I admit it. I have no idea why the Academy honors the animated shorts that it does. In a decade of Oscar prognosticating, my track record in this category is an embarrassing 2-for-10. I’d do just as well to choose one randomly than watch all the nominees and trying to analyze the race. But here are some lessons I’ve learned in my (admittedly humbling) experience:
1. The Academy loves indies…except when it doesn’t. You might think there’d be a bias for shorts from the big guns like Pixar, Disney, and Blue Sky that more moviegoers are likely to have seen because they play before big hit features. But despite a raft of nods for studio projects in the last decade, only one has claimed the prize: Disney’s hand-drawn-seeming Paperman two years ago, which I didn’t pick precisely because of that long-standing anti-studio trend. This year’s best known clip is Feast, about a food-obsessed dog and his indulgent slob of an owner, which preceded Disney’s Big Hero 6. It’s delightful and fun, but will it win? And now that voters receive screeners of all the nominees, will the wider voting pool have an impact? (A lot of that anti-studio bias may have been because it was mostly animators themselves voting in the category when you had to actually see the nominees in a theater.)
2. Storytelling matters. My favorite nominee this year is A Single Life, a jam-packed little fable about a young red-headed woman who receives a mysterious vinyl record, puts in on her record player (how retro!), and discovers that it’s intimately connected to the passage of her life. If the needle jumps forward, she suddenly older and pregnant. If it skips back, she’s a little girl. If she scratches the record DJ-style, she can watch her pizza get eaten up or uneaten. On the one hand, this Dutch short boasts an ingenious premise and terrific, stylized animation. On the other hand, it’s only two minutes long. Voters usually go for heftier shorts. But on the third hand, it’s also a film that benefits from rewatching — something that’s possible now that voters can view at home on screeners.
3. Look out for technical innovation. Past winners like the 2004 animated documentary Ryan and even Paperman showed noteworthy leaps in technology and artistry. This year’s The Bigger Picture achieves something similar — a combo of deliberately two-dimensional characters and backdrops fused with three-dimensional stop-motion within the same shot. So the head and body of a character appears painted on the surface of a wall, while his arms are claymation protrusions chopping three-dimensional veggies on a table in front of him. Unfortunately, the intriguing visuals bolster a rather thin story about two slackerly twentysomething brothers dealing with their ailing mom. Innovation is usually not enough to get an animator to the podium.
4. Personal histories often triumph. John Canemaker, longtime head of NYU’s animation program, won in 2006 for The Moon and the Son, a 28-minute look at his relationship with his scarily abusive father (and one that incorporated home movies as well as the voices of John Turturro and Eli Wallach). This year’s memoirish contender is significantly lighter in tone: Torill Kove’s Me and My Moulton, a charming hand-drawn portrait of the artist as a young girl, the sketchbook-loving middle daughter of slightly self-absorbed bohemian artist types. This one may be too slight, and the Norwegian-born Canadian already has an Oscar for 2006’s The Danish Poet.
5. Storybook yarns hold immense appeal. Peter and the Wolf in 2008. The Lost Thing in 2011. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore in 2012. The Academy often gravitates toward ambitious shorts that seem to bring children’s books to life — in many cases, the artists involved produce actual companion volumes. This year’s book-ready contender is The Dam Keeper, about an anthropomorphic piglet who’s tasked with keeping the darkness out of his menagerie of a hometown each day — but finds himself bullied by all the other animals, save for a newcomer fox with a gift for drawing caricatures. The CG production looks like a moving watercolor storybook, and the story is heartfelt if a bit confusing (where are the parents? how does the pig’s darkness dam work exactly?).
So what will win? I’d vote for A Single Life, but I suspect the prize will go to either Feast or The Dam Keeper. As with all of this year’s other shorts nominees, these ‘toons will hit theaters in select cities this Friday; many will also be available on VOD next month.