A Mu­si­cal Visit to Aren­delle

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IThe new Dis­ney short

t’s hard to be­lieve that al­most four years have passed since Dis­ney’s won­der­ful mu­si­cal Frozen shat­tered box-of­fice records and ended up win­ning Os­cars for Best An­i­mated Film and Best Orig­i­nal Song. This hol­i­day sea­son, film­go­ers will be able to re­turn to the world of Princess Anna, Queen Elsa and their goofy snow­man side­kick in Olaf’s Frozen Ad­ven­ture, a charm­ing short directed by Emmy win­ners Ste­vie Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton and Kevin Deters ( Prep & Land­ing). The short, which is pro­duced by Os­car-win­ner Roy Conli ( Big Hero 6) and writ­ten by an­i­ma­tion new­comer Jac Scha­ef­fer, also of­fers four orig­i­nal songs by Elyssa Sam­sel and Kate An­der­son ( Lit­tle Bill).

Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton and Deters, who also directed the ac­claimed Dis­ney shorts The Bal­lad of Nessie and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, were ap­proached by Dis­neyPixar CCO John Las­seter in early 2015 to take on the project. “We had a great meet­ing with him, where he told us he wanted us to work on a short set in the Frozen uni­verse cen­tered on the hol­i­day sea­son,” re­calls Deters. “The se­quel to the movie was just get­ting off the ground, and he wanted us to fo­cus on Olaf, so of course, we said yes!”

The 22-minute short, which brings back Josh Gad, Id­ina Men­zel, Kris­ten Bell, Jonathan Groff, Chris Wil­liams and John de Lan­cie from the first movie, finds Olaf and Sven try­ing to track down the best hol­i­day tra­di­tions of their land. The two side­kicks try to help Anna and Elsa cel­e­brate the spe­cial time of the year after the towns­peo­ple leave them on their own.

“We did a lot of re­search, div­ing into Scan­di­na­vian hol­i­day tra­di­tions,” ex­plains Deters. “While the back­drop for Frozen is a

takes au­di­ences back to the beloved world of By Ramin Za­hed

fic­tional Chris­tian na­tion, the movie it­self is a very in­clu­sive prop­erty. That’s why we felt strongly that the short would be cen­tered on an all-in­clu­sive hol­i­day. Whether it’s Christ­mas, Hanukkah or any other hol­i­day, ev­ery­body can re­late to th­ese tra­di­tions of spend­ing time with loved ones and pass­ing on th­ese tra­di­tions to your fam­ily. It re­ally cuts across all na­tions and re­li­gions.”

Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton says although they found the no­tion of work­ing on such a hugely pop­u­lar prop­erty as Frozen daunt­ing at first, they quickly re­al­ized it was sim­ply a won­der­ful col­lab­o­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and a real joy to sur­round them­selves with th­ese char­ac­ters and the mu­sic of Sam­sel and An­der­son. “This was also our first mu­si­cal as di­rec­tors, but we had a re­ally good of ex­cel­lence. “The mu­sic plays such a ma­jor role in the first movie,” says Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton. “Who doesn’t know the song ‘Let It Go’ at this point? The cast is also so won­der­ful, and it was great to have them back in their orig­i­nal roles. One of my fa­vorite parts was be­ing there when they’re record­ing the song with the live orches­tra. You get goose bumps sit­ting there, hear­ing th­ese songs come to life, and you know they will be­come part of the Dis­ney mu­si­cal legacy.”

Deters points out that one of the chal­lenges of the project was mak­ing sure the short sits on the shelf with other chap­ters in the Frozen world. “[Writer/di­rec­tors] Jen­nifer Lee and Chris Buck had just be­gun to de­velop the Frozen se­quel, so we didn’t know what they were go­ing to do in that movie be­yond the broad strokes. So, it was a bit of a search in the dark. But we were for­tu­nate to have many of the same team that worked on the fea­ture on our team, in­clud­ing pro­duc­tion de­signer David Womer­s­ley.”

It took a crew of about 300 Dis­ney artists and tech­ni­cians to com­plete the fea­turette in 18 months. “Col­lab­o­rat­ing with this team was one of the things I value most about the ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Deters. “The short cen­ters on the im­por­tance of shar­ing hol­i­day tra­di­tions with our loved ones, and we ended up mak­ing our own nice fam­ily with this pro­duc­tion team in an un­ex­pected way. At its core, the Frozen world is about a dys­func­tional fam­ily that comes to­gether and finds each other, de­spite their tri­als and tribu­la­tions.”

