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PATH TO THE OSCARS

Fine art on beer budget

They're experimental, funky and even a little Dali-esque. They're the films vying for best animated short.

February 23, 2004|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Often, they're cobbled together by hyper-creative basement dwellers far from Hollywood -- in Ireland, Eastern Europe or parts unknown. But this year, three of the five animated shorts nominated for Academy Awards come from the big animation studios -- Pixar, Disney and Blue Sky, a Fox-owned boutique.

The clash of the titans is enough to make one wonder: Has the funky, sometimes experimental, animated short gone Hollywood?

"If we went back 40 to 50 years, the studio presence would not be surprising at all," says Will Ryan, a writer-producer and past president of the International Animated Film Society. "Shorts were pretty much controlled by the major studios, even though there was good work being done by the independents. Shorts were a regular part of the bill of fare at cinemas.

"The studios have never abandoned them, but since the mid-'50s, it's been slower going. The studios decided they didn't have to offer a short -- they figured cartoons were for television and double features were becoming the norm.

"And other countries became more interested in animation; the government in Canada, for instance, supported animation. But there's been a resurgence [here] in the past 10 years."

There's even a touch of Hollywood politics and intrigue in this year's race for the animated short Oscar. Many in the community have rallied behind "Destino," a 1940s collaboration between Walt Disney and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It's a show of support for Roy Disney, the film's executive producer, in his battles with Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner.

Then there's the presence of "Boundin' " from Pixar, whose dissolving partnership with Disney has also been a very public part of the turmoil at the Burbank company.

Still, the campaign seems to be proceeding in a fairly genteel fashion. In fact, despite the commercial connotations of the form -- long a vehicle in advertising to children -- the animation studios claim an almost aristocratic disdain for the rough-and-dirty of Oscar marketing. No army of publicists or double-truck ads in the trades; no ghost-written pleas from aging cartoon characters, a la Robert Wise.

"The film is important for what it says about the art of animation as opposed to the commerce of animation," Roy Disney says.

'Subtle' marketing

Fox, for its part, won't discuss how it's positioning "Gone Nutty," which revives the indomitable acorn-hoarding Scrat character from Blue Sky's "Ice Age," but don't expect a Miramax-style marketing campaign, says Chris Meledandri, president of 20th Century Fox animation.

And Pixar's marketing of "Boundin'," the story of a sheared sheep in a mythical Wild West, will be "very subtle," according to a company spokesman, mostly involving feature stories on folksy writer-director Bud Luckey, a veteran animator with roots in "Sesame Street."

"Our philosophy for 'Boundin' ' is the same as it's been for our animated shorts in the past," the representative said. "Low-key in the way people expect of Pixar. We really let the films speak for themselves."

It's sometimes hard to hear above the roar of feature-length animation, which since 2002 has had its own Oscar category. "Shrek" won that year, followed by the Japanese "Spirited Away" in 2003; this year, Pixar's "Finding Nemo," a critic's darling that has grossed $340 million domestically, is considered a heavy favorite.

But shorts fans praise them for their economy of form, their resemblance more to the carefully crafted short story than to the sprawling novel, and they say the form allows experimentation and unconventional storytelling on a beer budget. "A short can be made with a lot less pressure, a lot more freedom," says Fox's Meledandri. "A short is never made with the idea of being a commercial product."

"We use the short as an opportunity to test tools, and to train animators and tech directors and story artists to do something with a beginning, middle and end instead of the intense specialization of features," says Osnat Shurer, producer of "Boundin' " and executive producer of shorts at Pixar.

Shurer points out that Pixar began in shorts and that it has included a short on the reel for every feature it has released. ("Boundin'" will debut as the appetizer before "The Incredibles," Pixar's fall picture.)

"I think you're going to see a lot more of them," says Frank Terry, an animator who teaches at the California Institute of Arts. "I hate to use the term, but you'll see them used as 'branding' opportunities, with studios using them to define who they are and what they do.

"A short like 'For the Birds,' from Pixar, comes out, and then Pixar is known for its wacky sense of humor; it's a very valuable thing for a studio."

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