Oscar-nominated animation shorts tackle relationships, connection and disconnection

The five Oscar-nominated animated shorts of 2020, from left: "Daughter," "Hair Love," "Sister," "Kitbull" and "Memorable"
The five Oscar-nominated animated shorts of 2020, from left: “Daughter,” “Hair Love,” “Sister,” “Kitbull” and “Memorable.”

If anyone ever questions the state of creativity in filmmaking, the Oscar-nominated short films provide reassurance every year. This season’s crop of animated shorts upholds that tradition of diverse excellence.

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A scene from the Oscar-nominated "Daughter," directed by Daria Kashcheeva.
A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated short “Daughter,” directed by Daria Kashcheeva.

By her dying father’s bedside, a woman sadly recalls how insufficient their relationship was. Director Daria Kashcheeva says her student film wasn’t taken directly from her life, but it was a kind of psychotherapy for her to undertake — then adds, with a laugh, that not only are the film’s puppets coated in papier-mâché but sometimes toilet paper.

“I wanted my film to look kind of dirty and documentary because I think we are human beings and our lives are not clean or perfect. That’s why I decided to use papier-mâché with wrinkles and hand-held camera movement and dirty sound. All this aesthetic was ‘un-perfectness.’ ”

Hand-held camera movement is something audiences take for granted in live action, but in stop-motion animation — where every frame is a tightly controlled still photograph — that’s a difficult feat to accomplish.


“I animated it frame-by-frame so there’s no post-production there. I moved the camera manually, frame-by-frame, with inspiration from films by Lars von Trier. Actually, I studied ‘Breaking the Waves’ frame by frame and tried to copy this camera movement.”

‘Hair Love’

"Hair Love"
A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated short “Hair Love,” directed by Matthew A. Cherry.

Matthew A. Cherry spent several years as a professional football player in nine cities and multiple leagues (including several NFL teams) before hedecided to retire and move to L.A. and become a [film production assistant].” After working on several music videos, he crafted this story of a young girl struggling with her ‘do and getting help from her loving, if inexpert, father.

The African American Cherry was interested in “normalizing black hair,” especially after seeing viral videos of fathers and their daughters.

“We’re not used to seeing black fathers depicted in this light. In the media, black dads are often not present or if they are, it’s some kind of negative connotation. This seemed like a real good opportunity to tell a story about a black family that has natural hair, and in the medium of animation,” in which black protagonists are exceedingly rare. “It’s something where kids can see themselves and relate to it.”


A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated short "Kitbull," directed by Rosana Sullivan.

The subject matter might seem rough for Pixar, even for one of their in-house SparkShorts. But beyond touching on the severe cruelty of dog fighting, the film is really an exploration of the courage it takes to reach out to someone else.

“I started drawing a kitten doing cat things because I love cat videos — they are the glue that binds the universe and the Internet together,” says director Rosana Sullivan of her story of a stray cat’s unlikely bond with an abused pit bull. “It evolved ... I wanted to do something about animal welfare but also about the struggles of connection and empathy because that’s something I’ve struggled with, growing up shy. It evolved from ‘This is fun to do cat antics’ to ‘This could be something more meaningful.’ ”

The key moment, she says, “was about the kitten overcoming its own personal baggage and climbing into the dog’s crate to comfort it. It came to me pretty late; it took someone asking me to get more personal.”


A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated short "Mémorable," directed by Bruno Collet.

In this French film, an artist is suffering from Alzheimer’s. His world and the people in it appear as oil paintings, in styles progressively more abstract as his brain deteriorates.

“The discovery of the work of the American painter William Utermohlen was decisive,” says director Bruno Collet. “Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 13 years before his death, the artist regularly continued to [make] self-portraits. The evolution of the look that the painter has on himself is striking. This artist, so precise in his painting, begins to modify the colors before making them completely disappear. His latest black-and-white portraits are terrible. Utermohlen no longer recognizes himself.”

The technically accomplished stop-motion short (with an intriguing digital component in the end) shows “his visions, his hallucinations, his fears, as well as his only weapon to fight them: humor.”


A scene from the Oscar-nominated animated short "Sister," directed by Siqi Song.

From the distance of her adopted home in the United States, Siqi Song made the stop-motion “Sister” to confront her native land’s infamous one-child policy.

“Most of my friends in my generation — they’re the only children.” When there would be a rare instance of more than one child, “They would ask, ‘How does it feel to have a sibling?’ My friends would share with me their stories of how they were supposed to have a little sister or little brother but they were not born because of the one-child policy. In 2015, when China changed it to a two-child policy ... for us, who were adults, it changed everything, but our parents were too old to have more children now.”

She used wool for the stop-motion puppets because “it worked really well with the story. The texture is really dreamy; that resonates with the themes about memory and about childhood.”