Published on: 25th February, 2017
Perry’s Previews Movie Review: 2017 Oscar-nominated Animation Shorts and Director Interviews
By Perry S. Chen
February 25, 2017
2017’s animated shorts Oscar candidates are a mixed bag as usual. Though this year’s nominees did not boast a traditional or mixed media animated piece, the batch of animated shorts are absolutely diverse in themes and style. Each bears its own stylistic distinctions through visuals and pacing, while ultimately finding unity in its emphasis on emotion, be it in the haunting regret of a past mistake, or the boundless joy in a new discovery.
A gritty eulogy told from the perspective of director Robert Valley himself, Pear Cider and Cigarettes is an account of his experiences with his best childhood friend Techno Stypes, a brazen and reckless spirit. This is a film absolutely not appropriate for kids, as commented by producer Cara Speller at the 2017 Annie Awards. When Techno’s self-destructive lifestyle eventually results in the deterioration of his liver, the duo head for China in a desperate attempt to procure the transplant required for his survival. Along the way, Valley is given two tasks: get his friend to stop drinking, and get him home safely; both would prove to be far easier said than done- as trouble seems to follow Techno wherever he goes. In our interview, he reflected that his own strength “isn’t in living in the moment as Techno did, but recording the events afterwards [in drawings.].” Pear Cider and Cigarettes boasts unquestionably striking imagery, sharp contrasts between brooding colors and the bold line work accenting them. The art was done entirely on Photoshop and successfully funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
Pear Cider and Cigarettes by Robert Valley
Yet, it seems that Valley has no concept of “short and sweet,” given that the film already seems tedious and drawn-out well before the halfway mark. Its 34 minute runtime is owed to an abundance of insignificant tangents, which serve to pad the run time but offer little in terms of plot progression. The final product feels like a lengthy compilation of anecdotes, which, albeit visually stunning, is still unfortunately lacking in an overall sense of continuity. Furthermore, the film’s auditory aspects do a downright disservice to the animation’s merit. The narrator’s monotone droning barely ever shifts in accordance with the mood; he effectively saps any emotion from his content, even in the key scenes meant to convey intense feelings of tragedy or relief. The music proves to be nearly as vapid and generic as the voice-over. Perhaps the only time I could properly feel a fraction of the protagonist’s frustration was when I realized I would have to sit through the entire tedious length. An expressive professional voice actor could have narrated the story in a more lively fashion. Techno may have brought home a new liver, but Valley won’t be bringing home the gold.
Blind Vaysha was directed in by Bulgarian immigrant Theodore Ushev working at Canada’s National Film Board, is the first Bulgarian to be nominated for an Oscar. He drew inspiration from a contemporary story by his friend and fellow countryman. The film’s visual style evokes imagery reminiscent of 13th century woodcuts, with hints of German Expressionist influence- both of which Ushev described to be his main stylistic inspirations during our interview. These elements tie well with the premise of the story- in which the girl Vaysha bears a left eye that sees only the past, and a right that sees only the future, but is consequently blinded to the present. The world through Vaysha’s eyes is portrayed through a diptych that serves to starkly contrast wistful recollections of the past to dreary omens of the future. Ushev hopes to illustrate how “many people are nostalgic to the past and afraid of the future, yet stay paralyzed and unable to act in the present.”
Near the end of the film, I would have much preferred if the narrator had kept her descriptions concise, instead of watering down the theme’s power with extraneous explanation. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ especially in regards to a medium as utterly expressive as animation. I highly doubt the Academy will turn a blind eye to such a prominent flaw.
This year marks the first nomination in Academy history for a 360-degree virtual reality animation short. Pearl is director Patrick Osborne’s second nomination after winning Feast in 2014, using the Google Spotlight’s VR platform. According to the producer David Elsenmann, Pearl launched on multiple different platforms. “We premiered at Tribeca in 2-D form. Simultaneously debuted in VR form. And YouTube, theatrical, and film festivals. We watched it spread at 15 festivals.” 2017 marks a milestone for virtual reality, a medium of animation which, given the steady progress of technology’s artistic applications, will inevitably become a growing presence in the coming years. Production designer Tuna Bora describes their goal for VR filmmaking as “a cross between artistry and technology.” Artistry does indeed play a major role in the film’s appeal, most notably in the charming expressiveness of the story. The entire narrative is shown from the car’s perspective, offering a window into the lives of a single father supporting his daughter as the years go by. From simple joys of childhood to the coming of age, the film’s score not only strums on guitar strings, but the heartstrings as well. Upon viewing, Pearl evidently proves to be relatable across generations of American audiences. “Everyone has a car in this country,” Osborne stated, “[There] is an emotional connection we have with that automobile, […] You attach emotional weight to your automobile, and you live life in it. That’s why people relate to the story.”
