Often, they're cobbled together by hyper-creative basement dwellers far from Hollywood -- in Ireland, Eastern Europe or parts unknown. But this year, three of the five animated shorts nominated for Academy Awards come from the big animation studios -- Pixar, Disney and Blue Sky, a Fox-owned boutique.
The clash of the titans is enough to make one wonder: Has the funky, sometimes experimental, animated short gone Hollywood?
"If we went back 40 to 50 years, the studio presence would not be surprising at all," says Will Ryan, a writer-producer and past president of the International Animated Film Society. "Shorts were pretty much controlled by the major studios, even though there was good work being done by the independents. Shorts were a regular part of the bill of fare at cinemas.
"The studios have never abandoned them, but since the mid-'50s, it's been slower going. The studios decided they didn't have to offer a short -- they figured cartoons were for television and double features were becoming the norm.
"And other countries became more interested in animation; the government in Canada, for instance, supported animation. But there's been a resurgence [here] in the past 10 years."
There's even a touch of Hollywood politics and intrigue in this year's race for the animated short Oscar. Many in the community have rallied behind "Destino," a 1940s collaboration between Walt Disney and the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It's a show of support for Roy Disney, the film's executive producer, in his battles with Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner.
Then there's the presence of "Boundin' " from Pixar, whose dissolving partnership with Disney has also been a very public part of the turmoil at the Burbank company.
Still, the campaign seems to be proceeding in a fairly genteel fashion. In fact, despite the commercial connotations of the form -- long a vehicle in advertising to children -- the animation studios claim an almost aristocratic disdain for the rough-and-dirty of Oscar marketing. No army of publicists or double-truck ads in the trades; no ghost-written pleas from aging cartoon characters, a la Robert Wise.
"The film is important for what it says about the art of animation as opposed to the commerce of animation," Roy Disney says.
Fox, for its part, won't discuss how it's positioning "Gone Nutty," which revives the indomitable acorn-hoarding Scrat character from Blue Sky's "Ice Age," but don't expect a Miramax-style marketing campaign, says Chris Meledandri, president of 20th Century Fox animation.
And Pixar's marketing of "Boundin'," the story of a sheared sheep in a mythical Wild West, will be "very subtle," according to a company spokesman, mostly involving feature stories on folksy writer-director Bud Luckey, a veteran animator with roots in "Sesame Street."
"Our philosophy for 'Boundin' ' is the same as it's been for our animated shorts in the past," the representative said. "Low-key in the way people expect of Pixar. We really let the films speak for themselves."
It's sometimes hard to hear above the roar of feature-length animation, which since 2002 has had its own Oscar category. "Shrek" won that year, followed by the Japanese "Spirited Away" in 2003; this year, Pixar's "Finding Nemo," a critic's darling that has grossed $340 million domestically, is considered a heavy favorite.
But shorts fans praise them for their economy of form, their resemblance more to the carefully crafted short story than to the sprawling novel, and they say the form allows experimentation and unconventional storytelling on a beer budget. "A short can be made with a lot less pressure, a lot more freedom," says Fox's Meledandri. "A short is never made with the idea of being a commercial product."
"We use the short as an opportunity to test tools, and to train animators and tech directors and story artists to do something with a beginning, middle and end instead of the intense specialization of features," says Osnat Shurer, producer of "Boundin' " and executive producer of shorts at Pixar.
Shurer points out that Pixar began in shorts and that it has included a short on the reel for every feature it has released. ("Boundin'" will debut as the appetizer before "The Incredibles," Pixar's fall picture.)
"I think you're going to see a lot more of them," says Frank Terry, an animator who teaches at the California Institute of Arts. "I hate to use the term, but you'll see them used as 'branding' opportunities, with studios using them to define who they are and what they do.
"A short like 'For the Birds,' from Pixar, comes out, and then Pixar is known for its wacky sense of humor; it's a very valuable thing for a studio."
A short's Oscar win -- the first for cartoons went to Disney for 1932's "Flowers and Trees," seven decades before the academy recognized animated features -- can mean something as indefinable as the lifting of spirits or reputation, or something more tangible. Last year's winner, a science-fiction kids' film called "The ChubbChubbs!," will be developed into a feature by Sony.
The most long-awaited of the shorts, and the favorite for the Oscar, is "Destino," which was more than half a century in the making. While its story is left vague, the film portrays a woman seeking her love against a kaleidoscopic setting and a yearning score. "Destino" is full of surreal transformations -- a woman's head turns into a dandelion, ants turn into bicycles, backgrounds become foregrounds, and there are several appearances by Dali's trademark melting watch.
The film is a collaboration from Dali's eight months of working at the then-new Disney lot in Burbank in the mid-1940s.
"He came in for work each morning at 9 and went home every evening at 5," Roy Disney says of the artist's tenure, considered until recently one of the great lost opportunities of cinema history. "And was a perfectly normal human being -- though he had an abysmal accent, which made him impossible to understand.
"There are some great photographs of Dali sitting on one of Walt's backyard railroad cars, wearing an overcoat and looking very mysterious."
Disney and Dali began speaking about working together after bumping into each other at a 1945 party at Jack Warner's house. Dali had already called Disney (along with the Marx Brothers and Cecil B. DeMille) a great American surrealist. But while a song was recorded, some paintings completed and a very small amount of footage cut, Disney bailed on the project because of financial problems brought on by the end of World War II.
Decades later, Roy Disney discovered a slew of Dali's paintings while putting together "Fantasia 2000." Besides being entranced by the idea of this legendary collaboration, he was struck with a legal reality after consulting studio attorneys: "The deal that was made with Dali was that the art only belongs to Disney after the picture got made."
Roy Disney says that the paintings are worth nearly $10 million but that they may have increased in value because of the film's acclaim. Still, he says, "Destino" is most important as an artistic statement.
"It's a wonderful testament [that] -- with all the nonsense between 2-D and 3-D animation, or modern versus traditional animation, all those silly arguments -- that animation is a medium in which you can do anything."
For all the good work being done in animated shorts, they're still hard to see. Shorts, which must be less than 40 minutes in length, qualify for the Oscars by screening for at least three days at a Los Angeles cinema, appearing at an approved film festival, or running as part of a bill with a studio feature.
"Destino," for instance, in a pairing nearly as surreal as the short itself, ran before some screenings of the Eddie Murphy comedy "Daddy Day Care."
Studios can also package shorts on their feature DVDs, such as the "Gone Nutty" short that comes on the "Ice Age" disc.
For independent filmmakers and studios, it's more difficult, although forums are slowly growing -- such as animation festivals and touring programs like 2003's "The Animation Show," plus an annual tour of Oscar-nominated live-action and animated shorts that visits 70 cities starting this month.
There's also been talk at some art houses of reviving the screening of shorts before features.
One sign that the indie animation world is still thriving is "Nibbles," an Oscar-nominated Canadian short with art so rough as to be almost abstract. The tale of a group of hungry people who speed across the countryside, the stick figures, wavy backgrounds and unstable compositions almost announce the film's left-field, lo-fi origins.
The film's producer, Ron Diamond, thinks the studio presence helps indies. "If studios educate audiences to see shorts before features, it'll develop an interest in programming by independents. Studios weren't doing it 10 years ago."
The longest and most narrative of the Oscar nominees is "Harvie Krumpet," a Geoffrey Rush-narrated Australian film that chronicles the life of a luckless man born in a Polish village.
The stop-motion film has a sadness, an eccentric comic streak and a philosophical tone that makes it a reminder -- even with the studios back on the block -- that there's life a hemisphere away from Hollywood.