Oscar's Animated Shorts and Traditional Technique

This year's Oscar nominees in the animated short category include two traditionally animated films, The Little Match Girl and The Danish Poet. Hand-drawn animation has always enjoyed success in the short-film Oscar category.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

All right. Enough planet of the apes. It's on to the Oscars. And in traditional NPR fashion, we're going to do a story on one of the more obscure categories: the animated short. That's where animation expert and writer Charles Solomon has found some old-school technique.

Mr. CHARLES SOLOMON (Animation Expert, Writer): This year's Oscar nominees include two traditionally animated films. One is "The Little Match Girl", a retelling of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Huddled in a alley in a frozen, gray St. Petersburg, the orphaned title character savors the brief warmth her matches bring and imagines a kinder, brightly-colored world where she is loved. The film uses only images and music to tell its story. Roger Allers directed "The Little Match Girl." He co-directed the animated feature "The Lion King", but says the short form offers opportunities to explore new ways of storytelling.

Mr. ROGER ALLERS (Director, "The Little Match Girl"): To have a story fill a feature-length, you have to have B storylines and secondary characters, and the short allows you to really focus on one aspect and sometimes perhaps even just one emotion.

Mr. SOLOMON: "The Little Match Girl" continues the tradition of lavish Disney films. In contrast, "The Danish Poet" presents a world of simple, more stylized figures that suggest folk art. Its bold colors reinforce the film's playful yet sometimes complicated account of two intertwined love stories.

In the first, a young poet falls in love with the woman named Ingeborg who's been forced to marry a farmer. She only obtains her freedom after a bizarre barnyard accident.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Danish Poet")

(Soundbite of a cow mooing, falling and crashing)

Mr. SOLOMON: After her husband is flattened by a falling cow, she's able to pursue her true love.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Danish Poet")

Ms. LIV ULLMANN (Actress): Ingeborg (unintelligible) wrote a letter to Kaspar, telling him that she was now free to marry him.

Mr. SOLOMON: The film is narrated by actress Liv Ullmann. "The Danish Poet" feels like a family history, but director Torill Kove insists it's the fantasy.

Mr. TORILL KOVE (Director, "The Danish Poet"): Whenever I think that people think it's a real story, then I wonder a bit if that means they also think that the cow actually landed on the farmer's head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SOLOMON: In both silly and serious films, hand-drawn animation has always enjoyed success in the short film Oscar category. No creator of animated shorts is more admired than Frederic Back, the fragile shimmering images drawn in colored pencil in his films remained in a benchmark of beauty and individual expression. He won Oscars for his ecologically-themed shorts "Crack" and "The Man Who Planted Trees".

Mr. Christopher Plummer (Narrator): My root led across the region at its widest point. And after hiking for three days, I found myself in a wasteland.

Mr. SOLOMON: The wasteland the narrator describes is eventually transformed by a man who plants thousands of oak trees. Back believes that films that will be seen by children can be more than mindless fun.

Mr. Frederick Back (Director, "The Man Who Planted Trees"): The intelligence of children has no limit so it gave me the possibility to express what I always found fundamentally important.

Mr. SOLOMON: The importance of telling complex stories is something "Match Girl's" Roger Allers understands. He spent years fighting to keep the fairy tale's original ending in which the little girl dies.

Mr. ALLERS: You say the word cartoon, and immediately you think of weh, weh, boing. But it was an interesting challenge on "Match Girl", within the framework of just six minutes, to tell a whole story and to have it have some emotional impact, which was a fun thing to be able to do.

Mr. SOLOMON: As in all the other Oscar categories, the animated shorts contest will come down to a question of what will probably win versus which should win. And the computer animated shorts listed, "No Time For Acorns" and "Maestro", are also strong contenders. But this year, the pencil could prove mightier than the computer.

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