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1977: The Best Animated Short nominees

Tim here. To celebrate the upcoming Supporting Actress Smackdown, 1977 is the year of the month here at the Film Experience. I'd like to take you back to a different Oscar competition from that year, the four-way race for Best Animated Short Film. It was one of the more interesting slates that category has ever seen, which I hasten to clarify isn't the same as calling it one of the best. But it makes for a pretty unique cross-section of the kind of animation being made in North America, with two nominees from the United States and two from Canada, ranging from a purely abstract experiment with the medium to a literal TV show.

We'll start off with the shortest of the nominees, an offbeat little gag called Jimmy the C (on YouTube – that unpleasant little watermark in the center goes away after a minute). In it, recently-inaugurated President Jimmy Carter waxes rhapsodic over his beloved home state by lip-singing to Ray Charles's "Georgia on My Mind", all through the magic of clay animation. I confess myself stumped: what the hell?...

It feels like it surely had some kind of satiric intent, particular given the emphasis in the recent election as to how Carter's Southern origins proved he was an unsophisticated hick. But that's not really what the short is about, so much as it uses the president as the hook for some strange visual impulses. These days, you'd expect to see this sort of thing crop up randomly on your poli-sci nerd friend's Facebook page, or maybe in the later segments of Saturday Night Live. As an Oscar nominee, maybe not. But once seen, it's hard to forget.

Equally alive to the politics of the day, but in a much more coherent manner, we find A Doonesbury Special (YouTube) which would go on to win a Special Jury Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Based on Garry Trudeau's radically controversial, politicized comic strip, the short pulls few punches for a TV special – group sex is mentioned, marijuana is smoked onscreen – in its frank consideration of how a bunch of aging college hippies deal with being boring adults in the late '70s, anticipating feature-length treatments of the same subject such as Return of the Secaucus 7 and The Big Chill.

I wonder, though, if its Oscar nomination has more to do with its link to animation royalty: this was the last project initiated by the beloved director and three-time Oscar winner John Hubley, who died months before it was completed. Hubley, his longtime collaborator and wife Faith, and Trudeau capture something marvelous about the casual, relaxed way people talk and regret, with the animation rendering Trudeau's angular character designs with surprisingly graceful movements, adding a great deal of visual interest to the talky script. It's pretty lovely for the first half of its 25 minutes, though I have to confess that as it turns into a distaff parody of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the comic strip gag rhythm starts to grow tedious.

Let us turn now to the north and the inexhaustibly wonderful National Film Board of Canada, responsible for some of the finest pieces of animation in the world for seven decades now. This legacy most assuredly includes The Bead Game (Vimeo) conceived and painstakingly animated by Ishu Patel as an attempt to recap the history of life and humanity's capacity for warfare in a series of boldly colored outlines against a black backdrop, created out of thousands of individual beads, which grow smaller in the frame over the course of the short This minutely crafted five and a half minute exercise is impressive just by virtue of having been made at all, but its interest goes beyond aesthetics. It's a gripping depiction of ever-escalating violence given a dreadfully intense driving rhythm by Jnan Prakash Ghosh's drum-heavy score, and if you only watch one short as a result of this post, I'd urge you to look at this one.

The film that took the Oscar was another NFB-produced experiment in using materials not typically associated with animation, Co Hoedeman's The Sand Castle (YouTube). Considering the deliberately limited palette – only blue sky and brown sand in the whole movie – it's astonishingly beautiful, with the play of light on sandy shapes offering a great deal of visual pleasure all on its own. The story's a simple enough affair at first: a bipedal human sort of thing made out sand rises from the surface of the desert and uses the sand around it to construct living beings, and then orders them to create a sand castle. It's an almost religious parable about creation and the order of life that silently turns into a parable about the fragility of the things we build and the monuments we try to establish for ourselves; after all the wry humor of the first eleven minutes, the sudden shift in the climax is genuinely upsetting and mordant, a stunning achievement given that the whole population of the film is nothing but expressionless little models with goofy sound effect voices. It's an exceptionally worthy winner and one of the more unexpectedly sophisticated pieces of animation I've ever seen from the whole decade.

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Reader Comments (4)

I really really really really would be surprised if the progressive metal band Tool never saw the Bead Game. It seems exactly their jam - animation based in painstaking artifice, scored by a tabla, colors, psychedelia near the end.

July 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSTinG

Thanks for this write up - I remember that year, I was in film school and everyone was excited about the NFB getting 2 nominations. The animation department had a special screening.
Nice to see that both works hold up.

July 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Bless the National Film Board of Canada. They're so great and both of their films here are excellent and say a lot about society and humanity. And they're both glorious animated.

July 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I reviewed these films on my blog back in 2012 (gosh has it really been almost four years?) and my views are about the same. I do prefer The Bead Game because I sometimes get bored with The Sand Castle, but they are both beautiful films and worthy winners.

July 25, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

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