Focus on Festivals

And the Oscar Goes to…

Chris Landreth holding his Oscar for Ryan.

Ah, memories of Oscar, from Audrey Hepburn hiking up her dress to show NFB director Eunice Macaulay her outrageously high heels, to Oscar winning NFB animators, up on the big stage, frozen like deer in the headlights. Would they talk? Would they faint? No one knew!

NFB animation at the Oscars has an exciting history. But it’s been a decade since Canadian animators have had the vicarious thrill of seeing one of our own win, so the success of Chris Landreth with Ryan this year stirred up even more feelings than usual.

Ryan looked like the obvious winner but there were other nominees that might have swayed voters. The ever popular Bill Plympton was back and there was even a new Disney short, Lorenzo, which could easily have been a sentimental favorite. So this was a real race.

But that just made it sweeter when the right film won. Especially because it’s so rarely one can say that. Mind you, the Animated Short category has always been different from the mainstream Oscars, with their tendency to honour big, conservative films. True, the early years were Hollywood-centric. But in the mid-20th century, as the Hollywood short succumbed to television, this category began to transform, eventually becoming a showcase for some of the most personal and innovative work being created in the US and abroad.

It was in the middle of that period that Canada and the NFB really shone. In the late 70s, the NFB pulled off a hat trick with three wins in a row. But in recent years there’s been only one win, for Bob’s Birthday in ’94. Between changes at the Board and the resurrection of commercial animation, the idea of Canada and the NFB being big players in the animation game has been slipping away.

Landreth’s win is a shot in the arm, a sign ofthe NFB returning to its best traditions. Even better, because the film’s impressive computer technology is largely home grown. But why does winning the Oscar for best animated short still excite us? After all, it’s been described as like being in an architecture competition and winning for Best Plumbing.

Still treated as a sideshow by the Academy, nevertheless, the Oscar is the highest profile award animators have got. Is there any substance beyond its buzz? The Academy Award used to be regarded as a bit of a curse: instead of a door to success, winning was more like the door to an empty elevator shaft. In reality, there simply wasn’t enough of an industry in the old days to build on Oscar publicity. Recently, though, this has begun to change, a fact reflected in the aspirations of this year’s nominees, with many treating their films like calling cards for bigger things. Like feature films.

But is that necessarily the only definition of “bigger things”? What does this year’s winner, the guy who will almost certainly be offered such opportunities in the next little while, think about his chances? Landreth expresses an interest in doing features but only on his own terms. You aren’t likely to see him in a Pixar kind of deal, with lots of resources and less artistic freedom. On the other hand, a smaller feature which allows more control might suit him very well.

He also has his doubts about the feasibility of doing an animated feature for adults and not for kids, but also one that would likely break out of the standard formulae, like the three-act structure. Regardless, Landreth doesn’t consider a leap from shorts into features as a natural progression. In fact, he’s a strong defender of the short format which he feels is both misunderstood and under utilized, and expresses that part of him could happily keep doing shorts forever.

Well, now I see why I had that rush of feelings. After all, what could be more Canadian?

And the NFB coming in as a key support for Ryan only makes this win more nostalgic and hopeful. Of course, the NFB’s role is different from the old days—it was only a co-producer this time—but where else would a short film get such help for the Oscars? And where else would the film be available after the fact?

Even today, most animated shorts showcased at the Oscars seem to disappear down that same old elevator shaft. Where are you likely to see that new Plympton short? Even Disney is only now consideringa DVD featuring Lorenzo. Meanwhile, the NFB’s DVD of Ryan is already out. So Canadians can take pride not only in this win for a daring film but in the fact that we still have a country that puts resources behind personal work in non-standard formats.

Maybe we will get back to a time when Short! Animated! Canadian!—the NFB’s crazed slogan from a decade ago—will have real meaning again. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Ellen Besen is a Short! Animated! Canadian! One of the founding member of the Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS), she had taught at Sheridan College, programmed retrospectives at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and directed such films as Sea Dream and Slow Dance World.

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