Mini film school
How to make an Oscar-winning short
Crest Theatre1013 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
The following is a five-point hypothesis deduced from this year’s Academy Award short-film nominees (opening this Friday at the Crest Theatre):
Endanger a child: Tell yourself: It’s not manipulation, it’s pathos. Justify your impulse by striving for a broader social consciousness, or at least a pretension thereto—if there’s room for an upsetting statistic before the credits roll, great. Consider the titular rural Indian boy who quite reasonably would rather be in school than in the indentured servitude of writer-director Gregg Helvey’s Kavi. Or, most effectively, the little girl showing signs of post-Chernobyl radiation sickness in writer-director Juanita Wilson’s The Door. Kids these days—they’re your ticket to the red carpet.
Seem foreign: It’s hard not to notice that all 10 of these films have strong ties to other countries, including Argentina, Australia, Denmark, England, France, India, Ireland, Spain and Sweden.
The basic idea must be to cultivate exoticism and sophistication. For instance, in the same way that Kavi is American by way of India, The New Tenants, a dark comedy about two guys who move into an apartment and discover its troubled history, is American by way of Denmark. That is, the Americanness is annoyingly ingratiating, but the foreignness might be a saving grace. Also, it helps, when seeming foreign, to actually be foreign: Animator Fabrice Joubert’s French Roast, in which a snooty Parisian businessman stalls paying his cafe coffee tab, just oozes Frenchness. While you’re at it, why not try to be doubly or even triply foreign? The Door is from Ireland, but in Russian. François Alaux, Herve de Crecy and Ludovic Houplain’s Logorama, a slick animated rhapsody of corporate-logo omnipresence, is set in Los Angeles, and features lots of lippy American dialogue, but it’s actually from Argentina and is subtitled in French. With so many layers of otherworldliness, who’ll even notice that the animation is much cleverer than the patter dialogue or the undercooked, action-packed story?
Know at least a couple of the right people: It’s a mixed blessing to make a film of less than standard feature length, just as it is to work outside the big-studio establishment. So a little name recognition goes a long way—especially when the movie itself is short. This must at least partially explain the hey-look cameo appearance in The New Tenants of Vincent D’Onofrio, not to mention that of ubiquitous indie-movie guy Kevin Corrigan and zeitgeisty public-radio-approved nonfictioneer David “Not Quite Sedaris” Rakoff, who co-wrote and co-stars. Similarly, it probably doesn’t hurt to have Oscar-nominated director David Fincher doing one of the voices (of “Pringles Original,” to be exact) in Logorama.
Flatter the Academy: Assuming it’s still true that most Oscar voters are cranky, out-of-touch septuagenarians who like to hear themselves talk, the animated Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty seems especially savvy. In this clever little ditty from writer Kathleen O’Rourke and director Nicky Phelan, one sweet old lady’s take on a simple fairy tale becomes a randomly digressive, amusingly heated anti-ageist screed, told to the captive audience of her petrified granddaughter (arguably another endangered child). Of course, even ancient Academy members want to feel with-it, too, and a touch of subversiveness sometimes does the trick. As long as it’s harmless, as with the animated sweet old lady of Javier Recio Gracia’s The Lady and the Reaper, a widow awaiting reunion with her husband and prompting a battle between the grim reaper and a hot-shot doctor trying to keep her alive; or obvious, as with the oh-so-irreverent tone of The New Tenants: Ruh-roh, did they just give the old lady a big bag of heroin!?
Go with what works: As A Matter of Loaf and Death reminds us, the heroes of Nick Park’s beloved Claymation Wallace & Gromit series seem most on their game within the narrative framework of short subjects. Here the distractible Englishman and his shrewdly loyal canine companion venture into the bakery business—but without giving up the crazy contraptions, high-stakes crime solving and romantic prospects that usually tend to enrich their adventures. Park doesn’t take his audience for granted but does know what it wants. That also goes for writer-director Patrik Eklund, whose Swedishly deadpan live-action charmer Instead of Abracadabra, among the best of this year’s lot, delivers an aspiring young magician in the Napoleon Dynamite mode of lovable loserdom. If there’s a magic word for guaranteed Oscar glory, you might hear it first from him.