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Oscar Animated Shorts Long on Artistry

Oscar’s animated shorts category typically showcases both studio and indie projects created with a variety of techniques. This year’s nominees reflect that diversity — to the point where they may present apples vs. oranges choices for Academy voters.

Dear Basketball 
Directed by Glen Keane
Dear Basketball” has arguably brought more attention to the Academy’s animated shorts category this year by virtue of its stellar pedigree alone. Written and narrated by basketball superstar Kobe Bryant as his farewell to the game, the 2D-animated film was directed by the legendary Disney animator Glen Keane, and boasts an orchestral score by the multi-Oscar-winning composer John Williams. While Keane has created unforgettable characters for “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast,” this represents the first Oscar nomination for him personally. “Dear Basketball” is also the first time Williams has scored a short film in his long career — and he took a break from scoring “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” to do it.

Only a dozen artists crafted the five-minute film at Glen Keane Prods. in L.A. “You need a very small team to do something specific stylistically,” Keane says. “I’ve always thought of animation as sculptural drawing, and this film was a chance for me to stretch as a fine artist.”

Unlike animating the fictional characters of his Disney career, Keane’s team faced the challenge of capturing the signature moves of a recognizable athlete. “I’m constantly keying into rhythm, so when I’m drawing sports I’m looking for rhythms,” he says.

While studying footage from Bryant’s long career, Keane could see how the athlete used the rhythm of his movements to misdirect his opponents. “We found wonderful illusions in the way Kobe used gravity-defying moves. Making ‘Dear Basketball’ was like animating a magician.”

Garden Party 
Directed by Victor Caire, Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Théophile Dufrense, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro
Garden Party” is also a sophisticated 3D-CG short, but it comes from a strikingly different source: six students from MoPA, a school that’s continuing the prize-winning tradition of France’s Supinfocom in Arles. It’s a Buster Keaton-meets-Alfred Hitchcock aesthetic — with photoreal animated frogs in starring roles.It’s a melange that has a quirkiness that only a gaggle of close college friends could conjure. “Everyone was involved in the script and ‘croaking’ with each other,” says Victor Caire, who co-created the film with Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Théophile Dufrense, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro. “There was an advantage to working together in one little room. Information travelled very fast, without the need for a huge pipeline. We were generalists. We didn’t like the concept of ‘one director’ for a student film.”

The ambitious scope of “Garden Party” required the students to come up with tricks to visualize the opulent mansion where the tale unfolds. “We crafted a 3D scanner in our garage, and learned how to use powerful software,” Caire says. “We kept a lot of the environments in the film blurry so we could focus on smaller areas of details.”

Their efforts took about 10 months, and following graduation they formed a collective called Illogic to create professional CG going forward. Caire admits they’re amazed that “Garden Party” is the only student film among this year’s nominees. “There’s no word to describe our feelings about being Oscar nominees. We were still at school one year ago, so that’s just crazy!”

Lou 
Directed by Dave Mullins
Lou,” from perennially nominated Pixar, is a showcase for innovative techniques in 3D-CG animation. Written and directed by longtime animator Dave Mullins (“Finding Nemo,” “Up,” “The Incredibles”) and produced by Dana Murray (“Inside Out,” “Brave”), this short features a shape-shifting character that teaches manners to a schoolyard bully. “Lou is made of 26 different pieces, including a hoodie and lots of cloth,” says Mullins. “Lou looked like a total pain in the ass. We wanted to do it because it was hard.” Advances in cloth simulation were vital to pulling this off. “Some of the things in ‘Coco’ were used early on for ‘Lou.’ ”

While new techniques are often hallmarks of Pixar shorts, Murray says they tapped into Pixar’s extensive character archives whenever possible. “The kids were ‘re-used’ from ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Finding Dory.’ With short films we’re constantly looking to see where we can save, although something from five years ago is already ancient.”

The 130 shots in “Lou” represented a hefty tally for a short film, and 18 months of work had to stop and start to accommodate the studio’s feature film schedule. “Lou” was Mullins’ debut as a director, and Murray’s as a producer, and they gave others their first shots in leadership roles, as well.

“The benefit of short films is that you can do that,” says Murray. “It’s like making an independent film within a studio.”

Mullins agrees, laughing, “Everybody links elbows and jumps off the cliff together!”

Negative Space 
Directed by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata
Negative Space” couldn’t look more different from its fellow nominees, with its rigid stop-motion puppets capturing the awkwardness between a father and son. This indie art film was made by the award-winning duo Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata , previously known for “Perfect Houseguest” and “Between Times.”

“Negative Space” was inspired by a Ron Koertge poem that chronicles a boy’s poignant efforts to please his dad by perfectly packing the traveling businessman’s suitcase. In a fitting irony, Porter and Kuwahata had to pack up and move more than once to make “Negative Space.” They’re based in Baltimore, but found funding in France through a production residency at Ciclic Animation.

“They believe in art films, and let us make the film we wanted,” Kuwahata says. Support from France’s Ikki Films and co-producer Manuel Cam Studio also enabled Porter and Kawahata to complete the 9-month-long production.

It was painstaking work to craft and animate each item of clothing depicted in “Negative Space.” “We didn’t use any man-made objects,” Kawahata says. “It was all natural material and we hand-painted every single color.” It’s part of the film’s appeal that the hands of the artists are visible throughout.

As Porter puts it: “This is a very human story. Stop motion was a perfect technique because you can see the human beings behind the process. People are so removed with devices and social media that they’re craving something that feels more tactile. Maybe that’s why stop motion is going through a renaissance today.”

Revolting Rhymes 
Directed by Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer
Revolting Rhymes” takes 3D-CG-animation into yet another territory. This adaptation of the Roald Dahl book, which was broadcast on the BBC, uses a stylized approach that moves puppet-like characters within painted stage sets. According to Jakob Schuh, who co-directed with Jan Lachauer, the inspiration came from both the book’s illustrations by Quentin Blake, and from a visit to a museum that displayed century-old puppet stages.

“We thought it would be a good look to have painted sets and follow a ‘stage logic’ like you would have in the theater — where there’s usually not a fourth wall.” Schuh and Lachaeur are directors at Germany’s Magic Light Pictures, the studio behind the Oscar-nominated animated shorts “The Gruffalo” (2011) and “Room on the Broom” (2012).

Over a 16-month production span, the directors collaborated with colleagues at Magic Light in Berlin and a team of animators at Triggerfish Studios in Cape Town, South Africa.

“We had German directors, British producers and a South African crew,” says Schuh.

The result is an ingenious mash-up of Dahl’s skewed takes on Snow White, Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs.

“We had so much text, with beautiful rhymes,” says Lachauer. “We took some liberties, but didn’t add any text.”
While Dahl wrote unconnected stories, Schuh and Lachauer wove the tales together, presenting Snow White and Red Riding Hood as best friends. “Technically it was difficult,” says Schuh. “But Dahl gave us strong female characters dealing with hardship. When we read the book, we knew how to do it.”

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