Meet the Animated Oscar Shorts Nominees

On the eve of the Academy Awards on Sunday, here are my exclusive interviews with Minkyu Lee (Adam and Dog), PES (Fresh Guacamole), Tim Reckart (Head over Heels), David Silverman (Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Daycare), and John Kahrs (Paperman).  View a few of the shorts below.

Minkyu Lee (Adam and Dog)

How did you come up with the idea of a dog befriending Adam?

Minkyu Lee: I first wrote the story while at CalArts in 2009, and was inspired by an article in National Geographic about the origin of dogs.  Scientists believe that dogs are a subspecies of wolves containing a more docile, gentle nature. I remember thinking that this phenomenon must’ve happened all over the world and that it was a beautiful idea that it was written in their genetic code to be close to humans.

Why did you pursue it independently at Disney?

ML: I wanted to pursue a more alternative narrative style than we are familiar with in American animation. I like a different kind of pacing in the description of the moment, more observational than plot driven. This is just me, but I believe more recent American animation can feel very eager to please the audience at all times, very much trying to keep the interest rate at its highest at all times, which sometimes results in snappy, ADD cutting.

Your hand-drawn style is very different, more observational. What are some of your influences?

ML: Tartakovsky, Malick, Godard, Sophia Coppola.

What about in terms of animation?

ML: The Russian animator Yuri Norstein, who made Hedgehog in the Fog. It carries an innocent wonder and the mysteriousness of nature. For me, what I respond to in older animation and I wish we had more of with contemporary animation is an intimate, performance-driven portrayal of characters. In the films that I like so much, time is spent just letting the characters be. And I wanted it to be a character study of a dog. When I gave it to the animators, I let them just freely perform and not be restrained by the timing of the animatic.

What was the biggest challenge?

ML: In terms of practicality, I acted as my own producer and production manager, which was a real eye-opener. One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that it is very, very hard for directors to be producers. There’s a really good reason why the roles are taken by other people. I didn’t even make a budget and have spent around $25,000. All the animators were volunteers — friends from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks — but it was hard to enforce deadlines. So much was in flux while I was working on Wreck-It Ralph. When that was done, I was able to take four months off to complete it.

PES (Fresh Guacamole)

Where does your preoccupation with food come from?

PES: I come from an Italian family and my mother’s a cook so I’ve always grown up around cooking and food and prep. And I had this idea that I would substitute inanimate objects for ingredients for a food dish based on their similarities, how they looked and sometimes other associations.

And what was the inspiration for Fresh Guacamole?

PES: I always had a fantasy of an avocado as a hand-grenade that I could use to blow up the produce department of a food store.

So from there one detail followed another?

PES: Yes, there are a lot of visual puns with dicing (using actual dice) and a baseball and golf ball and light bulbs…

And in the interest of brevity, it’s really the shortest short in Oscar history?

PES: That’s what they tell us.

Tim Reckart (Head over Heels)

What inspired this idea literally of an upside down marriage?

Tim Reckart: It was inspired by the Rembrandt painting, Philosopher in Meditation, which has a spiral staircase that’s symmetrical and it looks like someone on the ceiling could use the underside of the stairs to climb down toward the floor. Oh, look, you could have two people, one living on the ceiling, one living on the floor, using the same staircase. The genesis of that image led to two people living in the same house.

And from there, I glommed onto the idea about the political disagreement in the U.S. getting more angry and hostile and used that as a metaphor with this marriage. I really think we should push for understanding in our disagreements instead of demonizing. So you have two people that see the world differently and they have to find a way to live together. And there was the more direct image of the marriage getting stale for couples without a constant effort. It takes effort to make these things work. I’m not married, but I grew up around some strong marriages, particularly my grandparents. And my grandmother has been in a wheelchair since the ’50s and that was very inspiring how their marriage continued strong during rough times.

So it was a school project at the NFTS?

TR: Yes, I wanted to do stop-motion and that’s where Nick Park started making A Grand Day Out before finishing it at Aardman. I actually did two internships there, the second time I worked on The Pirates! Band of Misfits doing about 300 eyebrows. I’ve become an eyebrow expert. People have even remarked how expressive the eyebrows are on Head over Heels.

What a great training ground. What was most helpful?

TR: Ian Whitlock, one of the key animators, showed me over lunch how to animate snap. He explained how Nick animated snap on The Wrong Trousers when a cork pops. I was able to use that principle on Head over Heels.

David Silverman (Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Daycare)

Why a short after all these years?

David Silverman: Jim just wanted another way to experiment with the characters. We started spit balling and thought it made the best sense to center it around Maggie as a standalone without any of the adults. It was an interesting setting to isolate Maggie and we started thinking about the old Feed the Kitty (1952) cartoon by Chuck Jones or Tom and Jerry in general. All from her point of view.

And how did the 3-D come about?