When asked to pick their fa­vorite song, the di­rec­tors hes­i­tate at first, of­fer­ing the old chest­nut that it’s like pick­ing their fa­vorite child. But then, after a minute they both ad­mit it’s the song “When We’re To­gether.” “It’s re­ally mag­i­cal,” notes Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton. “We hope we get to hear it on Christ­mas mu­sic ra­dio year after year. It cap­tures the ba­sic themes of both the movie and the fea­turette. The more I see it, the more eas­ily I cry at the song ev­ery time.” Dis­ney will screen Olaf’s Frozen Ad­ven­ture with Pixar’s Coco in the­aters, be­gin­ning Nov. 22.

It’s not of­ten you hear about an amaz­ing an­i­mated project set out to fea­ture “bad CG” based on an in­spi­ra­tional story from the In­ter­net. But that’s ex­actly how Nikita Di­akur and his team set out to cre­ate their ac­claimed, award-win­ning short Ugly. The 12-minute project, which won the top prize for Best An­i­mated Short at the Ot­tawa In­ter­na­tional An­i­ma­tion Fes­ti­val, is a haunt­ing mix of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic im­ages fea­tur­ing a Na­tive Amer­i­can chief and an ugly cat try­ing to find peace in a dan­ger­ous world.

Di­akur, a Rus­sian-born an­i­ma­tor who lives in Mainz, Ger­many and stud­ied an­i­ma­tion at the Royal Col­lege of Art in Lon­don, de­cided to make the short about five years ago after read­ing “A Cat Name Ugly” on a site called great-in­spi­ra­tional-quotes.com. He notes, “In ad­di­tion to the story, a huge in­spi­ra­tion was Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, es­pe­cially mu­sic, sym­bols and their re­la­tion­ship with the planet. The main char­ac­ter is Na­tive Amer­i­can, and he and Ugly the cat stand for the good side of the ugly world.”

To pro­duce the an­i­ma­tion, which in­cludes CG, pup­pets, sim­u­lated mar­i­onettes, mo­tors and dy­nam­ics, Di­akur de­cided to rely on crowd­fund­ing. ( Ugly was made for about 22,000 eu­ros—5,000 of which came from a suc­cess­ful Kick­starter cam­paign.) “Un­for­tu­nately, by the time we de­cided to do crowd­fund­ing, po­ten­tial back­ers were more cau­tious,” he re­mem­bers. “Con­sid­er­ing that we didn’t have a fan base, this meant a lot of plan­ning and per­sis­tence…It took 30 days of full-time post­ing and con­tent cre­ation. In the end, it was a close call and we just reached the goal in the last few hours. The raised money was far from enough to be able to fin­ish the project—about half went to­wards re­wards, Kick­starter fees and taxes—still, it was worth the ef­fort. Sud­denly, it wasn’t just our friends and fam­ily who knew about Ugly. Now we had a tiny fan base, which felt very mo­ti­vat­ing.”

To cre­ate the eye-pop­ping an­i­ma­tion, Di­akur re­searched “bad” CG that would match the theme of the story. He says the whole look and con­cept re­sulted from trial and er­ror. “Mak­ing the film with sim­u­lated mar­i­onettes re­sulted from try­ing to find short­cuts, then re­al­iz­ing that th­ese short­cuts aren’t short­cuts, but cre­ated a num­ber of ob­sta­cles. The ben­e­fit of work­ing on your own project is that you can set your own pace and de­velop things un­til they are close to some­thing you like.”

And yes, there will be more vis­its to the Ugly world. Di­akur says he is fol­low­ing up his short with one about the kids from the play­ground. “This will be a short clip in­volv­ing a com­mu­nal street rave and a bungee jump from an apart­ment block,” he says. “Long-term, I’d like to fo­cus more on in­ter­ac­tive an­i­ma­tion and ex­plore plat­forms that are more de­signed to­wards that ap­proach.”

The di­rec­tor says one of his all-time fa­vorite an­i­mated short films is The Tale of Lit­tle Pup­pet­boy by Jo­hannes Ny­holm, which he caught at An­i­mafest Za­greb in 2010. “At the same event, I saw films by Don Hertzfeldt, David OReilly and Priit Pärn. It was my first ever an­i­ma­tion/film fes­ti­val and it had a huge ef­fect on me. If you ask about fea­ture films, it would prob­a­bly be The Grad­u­ate and Ground­hog Day. I’ve seen both films more than 20 times each!”

