A Musical Visit to Arendelle
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