With just a few days to go until Oscars night, Hollywood is abuzz with talk about whether Argo will steal the Best Picture award from Lincoln, Les Mis or Life of Pi, and whether that might be more of a sympathy vote for Ben Affleck, who missed out on a directing nomination.
But while most of the attention is pointing towards the big guns, the Academy uses the days leading up to the event to celebrate – its word – some of the smaller categories, to ensure that some of the grass-roots film-makers get the recognition they deserve.
How often have you used the short film category as an excuse to pop off for a cup of tea during the Oscar show? This might well be because you haven’t seen the films and don’t know anyone in them, so you have no investment in the awards.
For the past few years, the Academy has tried to change that by putting together a programme of the ten nominees – five each for live action and animation – and released it in cinemas across the world – last year, more than 400,000 paid to see the programme – either in cinemas or online – leading to a box office haul of $1.7 million, which would put the shorts at number 189 in the annual box office chart.
At an Oscar-week screening and Q&A at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters, Academy governor Jon Bloom said the short form was experiencing a genuine renaissance online, with one of this year’s nominees already having received more than 13 million hits.
Introducing the films was the actor Jason Schwartzman, the star of many a Wes Anderson feature – and his short film Hotel Chevalier. “I love short films,” he beamed. “I love short stories. I love short songs,” he continued. “I love most things that are short,” added the 5’6″ actor. Welcoming an audience of more than a thousand to the Academy’s own cinema, he announced “Tonight, we’re all short.”
As is often the case, the animated category was dominated by American film-makers – even the British nominee, Head Over Heels, a graduation film from the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire, was directed by an American, Timothy Reckart. With his Irish producing partner, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, he created a stop-motion world, in which a married couple have grown apart over the years, to such an extent that she now lives on the ceiling. With enough film schools to choose from in the US, Reckart picked the NFTS because that’s where his animating hero Nick Park went. He was even wearing a bow-tie to the Q&A in honour of Park.
This self-funded graduation film faces competition from two studio backed projects. Fox studios have made a Simpsons spin-off, Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare,” in which the baby of the family tries to save a butterfly from a hammer-wielding toddler, while Disney’s offering, Paperman, is a love story about a New York office-worker, trying to attract the attention of a beautiful woman in a neighbouring building with paper aeroplanes. The first, directed by David Silverman, looked like the Simpsons, but in 3D. The second, by John Kahrs, used CGI to make a largely black-and-white film that looks pencil-drawn.
While 3D is becoming the norm for animation these days, director Minkyu Lee says working in 2D provides a more metaphysical look. He created his own version of Eden in Adam and Dog, in which man’s best friend is disappointed when Adam finds a new best friend, with rather more to offer him.
The final nominee in this category is by the film-maker calling himself – and his entire crew, it seems – Pes. In Fresh Guacamole, he animated his own hands making the condiment of the title, using grenades, and light-bulbs, among other ingredients, in an entertainingly literal reading of the recipe.
As is often the case in this competition, there wasn’t a single word of dialogue in any of the entries, but dialogue played a strong part in the live action films, the first two of which were shot in languages not spoken by their own directors.
In Asad, Bryan Buckley shot South Africa for Somalia, to tell the story of a young boy, torn between becoming a pirate like the older teenagers or a fisherman like the older generations. The film was cast entirely from Somali refugees, living an a community in South Africa where their culture was almost entirely preserved. Buckley’s next film, by contrast, is directing Reese Witherspoon in the rom-com Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In Buzkashi Boys, the son of an Afghan blacksmith and his friend, a homeless orphan, dream of playing the country’s national sport. Director Sam French has been making documentaries in Afghanistan for several years but decided to turn to narrative before returning to the US. The pair joked about their contrasting experience with trying to follow their own scripts in a foreign language – the Somalis spoke more quickly, while the Afghans took longer to say each line of dialogue.
The other live action shorts included the American Curfew, in which Shawn Christensen directs himself as a suicidal drug addict, called upon by his estranged sister to babysit her daughter for a day, in the darkest of bitter-sweet comedies. Tom Van Avermaet’s Belgian Flemish Death of a Shadow, was the most imaginative live action of the night; Rust and Bone‘s Matthias Schoenaerts stars as a murdered First World War soldier who records deaths in a pact that could see him returned to life. The last of the nominations was the heart-warming Henry, from French Canadian director Yan England. Inspired by his grandfather’s experiences, the film tells the story of an elderly pianist who can’t understand why he can’t find his wife.
Asked whether they’d return to short-film making if their Oscar recognition kick-starts a career in features, most were agreed that there are some stories that are just better told in twenty minutes. Of particular attraction to the directors was the fact that short films allow you the opportunity to experiment. “Shorts are fun to make, as there’s no pressure to make money,” noted Buckley. “It’s appealing to take a risk without risking much,” agreed French. But when what your risking is your own, rather than a studios, other problems arise. “‘You’re never allowed to do that again,’ my wife told me,” remarked Christensen. “If I do do it again,” he continued thoughtfully, “I’m sure I will – it’ll just have to be behind her back!”
Young film-makers across the world, trying to break into the business, most often find that shorts are their way in – their calling card – or at the very least their first encounter with the art. Seeing films of this calibre will have one of two effects – either inspiring them to follow in the footsteps of these film-makers of the future – or persuading them that they should just give up, as they will never approach this standard. Many directors who’ve reached this far go on to forge successful careers in features, but even after attaining such recognition, others fail to make it in this most competitive of fields.