The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is favoring riskier animation techniques in this year’s Oscar races, and its snub of Disney’s Frozen 2 in the feature film category is just one example of this shift. From student films to a studio’s first animated project and of course, Pixar, taking a chance with a different style, in the best animated short film category the Academy is highlighting nominees who are experimenting to tell their stories Kidscreen chatted with the talent behind all five of the Oscar-nominated short animated films to learn more about what these projects mean for their business, and their future as creators.
A frequent Oscar winner for its CG-animated shorts, Pixar is one of the most successful studios in the Best Animated Short category, with 16 nods and five wins, including last year for Bao, and in 2017 for Piper. Now, the Disney-owned prodco is taking a chance and departing from its hyper-realistic style to produce its first fully 2D-animated project.
Tapping into nostalgia for 2D-animation and leveraging her experience with the style she knows best, writer and director Rosana Sullivan created nine-minute Kitbull as part of Pixar’s burgeoning SparkShorts animation program.
SparkShorts is a chance for Pixar employees to create their own short films. The mini-films first launch on YouTube (where Kitbull has already racked up more than 39 million views), and later on Disney+. But there’s a catch: Under the program, filmmakers only have six months and a limited budget to fully complete the film.
Produced by Kathryn Hendrickson, Kitbull explores the relationship between a stray kitten and an abused pit bull who both experience friendship for the first time. The kitten’s energy is better captured in 2D, Sullivan says, because the medium can convey the cat’s unpredictable and frenetic energy. Plus, the style gives it a more cartoon-y look to help it stand out in the world, she adds. But choosing this style wasn’t without its problems.
“Pixar has this robust CG pipeline and is known for its CG work, so 2D animation, which can be easy for other studios, was a challenge for us,” says Hendrickson. The entire project was hand-drawn, and the team wasn’t able to use computers to create the backgrounds, lighting or 3D characters the way the studio usually would. However, many of the Pixar animators on the film had backgrounds in 2D animation, and they were able to drive production along, she adds.
Hendrickson and Sullivan first started working together on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and plan to work together on future projects. The SparkShorts program, making the film, and taking on leadership positions on a Pixar film for the first time, has helped push their careers forward and opened doors for more opportunities, says Sullivan. And the SparkShorts program is also helping revitalize the studio’s experimental efforts.
“This has been a huge game-changer as the studio is investing in the unconventional, unknown and diverse voices, and it sort of breathes a new life into [everything],” says Sullivan. “People are excited to see what their colleagues cook up, and what new leadership rises up out of it. We’re both excited by the future of Pixar because of the new steps its taking.”
Other films to come out of SparkShorts include experimental projects Smash and Grab (one of Pixar’s only sci-fi projects), written and directed by Pixar storyboard artist Brian Larsen; and Pixar’s behind the scenes documentary content producer Erica Milsom’s CG-animated short Loop, about a non-verbal autistic girl and a chatty boy who learn to understand each other.