Oscar-nominated films exhibited at Detroit Institute of ArtsWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
For many watching the Oscars, the announcement of the Best Animated and/or Live Action Short Film usually means one thing — bathroom break. After all, the vast majority of viewers have never and will never get the chance to see any of the nominees.
But things have changed for fans in the Detroit area. For the past few years, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ (DIA) Film Theatre has featured a program where all 10 films nominated for both awards are shown in one night. This year’s screenings will begin on Feb. 10, with several showings on the weekends until Feb. 19.
“What we’ve tried to do from the beginning is to try and show the most significant, the most important, the most interesting and the best films from around the world that might not otherwise get shown,” Elliot Wilhelm, film curator of the DIA, said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
Of course, even for an establishment as respected as the DIA, there were challenges in exhibiting such a wide array of productions. For years, legalities and logistics kept such a program from becoming a reality.
“It was difficult to get those films. Sometimes we would show those films, one of them, two of them in a year, if they happened to be available,” Wilhelm said. “It was just difficult to get a hold of all of them at any one time.”
That all changed when a distributor, in conjunction with an organization named “Shorts International,” began making all the nominated films available — both animated and live action compiled into a feature-length program.
“That sort of changed the ballgame, because it meant that selected theaters around the country could look forward to presenting those,” Wilhelm said. “It enables us to obtain those films from a single source. And that, when you’re running with a very small staff and very small resources in general, makes it possible to present all 10 of these films.”
What makes the DIA’s program unique, however, is its presentation of all ten films in one night, as dual halves of a twin bill, so moviegoers have the chance to see all the shorts in one screening. With intermission, the whole event tends to run anywhere from three to three-and-a-half hours.
“It’s something that we find, in Detroit, is so satisfying that for the last three years we’ve virtually sold out every performance that we schedule of these,” Wilhelm said.
Indeed, for the past few years the DIA’s screenings of the shorts have consistently been some of the most highly attended in the country — Wilhelm noted that only the showings in New York City drew bigger numbers, and even then Detroit was a close second.
“People really enjoy seeing these short films. They’re going to appeal to the people who come to the kind of films that we show here at the Detroit Film Theatre, because they’re all creative, and inventive, and surprising, and have an independent point of view,” he said.
For many, the screenings at DIA are their only chance to see short films in any form. Practically all mainstream theaters have long since given up running any kind of shorts before their feature presentations, unless commercials count.
“Which is a shame, because there’s so much creative activity going on in the field of short films, considering the digital video and computer animation techniques that are available to people, at much lower cost to filmmakers,” Wilhelm said. “Animation is being expressed on film in quantity and in ways that they simply weren’t before.”
He also noted how attendees love the quantity of cinematic visions they get to experience. “Here, you get a real variety pack. You get a real feast of different visions, all going on at the same time,” Wilhelm said. “And by doing them just a couple weeks ahead of the Academy Awards themselves, people also get the fun of predicting.”
Wilhelm himself gets to screen all the films in advance of the program. He had, in fact, just seen all 10 the day before this interview. He was still excited — giddy, almost — at the quality of many of the pieces, including Moonbot Studios’ animated film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” which he described as a “knockout.”
“It’s extraordinary. It’s very beautiful, it’s evocative of so many different kinds of aspects of the cinema,” he said. “In a way, it reminded me a little bit about certain aspects of Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Hugo,’ in that there’s not just real film history in there, but allusions to film history that may just be subconscious for many of us.”
“It’s one I can’t wait to see again, and can’t wait to see with an audience, because it’s quite breathtaking.”
Indeed, for Wilhelm, sharing these remarkable pieces is the best part. “The real fun will come sitting down and watching them on a big screen with the audience,” Wilhelm said. “That’s when I get to see which ones work in a certain way with the audience and which ones don’t.”
For more information on the shorts screenings and the Detroit Institute of Arts, visit www.dia.org.
Ohio native contributes to Oscar-nominated film
On Jan. 24, the staff of Moonbot Studios all arrived to the office at about 7 a.m. An early morning by many standards, but no one complained. It was on this day that the members of this small animation company would learn the biggest news of the studio’s short history.
