How Oscar-nominated animated shorts delve into the pandemic psyche

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Angie Perrin

“If Anything Happens I Love You” is a Netflix production about a couple grappling with grief. Some critics say it’s among the favorites to win. Photo by Netflix.

This year’s Oscars are set to take place on April 25. Several nominees for animated shorts are more daring in subject matter and technique — as opposed to feature length animations. Only one — by Pixar — qualifies as “kid friendly.” The others explore topics ranging from mental health to the death of a child. KCRW goes over the nominees with Jude Dry, associate editor at IndieWire.

KCRW: Overall, what's the general theme of these shorts?

Jude Dry: “If you look across the categories, I found them all actually relevant to the pandemic. I thought they dealt with themes of isolation, grief, everyday lives. So I found a sort of uniting theme, just that they were all pretty relevant to what we've all been going through over the last year.”

“Burrow” - Pixar 

“This is an adorable little short. If the other ones are sort of hard to get through, this one just breezes right by. You could show this to your kids. It's about this little rabbit who has dreams of making a home with a disco ball in the bathroom. They start digging away. And they find other people's burrows. 

They interrupt their neighbors, and they keep digging because they don't want to have a roommate or accept any help. And eventually, they sort of bust a hole in the whole network. And they have to discover that resources are limited and must be shared amongst the community. I thought it was really adorable. I found it to be sort of an allegory for communal living and taking care of each other.

The filmmaker is very young, I think she's under 27 at least. And she told me in an interview that she wrote this about her first years at Pixar. Very impressive. She was the animation supervisor on one of the Frida Kahlo segments in “Coco.” So clearly very talented. But she said when she arrived at Pixar, she was working these late nights and wanted to impress everyone and prove that she belonged there. So for her, it's about not wanting to accept help when you feel a little out of your depth.”

Especially working on an animated movie. There are so many people who work on that.

 “Right. And it seems like Pixar, as hard as they all work, [are] very supportive of each other. And I should mention that this comes through this Spark Shorts program, which is this unique Pixar program that’s meant to foster their more up and coming animators, maybe people from other departments who wouldn't necessarily get to direct.

It's kind of their own little indie studio within Pixar, lower budget, and they sort of just let people form their own teams and work on things that Pixar might not otherwise put the full weight of its arm behind. ... It's a really interesting model that not a lot of big studios like Pixar are using.”

“Genius Loci”

“I think it's the most abstract, experimental film of the group. So it's up for anyone's interpretation. I saw it as being about mental illness, and sort of the different avenues of the mind where that can take someone. It's about a young Black woman. Another woman asks her to watch a baby. And suddenly, we're kind of transported to inside her mind.

At one point, she says, ‘Don't take this memory from me.’ So it seems to be about memory and sort of refraction, and the ways that our mind kind of plays tricks on us. But I just visually found this so beautiful. It's almost in like a watercolor 2D animation. Every frame, I thought, could have been an abstract painting.

The figures are really beautiful. They've got these big sort of diamond-like eyes and gorgeous color, kind of deep reds. It was sort of the most transporting film of the bunch. I found myself just immersed in the world of this film. It's kind of subjective, what it's about, but I read it as being about mental illness.”

“If Anything Happens I Love You” - Netflix

“This is the front runner, in my mind. Just because it's so heartbreaking. It's really well done. It's black and white, or gray, technically. It's by Will McCormack and Michael Govier. They're long time animators and directors. And it's about the death of a child. You learn towards the end it was due to a school shooting. 

But it opens with these two parents sitting across a dining room table. And you see these black figures hovering above them. And the filmmakers told me that that, of course, is meant to represent their grief. You see the two real parents kind of just sitting silently, where you see their grief shadows kind of yelling at each other and crying. And you see how these figures are expressing everything that these people can't say.

But what I really love is that, though it's gray and black and white, they really employ color in very specific ways. So the mother finds the daughter's T-shirt in the dryer, and that's the first color we see. It's blue. And you see her little her grief shadow light up at the smell of it. To me, the most powerful use of color comes at the end when you hear the shots fired over this elementary school and you just see this bright red, white, and blue of the American flag. And I just thought that was really powerful.”

“Opera”

“This is really another sort of gut-punch of a film. It's very abstract, it opens with a ball dropping. I could only think of the Plinko game from ‘The Price Is Right.’ Or almost like one of those ball games where the ball kind of falls down and you don't know where it's going. But it's meant to symbolize these two sides in the balance.

And you see all these figures toiling away, working. You see them bowing to all these tiny little faceless figures, just sort of going about the daily rituals of life. This almost could be a video installation in a museum. You could just sit and stare at it for so long. There's so much going on in each inch of the frame.

And then, of course, as it gets down to the bottom, it ends in this war between the two sides, and the little figures fight each other to the death. And then the ball goes up to the top and it all happens all over again. And the film actually is designed to be played on a loop, so it would lend itself very well to a museum. But I really liked it. It's really not a narrative film at all. It's pretty daring for the category, to be honest.”

“Yes-People”  

“This was produced by The New Yorker, by this Norwegian production company. It takes place in this one apartment building. And these funny figures, they look a lot sort of like Aardman figures, which is a very famous animation house. Just sort of round, rotund, bulbous noses, and tiny eyes and mouths. And they just grunt.

When I was watching it, actually, I couldn't get the subtitles off. And it just says, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.’ But really, it just sounds like grunts. So it opens with this old couple, and this guy turns up the radio, and then you go down to this single mom and her teenage son, and she's singing along to the song from the upstairs neighbor’s radio. Then there's another couple, where the wife is just kind of at home, drinking her booze in her coffee, and the husband leaves to go to work. And then it comes back around to the old couple, who eventually start having sex very loudly, and then the whole building has to hear it. So I really connected to it, as we've all been sitting in our houses for a year, right on top of each other. Really just kind of a slice of life. Amusing, funny, charming.”

What's so great about these is that you can pack so much into an animated short that perhaps, in different media, take a longer time to explain. And the fact that most of them don't have dialogue, and so it is a completely visual medium.

“Yeah, coming from a cinematic lens, an animator just has to draw the frame exactly how he wants to frame it. They don't have to think, ‘Oh, can we get this shot?’ or ‘That's a dolly shot.’ So I'm always fascinated with how they choose the point of view or the framing, because really, they could draw anything they want. So it's really interesting to see what they come up with and how they choose to frame the figures.

I also just think it's really wonderful every year what the Oscars do. I think most people don't engage with short films year round, so it's kind of the one time of year some people buy a ticket to see all the shorts. As a film person, I really love the idea of people watching shorts who never watched them before. In the U.S., we tend to not to not appreciate shorts in the way they maybe do in Europe and Asia, because it really is a kind of perfect distillation of the cinematic form.

A short film has to do in 10 to 20 minutes what a feature gets much longer to do, and there's less pressure to have a narrative arc. But in some ways you have to really justify every frame of that film, to get to some sort of moment of conclusion or a moment of catharsis. To me, the original film is a short film, and it's great for me to see people having to engage with shorts every Oscar season.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Jude Dry - associate editor at IndieWire