Short and Sweet
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 2 (Feb 2006)

Short and Sweet

For many, the art of animation reaches its highest peak in the smallest medium-short animated films. Free from the strictures of box-office appeal and client approvals, these artists express personal ideas, test styles, and sometimes simply have fun. Largely invisible to the mass market, the primary venues for these short projects are film festivals and animation festivals.

Each year, though, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors one short animated film with an Oscar and at least three with Oscar nominations. To qualify for the Oscar race, the short must have won an Academy-qualified festival or opened in a theater. The short-film branch of the Academy narrows the qualifying films into a smaller group, from which they announce three to five nominees in late January. Academy members vote on the nominees during February, and this year’s Oscar winner will be announced March 5.

Of the films likely to be on the Academy’s secret list of nomination candidates this year, only two were animated solely with 3D computer graphics tools: Pixar’s “One Man Band” and Shane Acker’s “9,” which won Best in Show at SIGGRAPH 2005. Two other shorts, though-Anthony Lucas’s “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello,” which won the Grand Prix at the prestigious 2005 Annecy International Film Festival, and Cédric Babouche’s “Imago,” which has taken honors at several festivals-used a 2D/3D mix: 2D characters in 3D backgrounds. In addition, many advocates of hand-drawn films use computer software these days, if only to edit and composite their scanned images, as did John Canemaker for his film “The Moon and the Son.” The other films likely up for nominee consideration are the traditionally animated “Badgered” by Sharon Colman, which received a Student Oscar nomination, “The Fan and the Flower,” a black-and-white hand-drawn animation by Bill Plympton, and Michael Sporn’s “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” which is based on the 2004 Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book.

Chances are, three of these films will be nominated for the Oscar. And through these projects, artists have demonstrated that animation can be as rich a medium as live-action films.

Pixar rarely enters its short films in competition these days. Instead, the Oscar-winning studio releases a short with each feature film and showcases the films at festivals, albeit out of competition. To qualify for this Oscar race, the studio quietly screened its “One Man Band” in a commercial theater. The short’s world premiere, though, was at Annecy, and its US premiere during the December opening of the Pixar exhibition of artwork at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Directed by Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, “One Man Band” takes place in an old-world piazza. There, a peasant child about to toss a coin into a fountain becomes the focus of a musical sparring match between a tired, tune-making regular and a charming, flashy new performer. Bass, the piazza’s one-man band regular, has his arms filled with an accordion, drum, tuba, clarinet, cymbals, and a few horns. Treble, the energetic upstart, wields bows and piccolos. At first, each upstages the other in turn, but soon the competition for the little girl’s coin turns into a cacophony, with both musicians playing at the same time, one on each side of the girl, until she . . . well, that would be a spoiler.

Sometimes Pixar creates short films to exercise new technology; sometimes the films exercise new talents. This film gave several artists, from lead animator Angus MacLane to the directors, their first supervisory opportunities. “Our biggest gain on this film is that we had new people in every leadership role,” says producer Osnat Shurer.

The film originated as a challenge from Ed Catmull, Pixar’s founder and president, to Andrews and Jimenez. The pair had followed director Brad Bird to the studio to create storyboards for The Incredibles. Before that, both had worked on Bird’s The Iron Giant.

“He asked if we’d like to do a short,” says Andrews of Catmull’s challenge. “So, we did lunch and tried to come up with an idea. But we kept coming up with ideas for features. We had to define the parameters for a short.” In addition to length, they listed the following: a single idea that an audience can get in 10 to 15 seconds, variations on that idea which predict an outcome, a twist on the predictable outcome, one or two characters, and one environment. With this list in mind, they developed three stories: one from Andrews, one from Jimenez, and a third, which became “One Man Band.”

The character Tinny holds the coin that prompted a battle of the one-man bands in Pixar Animation Studios’ latest short. © 2006 Pixar.

“We’re both musicians, so we wondered what we could do with music,” says Andrews. “That’s how we came up with the image of a one-man band.” Then, they added a second character.

