Oscar Nominated Animated Films Are Not Short on Ideas

BY Saskia De Melker  February 22, 2011 at 1:35 PM EST

To appreciate the complexity and craft of animated narratives, one need not look further than the 2011 Oscar animated shorts category.

To qualify for the category, a film cannot be longer than 40 minutes. This year, four of the five Oscar nominees come in under just 15 minutes. But creating these shorts was no small undertaking. The average time spent on each of these films was two-and-a-half years.

“Animation is infinitely perfectible…the art is knowing how to stop at the right time,” says Bastien DuBois, director of “Madagascar: Carnet de Voyage.” That’s because of the thousands of details that teams of animators must construct from nothing. It’s in the short format where animators get to experiment, take chances and try out new ideas for what animation can create. That goes both for tackling humanizing narratives as well as pushing the limits of technical rendering and style.

Although visually appealing to younger audiences, the shorts are filled with motifs that go beyond kids’ stuff. For ‘Madagascar: Carnet de Voyage,’ Dubois sketched with water colors, pencils and paints during his travels to the African island and used these as his basis for making each scene seem like a living and moving painting.

‘Let’s Pollute’ takes a satirical look at humans’ relationship with the environment. Using the 1950s and ’60s style of educational films, Geefwee Boedoe hopes that viewers will both laugh and cringe with recognition of their own participation in the creation of unending waste. ‘The Lost Thing’ takes place in a surreal hyper-industrialized world where people are apathetic and can’t be bothered by any disruption to their daily routines.

‘Day & Night’ become personified as characters who can look inside themselves to a landscape of the same place at different times. Its charm is matched by a narrative about prejudice, differences and fears of the unknown. ‘The Gruffalo’ is perhaps the most children focused of the nominees, but even its fable-like structure hits on deeper themes of wits versus strength.

Teddy Newton, creator of “Day and Night,” says directing an animated film is not all that different from working on a live action film. “You’re not directing actors, but you direct artists and technicians to get those performances or the look of a set or the tone of the lighting. All those are the same kind of decision making [as in live action],” Newton says.

Now more than ever, animated and live action films are overlapping in production and spheres of recognition. For the second time, an animated film (“Toy Story 3”) is among the nominees for the best picture category. At the same time, many live action films use special effects and computer generated imagery, which raises the awareness of the process that animation requires, says Michael Rose, producer of “The Gruffalo.”

But whether or not there’s equal appreciation for animation by the film industry is another matter. Pixar animator and “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich told the New York Times in early February that the film industry “think[s] maybe we push a button on a computer and a movie pops out.”

Newton posits that one reason for that assumption might be that technology has evolved to the point where people forget about the artistry behind those technologies. “We don’t see people drawing at the drafting table anymore. They’re at a monitor, which makes people think a machine is doing it….But that doesn’t mean making an animated film today is any shorter or easier than when Pinocchio was being made in the 1940s.”