Shorts supply

Culled from festivals and art house theaters, animated short films vie for a spot in the sun.

With students, studios, individual animators and animation houses around the globe busy making them, and animation festivals in far-flung locales from Ottowa to Annecy, France, and Hiroshima, Japan, busy playing them, animated short films consistently represent a significant outlet for filmmaker creativity. But when it comes to figuring out which of those films might get Oscar attention, it's a big unknown.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defines what is considered animation and requires the use of a "frame-by-frame" technique, but otherwise, animators are free to let their imaginations run wild. Recognized methods include cel, clay, computer and stop-motion animation, as well as pixilation, cutouts, pins, camera multiple-pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects and drawing on the film frame itself.

To qualify for a nomination this year, a short must meet one of two criteria between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006. First, it has to be exhibited for paid admission in film or digital-cinema format (as defined by the Academy Board of Governors) in a Los Angeles County commercial motion-picture theater for a run of at least three consecutive days, with no fewer than two screenings a day.

The alternative is that the short must have participated in one of the more than 50 festivals recognized by the Academy and have won the best-in-category award.

A surprising number of shorts -- 40 or more -- usually qualify each year. In November, the Academy committee is accustomed to hunkering down for a marathon viewing spanning three Saturdays (one day each in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco). Based on that viewing, it shortlists 10 films, eventually nominating between three and five.

At press time, there were only a handful of qualified submissions. Among them is DreamWorks Animation's "First Flight," a computer-animated tale directed by veteran DreamWorks animators Cameron Hood and Kyle Jefferson about an uptight executive whose life is changed by an unexpected encounter with a tiny baby bird. Pixar Animation Studio's Gary Rydstrom made "Lifted," which tells the story of a farmer's encounter with a UFO and qualified by screening at Laemmle Theatres' One Colorado location in Pasadena. According to Laemmle product manager Gregory Gardner, the theater chain also qualified Acme Filmworks' "Printed Rainbow," "A Monkey's Tale," directed by Eric Goldberg, and Blur Studio's "A Gentlemen's Duel." And Carolle-Shelley Abrams' "Alien Dinner Theatre" recently qualified at Landmark Theatres' Westside Pavilion Cinemas, according to Landmark senior vp sales and marketing Madelyn Hammond.

Other possible contenders include "One Rat Short" from New York-based digital design atelier Charlex, which showed the film at Siggraph to great acclaim, and Buena Vista's "The Little Matchgirl," a take on the Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Of course, shorts that win at the big animation festivals often stand a good chance at a nomination. Joanna Quinn's "Dreams and Desires: Family Ties" is on the "shoo-in" list of Amid Amidi, co-editor of animation industry blog "Joanna's film has an inside edge," agrees CartoonBrew editor and animation historian Jerry Beck, who notes that the film was a winner at both the Annecy International Animated Film Festival and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. "It's 2-D, it's drawn, and it feels fresh. It's one of the best ones I've seen so far."

"Histoire tragique avec fin heureuse" (Tragic Story With a Happy Ending), from Portuguese animator Regina Pessoa, also has won numerous animation-festival honors including the Annecy Cristal Award, the TPS Cineculte Award for a short film and the special international jury prize at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival. Pessoa uses an unusual technique: Fine-line scratches on high-sheen paper reveal beautiful art and a touching, personal story. "It's Oscar-quality material," Amidi says.

Writer-director Run Wrake's "Rabbit," a 2-D computer-generated and hand-drawn short from the U.K., also is a favorite, and Acme Filmworks executive producer Ron Diamond is touting Aleksandr Petrov's "My Love," the story of a youthful tryst animated using paint on glass. "Petrov is one of the most amazing artists in the world," Diamond says. Amidi's favorite to watch is "Here and There," from one-named artist Obom, who depicts the diary of a being that is half-girl and half-bird growing up in French Canada.

One grand prize is certain for all nominees this year. Magnolia Pictures, in partnership with U.K.-based Shorts International, hopes to sign all the nominated shorts -- live-action and animated -- for theatrical release before the Academy Awards in the U.S. and U.K. and on Apple's iTunes. Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions at Magnolia, and Carter Pilcher, chief executive of Britshorts (of which Shorts International is the programming and distribution arm), are both in top-secret mode trying to suss out the potential nominees and begin their negotiations. "We did it last year as a specialized film release in five markets, and in each market but one, it was the top film in the market," Quinn says. "When has a large audience had a chance to screen those films prior to the Academy Awards? Every part of the program last year was a real success." Adds Pilcher, "It shows that people, when given the chance, want to see short films."