At about 8:30 that morning, some text popped up on a screen in the office, confirming everyone’s hopes: Their film, “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,” had been nominated for Best Animated Short at the 84th Academy Awards. Pandemonium, naturally, ensued.
“It was thrilling and exciting, and very gratifying,” Lampton Enochs, producer of “Morris” and partner at Moonbot, said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star.
“‘Morris Lessmore’ is the first project we did. We did that as a calling card, to kinda show the world what we were about, what we could accomplish here in Shreveport.”
Indeed, for many at Moonbot Studios, the nomination comes as early validation, confirming their belief that something special is going on with this small studio out of Louisiana — a studio that is currently just a year and a half old.
“The ‘Morris Lessmore’ project is very much emblematic of what Moonbot is about — telling a great story, referencing all the things that everybody here loves about film and animation and storytelling,” said Joe Bluhm, storyboard and character design artist for the film.
The company is the brainchild of William Joyce, who, in addition to being an acclaimed children’s book author, has worked in animation for years, including the adaptation of several of his books into films. “Bill’s been involved in computer animation since it kicked in gear at Pixar. He did some concept work on ‘Toy Story,’” Enochs said of Joyce.
Joyce had wanted to start an animation company in Shreveport, his hometown, for years. His love of Shreveport shines through in “Morris,” which takes as part of its inspiration the national tragedy that reshaped the state of Louisiana.
“Hurricane Katrina definitely hit him hard, and when he went down to visit some of the people, he noticed a lot of books scattered in the streets. That visual stuck with him, how people’s stories, and their homes, and their lives were lost,” said Bluhm, an Ohio native.
The film’s story — about a little man who survives tragedy through the healing power of art — would be remarkably moving in any form. But it’s aided by remarkable direction and construction, utilizing a mix of CGI, stop-motion animation and miniatures to craft genuinely unforgettable settings and characters. It packs more real emotion into its 15-minute runtime than most Hollywood films could ever hope to achieve.
Jamil Lahham, the film’s lead animator, said that one of the biggest challenges was the creation of the title character — a loveable guy clearly inspired by silent film great Buster Keaton.
“It was just a matter of getting used to the style of how Morris moved — that was one of the hard points to hit. Sometimes it was hard to figure out how to animate the mix between 2-D and 3-D,” Lahham said.
Bluhm said the inspirations for Morris were not limited to Keaton just as the film’s look was not tied solely to silent films. “It’s sort of a little bit of Bill Joyce, a little bit of Buster Keaton, and a little bit of caricature,” he said. “But it was pretty natural. We knew the inspirations we wanted, and we kinda tried to be straightforward with it.”
In animation, even the most straightforward work is painstaking. For the creators of “Morris,” the animation took about six months to complete, and prior to that were a few months preparing to shoot the live action portions — including the creation of a miniature French Quarter and thousands of tiny books that populate Morris’ world.
“I went to, I think, the Florida Film Festival, and watched it there. They did a little Q-and-A after,” Enochs said. “I made some comment that was really incidental, that was leading to some other point, about, ‘You see the miniatures in all the backgrounds and sets,’ and the whole audience gasped. And I had to ask, ‘Who here didn’t know that they were miniatures?’ And almost everyone in the crowd raised their hands.”
Of course, everyone at Moonbot would love for the famous trophy to come their way on Feb. 26 — who wouldn’t? — but for a company so young to produce such an amazing piece of work as “Morris” is already a remarkable achievement, Oscar or no.
“There was something about when we were working on it, when we were storyboarding it, when we first gathered around to watch the animatic — we were still a very small team, there was only maybe a dozen people in the room, and half of those people had been working on that storyboard and animatic, and it still made us cry at one point. Seeing that, I had a feeling that this was gonna get noticed,” Bluhm said.
For more information on Moonbot Studios and to view “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” online, visit www.moonbotstudios.com. The film is also available for free on iTunes.