Academy-Award nominated filmmakers give us an inside look at exactly how they pulled off the best short films of the year.
From cerebral documentary to painstaking stop-motion animation, every film requires a different approach and a different set of tools. Below, five filmmakers nominated in Live Action Short, Animation Short, and Documentary Short share what worked for them.
Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Producer Kerrin Sheldon both grew up in West Virginia, a state that has been dealing with the opioid epidemic more than anywhere else in the country. "Most of the media attention has been focused on, and even glorified, drug abuse, overdose statistics, and poverty, often resulting in a bleak picture of a place and its people," shared Kerrin Sheldon.
The filmmakers, however, wanted to showcase the inspirational people on the front lines. They met Jan Rader, West Virginia's first female fire chief, and then Judge Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman, creating a triad of women who make up the heroines in the film. “Those three together allowed us to show the reality on the ground and also infuse the situation a sense of hope and resilience.”
In order to travel quickly in every situation, Kerrin Sheldon, who also happens to be the DP on the film, explained that they used a stripped down Sony FS5:
We wanted the film to constantly be in motion, moving from scene to scene and taking the viewer on a ride with these three women and all the lives they touch. When you're observing Judge Keller in drug court or are on an overdose call with the Huntington Fire Department, there are no redos or reshoots and your primary goal should be to not inhibit someone from doing their job. Since the goal was to be in-scene as much as possible, we stripped down our gear to be as lightweight and as unobtrusive as we could. We shot with the Sony FS5 with Sigma Art lenses and Canon EF lenses and focused primarily on creating solid, vérité images that would put the viewer in whatever situation our subjects found themselves in.
Heroin(e) can be seen on Netflix now.
Co-directors Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, who have been collaborating for some 11 years, stumbled onto a poem by Ron Koertge titled “Negative Space.” “It was just a perfect encapsulation of a relationship,” said Porter. “We didn't feel like there were any wasted words, and you got a real sense of who the characters were and what the universe that they lived in was like.” They decide to contact Koertge. “He said, ‘Yeah, go for it. Adapt it.’ He gave us full creative license. Then we didn't speak with Ron for about two and a half years, until we showed him the finished piece. He said that he completely forgot that he had given us the rights!”
Porter breaks down both the painstaking labor of creating the physical world of the story, as well as the cameras and software used to bring it to life:
The heads of the puppets are made out of an air-dried clay, but because stop-motion is such a labor intensive, physical undertaking, we actually had to cast the heads in resin so that they would stand up to being animated for 14 hours a day. Then the arms are made out of foam latex, which is pretty standard for stop motion, and there's a ball and socket armature in our main character. For my co-director Ru, it was important to limit the type of materials that we used, so she chose two different types of fabrics and hand painted all of the patterns so that it would have sort of a unified look to it. Then the sets are constructed out of wood. We used a lot of balsa, which is a very light wood, and we age it with coffee to give sort of a patina or sort of an aged look.
We used mainly small wattage Dedolights, and those were really good for stop motion because you can be very precise. We shot everything with Canon 5Ds. I think we were using Mark IIs and Mark IIIs, and we shot into an incredible stop-motion program called Dragonframe. One of the cool things about Dragonframe is it allows you to set up curves for motion control, and we used something called DitoGear and OmniSlider to do some motion control camera movements. All the compositing was done in AfterEffects, edited in Premiere, and our composer works exclusively in Logic, actually, and it was mixed in ProTools.
Heaven Is A Traffic Jam On The 405
It was Frank Stiefel’s wife, an artist herself, who first noticed the tortured but brilliant Mindy Alper in the studio where she worked. “My wife would come home and talk about that woman who sat by herself and made this amazing art and didn't speak to anybody,” said Stiefel. “I wondered, where did this art come from? Why is she the way she is?” He asked if he could film Alper creating a sculpture which led to everything else that became the Oscar-nominated film below.
