The night before the Oscar nominations, Vanessa Schwartz got the jitters.
It was not enough that her very first film, a college project, was receiving serious consideration from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. It was not enough that “The Janitor” had already collected a list of awards and had been featured at the Sundance and Edinburgh festivals.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 14, Schwartz tossed and turned. “I thought, ‘It’s Valentine’s Day and I don’t have a boyfriend and I’m not even going to get nominated,’ ” she said. “I got really depressed.”
The next morning, the academy announced that “The Janitor” was among five nominees in the Short Animated Film category. At age 25, and still in classes at CalArts, Schwartz can count herself one of a dozen student filmmakers ever to contend for an Oscar. On Monday night, she will arrive at the Shrine Auditorium amid such Hollywood names as Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster and Robert Redford.
“Me,” she said. “Just a little animator.”
Now she can relax, right?
The janitor is a pudgy fellow made of soft scribbles and curves. He works for God.
This job entails sweeping up around the cosmos, painting Mars with two coats of red and sprucing up the moon, which, the janitor grumbles, is a “real dust catcher.” Between complaints, he manages to decipher several of Christianity’s central mysteries.
Odd shapes inhabit this brief tale. They wriggle and tumble across the screen, the warmth of their presence evincing a high form of artistry. In less than five minutes, the janitor seems like an old friend . . . a funny old friend.
Within months of its completion, the film garnered a Student Academy Award and the Best First Film prize at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It attracted so much attention in Europe that the BBC flew Schwartz to England to be part of a documentary on young animators.
If all this smacks of overnight success, it is not.
Schwartz arrived at CalArts in Valencia as a costume designer in 1988. Jules Engel, dean of the animation department, happened to see a few of her drawings. As an animator whose resume includes everything from Mr. Magoo to highly experimental work, he took notice.
“It was obvious to me that I was dealing with a very large talent,” he said. “You don’t ever see such sophisticated, imaginative drawings from such a young person.”
Engel persuaded her to switch majors and, shortly thereafter, she heard “The Janitor.” It was one of several skits on a spoken-word album by Geoffrey Lewis, a screen actor and father of actress Juliette Lewis.
“I loved it right away,” Schwartz recalled. “I really related to the humor and it fit perfectly with some of the characters that I had been developing in my drawing.”
But she was new to this art. The images that consumed her, a vision of how the film should look, did not readily translate through young hands. After two years of studies, Schwartz quit school and returned to her native Vancouver. She turned to Canada’s National Film Board for whatever help they might offer a fledgling animator.
“They stuck me up in an attic where there was no ventilation,” she said. “They left me there to rot.”
For nine months she drew in that government office. The result was hundreds of sketches, all of which ended up stored away in a box.
“It was right for her then. She needed to get away,” Engel said. “But we kept in touch. Then I got more aggressive to make her come back.”
By the time Schwartz returned to CalArts in late 1992, she had developed a distinctive style. At last, she felt adequate to the task of transferring her vision of “The Janitor” onto paper.
Drawing consumed the ensuing months. This work required an absolute discipline that belies the filmmaker’s youthful appearance, her seeming naivete. Schwartz appears to encompass the best qualities of both an enthusiastic newcomer and a veteran.
The combination served her well when, in the summer of 1993, she needed a place to continue her work during school break. She picked up the telephone and began calling animation studios. At Bill Melendez Productions, where the “Peanuts” television shows and various commercials are created, the animators offered her a vacant desk.
“A lot of the new animators are going for a look that’s very abrasive. Her style is more smooth,” said Evert Brown, a director at the Hollywood facility. “The story has an old-time feel, and her drawings picked that up perfectly. We were really excited by the project.”
Along the way, Brown and others helped on matters of technique such as movement from one scene to the next. Schwartz finished the drawing and filming that summer and spent the fall semester adding sound.
“The Janitor” was completed days before the January, 1994, earthquake threw CalArts, and its filmmaking facilities, into disarray.
Mark Kirkland, an alumnus of the school, has directed more than a dozen episodes of “The Simpsons.” Henry Selick directed the acclaimed full-length feature “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Schwartz is by no means the first CalArts student to succeed in the field of animation.
But she is the first to hit it big while still on campus. “The Janitor” served as a project for her bachelor’s degree. She has now embarked on graduate studies, aided by a grant from the Princess Grace USA Foundation.
“I didn’t plan on grad school,” she said. “But I’d never received an award like that before and I really wanted to use it.”
Her recent success has brought other firsts. Last week, she found herself sitting beside Hanks at a luncheon where nominees receive certificates from the motion picture academy.
“I was worried that when I went up to get my certificate, nobody would clap because nobody knew me,” she said. “But Tom was really nice and he motivated our whole table to really clap.”
The fact remains that competition is rigorous for this year’s Oscar in short animated films. Alison Snowden and David Fine earned their third nomination with “Bob’s Birthday,” a humorous look at midlife crises that was produced by the National Film Board. “The Big Story,” a British work by puppet-makers Tim Watts and David Stoten, is also in the running.
People tell Schwartz that she should be satisfied with a nomination. Indeed, the young filmmaker realizes she may never have it this good again.
“It’s such a fluky thing,” she said. “I may do better films, but they may not get this kind of recognition.”
So she is enjoying the fun while it lasts, right?
Not quite. Part of her realizes that she is so close to holding the Oscar. That part of her would kill to win.
“I’m trying to relax. I’m trying,” Schwartz said. “But I hope I don’t lose. I don’t want to feel bad.”