Di­akur says he can’t re­ally judge the suc­cess of his short ob­jec­tively. “Some view­ers com­ment that the film gets them emo­tion­ally, oth­ers like the colors and the over­all look…or the ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proach to an­i­ma­tion. The emo­tional scenes were hard to achieve, given the un­pre­dictable be­hav­ior of com­puter sim­u­la­tion, so I am ex­tremely happy that the film works on that level. I know that the film doesn’t speak to ev­ery­one—we had re­jec­tions from a lot of fes­ti­vals—but ap­peal­ing to ev­ery­one was never the main goal. The main re­ward has al­ways been the process and the op­por­tu­nity to do an un­com­pro­mised per­sonal film. Find­ing out that view­ers like the film is a huge mo­ti­va­tion and a gift that we never ex­pected.”

As part­ing words of ad­vice to as­pir­ing an­i­ma­tors, he says, “Take the time to do your own projects. This is the time when you are most free to im­prove as an­i­ma­tor and film­maker!” For more in­for­ma­tion, visit vimeo.com/niki­ta­di­akur

To say Span­ish comic-book artist and an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Al­berto Vázquez has been en­joy­ing a great year would be a wild un­der­state­ment. Ear­lier this year, he made his­tory by win­ning the Goya (Span­ish Os­car) for both Best An­i­mated Fea­ture for Bird­boy: The For­got­ten Chil­dren (based on his graphic novel Psy­cho­nauts) and Best An­i­mated Short. U.S. dis­trib­u­tor GKIDS will be screen­ing the ac­claimed fea­ture at the An­i­ma­tion Is Film fes­ti­val in Los An­ge­les, qual­i­fy­ing it for Os­car con­sid­er­a­tion.

Mean­while, Vázquez’s beau­ti­fully drawn and hi­lar­i­ous an­i­mated short Dec­o­rado also re­ceived the Au­di­ence Award at the Ot­tawa In­ter­na­tional An­i­ma­tion Fes­ti­val last month. We caught up with him re­cently to find out more about his crowd-pleas­ing short, which is de­scribed as an “ex­is­ten­tial, ironic dark tale about the sins of so­ci­ety and hu­man re­la­tion­ships pre­sented in a tra­di­tional fa­ble set­ting.”

“We started Dec­o­rado two and a half years ago,” he tells us in an email in­ter­view. “My main in­spi­ra­tion is my work as a car­toon­ist. All my work orig­i­nates in one form or an­other from sto­ries that I’ve drawn on pa­per. Both Bird­boyoy and Psi­conau-Psi­co­nau­tas are based on a 100-page graphic novel I pub­lished 12 years ago,, and Uni­corn Blood and Dec­o­rado also come from short comics.”

The 11-minute pro­duc­tion took Vázquez and his team about a year to com­plete, us­ing Flash an­i­ma­tion­a­tion and Pho­to­shop. “The back­ground­sunds are made with col­lages of foundnd en­grav­ings, although some­time­ses I had to draw new scenes im­i­tatin­gat­ing the style of 19th cen­tury en­grav­ings. I foundound it in­ter­estin­ter­est­ing to mix un­der­ground an­i­mals with th­ese old paint­ings con­cep­tu­ally, es­pe­cially since I love th­ese types of book il­lus­tra­tions aes­thet­i­cally.”

A Del­i­cate Bal­ance Vázquez says one of the most dif­fi­cult as­pects of mak­ing the short was find­ing the bal­ance in the story. “It’s all about the del­i­cate and fluid bal­ance be­tween comedy and drama, the ab­surd and the tran­scen­den­tal,” he ex­plains. “The rhythm of the short was also com­plex be­cause the story is done as a puz­zle, with small sketches rang­ing from three to 30 sec­onds long, that grad­u­ally present a com­plete pic­ture.”

The di­rec­tor says he loves the world of French artist Roland To­por and names René Laloux’s 1973 sci-fi clas­sic Fan­tas­tic Planet as one of his fa­vorites. “I love the work of To­por, in gen­eral both graph­i­cally and con­cep­tu­ally. I think he’s a to­tal artist. Of course, I also con­sid­erc my­self the son of The Simp­sons! Some of my fa­vorite an­i­mated char­ac­ters are Mr. PeanuPeanut­but­ter ( BoJack Horse­man),man), Dr. ZoiZoid­berg ( Fu­tu­rama) and

Ralph Wig­gWig­gum ( The Simp­sons).”