“Our idea was to have one character who is good at something (but doesn’t try very hard) challenged by someone younger and better,” says Jimenez. “We showed the ideas to John [Lasseter, the executive producer] and he lasered in on this one. He said, ‘I can see Andy in that character [Treble] and Mark in the other one [Bass].”

At first, the directors sketched storyboards that had the musicians performing for a crowd. Eventually, the crowd began to shrink until the audience comprised a mother and a little girl, and then, only the child. One reason for the change was the budget. “The short-film directors learn to work within creative boundaries,” says Shurer. “There are per-character costs and set costs.”

Adds Andrews: “We had to focus on the center and go for that, and work with economies of time and emotion.”

Once the crowd shrank, the story changed. “When we got rid of the crowd, it gave the film heart,” says Jimenez. “Before that, it was just two guys fighting.”

Because the “dialog” in the story is the music played by the two performers, the directors needed a musical score before they started production. Michael Giacchino, who scored The Incredibles, composed two themes that escalate and then overlap when the one-man bands play simultaneously. An orchestra of 38 musicians played the music.

“[Lasseter] said it had to sound like live music,” notes Jimenez, “like real people were playing it. So, we recorded the sounds of fingers sliding on metal.”

Although the animators sometimes had the characters accurately play the notes from the sound track, the two one-man bands don’t have enough fingers to match the music throughout the film. Instead, judicious use of close-up shots of fingers on strings and cheeks puffed out to blow horns convince the audience that the characters are creating the complex sounds.

The number of instruments became an interesting challenge for the technical team: Each character had many surfaces. “Each surface needs a shader, a texture map, and application space,” says Bill Polson, supervising technical director. “You’d open up a character, and the list of shaders would scroll up and down the page-10 kinds of brass, the felt on the keys for the trumpet plungers, 10 kinds of goes on and on.” Although the studio has built an infrastructure to handle that complexity for the upcoming feature Cars, that infrastructure didn’t exist for Finding Nemo or for “One Man Band.”

The “One Man Band” musicians Treble (at left) and Bass (at right) were modeled after directors Andy Jimenez and Mark Andrews, respectively. Each character required several hundred shaders. © 2006 Pixar.

“Our pipeline at that point hadn’t handled characters with 400 or 500 shaders attached to them-it’s not like a fish that has four or five,” Lucas says, “so we just carried around big data files.”

To create the city surrounding the piazza, the team began with six buildings. “If you look at a building from one angle, you see one arrangement of windows and doors,” says Polson. “If you turn it 180 degrees, you see a different arrangement.” So, by rotating the six buildings, they created 12 variations. Five different roofs and three types of shutters randomly placed in open and closed positions created additional variations, as did a mixture of shaders.

“A savvy CG person will see that it’s a parts kit, but the average viewer will probably see a city,” says Polson.

The crew also used matte paintings in the background and in the foreground. “If you see shrubbery, that’s a matte painting,” says Polson. “Our rule is that if we model a building, that’s how we make a building, and we’ll use it all the way into the background for continuity. If it’s too heavy, we’ll decimate it. We don’t have near buildings one way and far ones another way, because then we’d have to worry about matching.” There is one exception: The tile roofs on distant buildings were rendered onto cards.

For lighting, the directors made a painterly choice. “The Zen of lighting was that we had light over dark over light over dark,” says Polson. That is, they’d place a brightly lit character in front of something dark, such as a building, and that building would be in front of something bright, which would be in front of something dark. To make this lighting seem logical, they created a cloudy day, which made it possible to place the characters in pools of light. Haze filters softened any brightly lit buildings.

Pixar uses its own RenderMan for rendering, outputting the scenes in numerous layers, which were composited in Apple’s Shake.

“With this film, we had a wonderful opportunity to work with an existing, stable pipeline rather than the latest, greatest stuff,” says Polson. “I’m becoming a real advocate for that in the studio.” - Barbara Robertson

Australian animator Anthony Lucas of 3-D Films turned 2D cutouts, stop-motion animation, and 3D backgrounds into a 28-minute Gothic horror/mystery/adventure that has taken the festivals by storm. It’s a science-fiction film set in the past and filled with Victorian Rube Goldberg machines-steam-powered computers and iron airships.