The visual department is commendable, and does a fine job with overall character design and movements. However, one scene near the end felt particularly jarring in its utter lack of detail when compared to the rest of the film; it depicted an overhead view of the car driving through a low-poly forest, in which the leaves were no more than two-dimensional sheets of flat color, and the shadows were amorphous cutouts of gray on the road. The technology to make more detailed leaves clearly exists, but one could potentially argue that the simplicity was owed to lack of budget. This same argument can not be said of the rear-view mirror, which was completely floating in midair for the duration of the film, unattached to the windshield. This offers no stylistic benefit, and appears to be a lack of attention to detail. This year, I find it unlikely that Pearl will be driving home with the Oscar.
Borrowed Time focuses on a gaunt, weathered sheriff, as he recounts a haunting memory of a fateful accident in his youth, and struggles to come to terms with the old wounds reopened by memory. Co-directors Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj both have a wealth of experience as Pixar animators who have both worked in major animated films, but they hope “Borrowed Time” can serve a different purpose. Coats revealed that they both felt some degree of frustration with how the public perceived animation, and wanted to use Borrowed Time to help illustrate that it isn’t merely a children’s film genre. “We wanted to champion American animation as a medium to tell any story,” Coats says, “What better way to do that than to target something uniquely American? […] You can make an animated western, or an animated horror film, and if you’re true to that, suddenly the ‘animation as a genre’ argument falls away.” The story is told with exceptional animation, especially in the character designs of the young and old versions of the main character. The sheriff is a “gaunt, haunted individual who grew to be a shell of a man,” as Coats describes. The challenge in creating a vibrant, younger version, as Hamou-Lhadj notes, was “creating a youthful and appealing naivety within […] strong features, and reversing the toil and guilt […] in his older design.”
At the ShortsHD Awards on February 25, 2017, I met the directors and their creative team. It was quite a treat to get their drawings of the characters from Borrowed Time. The directors worked on Pixar films such as The Incredibles, Cars 2, WALL-E, Brave, Monsters University, Inside Out, and are thrilled to work on The Incredibles 2 now.
It’s no surprise this year that Pixar’s Piper is up for consideration. Piper, a recent Annie Award winner, is the only film without even a single spoken word, but debut director Alan Barillaro stated that this is for good reason. “It may seem simplistic, and that’s what you want. Simple and expressive.” However, big studio productions have a reputation for being anything but simple in regards to their visual effects. Much of the film appears almost as if it were shot through a wide-aperture lens, resulting in a blurring quality that emphasizes the small size of the shorebird subjects. More impressively, Piper combines the most notoriously difficult elements of CG animation: water, feathers, grass, sand, and bubbles, before portraying them to near-photo-realistic levels of detail; Pixar’s animators do more than simply flaunt their technical superiority, they rub their superior production quality in the faces of all the other nominees (and we love them for it!). But, beyond the ostentation of the film’s visual effects, there lies a charming tale of a sandpiper chick that holds a powerful lesson: a simple shift in perspective can lead to satisfying prosperity. Likewise, I believe Piper will have the best chance at such prosperity on awards night February 26!
I encourage audience to watch these animation gems in a movie theater near you and on iTunes BEFORE the Oscars. The shorts are distributed by ShortsHD and Shorts International, the premiere short film entertainment distributor worldwide.
Copyright 2017 by Perry S. Chen
About Perry Chen:
Perry S. Chen is a 17-year-old award-winning film and entertainment critic, artist, animator, TEDx speaker, and entertainment personality, currently in 11th grade from San Diego. He started reviewing movies at age 8 in 3rd grade using a kid-friendly starfish rating system, and has been featured in CBS, NPR, NBC, CNN, CCTV (China Central Television), Variety, Animation Magazine, The Young Icons, The Guardian, The China Press, etc. He was a presenter at the 2010 Annie Awards for Animation, and has written movie reviews for Animation World Network, San Diego Union Tribune, Amazing Kids! Magazine, and his own Perry’s Previews blog, as well as restaurant reviews for DiningOut San Diego Magazine and San Diego Entertainer.
Perry won the San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016 for his movie and restaurant reviews. He is widely recognized as an authoritative spokesperson about movies for his generation, and appears frequently at red carpet movie premieres, awards, and film festivals, interviewing prominent directors from such films as Inside Out, Toy Story 3, Up, How to Train Your Dragon, and Kung Fu Panda. He was a presenter at the 2010 Annie Awards for Animation in Hollywood. Perry and his mom Dr. Zhu Shen are featured in a book about parenting and youth entrepreneurship, “The Parent’s Guide to Raising CEO Kids,” published in Aug 2011.
Perry is currently writing, animating, and directing his most personal film to date, “Changyou’s Journey,” produced by his mom Dr. Zhu Shen, about his beloved father Dr. Changyou Chen, a cancer researcher who passed away in July 2012 from terminal cancer after a long, brave battle, please watch trailer and support Perry’s animation film, and follow the Facebook page:
Perry’s first animation short “Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest,” in collaboration with animation legend Bill Plympton, was an Oscar-qualifying film, won multiple film festival awards, and has been screened at over 30 international film festivals, now available on iTunes. More info: http://ingridpitt.co.uk
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