He also con­fesses that he con­sid­ers him­self a car­toon­ist in gen­eral. “I have worked as an il­lus­tra­tor in news­pa­pers, and I have done graphic nov­els. Now I do an­i­ma­tion, and I’m also fin­ish­ing a video game. I have not stud­ied an­i­ma­tion, but I am in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing new me­dia. For me, draw­ing is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage, a way of think­ing and, above all, telling sto­ries. The goal is sim­ply to grow as a car­toon­ist and not get bored work­ing.”

When asked whether he prefers shorts or longer fea­tures, Vázquez says he likes do­ing tic, dark fan­tasy. I am cur­rently de­vel­op­ing a new fea­ture film ti­tled Uni­corn Wars, but I will con­tinue to make short films!”

In­ci­den­tally, one of the fas­ci­nat­ing play­ers fea­tured in Dec­o­rado is a char­ac­ter named Ronald the Duck, which is a par­ody of a cer­tain Dis­ney char­ac­ter. The di­rec­tor pro­vides us with more de­tails. “Th­ese char­ac­ters all come from the un­con­scious,” he ex­plains. “Ronald the Duck, for ex­am­ple, is an al­co­holic beg­gar who uri­nates ev­ery­where. Romeo_69 is a mon­ster who just wants to be loved, while the ghost Ramiro is the de dead best friend of Arnold, the pro­tagon pro­tag­o­nist. Arnold is a de­pressed chara char­ac­ter who re­al­izes one day that every­thing around him is fals false, a dé­cor ( dec­o­rado)— even his wife Maria speaks in the rob ro­botic voice of Lo­quendo’s com com­puter soft­ware.” V Vázquez says he is also de­vel­ovelop­ing a 10-hour adult TV se­rieseries fea­tur­ing the char­ac­ters from D Dec­o­rado. “I will add many more nunuances about their per­sonal re­la­tion­sre­la­tion­ships in this longer project.” When peo­ple come to him for ad­vice abouta work­ing in an­i­ma­tion, the wit­ty­witt Span­ish helmer of­fers a few gold­engo rules: “Make an an­i­mat­ed­mated short,” he says. “If you do not haveha the money or the knowl­edge,edge you can do things us­ing on­line tu­to­ri­als. No mat­ter how good or badly an­i­mated the piece is, what mat­ters most is the story. Draw­ing al­ways al­lows you to rep­re­sent things in a sim­pler way. In other words, do it any­way. Shut up and do it!” Dec­o­rado con­tin­ues to play in ma­jor fes­ti­vals around the world. GKIDS will re­lease Bird­boy: The For­got­ten Chil­dren in 2018 and will screen it on Satur­day, Oct. 21 at 4:15 p.m. at the An­i­ma­tion Is Film fes­ti­val in Los An­ge­les. For more info, visit www.dec­o­ra­doshort­film.com.

om­puter sci­en­tist turned an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Nicholas Ari­oli says he was struck one day by the phrase “life sav­ings.” “It seemed to me both a melan­choly and a hope­ful con­cept at the same time,” he notes. “We can ac­cu­mu­late one life sav­ings, and spend it on one grand thing. Our dreams and our mor­tal­ity col­lide in this com­mon phrase. I liked the in­ter­est­ing mix of feel­ings I felt think­ing about that.”

That’s when he de­cided to ex­plore that ex­cited/doomed feel­ing in the CG-an­i­mated short film Coin Op­er­ated, which has won sev­eral fes­ti­val hon­ors and is gath­er­ing more steam as we head into a tight award sea­son. Ari­oli says he based the film on his own per­sonal long-held de­sire to ex­plore outer space first­hand. Coin Op­er­ated spans 70 years in the life of a man who falls in love with space ex­plo­ration at an early age.

