Animation has been with us for a very long time now. People have been drawing sequential, motion-mimicking frames for thousands of years. (Go look at some ancient Egyptian burial murals when you get a chance.) And for the past few hundred years, we’ve been figuring out ways to bring those frames to life ⎯ through spinning discs, flipbooks, and, ultimately, online video streaming services. You might say animation was the earliest form of filmmaking. It’s the medium that first taught us the power of moving pictures. And it continues to be one of the most innovative forms of filmmaking today.
Below are just a few of the animated short films we’ve loved over the past few years.
Paperman is a story about love found, lost, and then regained. It’s a story about the tension between our careers and our lives ⎯ a message about why life will always be the most important thing. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Oh, and it’s only five minutes long. This film somehow compresses and expands simultaneously. It squishes an entire story arc into just five minutes without ever feeling rushed. Instead it breathes. Escalates. And finally resolves. You almost forget this film is animated. At least until the very end when the “real world” breaks and we enter the realm of fantasy. You might say it becomes a cartoon at that point. We prefer the term fairy tale.
THE ME BIRD
The Me Bird is all presentation. Lacking traditional narrative or larger message, this film elevates style into a reason for being. While a lot of recent Vimeo-esque short films are derided for being all flash and no substance, this film proves that sometimes flash can be enough.
RABBIT AND DEER
Despite limiting itself to just two characters and nixing dialogue altogether, Rabbit and Deer still manages to tell a complete story and cover an entire emotional spectrum. In fact, limitations are the whole point. As one character attempts to free himself from the confines of a two-dimensional world, he distances himself from his closest friend and must then attempt to find his way back to her. In some ways, Rabbit and Deer is an animation about animation. And it just might be the most heartwarming film you watch this month.
Wild Life is a simple story about an English gentleman’s attempt to become a Canadian rancher in the early 20th century. Or as the film’s creators put it: “A film about the beauty of the prairie, the pangs of homesickness and the folly of living dangerously out of context.” The animation is lush, the set pieces are sparse, and its simple narrative is incredibly effective. This film never tries to outsmart its viewer. Instead, it sticks to the basics: a relatable character in telling situations. The result is one of the best animated short films we’ve ever seen. It was nominated in 2012 for an Academy Award.
As the technical possibilities of animation continue to expand, its conceptual possibilities expand as well. The ability to animate photo-real elements has opened up entirely new realms of subject matter, such as this short, shattering homage to photographer Charles Helleu. In Düft, animation isn’t used to create an alternate world, but to show us the world we know — and then break it in half. The line between animation and live action gets blurry.
Animation can be the most intimate form of filmmaking: A direct projection from inside the mind of its creator. Better still: it can be very cheap (albeit time-consuming) to make, giving brilliant but cash-strapped directors a chance to bring their visions to life. (Read our interview with Danny Madden as a case in point.) We owe a lot to the form. And whether or not you ever plan to hunker down and crank out frame after frame of an animated short, there is a lot to be learned from the process.