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Animated Shorts Pack Big Punch in Oscar Race

It’s hard not to notice shared themes in this year’s animated short film nominees: the emotional lives of women, life in Toronto, difficult family relations, and two films featuring parents who literally eat their children.

Big visuals have swayed voters’ favor, often — though not always — to the benefit of studio-backed shorts including “Bao.” But don’t be surprised if voters follow the Annies’ lead and go with the dreamlike “Weekends” or with previous winners Alison Snowden and David Fine for the comic “Animal Behaviour.”

Animal Behaviour

Snowden and Fine’s 1995 Oscar-winning “Bob’s Birthday” steered the husband-and-wife duo from shorts to a long stint in TV. When an offer from NFB producer Michael Fukushima opened the door to a return, they bit. “We kind of missed it,” Fine says.

The media’s endless capacity for judgment inspired “Animal Behaviour’s” therapy group for creatures with species-specific issues: an overeating pig, a praying mantis lonely because she eats her mates, a canine therapist with a thing for sticks, etc.

It all hinges on Victor, an ape with anger-management issues who’s a reluctant and skeptical group member; he nonetheless gets the most out of the hilariously chaotic session.

Snowden and Fine adapted the hand-drawn process used on previous shorts to digital, using TV Paint to animate it. ”We thought it would be more efficient, and it wasn’t — it took longer,” he says.

“That’s because you can do more,” Snowden adds.

Bao

Writer and director Domee Shi says the film’s defining moment of the frustrated mom gobbling up her dumpling “son” stemmed from her own upbringing. “I’m an only child, and I always just kind of felt like an overprotected little dumpling,” says Shi, a Pixar storyboard artist raised in Toronto by Chinese immigrant parents.

Visuals drew on Shi’s initial sketches of the mother and dumpling, developing it with hints of anime, miniatures and Chinese folk art. Reds and golds symbolic of good luck in Chinese culture emphasized happier moments, while light and shadow separated characters in conflict.

The friction between mom and the dumpling — a metaphor the mom uses to process her relationship with her real-life son — is a common one in immigrant families. “The parents want you to remember where you come from, and to fit in, too,” says Shi, now developing a feature at Pixar.

Late Afternoon

Louise Bagnall’s interest in the lives of her grandmothers sparked the idea for “Late Afternoon.” “I didn’t understand as a child that, of course, they had full lives and were young once and had all sorts of adventures that I didn’t really know about,” she says.

Sketchbook drawings evolved into a story that veered from the strictly personal to portray dementia from inside the illness. Screen Ireland funded Bagnall’s script and she began production with her Cartoon Saloon colleagues in Kilkenny. “We had about 10 months to make it.” Studio favorite Fionnula Flanagan voiced Emily, whose mind the film elegantly flits in and out of through its nine-minute run.

“It became a more emotional film,” Bagnall says of the process. People have a real desire to reach out and talk to her about their own experiences with dementia after seeing the film. “I was amazed people were willing to talk to me — essentially a stranger.”

One Small Step

Rarely does a studio’s debut project exemplify its origins as well as Taiko Studios’ “One Small Step,” in which a girl aspires to travel to the moon and is aided in every way possible by her cobbler father.

Shaofu Zhang conceived of Taiko as a global studio with a domestic footprint in China and pitched it to colleagues Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas. “One Small Step” was their way to pay tribute to those who had helped them realize their dreams of working at Disney and again in striking out on their own.

Most of the work was done in Wuhan, home base to 18 of the project’s 25 animators. Taiko also had to adjust to no longer having Disney-level resources. “When you’re a smaller and scrappier studio, I think you find more creative ways to get around creative problems,” Pontillas says.

Weekends

“Weekends” began as sketch of a kid walking from his mom’s house to his dad’s car that Trevor Jimenez pulled from memories of shuttling between his divorced parents in the 1980s and posted in his online animation portfolio about 10 years ago.

“A lot of friends responded to that in a surprising way, and people commented and shared their stories of their divorced families,” he says. Developing it into a short was obvious, but Jimenez needed time to sort through his emotions to find an honest approach that worked.

Taking time off from storyboarding at Pixar, Jimenez did the bulk of the animation himself, recruiting friends to pitch in when needed. He credits art director Chris Sasaki for finding an appealing look that incorporates Jimenez’s rougher style of art.

Jimenez says the success of “Weekends” has made him a more confident artist and filmmaker. “I would like to do my own thing again in the future,” he says.

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