The New York City-born and raised Ari­oli says he has al­ways seen an­i­ma­tion as not sep­a­rate from film­mak­ing in gen­eral. “I think an­i­ma­tion is film­mak­ing at its most pow­er­ful and least con­strained. My film­maker he­roes are Steven Spiel­berg, Brad Bird, Robert Alt­man, Stan­ley Kubrick, Hayao Miyazaki, Sofia Cop­pola… I could go on for a while. Out­side of film, Bill Wat­ter­son and his in­com­pa­ra­ble Calvin and Hobbes is a big in­flu­ence.” He also names World of To­mor­row, The House of s a free­lance pro­duc­tion de­signer and con­cept artist, Robin Joseph’s clients have in­cluded ma­jor stu­dios such as Pixar, Il­lu­mi­na­tion, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Sony. But the In­dian-born artist, who calls Toronto his home th­ese days, al­ways wanted to try his hand at di­rect­ing his own an­i­mated short. That’s how the beau­ti­fully an­i­mated project Fox and the Whale was born.

Joseph used his per­sonal sav­ings to fi­nance the short, which Small Cubes, Fresh Gua­camole, Akira, The In­cred­i­bles, Spir­ited Away and Rata­touille as some of his fa­vorite an­i­mated shorts and fea­tures.

Now that he’s got a big fes­ti­val con­tender un­der his belt, what does he love most about mak­ing an an­i­mated short? “I re­ally en­joyed the chal­lenge of telling a com­plete story within the con­straint of five min­utes and no dia­logue,” he re­sponds.

Ari­oli and his team used Maya, Ren­derMan, and Nuke to cre- ate the an­i­ma­tion. “A key piece was work­ing with Nim­ble Col­lec­tive, who pro­vided the pipe­line, al­low­ing us to col­lab­o­rate as a team of in­de­pen­dent artists,” he says. “It took us two years to make this five-minute film…That’s OK. I’m OK with that. Every­thing is fine…Oh God! What have I done?” he jokes. “This is my first film as I’m a com­puter sci­en­tist by train­ing, so I had to learn a lot on the fly. Luck­ily, I had a fan­tas­tic crew, but there was a good deal of im­poster syn­drome!” his per­sonal field record­ings. “Tim was also gen­er­ous enough to walk me through pick­ing stu­dio mon­i­tors within my bud­get and also of­fer­ing ad­vice. He had a busy sched­ule, but he al­ways left room for me to give him a quick ring. I re­ally couldn’t have fin­ished the film with­out Tim. I re­ally, re­ally got lucky!”

Joseph and his part­ner Kim Leow worked to­gether for 16 months to re­al­ize his vi­sion. “All the CG char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion, mod­el­ing and rig­ging was done by my part­ner Kim, us­ing Maya,” notes Joseph. “I did the rest us­ing Adobe CC. Sto­ry­boards, back­grounds and 2D an­i­ma­tion was done in Pho­to­shop. VFX and com­posit­ing was done with After Ef­fects. The edit­ing was done in Pre­miere, and fo­ley and sound de­sign was done us­ing Au­di­tion.”

Cit­ing Michael Du­dok de Wit’s Fa­ther and Daugh­ter and Yuri Norstein’s Hedge­hog in the Fog as two of his fa­vorite shorts, Joseph says the in­spi­ra­tion for his own project was the pur­suit of cu­rios­ity. “A lot of it came from be­ing a big fan of ex­plo­ration and sci­ence, es­pe­cially space ex­plo­ration. The am­bi­tions at the fringes of it of­ten seem one step be­yond reach. The fact that we still try in­stills a sense of awe and won­der. At the other end is an idea of fail­ure, or at least what is per­ceived as fail­ure. It’s a frag­ile state of mind at times, but to me it holds such op­ti­mism.”

Look­ing back, the di­rec­tor says the learn­ing curve the project pro­vided was a high­light of the ex­pe­ri­ence. The other was the work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Leow. “Be­ing a cou­ple and work­ing to­gether can be tricky,” he ad­mits. “It can be a very fine line. If all goes well, after a point there is a short­hand that de­vel­ops…and when that hap­pens, it’s re­ally, re­ally great!”

This year’s Best An­i­mated Fea­ture con­test may be dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous years be­cause new Academy vot­ing rules have changed to en­large the voter pool to all 7,000 Academy vot­ers. (Be­fore, only the 200 mem­bers of the shorts and an­i­ma­tion branch were al­lowed to vote.) Nom­i­na­tion for this cat­e­gory, like the Best Pic­ture Os­car, will be pref­er­en­tial in­stead of

Co-di­rec­tors Ste­vie Wer­m­ers-Skel­ton and Kevin Deters

Strange World: Nikita Di­akur’s stun­ning short fol­lows a Na­tive Amer­i­can chief and an ugly cat in a cruel town.

Nicholas Ari­oli’s

Robin Joseph’s

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