“It’s a ‘steampunk adventure,’” says Lucas. “William Gibson did a steampunk book set within an alternate universe in Victorian times. It doesn’t come from that, but having finished the film, I find myself in that genre.” Instead, Lucas was inspired by writers Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.

Although Lucas typically works with stop-motion characters, the stars of this film are silhouettes: 2D cutouts. “The adventure takes place in an alternate universe where light doesn’t reflect,” Lucas explains. “That’s why the characters are silhouettes. Also, I like the look of it. I guess I worked out a reason for why this world is like it is.”

The film is set in the clouds; there is no ground. The star, Jasper Morello, is an aerial navigator who embarks on a dangerous voyage and, along the way, must take desperate measures to save his wife.

Lucas started with a script and storyboards-600 drawings by storyboard artist David Cook. From those, the crew created animatics. Then, they redid the storyboards. “We photographed bits of junk, like car engines and hubcaps, and made the backgrounds out of that in [Adobe’s] Photoshop,” says Lucas. “Then we put proxies of our characters over these backgrounds to create new storyboards. As the scenes came up, I’d print the pages and throw them in front of the animators.”

The animators used those poses-created for about every 12 frames-to complete the animation. Animators worked with CelAction’s CelAction2D software to create the characters, animating them on white backgrounds as if they were live-action actors on greenscreen stages. “You make a figure as a 2D object, and hinge it like a puppet,” explains Lucas. “It’s classic cutout animation. We give it a 3D spin-they look 3D when they turn their heads, but they’re not.”

For “Jasper Morello,” director Anthony Lucas created an environment using photographs and 3D clouds, made 3D machines, and then placed animated 2D “cutout” characters into the environment. © 2004 3D Films / AFC / SBSi / Film V

Because the characters are always silhouetted, they’re always jet-black, although the flat planes have a bit of texture to create such detail as buttons. The posed silhouettes are output as Photoshop files. “We slide the Photoshop files on top of each other to make it look like the characters turn around,” explains Lucas.

To create the iron flyingships that float through the sky, the crew used Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds Max; to create the clouds, they used (Autodesk) Maya particles. Compositors then combined all these images in Autodesk’s Discreet Combustion, and added glows and color tints to the scene. “We put a tint throughout the film, and the tint changes,” says Lucas. “Because this is an alternate universe that echoes Victorian times, or maybe even longer ago because there’s still a plague, we wanted a sepia look all the way through. But, we changed the tint to echo locations.” Jungles are green, for example; ice is cool blue.

The characters, however, are always black. “I didn’t want the characters to look like normal CG things,” Lucas says. “I adore Pixar films. As a short filmmaker, I loved ‘Boundin’.’ My kid loved ‘Boundin’.’ Anything with hope in that abundance should be promoted. But we aren’t Pixar. This is an independent film. We were going for a graphic style. If you do cheap, low-level 3D, it’s not very sexy.”

At 28 minutes, Lucas’s short animation is rather long, yet its cinematic quality has caused reviewers to ask for more. And, Lucas has begun working on ways to continue the story-with more half-hour segments and, perhaps, as a feature.

It certainly sounds like hope has found its way to this animation studio in Australia, too. - Barbara Robertson

Film historian, author, teacher, animator, and director of the animation program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, John Canemaker created a 28-minute animated imaginary conversation with his father that recently won the Fabrizio Bellocchio Prize for Best Social Content at the I Castelli Animati animation festival in Genzano, Italy. Film historian Leonard Maltin calls the animation, titled “The Moon and the Son,” Canemaker’s “most personal work ever-and his most brilliant.”

Canemaker writes, “I made this film to resolve long-standing emotional issues I have with my late father. I wanted to find answers to our difficult relationship, to understand the reasons he was always a feared figure in my childhood, why he was always angry and defensive, verbally and physically abusive, and often in trouble with the law.”

“The Moon and the Son,” which features the voices of actors Eli Wallach and John Turturro as father and son, respectively, was traditionally drawn.

