Semi-autobiographical “Bao” explores empty nest syndrome. Chinese-Canadian story artist Domee Shi (“The Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”), the first female to direct a short at Pixar, tells the story of a woman who gets a second chance at motherhood when one of her hand-made dumplings come to life. Shi grew up in Toronto and the short reflects her upbringing as the only child of Chinese immigrants. (Her dumpling master mom served as consultant.) Animating the delectable Chinese meals proved the biggest challenge, but story wise, Shi delivered Pixar’s first WTF moment when the mom eats her dumpling child to prevent it from leaving the nest.
Also from Pixar, story artist Trevor Jimenez made the semi-autobiographical, hand-drawn “Weekends” in his spare time via Pixar’s co-op program. A young boy in 1980’s Toronto shuffles back and forth between his divorced parents, alternating between domestic drama and surreal imagery as an attempt to process the confusing experience.
Jimenez enlisted artists both inside and outside of Pixar to do the backgrounds as charcoal line drawings. He executed most of the animation himself. Overall, he adopted a rough, messy look inspired by the Oscar-winning animated short, “Father and Daughter,” only with a lot of wide, panoramic shots. He imbued the color palette with reds for his father’s home and pale green for his mother’s, creating an emotional arc between them.
Former Disney Oscar winner John Kahrs (“Paperman”) ventured into VR with the Google Spotlight short, “Age of Sail,” their most ambitiously immersive VR experience yet. An old sailor (Ian McShane), adrift in the Atlantic in 1900, finds redemption by rescuing a young Victorian woman (Cathy Ang). Kahrs was intrigued with the spatial possibilities of capturing the undulating waves in a believable way. It was like translating David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” on the open ocean, completely in the round. But he also wanted dialog (a first for Google Spotlight), which he managed to convey off-screen while claiming the 3D experience as his own.
However, for the flat version submitted for Oscar consideration, Kahrs could produce the repeatable action he had already animated along with the conflict between the crusty sailor and fearless young lady. It therefore looked terrific from any angle.
Former Pixar animator Carlos Baena conjured the gorgeous, horror-filled “La Noria” with a contingent of online collaborators. In “La Noria,” a boy draws and builds ferris wheels, confronted by the dark and some creepy monsters. Baena worked on and off for several years, assembling a large crew at Artella, his virtual studio platform. However, outside of a small portion gathered from crowdfunding, the rest of the $250,000 budget was self-financed by Baena with savings from various studio projects. The result is a polished, mesmerizing short that combines horror with gentle nostalgia.
“Bilby,” a hilarious survival story set in the Australian outback, and directed by DreamWorks animators Pierre Perifel, JP Sans, and Liron Topaz, grew out of the cancelled rock’n’roll “Larrikins” feature. It took the central character, the desert-dwelling marsupial (aka bilby), and placed him in a new story: protecting a cute little chick from a host of predators. Although it starts out with a documentary vibe, it quickly descends into a “Looney Tunes” style of chaos, with a montage of escalating attacks.
But “Bilby” became a great testing ground for the studio’s innovative Moonray path trace renderer (with great naturalistic lighting for fur, grass, mud, fire, smoke, dust, and water), as well as the new Sprinkle and Locomotion systems. The former created rich and detailed debris and the latter allowed for varied animal locomotion during the stampedes.
With “Bird Karma,” director William Salazar (“Kung Fu Panda”) got to finish a short he started more than 20 years ago about a long-legged bird that takes a liking to a multi-colored fish. But instead of becoming friends, the bird eats the fish, which results in bad karma. Inspired by “The Scorpion and the Frog” fable, Salazar insisted on keeping the hand-made, watercolor look. The problem, though, was tweaking the DreamWorks pipeline to handle the digital demands of a 2D aesthetic. They kept the lines rough and sketch-like. For the paper texture, the team used transparency, where the white of the paper comes through the painting and you have layer upon layer of water color.
“Age of Sail”
“Crow: The Legend”