Oscar nominations came out earlier this week, so congratulations to all the nominees in live-action and animation. A special Short of the Week kudo goes to Suzie Templeton whose stop-motion film Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was nominated in the animation category. Her previous short Dog, was one of our Best Of 2007.
As impressive as Peter and the Wolf is, (and yes, though they haven’t been released the dirty little secret is that most of the nominees have been leaked online) it is up against a seriously stacked animation field. The favorite in the category likely has to be My Love, the latest film by the Russian master Aleksandr Petrov, a breathless 26-minute tale of young love that looks like an impressionist painting come to life.
Though My Love can be found online, there is not as of yet a translation for it, and it’s a little too long for Short of the Week’s tastes. Instead we share Mermaid, a 1996 piece by Petrov that suitably displays his style and sensibilities. Mermaid is adapted from an Alexander Pushkin poem about an old monk who lives alone as a hermit awaiting death, when suddenly he is drawn to a naked maid that appears to him in the water. Petrov keeps the old man, but adds to the story a youth who lives with monk and who instead is the one that falls for the beautiful siren.
The narrative in Mermaid is somewhat muddled. The old monk has what must be considered a flashback 1/4 of the way through the film and then a dream 3/4 through, and frankly I’m a bit at a loss to try to explain either. Generally Petrov’s storytelling is considered somewhat pedantic, despite or perhaps because he works entirely with literary adaptations, necessitating sometimes difficult omissions. Yet it’s his art that he is famous for, and that is firmly on display in Mermaid. He is the most accomplished practitioner of a unique medium—he animates using oil paint on glass, using 2-to 3 layers to add depth to the images, animating new plates as the finished ones dry. It is a meticulous, yet beautiful technique that has won him much acclaim—3 previous Oscar nominations, including the win in 1999 for his adaptation of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. That film was a huge technical step forward as he adapted his style to the unforgiving IMAX format with the help of the Canadian production house Pascal Blais. You can read a fascinating article about the process. My Love continues this improvement while also adding limited use of rotoscoping, to better animate some character movements. This is why it must be considered the favorite to win and continue Petrov’s streak that started with Old Man and the Sea.
While Mermaid did not win, it likewise was nominated for the Oscar in 1996. Mermaid is in some ways the perfection of Petrov’s original technique before money, improved technology, and production teams lead to Old Man and the Sea and My Love. Indeed it was the success of Mermaid that enabled Petrov to receive the kind of corporate patronage that allowed those films to happen. That is why no matter who wins I’m happy to see independents again dominate the Oscar field this year. Short film is a medium that does not have a lot of money in it, especially animation, where there is rarely the promise of a Hollywood job to motivate young animators. The intersection of money and artists, audiences and revenue streams, short films and the internet is a subject Short of the Week promises to wade into in the future, but right now it is safe to say that artistic animation depends on awards like the Oscars. Nominations are what allows Suzie Templeton to go from Dog to Peter and the Wolf, and Petrov to go from Mermaid to My Love. Thus last year, when entries from Pixar, Disney and the people making the Ice Age movies populated the animation field, I felt it was a real shame. Congratulations to the nominees, but also congratulations to the Academy. If the shorts program comes to a theater near you, buy a ticket.