Oscar Qualified Shorts bring diverse stories and accomplishments in animation

A photo of Oscar qualified short films filmmakers.
Of the eight Oscar qualified short films showcased, six were animated and each brought their own unique narratives to the virtual screen. Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan.

As a celebration of the diverse stories that filmmaking as a platform provides, the 2021 Oscar qualified shorts showcase took place over Zoom Tuesday night. Following the screenings, a Q&A was hosted by Outside the Box [Office] with some of the talented filmmakers behind these masterful stories.

The creators of all but one short dove deeper into the history behind their films and the personal connections they have to their works, bringing a new level of appreciation for how arduous their labors of love were for them to create. 

The first film to screen was “Augustus,” directed by USC alumnus Jon Alston. The film follows Frederick Augustus Douglass, an escaped slave who has nightmares of a future where inequality is still plaguing the world. He then must decide whether or not to advocate for abolition at the risk of endangering his family.

Despite being a historical piece, the film uses projectors to visualize the nightmares that Douglass experiences, creating a haunting comparison between the inequality Black people faced in the 19th and today. 

The ending is intercut with video footage of recent police brutality, as the director said he felt strongly that the themes of Douglass’ story echoed the events of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We wanted to take the events that people knew and make them more personalized to the story that we were telling so that it aided our protagonist’s journey towards abolitionism,” Alston said. 

The highlight of the Q&A came early on in a conversation with Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, the writer, co-producer and co-director of “Kapaemahu,” a short that tells the tale of the Māhū, the Hawaiian name for people who embody both masculine and feminine characteristics. The story follows powerful spirits as they become beloved by the native people for their acts of healing that giant boulders are hauled across the island and filled with their powers. In their honor, these boulders become a sacred site named Kapaemahu.

Wong-Kalu discussed the film’s historical significance and the challenges people in her culture face when they share their thoughts or assert their values. 

“So many elements of history, of language, of culture here in Hawai’i are often suppressed or ignored,” Wong-Kalu said. “By bringing this film forward we hope to encourage other filmmakers to do the same when they might be in that situation. To control the narrative.” 

While bringing awareness was a critical intent for the film, Wong-Kalu admits that this short was a spiritual journey for her as well. Several months ago, her partner passed away and Wong-Kalu cites him as the inspiration for the role of the healer in the film. While the hand-drawn and 2D animation were visually captivating, how healing connects people and the celebration of that care made the film profound. 

The most striking aspect of these shorts was the diversity among story content and ingenuity in animation styles. While animated films often do not get as much acclaim as their live-action counterparts, each director elevated the creative bounds of this medium to a refined form that complimented each story’s tone and message.

“Elo” was first hand-drawn in graphite pencil. Then a computer program was used to invert the colors where the shadows acted as the light and vice versa. The result was a dark, surreal fantasy that lent itself perfectly to the film. 

“Purpleboy,” directed by Alexandre Siqueira, is a metaphor-laced exploration of a young child, Oscar, who does not have a definitive biological sex but asserts that he is male. He grows in the ground, watered by his parents every day, until he enters the world ready to assert his identity.

The animated medium easily transforms the film’s visual surroundings as Oscar goes on his own internal journey. Parents morph from chickens and wolves back to humans once they accept Oscar’s gender, and Oscar melts into a pool of water to escape fellow children who bully him. These surreal dynamics add to the emotional punch of the narrative, leaving an impact on viewers.

The standout accomplishment in animation was Camila Kater’s film “Carne (Flesh), the story of five women’s relationship to their bodies throughout all stages of life. Each chapter was animated in a different medium to best compliment the story told. Adolescent watercolor, menopause claymation and even painted 35mm film strips as a woman in old age recounting her time as an actress. 

Though the various animation styles are a distinguishing feature of this film, they were not part of Camila’s original vision. 

“It was supposed to be 2D digital, but I changed my mind during the interviews when I was hearing their stories, more precisely the first protagonist, when she was telling me the story of her mother,” Kater said. “She was fat when she was a child, her mother was a nutritionist and there was a lot of limitations in regard to food. So, I decided to animate in a dinner plate using real food.”

“Lost & Crowned” takes the world of the Clash of Clans mobile game and expands it into a cinematic universe. The 3D animation creates a more polished look that audiences are used to seeing from bigger studios. Though it did not possess the same experimental feel as the other films, fans of the mobile game are sure to be delighted by the expanded narrative arc of their favorite characters.

The live-action short The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating features an unexpected star: a common woodland snail. Based on a memoir, the narrator recounts the lessons she learned from a snail living in a potted plant on her bedside table while bedridden with a neurological disorder. 

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who wrote the memoir and directed the short, had such acute observations and reverence for the snail that her love translated on screen in the form of well-composed cinematography that highlighted the snail’s unity with its environment.

Recording the titular sound of the snail eating was not an easy task, as it is such a quiet sound that the hum of the wires in any regular recording device would drown it out, Bailey said. 

 “There were many complications, it took me six years to get the sound of this snail eating different foods,” Bailey said. “We had to design specialized recording equipment where we recorded the sound of the vibrations through the food.”

Directed by Persian filmmaker Maryam Mohajer, the screening concluded with the four minute film “Grandad was a Romantic” — a story about the Persian ideas of passionate love at first sight with an ending twist, packing a punch and capping off the evening with comedy. 

Mohajer used a combination of materials from hand-drawn aspects to 2D animation and even cut out collages from old Persian manuscripts.

“I have a painting background and I like that whole handmade feeling to be present in my films,” Mohajer said.

The Oscars have long faced criticism for its lack of diversity among filmmakers and homogeneity of stories. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” winning best picture last year gave many hope that the Academy would change. 

None of these shorts have been nominated yet, but the high proportion of films made by artists of color or international filmmakers in the running provides an optimism that more types of artists will finally get the mainstream recognition they deserve.