Animator John Canemaker uses drawings to personify emotions on the screen and make what’s in the mind become alive in his film. Images courtesy John Canemaker.

Even so, the film was cut and sound effects were added with an Avid system; the composure used Apple’s Logic Pro to compose, print, and mix the music, and Adobe’s Photoshop to scan and edit three of the scenes. Apple’s Final Cut Pro helped the team put it all together. - Barbara Robertson

Created by Cédric Babouche of Sacrebleu Productions in Paris, “Imago” tells the story of Antoine, who lost his father in a plane crash. “He loved his father so much,” says Babouche, “that he created his own world to share secret moments with him. Because he is a child, his perception of reality comes from fairy tales. So, he transforms the special moments he spent with his father into metaphorical dreams. Because they spent a lot of time near a tree at the seaside, the tree became a symbol, and when it disappears in a storm, he understands that he has to grow up.”

The inspiration for this film came from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Porco Rosso, in which a plane crashes into a tree. “When I saw that beautiful picture of the plane crash, I said I would like to use the spirit of that image for a project,” Babouche says. “Also, my father is a very special person who I don’t see a lot and don’t really know. So this film talks about the feeling of missing somebody and the way we can create our own world to fill loneliness.”

The characters in “Imago” are 2D; the backgrounds, 3D. Babouche used Crater Software’s CTP software for the 2D animation line tests, Adobe’s Photoshop for painting the scanned drawings, Cambridge Animation Systems’ Animo for timing, Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s 3ds Max and the company’s Maya for 3D, and Adobe’s After Effects and Autodesk’s Discreet Combustion for compositing.

The filmmaker started with a hand-drawn storyboard, which he scanned into Photoshop to work on the lighting. “It’s really important for me to show what the light will look like as soon as I can,” he says.

For “Imago,” French animator Cédric Babouche placed hand-drawn animated characters on 3D and painted backgrounds. Image courtesy Cédric Babouche.

Babouche also created nearly 100 backgrounds by hand. He started with a 2B pencil on paper, colored the drawings with watercolors and ink, and then scanned them into Photoshop. He composited the sequences in Combustion using that software program’s Particle Illusions for effects. “Compositing was the most important step because of the mix of 2D and 3D,” says Babouche. “I didn’t want to use any 3D lighting, which is colder than 2D lights, so I drew all the shadows and lights with masks in After Effects.”

Babouche began working on the script in October 2003, and began production in July 2004. He finished the following April. He now plans to use the same process to create a feature film for which he’s nearly completed a script.

“I don’t want to use only 3D because I like the freedom watercolor offers,” Babouche says. “I want my future projects to look like illustrations.”

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning journalist and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at

The junkyard world inhabited by the little burlap-covered characters of Shane Acker’s short film, “9,” is a large and scary one. Though it offers the characters plenty of opportunities for scavenging-which seems to be their principal occupation-it’s also home to a malevolent predator that hunts them relentlessly. How the main character, 9, responds to this challenge is a triumph of reason over instinct, or brain over brawn. Or, just possibly, good over evil.

A thoughtful plot, with edge-of-your-seat action and richly detailed and original modeling and animation have earned “9” numerous awards-including Best in Show at SIGGRAPH’s 2005 Electronic Theater-making it eligible as an Oscar contender in the short-film category. The nine-minute CG film has attracted so much attention, in fact, that it is going to be developed into a feature film, with Acker directing and Tim Burton and others aboard as producers.

Success of this magnitude seemed worlds away during the four and a half years that Acker spent working on “9.” He began the film as his thesis project while a student at UCLA’s Animation Workshop. He started out with a bit of a handicap, however: His background was in drawing and 2D animation, and “9” marked his first exposure to 3D. Thus, it was a case of baptism by fire.

“I bit off more than I could chew with ‘9,’” Acker admits. In fact, the film proved so difficult and time-consuming that Acker ended up taking periodic breaks from it (including a stint working on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for Weta Digital) in order to earn a living.

