. “‘Pearl’ is the story of things that are passed on from generation to generation, both physical and ephemeral,” he says. “My dad gave me my first car as well as many other tangible gifts throughout my childhood, but in hindsight, the value of those gifts pale in comparison to the love of drawing that he passed to me. That made my career as an animator possible and has given me so much joy I felt compelled to make something to honor the gifts our parents give to us. That, and the fact that I could use the opportunity to make a sort of road trip folk musical. I kind of always wanted to make one of those.”

Pixar’s sweet “Piper” by Alan Barillaro is the charming tale of a young sandpiper learning to fend for himself along the ocean’s edge. While the idea for the film came from observing sandpipers running along the shore, the story was more personal for Barillaro.

“As the idea progressed, the more I discovered that what I was really trying to speak to were my own personal fears as a parent,” he says. “I hope I can be a parent that doesn’t hover over his children and can allow them to make their own mistakes in order to grow. So in the end, this was a film for my kids, while at the same time, I was attempting to confront and challenge my own faults and fears as a parent.”

Barillaro also looked to veer away from tradition by making the film dialogue-free.

“ ‘Piper’ was an attempt to prove that animation can be emotional and expressive without relying on the traditional anthropomorphizing of the characters. I wanted to say, if only in a small way, there’s always space for this type of storytelling.”

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