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Holahan: Short Films

When we talk about “films,” we usually think of long, feature-length pieces. The post Oscars buzz will undoubtedly be about the movies that won, didn’t win, or should have won Best Picture. You won’t find many people talking about the other, shorter films that were voted on this past weekend.  

Undoubtedly, the word “film” implies something on a grand scale. I find myself referring to something as a “film” rather than a “movie” when I’m describing a work that’s bigger, more imposing. But, when we look at the origins of cinema, we find early experimentation with the medium in the form of the short film. The Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which premiered in Paris in 1986 was only 50 seconds long. According to urban legend, the audience was so terrified by the vivid images of the train’s movement across the screen that many yelled out in fear and tried to escape the theatre. Years later, Un Chien Andalou, a 21 minute long, visually striking and disturbing collaboration between Spanish director Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí 1929 premiered in Paris which was attended by artists and thinkers such as Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, and Jean Couteau.

Today, short films, both animated and live action, receive much less attention than feature productions. One reason for this shift is the change in the means of distributing and premiering films. While most movie theatres in America screen Oscar nominated movies, it can be more difficult to watch nominated short films. Those of us living in New Haven are lucky enough to live near Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas, which has been showing all the short film picks for the 2019 Oscars season. All the nominated live action shorts, animated shorts, and documentary shorts will be screened for the rest of the month of February. There are a few days left to make a short(s) stop at the theatre for these films.

This past week, I stopped by Bow Tie to watch the animated short films. Animated shorts, particularly, are rarely the focus of much attention at the Academy Awards. This bias against animation can be found by tracking how the category has changed throughout the history of the Oscars. The Animated Short category was not originally included as a category at the first Academy Awards, rather, it was added at the 5th Academy Awards with the title “Best Animated Cartoon.” Cartoon connotes something childlike, and suggests a connection between the films and newspaper comics. And, as we can see, the first films to win the award for this category were very cartoonish in the modern sense. Walt Disney took home the prize consecutively for the first 8 years, and in the first 20 years of the category’s existence the winning films were almost all episodes of cartoon series produced by major animation studios (ie. Mickey Mouse shorts). Typically, these shorts featured animated animals, and were made with an eye toward a younger audience. These cartoon wins in early years created an almost de facto children’s category at the Oscars. Though in the intervening years, this trend did not hold, the emergence of the Pixar short in the 1980’s began to reignite this association with media for children.

Today, the animated short category continues to be associated with animation for young audiences and large animation production companies. The winning animated short for the 2019 Oscars was Bao, a film produced by Pixar studios. The film was originally released in theatres as preceding the feature length Pixar Movie, Incredibles 2. The 8 minute short tells the touching story of a Chinese-Canadian mother who misses her son.

In a way, Bao was the obvious choice for the award. The film received a good deal of press due to how accessible it was. The Incredibles earned over 1 billion in box office revenue, and, as a result, Bao was watched by millions of viewers. By contrast, all the other nominees were much more obscure, and none had anywhere near as big of an audience as Bao.

My favorite nominated short was the 9 minute long Irish film Late Afternoon. As opposed to Bao, which uses computer generated animation, Late Afternoon has a much simpler style. The characters and scenery are rendered in a flatter manner, and almost look as if they have been cut out of paper.

Late Afternoon tells the story of an aging Irish woman who deals with memory loss. We follow her as she journeys between past and present. The plot of the piece is as simple as the animation, and everything feels as if it has been made with a light touch. The gently accented voice of the woman is near a whisper, and the audience leans in toward the screen as she dips her biscuit into her tea and vision diffuses into memory.

Late Afternoon is a production of Cartoon Saloon, a Kilkenny-based Irish studio. The studio also has produced other critically acclaimed works, most notably the feature length animated films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Though Late Afternoon does come with a pedigree, its budgeting and distribution certainly exist on a smaller scale than Bao.

Tracking the history of the animated short can tell us a lot about its place within the world of film. We can find the short at the beginning of cinema history, and we can trace  how the short has led to both the animated and the live action short. The historical trajectory of the animated short tells us one version of cinema history, a history of the role of production companies and the transition from independent visual experimentation to dominance by major studios. The short is a genre that is inherently modest, but it seems as if we can learn much about the world of cinema by taking a close look its small beginnings.