Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

Man’s best friend, guacamole, marriage, Ayn Rand and paper airplanes are just a few of the subjects tackled in this year’s lineup of Oscar-nominated animated shorts.

All these films have in common is that they’re under 40 minutes long and created through some form of animation. Otherwise, the films are wildly different in both tone and technique. Some are stop-motion films, some are hand-drawn, others computer-generated — and one is a hybrid.

As you get ready to fill out your own personal Oscar ballot, here’s a look at the funny, sweet, and serene stories facing off in the animated shorts category this year.

EW checked in with the directors of all the animated shorts to talk about the experience of making each film. We’ve included videos of the full films where available, but be sure to check out ShortsHD’s website for the Oscar-nominated shorts for information about where they’re playing in local theaters and how you can access the films on iTunes and VOD.

Adam and Dog

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Before Adam met Eve, Adam met dog.

Adam and Dog director and writer Minku Lee told EW: “The idea itself came from a National Geographic article that I read about the origin of dogs and that kind of got me thinking about the story.” But this isn’t your typical animated film. The former Disney animator wanted to create something tranquil and peaceful – a striking departure from normal American animated film, which Lee describes as “manic and very plot-y and jokey.” Instead he looked to filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick for inspiration on how to sculpt time outside of plot and, what he calls, “the ticking time effect.”

Free of dialogue, and scored mostly by the ambient sounds of nature, Lee said he turned to nature photography to help design Eden. “I dabbled around with Eden being somewhere that looks like the Alps, or Madagascar, or Africa. But I decided in the end that Eden would be all those places, and that the emotional state of the dog would inform what Eden looks like around him. When the dog was feeling more natural in his environment, I used natural light, but made the more emotional moments – like when he first meets Adam – much more stylized,” Lee said, who hand drew all the frames directly onto a computer.

To create Adam and Eve, Lee found inspiration in the text of Genesis. “God took dust from the ground and crafted Adam out of it,” Lee explained. “In a lot of traditional paintings we see Adam as this beautiful Aryan porcelain figure but I really wanted him to feel like he just popped out of the ground. In the initial visual development stages, he was muddier and dirtier. He had sticks and leaves on him at all times, but we had to simplify that for time and budget reasons.” Eve, however, was described as being constructed out of Adam’s rib bone, so Lee gave her a milky, porcelain complexion to make her Adam’s complete opposite. “Eve is a pure innocent,” Lee added.

Lee is a fan of hand drawn animation, but feels that it’s been unnecessarily constrained. He said, “I’d like to push the medium to tell different types of stories rather than confining it to more family friendly, kid friendly storytelling.” The elegant Adam and Dog does just that.

-Lindsey Bahr

The full film is on youtube for the next few days only. Click here to see if it is still available.

NEXT SHORT: Fresh Guacamole

Fresh Guacamole

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Fresh Guacamole clocks in at one minute and 45 seconds – making it the shortest film ever to receive an Oscar nomination.

“It’s a personal triumph because I’ve been making these short films for 10 years and believing that just because an idea is short doesn’t make it any less powerful than a longer film,” said director Adam Pesapane, who works under the name PES.

He traces his preference for films that are very short but inspire repeat viewings to his work in advertising. PES’ 30- to 60-second commercials for companies such as Nike and Sprint are not that much shorter than the minute to minute-and-40-seconds range that he calls his sweet spot for films.

Fresh Guacamole, which took four months to produce, is PES’ follow-up to a 2008 film called Western Spaghetti, a stop-motion short where objects like pieces of a Rubik’s Cube and a sewing pin cushion stand in for ingredients of a pasta dish. The idea for a follow-up began with the central ingredient for guacamole.

“When I walk into a food store, I see a pile of avocados and I think grenades,” PES said. “I couldn’t shake it, and I wanted to make a film around it.”

For his follow-up to Western Spaghetti, the Los Angeles-based director was determined to take the objects-as-food approach a step further. Beyond Spaghetti’s simple look-a-likes (like dice as sugar cubes), PES played with puns – an onion that looks like a baseball is diced into dice. A green Christmas light bulb stands in for a jalapeño, with the filament playing the part of the hottest part of the pepper, the seeds. The hands in Fresh Guacamole are PES’ own.

Some of the objects-as-ingredients on-screen are the real objects, like the dice and Monopoly game pieces. Others, like the grenade and the light bulb, are fabrications made by artists at SCPS Unlimited, who also made Bane’s mask in The Dark Knight Rises.

There’s no clay in the film, but PES did create the innards of the avocado with green Play-Doh – which may be why he had so many festival-goers and online commenters tell him that the short somehow makes them hungry.

“How did I make people want to eat guacamole by showing them all this plastic? I think it’s because of the Play-Doh. Don’t you always want to eat Play-Doh? Of course it tastes awful once you do, but it smells so good,” PES said.

After 10 years specializing in very short films, PES is now ready to turn his attention to feature films. He is currently developing an animated Garbage Pail Kids film, which he will direct. Also in the works is an original feature called Lost and Found, about a lost boy who finds himself in a world of misplaced objects, which PES is developing with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter writer Seth Grahame-Smith.

-Emily Rome

NEXT SHORT: Head Over Heels

Head Over Heels

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Most husbands and wives will admit they don’t always see eye-to-eye with their spouse. Married couples can’t always agree which way is up. In the stop-motion film Head Over Heels, that’s literally true: Walter lives on the floor and his wife, Madge, lives on the ceiling – or the other way around, depending of course on whom you ask.