DS: Experiments had been made in 3-D with After Effects but subdividing the levels of the animation that had already existed. It showed what was possible if you designed it for 3-D, which is what we did.

What was the hardest shot?

DS: The opening drop-off in three sections with it receding in and folding out was challenging. There had to be a reset.

And in terms of storytelling?

DS: We wanted to show the separation between the genius class and the dumb class and that had a daunting feel at first. But then one of the artists thought of this pull-out part that we developed where you keep revealing more and more, which is a nice three-dimensional effect as well.

And what about Baby Gerald smashing the butterflies and framing them?

DS: That was very Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin-like in its absurd idea of tough guys doing tough things. That was in the first version. But what was added later was Maggie’s Pagliacci moment. Jim said that Maggie should be wailing and I reminded him that she doesn’t talk; then I said she should be pantomiming like Pagliacci, and so I went and found a Karaoke version on iTunes.

I love the pop-up book.

DS: Our initial story had a bigger fantasy component within the pop-up book but that became too complicated, even though it was cool to play with flat pieces of animation in 3-D.

John Kahrs (Paperman)

Where did the idea originate?

John Kahrs: The idea goes back to when I lived in New York City and the idea of people randomly connecting, maybe even romantically, just for an instant. What would that story be if try to find each other again? Coincidences and fate, I guess, and how the fates would reward somebody that tried to reconnect with somebody that they thought was meant for them.

Was this based on an incident?

JK: No, it’s more of a general thing. When you’re in New York, it can be a tough city and people have their guard up, but every once in a while, you’ll make eye contact with strangers and you can feel there’s a brief connection and then you lose it. And when I was living, I felt surrounded by people but very lonely because it’s a pretty intimidating city. So the main character in Paperman is very much modeled on that kind of guy that’s starting out on his first job and is probably in his mid-twenties and is expecting to be happier than he and he’s not exactly sure why. That’s just the background on who I assume the character was.

So what if this guy saw this girl again and wanted to reconnect from one skyscraper to another. And that was more of a visual idea that was driving the central part of the story. But, really, over the years it emerged as something bigger, almost like a three-act feature film compressed to six minutes.

When and how did you first pitch this?

JK: I pitched it over 10 years ago to John Lasseter and he really liked the idea of a story that took place in these canyon-like spaces among the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the idea that it would be black and white and have a bold sense of light and shadow. And those are all those things we pushed really hard for once we finally went into production. But there were really small thumbnail drawings. Just on that alone, he was really into it and he was always into.

But it clicked during a short window between Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph when Disney began exploring more with the draw overs that Glen Keane did on Tangled. The notion of making computer animation more artist friendly and merging it with hand-drawn. He edited a rough cut.

What was the result?

JK: We saw how 2D animators and 3D animators could influence each other’s work. And we were looking for a project that would push that further into a new realm. Obviously we didn’t know when he said let’s make John’s project how far it would push it. So all of these conversations were going on around the studio and Paperman became the melting point of a lot of those ideas.

What was the turning point for you?

JK: For me, in particular, watching Glen crawling all over those Tangled drawings and he doesn’t concern himself with the technological headaches of changing the profile of an arm or a neck or a shoulder. He just draws it and there’s a directness there that those 2D guys really enjoy. When I was on Tangled it just seemed a shame that we had to leave those drawings behind because they were so charming. And when I was starting Paperman again, I didn’t want to leave those drawings behind either. And I thought about a way for the drawings to track along the foundation layer of CG. That was my original notion. I wanted to see that expressive line back up front on the screen. And I thought there was a new way we could do this and there was. But it came about technologically in a way I wasn’t expecting, by people who are smarter than me. Eric Daniels was trying to figure it out and Brian Whited, whose expertise is in digital in-betweening of drawings, developed a vector-based drawing tool called Meander. And Meander and Paperman merged and we hijacked it to complete the project, and if we didn’t have that, we still wouldn’t be done.

Tell me more about Meander.

JK: It’s a time-based tool where you draw on a Cintiq but the difference is that it’s so fast and responsive and expressive, and the texture and the power of being able to manipulate the lines after you’ve drawn them is nothing like I’ve seen before, and Brian’s instincts about how to empower an artist with a really simple, clear interface. I was after two things: We should totally confuse the audience and they should be totally accepting of it at the same time. When watching, it’s really difficult to tell if it’s 2D or 3D. But it’s an easy to watch technique. The best of 2D is the expressive line; and there’s a lot of appeal and charm in the drawings. And the best of 3D is it’s so stable and dimensional and it doesn’t crawl and boil. Getting all those crawling and boiling issues figured out…the devil’s in the detail because all of those little details are part of what make the final product look effortless.

You’ve been testing the technique with color for a possible feature. How’s that been going?

JK: I’m trying to do something really ambitious: I’m trying to pin down the story so it’s just as compelling as it was in Paperman.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Clips, Movies, Oscar, Shorts, stop-motion, Tech, Uncategorized

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