One thing that kept Acker going over the years was the strength of his original concept. “I had the idea of these little rag doll creatures that would pick through their environment,” he explains. That environment would be more or less post-apocalyptic, and the rag dolls would represent the beginning of a new civilization. In a rough parallel to the way life might have been for our primitive hunter-gatherer ancestors, the rag doll characters look fairly helpless, but they get by using their wits. “They’re diminutive in scale,” says Acker, “and they’re living in an oppressive world, yet they’re sort of good-natured.”

Another source of inspiration for Acker was stop-motion animation, especially the surreal and sometimes downright creepy works of artists such as the Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, and the Lauenstein brothers. Acker admired their style, but viewed it as a jumping-off point.

Acker began work on “9” with the story itself-an 18-panel storyboard that started with the main action scene, in which 9 is pursued by the film’s villain, a mechanical cat-beast. At that point, Acker decided that a lot more setup was required in order to invest viewers in the action, so he added another character-a mentor, called 5-and also a flashback scene that would help explain the challenges and motivations of the film’s hero, 9.

Then, Acker created an animatic that was so highly detailed, “it was almost a true 2D film-or something in between a traditional animatic and a 2D film.”

The next step was learning to use 3D modeling and animation tools-albeit while he was creating the film. Acker maintains that “drawing is at the heart” of his film, though he very much wanted to make use of CG animation to suggest the stop-motion look he admired. The filmmaker estimates that he spent about two and a half years in the preproduction phase of the movie, doing modeling, rigging, matte paintings, and so forth, all the while learning to use Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Maya.

When it was finally time for animation, that original animatic proved invaluable. Acker used it as a kind of road map, replacing the 2D animation with 3D. In fact, he notes, the animatic was a kind of anchor for the film: Since he had to work on it between paying gigs, it was good for him to be able to have the animatic as a guide so he wouldn’t lose focus.

Acker employed keyframing for all the animation in the film. The cat-beast and its movements are among the achievements in the film of which Acker is proudest. The character is made of cat bones, including a cat skull, that are interlaced with a metal armature. The cat-beast moves with a cat’s sense of purpose, but there is something a bit reptilian about it as well. Like the rag doll creatures, the beast is a scavenger, but also collects living things, and has a gruesome way of using them literally to add onto itself. Whatever the creature’s motivations, it clearly wants something that the rag dolls have. “It recognizes their souls in them, and is attempting to become like them,” explains Acker.

Like the characters he created for “9,” filmmaker Shane Acker himself became a scavenger of sorts, collecting various textures for the bleak setting of his animated short. Image courtesy Shane Acker.

In order to create the variety of textures that are an important part of Acker’s artistic achievement, he became a scavenger himself. He collected items with interesting textures that he could photograph, scan, and then manipulate in Adobe’s Photoshop. He also photographed broken-down parts of Los Angeles that would add interest to his CG environment of urban decay.

Acker employed Maya for lighting and rendering. “I didn’t use a lot of raytracing,” he says, explaining that he was aiming at a less-than-real environment that was somewhat painterly. In fact, there are quite a few large matte paintings used in the film. To composite the imagery, the filmmaker used Adobe’s After Effects.

Since “9” has no dialog, the characters’ actions must tell the story. And though the main plot is simple enough in scope, the film is full of many small and telling details-actions that seem random at the time but turn out to have great significance later on. Moreover, there are some little jokes throughout the film. The cat-beast, for example, hunts for nine characters, or nine lives. And there is the almost requisite Pixar-type lamp, albeit a rusty version.

All in all, though, says Acker, he is happy with the decayed, down-and-out look and feel of the film. “It’s hyper-detailed, but it’s also stylized and painterly,” he says. Certainly his attention to the grit and grime of urban decay has paid off in that despite its bleakness, there’s a lot to see in this junkyard world.

In the end, the hero’s brains, and his use of tools, win the day. The 9 character rescues the souls of his predecessors, and in the final scene, seems to be leaving his bleak world, traveling alone. It’s a hopeful scene, and it also sets him up for further adventures that just could happen in the forthcoming feature film.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at