What the best short films lack in running time, they make up for in emotional impact and – especially in the animation category – stunning artistry. Take “The Present,” a four-minute, boy-and-his-dog vignette with a gut-punch of a finale (no, the dog doesn’t die!), or “The Missing Scarf,” a trippy, existential fable that clocks in at under seven minutes. This year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Short Film push the boundaries even further, featuring a first-ever nomination for a Virtual Reality film (“Pearl”), and Pixar at both its lightest (“Piper”) and darkest (“Borrowed Time”).
Animated shorts tend to be especially inventive and expressive, with computer generated styling ranging from expressionistic swaths of color to jaw-dropping photorealism. Indeed, 2017 nominee “Piper” stretches that uncanny valley between real and animated, while “Blind Vaysha” plays like a swirling sketchbook.
The entire lineup of Oscar-nominated shorts will hit select theaters on Feb. 10, and the 2017 Academy Awards will air on Feb. 26. In the meantime, check out my thoughts on the nominees for the Animated Shorts:
“Borrowed Time,” dirs. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj (USA, 7 minutes)
The candy-colored delights of previous Pixar films have no place in this wrenching short film by veteran Pixar animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj. “Borrowed Time” presents a bleak landscape, both literally and figuratively, as a forlorn sheriff peers out at a scene of long-ago carnage overlooking a cliff. Nostalgia-tinged flashbacks show the accident in action, but the event contains some surprises that twist the knife even further for present company.
The dialogue is sparse, but the mournful, Western-themed soundtrack and the desolate howl of the wind leave no doubt about the film’s tone. Though gorgeously rendered in Pixar’s traditionally smooth animation style, this is not a film for kids. While a longer film might explore the theme of forgiveness and end on a happier note, “Borrowed Time” cuts right to the heart of the guilt and shame that has categorized this sheriff’s life.
See the “Borrowed Time” website for more.
“Pearl,” dir. Patrick Osborne (USA, 6 minutes)
Director Patrick Osborne won a 2015 Academy Award in this category for “Feast,” the short film that aired in theaters before Big Hero 6. Like “Feast,” “Pearl” is told from an unconventional perspective – “Feast” offers camera angles from dog-height only, and “Pearl” follows a single father and his daughter through the lens of their beloved 1970s hatchback, a car they nicknamed Pearl. The two shorts also boast a similar animation style, with a Microsoft Paint-like palette that would look right at home in a video game. In fact, “Pearl” toes the line between film and interactive experience as the first Virtual Reality project to receive an Academy Awards nomination, and therein lies its groundbreaking uniqueness: viewers can physically explore every aspect of Pearl while the father-daughter story unfolds around them.
However, exciting new quirk aside, “Pearl” shines on the basis of its intimate look at the love between a father and a daughter over the years, as they share a soulful appreciation of music. That music, written by Alexis Harte & J.J. Weisler, plays throughout the entirety of the short and propels the heart of the story. By the finale, there isn’t a dry eye in house – or, well, car.
“Blind Vaysha,” dir. Theodore Ushev (Canada, 8 minutes)
To adapt this Georgi Gospodinov fable for the screen, Bulgarian animator Theodore Ushev produced between 12,000 and 13,000 drawings in the medieval style of linocut block printing. The result is a delicately detailed, sketchbook effect that blends perfectly with the solemn soundtrack by Balkan musician Kottarashky and highlights the gothic nature of the tale.
In “Blind Vaysha,” crackly-voiced narrator Caroline Dhavernas tells the story of a girl who was born with a green left eye that only sees the past and a brown right eye that only glimpses the future. Vaysha, then, is perennially a girl out of time: she sees the seeds of a cherry and a rotten cherry tree but not the cherry in front of her; she sees an immature boy and a frail old man, but not the young suitor asking for her hand in marriage. In other words: for Vaysha, the present does not exist. Indeed, as “Blind Vaysha” asks, does the present really exist for any of us? We are all, in a way, beholden to our pasts and terrified of our futures. “Blind Vaysha” is more parable than narrative, but its conception of existential angst is indeed a timeless lesson.
See the film’s Festival Scope page for more info.
“Piper,” dir. Alan Barillaro (USA, 6 minutes)
“Piper,” the Pixar short that aired before Finding Dory, is so realistic-looking that I remember spending half of its running time in the theater trying to figure out whether or not it is actually animated. For the record: it is, and flawlessly. Director Alan Barillo and his team spent the better part of three years digitally recreating three of the most notoriously difficult elements to computerize: water, sand, and feathers. The final product is mesmerizing: each grain of sand glistens, the water nearly flows right out of the screen, and the millions of salt-and-pepper feathers that make up each sanderling are crafted with meticulous care.
As a whole and as a central character, “Piper” is adorable. While the animation is an absolute wonder to behold, the story itself is pretty basic: a squeaky chick discovers and overcomes her fear of the ocean. Bubbles are popped, cute chicks are fed, and a good time is had by all.
“Piper” is available on Vimeo.
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” dir. Robert Valley (Canada and U.K., 35 minutes)
“Pear Cider and Cigarettes” is a doozy. At 35 minutes, it is by far the longest short film of the crop, but it more than justifies its extended screentime with a gripping, true tale rendered in unconventional but effective Photoshop animation. This is the first short film for director, writer, and illustrator Robert Valley (though he has worked with a similar animation style for Gorillaz music videos), and it is a masterpiece of autobiographical tragedy.
Narrated with a frank, matter-of-fact practicality, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” explains the life and death of Techno Stypes, a risk-taking, supernova of a kid whom Valley both hero-worshipped and kept at arm’s length. He describes Techno as someone who “seemed like he could always just pull it off.” Techno’s life eventually traverses the same old story – bad crowd, drinking and drugs, failed marriages, a motorcycle accident – but the personal connection and the lengths to which Valley goes in order to save his friend’s life makes it all the more impactful.
Like the other shorts in this category, visual style and musical accompaniment go a long way. In addition to original, jazzy tunes by Robert Trujillo (Metallica) and Dave Nunez (Anitek), “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” uses an impressive array of rock bands through the ages to mark the passage of time. Visually, primary colors bleed across an otherwise noir backdrop, creating the impression of a sinking sun or wet pavement on an urban night. As a Kickstarter-funded side project and the rare, R-rated animation, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” is definitely the underdog in this race. But its staggering realism and emotional honesty is not to be overlooked.
Find out more at the “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” website.