By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 1, 2013 at 3:39PM
Animated shorts have never been bigger. Starting today, ShortsHD and Magnolia Pictures are screening the five nominees theatrically in North America and Europe for the eighth consecutive year along with the live-action and doc short nominees; they continue to sell briskly on iTunes; and, for the first time, the Academy has opened up the voting to all members, and will be sending out DVD screeners, which will offer greater exposure.
And this year's crop is the most compelling in years:
- "Adam and Dog": a gorgeous hand-drawn reworking of the Genesis story from Disney animator Minkyu Lee ("Wreck-It Ralph"), who made it independent of the studio without a producer or a budget.
- "Fresh Guacamole": a culinary stop-motion delight by PES ("Western Spaghetti") and the shortest short ever nominated in Oscar history at a minute and forty-five seconds.
- "Head over Heels": a poignant stop-mo student work by Timothy Reckart about a disagreeable husband and wife literally living on top of one other.
- "Maggie Simpson in: The Longest Daycare": a "Simpsons" first as a short and in 3-D, in which Maggie hilariously gets the spotlight in an adventure at the Ayn Rand School for Tots.
- "Paperman": Disney's innovative black and white hybrid directed by John Kahrs about love at first sight between two commuters in '50s Manhattan.
While "Paperman" is the clear frontrunner for both its clever conceit and its bravura technique (integrating hand-drawn lines on top of CG animation using a new digital in-betweening and motion tracking interface), "Maggie Simpson" is a strong contender for its brilliant wit and breakneck speed. Plus there's no telling how much weight the "Simpsons" brand will carry with the Academy at large.
With "Maggie Simpson," the popular franchise definitely reaches new artistic heights, as the toddler gets diagnosed with average intelligence at the day care but longs to be grouped with gifted children. She finds her way by rescuing a lonely cocoon from Baby Gerald, who smooshes butterflies and frames them.
"Jim [Brooks] just wanted another way to experiment with the characters," explains director David Silverman, who is busy helming the final episode of the 24th season. "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 interesting to isolate Maggie from the setting and we started thinking about the old 'Feed the Kitty' cartoon by Chuck Jones or Tom and Jerry in general."
The 3-D was just an experiment but they figured out how to create cool dimensional levels during clean-up using After Effects with the help of expert stereographer Eric Kurland and some compositors. There's a marvelous pop-up book, "Goodnight Cocoon," which uses 3-D to good effect. In fact, Silverman says they had an idea of creating an Inception-like dreamscape with the pop-up that proved too complicated.
"The Baby Gerald sequence was very Buster Keaton/Charlie Chaplin-like," Silverman adds. "Tough guys doing tough things. 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.
"The hardest part was getting all the ideas in there. 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."
"Head over Heels" has to be considered the dark horse for its dramatic merit. Interestingly, the genesis was the Rembrandt painting, "Philosopher in Meditation," which has a spiral staircase that's symmetrical. "It looks like someone on the ceiling could use the underside of the stairs to climb down toward the floor," explains Reckart, an American animator living in New York who made the short as his graduate project at the National Film and Television School outside of London.