A busy week of pre-Oscar events has kicked off in style with the makers of the ten live action and animated short film nominees screening their work and answering questions at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.
In another good year for the future of British film, each competition includes a British nominee; the animation A Morning Stroll was directed by Grant Orchard and produced by Sue Goffe, from Soho-based Studio AKA and in the live action category, The Shore was made and funded in Northern Ireland by Hotel-Rwanda-director Terry George and his daughter Oorlagh.
The annual screening and Q&A session began with Jon Bloom – one of the Academy’s governors in the short film branch – boasting that the programme of Oscar-nominated shorts is more popular than ever in its theatrical release. The event was hosted by the director Brad Bird – familiar with both animation and live action, having gone from directing the likes of The Incredibles for Pixar to bringing the most recent Mission: Impossible film to the big screen.
Introducing the nominated films, Bird criticised those who are trying to shorten the Oscar ceremony, insisting that it should be a celebration of cinema, not a TV show. “Every key part of the process should be celebrated,” he insisted. He praised the work of the short film makers, noting how hard it is to be simple and how hard it is to be brief.
The evening opened with the contenders in the animated category, which as ever, were largely comic and apart from the final film, entirely dialogue free.
The event began with the American film The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore. Overtly, it’s a romantic fable about how books bring colour to the world, but one of the co-directors, William Joyce, said the idea stemmed from two ideas – how Hurriciane Katrina sucked the colour out of New Orleans and how literature can redeem you. The computer generated images began with severe winds blowing the words off the pages of Mr Lessmore’s books and the film follows him on his quest to revitalise them.
The next film was Britain’s A Morning Stroll, which depicts three morning strolls at 50 year intervals. Director Grant Orchard says his inspiration came from a short story, purporting to be based on real facts, about someone watching a chicken going for a walk. “Who trains a chicken to go for a walk?” he wondered, prompting a film which featured simple black-and-white images as a man watches the chicken in 1959, bold colours, loud music and mobile-phone apps as the same scene is replayed in 2009 and an unexpected zombie apocalypse as the scenario is played out again in 2059. “This was not our personal world view,” he insisted. Producer Sue Goffe is hoping that they can capitalise on having the Oscar spotlight on them for this moment in time by getting some feature projects off the ground. After the government’s recent report on the state of the British film industry, she believes it’s a good time for them to be putting forward their ideas.
It’s encouraging to see that as well as the lower-budget, indepedent shorts, arguably the world’s most influential animation studio, Pixar, still takes the short form very seriously. Hardly a year goes by when it doesn’t have a film nominated in this category and this year, it’s La Luna, Enrico Casarosa’s story of three generations who visit the moon to sweep up the star dust. Making the film for Pixar and so knowing it would be seen by millions of children around the world gave him a huge sense of responsibility, he said.
The final two films were from Canada. The first was Dimanche, Patrick Doyon’s drawn take on the boring life of his dying part of Quebec, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Finally came Wild Life, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s collaboration about a prim Englishman who came up against no end of obstacles to his attempts to become a rancher in the Canadian wilderness in the early twentieth century.
The live-action films were unusually humorous, in a category which often feels somewhat downbeat. Belfast-born film-maker Terry George is no stranger to the Oscars, having previously been nominated for writing Hotel Rwanda and in The Name Of The Father. This time, his first short film The Shore, sees him back in contention. It’s co-produced by his daughter Oorlagh, who said it was based on a real-life story that he has failed to squeeze into any of his features, but works better on its own. Following a Belfast man returning to Northern Ireland after a quarter of a century, the film is a chance to talk about reconciliation, she said. It was also a film about family – both on screen and off; her aunt did the costumers and her mother made the food.
The American couple, Andrew Bowler and Gigi Causey delivered one of the most imaginatively entertaining films of the night. Time Freak follows a young scientist who develops a time machine, but gets so caught up with the little things, that he never gets around to visiting the Romans as he always dreamed of. “Regret was fun to play with,” remarked Bowler. He acknowledges that films about time travel can often get too bogged down in the science-fiction, so he set out to answer only those questions that people might actually ask.
The Arctic climes of Norway gave birth to Tuba Atlantic, a darkly comic tale of an old man who’s given six days to live, so the church sends round a young woman to help him in his final days, but the cantankerous, gull-hating gun-enthusiast is less interested in her interfering than his dream of communicating with his American-resident brother one last time. Director Hallvar Witzø says the story came from his grandfather standing on Norway’s west coast, pointing out to sea and remarking that his brother lived there. But the film is also his revenge on gulls, he jokes.
The Irish film Pentecost is reminiscent of two of last year’s nominees – the quirky Irish comedy of Michael Creagh’s The Crush and the lightly-barbed satire of the role of Catholicism in Irish society from Tanel Toom’s The Confession. Pentecost examines how a young boy is pulled apart by his passion for football and everyone else’s wishes that he devotes his time to being an altar boy instead. Produce Eimear O’Kane says the film stemmed from the idea of the priest psyching up the altar boys before a big service in the same way that a football manager would his players before a big match.
The final film of the night was a German drama about a couple who fly to India to adopt an orphan, but are torn apart when they uncover a scandal. Raju’s director Max Zähle was one of many nominees to opt for film over digital, for this – his graduation film. Shooting in Kolkata, miles from any technical support, he was confident that his own team could fix a mechanical problem more easily than an electrical, but he was also clear that the grainy look of film was better for the conjuring up the dramatic atmosphere.
Without the Hollywood politics seen in the contests for the major Oscars, these categories are judged purely on the quality of the film-making. No-one can vote for their friends or their favourite stars as most of the nominees are newcomers with few contacts. This makes the races even more difficult to call in a year of such uniformly high quality. In the animation race, it would be nice to think the British entry will win. It was certainly among the most entertaining and original, but America’s recollection of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina could give the Flying Books an emotional edge. In the live action category, the most commercially viable was Time Freak, but – last year excepted – the Academy usually opts for something with a little more depth, which could favour Tuba Atlantic or Raju, but the Irish films were also highly accomplished and entertaining.
Even a nomination can be a boost to the career of an up-and-coming film-maker, but there’s no doubting that whoever collect those little gold men on Sunday will see their lives change. Last year’s live action winner, Luke Matheny, has just been signed to direct his first feature film. Was it because of his Oscar, I wondered. “It didn’t hurt,” he laughed.
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