Head Over Heels is the sole student-made film among this year’s 15 shorts contenders. Writer-director Timothy Reckart, an Arizona native, made the film for his masters thesis at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England.

“Every time I showed the film, at least one person came up to me afterward and said, ‘I want to show this to my husband’ or ‘I want to show this to my wife’ because there are days when it feels that way,” Reckart said.

Watch the trailer for the short, which recently won the Best Student Film award at the Annies, below, and watch the full film here.

Reckart’s inspiration for Head Over Heels came from a 1632 painting by Rembrandt called “The Philosopher in Meditation” that appears to depict two mirrored sets of staircases.

“It looks like there’s stairs leading up from the floor but also stairs leading down from the ceiling, and it makes you think there’s someone living on the ceiling and someone living on the floor,” Reckart said.

Those “someones” became Madge and Walter, 11-inch-tall puppets created for the film’s 1/6 scale set. Two model-making students at fellow British school the Arts University Bournemouth made the puppets with foam latex. Production designer Eléonore Cremonse created the set such that all five rooms in Walter and Madge’s house could be deconstructed, flipped over and put back together.

“Our rule of thumb was whichever character had the most complex animation should be the one on the ground because it’s just an added difficulty to animate a character upside down,” Reckart explained, “and if the shot called for the character to be upside down, then we just flipped the camera over.”

Currently based in New York, Reckart’s post-graduation projects have included a short segment using paper cutouts on multi-pane glass for a documentary based on writings by Sigmund Freud. He is also in the early stages of developing projects for TV and feature films.

— Emily Rome

Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

“Everyone has a nemesis. For Maggie Simpson it’s that one eyebrowed baby,” director and longtime Simpsons animator David Silverman told EW.

In The Longest Daycare, Maggie Simpson visits the Ayn Rand School for Tots, which any die-hard Simpsons fan will recognize from “A Streetcar Named Marge” – an episode that aired over 20 years ago. Maggie is placed among the average students in a nightmarish classroom, decorated with an army of Raggedy Ayn Rand dolls, and is horrified to see Baby Gerald (that villainous unibrowed tot) smashing butterflies against the wall for art. She then makes it her mission to save a cocoon from certain death.

When Gerald defeats her and smashes the cocoon she was trying to protect, the lights go out and you hear “Vesti La Giubba” from the opera I Pagliacci. But it didn’t start out that way. Silverman said in the first boards, they didn’t have that ending. Maggie was just sad and something didn’t feel right. Then [Simpsons producer James L. Brooks] came up with the idea that Maggie should be in anguish. “He told us she should be wailing, and we thought, well wait, she doesn’t talk, so she’d probably be clutching her heart and pantomiming. And we both said I Pagliacci simultaneously.”

Sometimes the randomness of a YouTube search can result in comedic inspiration, too. Silverman said, “when I was storyboarding it, I went online and found this recording of I Pagliacci without the singing, just with the music. I think it was like some karaoke version, though, because it had this drum beat in it. When we recorded it we wanted the drumbeat so we added the toy monkey with the drum in the background. And it turned into this funny bit. We took liberties too – I thought the lighting could change, the logic of where the kids are doesn’t matter, and Marge comes in and it’s like a mini fantasy. And nobody questions it when things change like that. You just buy it.”

When people ask Silverman about his plan or the way he animates or finds jokes, he turns to a quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: he’s making it up as he goes along.

-Lindsey Bahr

NEXT SHORT: Paperman


Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

With animation steering in an increasingly 3-D, CG direction, hand-drawn animation can start to feel like a relic, but with Paperman, Disney’s Oscar-nominated short, director John Kahrs sought to rejuvenate the older art by fusing it with the advantages of modern computer animation.

“There’s something primal and very relevant about the hand-drawn lines,” Kahrs said. “But I’m not precious about hand-drawn [animation]. I’m okay with kind of nudging it and pushing it and changing it and trying to get it to speak and communicate with viewers in a new way.”

The short is a little urban fairy tale about a man who attempts to capture the attention of the woman of his dreams with paper airplanes he launches from his skyscraper office to hers – a story Kahrs began developing about 10 years ago. After working on Tangled with Disney veteran Glen Keane, who has designed characters and done animation for such films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Kahrs began thinking about finding a way to fuse together Keane’s hand-drawn expertise with his 3-D animation experience. It was then “serendipitous,” the first-time director said, that just as Disney was looking for a project to keep animators busy between production on Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph that the technology became available to merge 2-D and 3-D animation. Paperman was created with Meander, new in-house software programmed by Brian Whited.

With Meander, 3-D animators create a digital base model that 2-D animators then draw over. (See that process in action here.) The hybrid technique gives Paperman the effect of both the depth and dimension of computer animation and the warmth of hand-drawn animation.

Paperman is a black-and-white (with the exception of a touch of scarlet), six-and-a-half-minute film, but it has already started to connect with audiences on the same level of colorful, feature-length Disney films since it began screening in front of Wreck-It Ralph in November. Kahrs was delighted to see fans cosplaying Meg and George (characters designed by Keane), the film’s couple united by paper airplanes.

“A lot of people more people than I thought really identified with that,” Kahrs said. “It’s so gratifying to see you put something out into the world, and people feel a real personal connection to it. They go, ‘That’s me!’ or they want that to be them or their hearts go out to them.”

Meander is not currently being put to use on another Disney project, but Whited is developing a new piece of software related to animating hair. Kahrs is delving into another form of hybrid animation that takes place in a “lush, colorful, organic environment,” he said. “Basically the visual opposite of Paperman.”

— Emily Rome

Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @ldbahr

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

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