A shortcut to fame

It’s been a season of change for the Academy Awards, what with the switch to 10 best-picture nominees, the modification in voting procedures, the shift of honorary awards to a separate event and the news this week that the best song nominees would not be performing on the show. But one aspect of the big night that has remained consistent, for now at least, is the spoilers of Oscar-pools everywhere -- the animated and live-action short films.

“Short films are always on the verge,” said Carter Pilcher, chief executive of Shorts International and a member of the academy’s live-action short film branch. “There’s always a fight within the academy about them getting kicked off [the telecast].”

When a special program featuring the 10 animated and live-action nominees begins a theatrical rollout this Friday -- the fifth year that Shorts International and Magnolia Pictures have organized the release -- it will again offer ample proof that these films are likely to provide some of the biggest surprises on March 7.

The live-action category, which features a group of wildly diverse and creative films, ranging in length from a few minutes to a half hour, has long been an early proving ground for up-and-coming filmmakers. Andrea Arnold, director of the recent feature “Fish Tank,” a prize winner at Cannes, had previously won an Oscar in 2005 for her short “Wasp.” Playwright Martin McDonagh, nominated last year for his “In Bruges” screenplay, won an Oscar for the short “Six Shooter” in 2006. And Peter Capaldi, star of this year’s best original screenplay nominee “In the Loop,” won an Oscar in 1995 for his short " Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

This year’s shorts program -- opening at the Nuart Theatre in West L.A. -- will eventually play in about 175 venues across the U.S. It will also be available for download March 2 on iTunes, and, for the first time, it will also be offered on video on demand, significantly broadening the reach of the program.

The crop of nominated shorts is a surprising mix of new filmmakers and old hands, from a laundry list of countries and in a wide variety of styles. Among the nominees on the animated side are the playful comedy " French Roast” directed by Fabrice O. Joubert from France, the offbeat fairy tale of Ireland’s “Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty” directed by Nicky Phelan, and Spain’s “The Lady and the Reaper” directed by Javier Recio Gracia and with Antonio Banderas among its producers.

Another French entry, “Logorama,” directed by the trio of François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy and Ludovic Houplain as the collective H5, brings to life a wild and violent world made up entirely of corporate logos and advertising mascots.

Also in the mix is the hand-done clay animation of “A Matter of Loaf and Death,” a new adventure featuring the long-running characters Wallace and Gromit, directed by Nick Park. A three-time winner of the Oscar for animated short -- two of them for Wallace and Gromit films -- Park also won the Oscar for animated feature with his “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.”

The first Wallace and Gromit film, 1989’s “A Grand Day Out” began as Park’s student film, taking seven years to complete, as he did everything, including building the sets, lighting and the animation.

For “Loaf and Death” the production ran eight months with a crew of 25 animators, with Park no longer doing any of the actual model work.

When Park first created the characters -- Wallace is a man and Gromit is his dog -- he obviously had no idea they would become both so long-running and internationally beloved.

“I think it’s to do with there are pet owners all around the world and everyone likes to think that their pet is thinking things and has human attributes,” Park said recently on the phone from Bristol, England, where he lives and works.

“I think it’s also to do with the clay,” Park said. “The medium it’s made in has an appeal in itself, the ability to convey small nuances, they become very human like live-action actors.

It might seem intuitive that once a filmmaker had moved from short filmmaking to feature filmmaking, especially if one were to win an Academy Award for both, that it would be natural to continue with features. Park used to think so too.

“I used to think that . . . my shorts were like frustrated feature films,” Park said. “But now having been on a great adventure making two feature films pretty much back to back, each one took about four years to make from idea right through to the end, you think up a joke and you see it on screen four years later. It’s very frustrating, so I was desperate to get back to short films again, to see the ideas on screen a little bit sooner.”

The live-action program also features a diverse lineup, including the lush cinematography of Ireland’s “The Door,” directed by Juanita Wilson; the wacky magic show of director Patrik Eklund’s “Instead of Abracadabra” from Sweden; student Academy Award winner “Kavi,” a tale of child labor in India made by USC graduate Gregg Helvey; and the dark children’s fantasy of Australia’s “Miracle Fish” directed by Luke Doolan.

Shot over four days at New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel, “The New Tenants” features such recognizable faces as Vincent D’Onofrio, Kevin Corrigan and Liane Balaban in its tale of a pair of roommates (David Rakoff and Jamie Harrold) who realize the previous tenants of their new apartment left quite a bit of unfinished business.

“The New Tenants” was directed by Danish-born Joachim Back and written by Anders Thomas Jensen and Rakoff. As a director of commercials, Back’s work tends toward a stronger narrative line than much advertising. Wanting to tell a longer story, relative to commercials, he had been looking at feature scripts when he was presented an idea for a short film by Jensen, an old friend from Denmark.

“I’m pretty spoiled in advertising,” Back said, “and feel really great there, doing funny little small stories. I love stories, that’s the thing, whether it’s long or short.”

Back has lived for the last seven years in New York. On the phone from a hotel in Los Angeles, Back had just returned from Monday’s Academy Awards nominees luncheon. There he found himself seated nearby such stars as Jeff Bridges, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Harrelson and feeling like anything but Oscar’s stepchild.

“It was pretty sweet actually,” said Back of the luncheon. “Everybody felt human. Everyone felt equal, if they had done a short or a feature or a documentary or sound. We all had done something OK.”

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