With the charming exception of Disney-Pixar’s avian mini-adventure, “Piper,” this year’s Oscar nominees for best animated short film is a mixed bag of tales of whimsy, nostalgia, coming-of-age, tragedy, and personal loss. Whether it’s an existential crisis of a girl in “Blind Vaysha” or the unrequited affection and generosity of a friend in “Pear Cider and Cigarettes,” all nominees offer a personal vision and emotional subtlety that vary in tone, style, subject and inspiration.
The wild west in CGI
First is the American nominee, “Borrowed Time,” directed by veteran Pixar animators Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, a tale of personal loss in a western setting. “Borrowed Time” tells the story of a sheriff who returns to the scene of an accident he was in with his father, when he was a boy. Flashbacks reveal how the accident happened and offer a small slice of father-and-son bonding. The 3D CGI animation technique is a testament to the duo’s big-budget production experience, depicting meticulously designed and rendered backdrops of the old American West that even the late Sergio Leone and John Ford would be at home in. Sadly, the plot seems to have taken the back seat to the visuals.
What “Borrowed Time” lacks in plot development, “Pearl,” directed by Patrick Osborne (USA), makes up for in spades, delivering a contemporary father and daughter coming-of-age story told through flashbacks to several cross-country road-trips in a hatchback car. Osborne takes us through the girl’s childhood and adulthood, love and happiness, using a lovely montage of visual effects and upbeat, sentimental music. Osborne used Virtual Reality production techniques to create the film. Virtual Reality incorporates real-world scenes, or building CGI version of it, and a 360º camera rig to allow the actors to immerse themselves in it. In “Pearl,” the VR techniques are adequate to the task.
Following on “Pearl’s” heels is “Blind Vaysha,” directed by Canadian-Bulgarian Theodore Ushev and adapted from the short story by his friend, Georgi Gospodinov. The story, which mimics the style of a European folk tale, follows Vaysha, a girl with a green left eye that sees only the past, and a brown right eye that sees the future, leaving Vaysha blind to the present. The film not only reminds us of keeping ourselves focused on the present through its symbolic tale and beauty, but it poses the question, do we also look at the world with the same eyes as Vaysha the blind? Blind Vaysha doesn’t overload the senses with its linocut style of animation in which the director drew on a Cintiq digital pen device in the same manner he would carve a lino or woodcut, animating each color separately and invoking a sense of nostalgia for a century-old technique like the linocut block printing.
Night and day
If you think “Blind Vaysha’s” stylized animation technique is impressive, then you will love Robert Vallery’s autobiographical short, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes.” Valley is known for animation work on the “Wonder Woman” and “TRON: Uprising” television series, among others. This 32-minute film, narrated by Valley and drawn in a highly stylized, graphic novel-influenced way, details his relationship with a self-destructive, daredevil friend named Techno Stypes. Its memorable soundtrack includes everything from Pink Floyd and Wilco to Black Sabbath–an apt selection for this dark story of Techno’s alcoholism, his need for a liver transplant, and Valley’s attempt to help his friend. It is a cautionary tale for the director (as well as the audience) as the film’s message offers hope through friendship.
The comparison between Valley’s film and the final nominee, the Disney-Pixar production “Piper,” is night and day. Directed by Alan Barillaro, “Piper” tells the story of a mother sandpiper bird teaching her little one, Piper, how to find food by herself. It’s a cute film, more like a glorified trailer for a potential feature film from Disney and the Pixar factory. For all its charm, this simplistic portrayal leaves much to be desired. It has all the right ingredients for a signature Pixar short film–timing, trademark humor, brilliant visual effects (the birds’ feathers have been animated almost perfectly), and cute characters, but the film doesn’t have the same wide-eyed, child’s view of the world, nor its energy and edge that the other films in this category share.
Don’t miss this rare opportunity to go watch all five 2017 Oscar nominated short films in the animation category at the Ritz at the Bourse Cinema starting 10 February 2017.