By Emily Rome
Updated February 23, 2013 at 10:59 PM EST
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Martin Freeman starred in one of the lengthiest movies of 2012, but Friday night he was honored for his work in films with much shorter runtimes and much smaller budgets than the 169-minute-long Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. At the third annual ShortsHD Shorts Awards, Freeman picked up the Visionary Actor Award.

The English actor has continued to make short films, even after performing in high-profile projects like BBC’s Sherlock and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“I love doing [short films] for the same reason that everyone in this room really likes them – because very often it’s the time that you get to really express an idea or ideas without someone breathing down your neck or without someone arguing about how big your trailer is,” Freeman told the audience gathered at the Paley Center for Media last night. “No one’s getting rich or famous out of it, but people are actually trying to express something – and it doesn’t take 18 months like The Hobbit does.”

True, many shorts have a much leaner production period – like Buzkashi Boys, up for an Oscar this year, which was shot in 16 days – but some are shot over years to gather material for what becomes a 40-minute film, like nominees up for the documentary short Oscar, Mondays at Racine, shot over two and a half years, and Kings Point, which took 10 years to make. Those two films, along with the 13 other films nominated in the Academy’s shorts categories, were also honored at the ShortsHD event Friday.

The attention on the Oscar-nominated shorts has grown a lot in recent years, as Bill Kroyer, longtime member of the Academy’s Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, pointed out at the Beverly Hills event while introducing the animated short filmmakers. He talked about being nominated in 1989 alongside John Lasseter.

“When I was nominated 25 years ago, there was none of this…. We said, ‘Hey, we’re nominated for the Oscars! We should do something,’” Kroyer recalled of meeting his fellow nominees. “And so we did. We all went out for dinner. And we split the check.”

Now the nominated short filmmakers find themselves at the end of several weeks of pre-Oscar frenzy. They’ve made the rounds to multiple Q&A events, press interviews, and, yes, dinners – though this time paid for by the Academy, as with this past Wednesday’s gathering organized by the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch.

At that Beverly Hills dinner producer Ariel Nasr, nominated for live action film Buzkashi Boys, sat next to Disney legend Glen Keane, who worked on Paperman, the House of Mouse’s charming short in the awards race this year. Keane’s resume includes Aladdin, Pocahontas and the film that Nasr, as a child, saw as the bane of his existence: The Little Mermaid. The Afghan-Canadian filmmaker told Keane about being constantly teased about having a girl’s name – a mermaid’s name, at that! – after Little Mermaid opened when he was 11 years old.

“I told him, ‘Oh my God. You are the guy! I hate The Little Mermaid!’ But he was so nice. He was such a gentleman,” Nasr told EW at the ShortsHD event.

At that dinner, Keane told Nasr that he fought to get the gig animating Ariel – instead of the villain as had been his specialty previously – because Ariel, to Keane, was the character “who made the impossible possible.”

“And then I was thinking about that,” Nasr continued, “and I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m okay with that. That’s cool.’”

Making the impossible possible seemed to ultimately be what the Shorts Awards was celebrating. When Asad director Bryan Buckley accepted his award, he said of short filmmakers, “We’re a disturbed bunch of people who are in for pain. The whole process is f—ing pain. Distribution is, like, an impossibility.”

But he pointed out that ShortsHD made it possible for their films to reach a wider audience on the big screen. The cable channel received thanks in the acceptance speeches of many of the honorees for distributing the Oscar-nominated short films. The theatrical run, which ShortsHD organized for an eighth year in conjunction with the Academy, brought these 15 films to over 300 theaters around the country – about 100 theaters more than last year.

Redemption co-director Matthew O’Neill said he heard from someone in Grapevine, Tex. who saw all nominated shorts in theaters. Head Over Heels director Timothy Reckart raved about his experience appearing at a ShortsHD screening in his hometown, Tuscon, Ariz., where his kindergarten teacher was in attendance. Buzkashi Boys director Sam French told EW about the influx of emails he received after the theatrical run began, including messages from schoolteachers across the country asking for copies of the film to show their students.

“My email inbox has exploded,” French said. “I should probably take my email address off the [movie’s] website.”

ShortsHD also facilitated the nominated shorts’ recent release on iTunes and VOD, though ShortsHD chief executive Carter Pilcher recommends seeing them on the big screen, especially the live action line-up.

“This is probably the most cinematic year we’ve ever had [for live action nominees]. They’re short films, but they’re big. They tell big stories and they look gorgeous on the big screen,” Pilcher told EW. “We had huge, epic scenes of horseback riding in Afghanistan, and Curfew has this beautiful, weird, kind of surreal atmosphere. And the cinematography in Death of a Shadow [pictured above] is probably some of the best in any film this year.”

Information on where the shorts continue to screen in theaters can be found on ShortsHD’s website.

Other honorees at the Shorts Awards were:

• Julia Louis-Dreyfus — Visionary Actress Award for starring in short film Picture Paris

• Matthew Modine — Visionary Director Award for helming several short films (most memorably, the controversial Jesus Was a Commie)

• Joan Gratz — Visionary Animator Award for pioneering an animation technique known as clay painting

• Nik Powell — Visionary Leader Award for his work as director of the National Film and Television School in England, where Reckart made Head Over Heels for his thesis project – and the alma mater of Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park (recipient of ShortsHD’s Lifetime Achievement Award at last year’s Shorts Awards)

Additional notable attendees included Luke Matheny, who won an Oscar for his student film in 2011; Cambria Russell, one of the subjects in Mondays at Racine, about breast cancer patients’ experience losing their hair – she was all glammed out and had a head full of hair Friday night; and Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz, the two young Afghan actors in Buzkashi Boys, who traveled to the U.S. for the first time to attend the Academy Awards.

For more on the making of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films, check out EW’s posts on the animation, live action, and documentary categories. The Oscar winners will be announced Sunday during a live telecast on ABC that begins 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET.

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

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