Video is no longer available: youtu.be/09M3C4VD1Fg
Frank Stiefel explained that his production style was oriented around getting the audience inside Alper's head:
It wasn't much of a production. I would say 90% of it was me and me. I shot just about all of it, and did most of the location sound. The interviews were done in my living room because it faces north and there were no lights. Everything that was done, was done about as simply as you could possibly figure out how to do it. I set up that gray seamless [backdrop] and while I was interviewing, I hired a guy named Ben to take care of the cameras while I was with the subject that I was interviewing, so that I could be with her rather than worried about technology.
There was never a visual style for the sake of visual style. The bones of the process is the interview. Then it becomes a matter of, how do I dramatize what the pieces are that I want? Those animated pieces are there because they so dramatically get you into the moment that [Alper] was drawing it. They are there to scare you into what it was like for her to feel as if her skin, or your skin, was going to make her sick. We hired a guy named Masaki Yokochi who is an artist himself and an animator. I gave him where the emotional beat of that scene was and left him alone, quite frankly. A month later he came back with [the animations] and for the most part, I didn't change anything. He was able to take that emotion and be able to expand it into his animations.
My thing is not to just describe what happened, but to put you in a place where you can feel what happened. If I can viscerally get you to be her for a couple of seconds or a minute or 5 minutes, then you've been there. you've been that depressed, you've been that frightened for a minute. It's her life, but we can all relate to isolation and depression and anxiety and feeling like you're outside the bubble.
There are six directors behind Garden Party: Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon, and Lucas Navarro. Friends who met during school, they happened to be both passionate about wildlife and fans of black humor, paving the way for Garden Party. “There was something enjoyable, to put these innocent animals inside this abandoned rich house, full of expensive and valuable stuff,” said the team, who go by Illogic. “It's like, nature always takes back its rights, and it shows a certain vanity of human beings, but in a funny way.”
The Illogic team literally lived with frogs to create a true-to-nature vision:
To be as realistic as possible, we started by collecting references, shooting footage of swimming pools and gardens, for example. We had lots of videos from real estate agencies for the luxurious interior. We also set up vivariums in our flatshare to be able to have a direct observation of frog. References really helped us for developing the story, for animation; for look development and for many other stages. We took time to get the perfect anatomy of the amphibians, as well as working on skin and texture, in order to have really detailed characters. We crafted a 3D scanner in our garage to rebuild objects and sets from photography, which provided lots of details in the backgrounds, and speeded up the production.
We used Photoshop and After Effects mostly for the preproduction (boards and first editing). Zbrush for character sculpting and detailed environment modeling. Props and sets modeling were mostly done with 3Dsmax. Reality Capture for photogrammetry. Some cloth assets with Marvelous designer. For the texturing, we worked both with Mari (characters) and substance painter (props and sets). Shading was done with Arnold renderer in Maya, as for lighting and rendering. We used Deadline for network rendering. A lot of FX were created directly in Maya using nParticles and Bifrost for the water. Some others were created in Houdini when needed. Finally, all the compositing was done with Nuke. Editing was achieved with Premiere.
Because CG animation and VFX always evolve every year and very fast, 3D artists have to stay focused on what's happening around. But we think the most important is getting a strong basis and a good sense of composition and storytelling. It doesn’t always matter about the software. Think more about the result. There's always a way to do it.
Reed Van Dyk first got the idea for his film when a 911 call made national news in 2013. "A young man, Michael Hill, walked into an elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, and, just as it unfolds in the film, had an AK-47 with a lot of ammo, and said that he was going to kill everyone," described Van Dyk. "He sent everyone out of the office except for Antoinette Tuff, who was filling in for the school receptionist at the front desk. My film is directly inspired by that incident, and some of the dialogue is actually verbatim from the phone call, from the 911 recording."
Van Dyk described his wish to use lenses that mimicked the focal length of the human eye:
We shot with an Alexa, and for some reason (which also felt intuitive) a 75mm lens seemed right for anything in a medium closeup or closer. A 50mm lens seemed right for pretty much everything else. In part because we wanted to create a visual document of true life events, we ruled out very wide and extremely long lenses that felt more expressive and less like the way one's eye would capture everything if you happened to be an observer in the space.