1. "World of Tomorrow": Frontrunner Don Hertzfeldt offers a sublime sci-fi parable of little Emily learning some unnerving secrets when she travels 227 years into the future with a mysterious doppleganger. Inspired by his graphic novel, "The End of Tomorrow," Hertzfeldt's iconic stick figures glide through a glimpse of fantastical, if spiritually empty, things to come. Interestingly, he drew on his own personal connections for the voice acting, collaborating with his niece and a friend, animator/illustrator Julia Pott. In fact, the experience was totally improvisational for his niece, and she drove the narrative with lids of eggs being purple or the name of a cat she came across being used for the monster or her idea for the end of the memory-removal process being a rainbow.
2. "Sanjay's Super Team": This marks Pixar's first semi-autobiographical short, with board artist Sanjay Patel ("The Incredibles") coming to terms with his Hindu heritage, which he was ashamed of as a child growing up in San Bernardino. The little boy tries to watch his favorite superhero cartoon but his father insists that he mediate with him. Bored, he imagines summoning three Hindu deities to fight a three-headed demon in a thematic and stylistic assimilation of West and East (assisted by a lovely score by Mychael Danna, Oscar winner for "Life of Pi"). It's very anime-inspired, with snap posing and ghost trails and different camera angles. And the fantasy fight sequence, which melds 2D and CG in a surreal way, required special shading and texturing. Overall, it's a testament to how culturally vibrant Pixar has become in recent years. Even though Pixar's the frontrunner in the Animated Feature race, it hasn't won a shorts Oscar in 16 years.
3. "Bear Story": The first Oscar nominee in this category from Chile has its own personal backstory. Gabriel Osorio's poignant allegory depicts a lonely bear who builds an elaborate mechanical diorama in an attempt to remember a happier life with his wife and son before being abducted into the circus. The idea was inspired by his grandfather, exiled from Chile in the 1970s during Pinochet's dictatorship. It's a powerful message told elegantly in CG: We should never forget our loved ones and their significance in our lives.
4. "We Can't Live Without Cosmos": This darkly humorous outer space drama by Konstantin Bronzit about two inseparable friends training to be cosmonauts in the former Soviet Union is a cautionary tale about the space race in the best Russian tradition: Be careful what you wish for, because you can't have it all — so you'd better have your priorities straight, as they used to say. Wacky fun turns to somber reflection.
5. "Prologue": It's been 43 years since Richard Williams won an Oscar for "A Christmas Carol" and this summary piece is intended as a prologue to his ongoing feature being made with the help of an office and digital camera at Aardman. It's a brutal and balletic peek at the Spartan-Athenian wars through the eyes of a young girl. It’s gory yet mesmerizing in its composition, movement, and cutting. And it's a simple series of drawings. There’s very little color: Each man has different color eyes and there’s blood, and the Spartan shields have a red symbol and the Athenian ones have a blue eagle. And the little girl has a light tan dress. It's been a revelation for Williams, who continues to learn new techniques at the age of 82, and a real joy for us to experience his epiphany.