How short films shine on Oscar night

While Oscar night focuses on major categories filled with well-known movies and stars, the Academy also takes the time to honor short films that test the creativity of movie makers working with less screen time and smaller budgets.

In the early days of movies, short films were used to fill time at theaters before the main features were shown. While some of these films were animated, others used live action to tell their stories in reduced running times. The Academy began to honor live-action short films in 1932 with separate awards for comedies and for novelty works. By 1936, the categories changed to group films by their running times. Those movies competing for Best Short Subject, One Reel, ran about 11 minutes while the contenders for Best Short Subject, Two Reels, ran about twice that long.

Among the early winners were comedies by such classic filmmakers as Hal Roach and Mack Sennett with such titles as The Music Box, The Loud Mouth and Wrestling Swordfish. Years later, the categories consolidated to offer one award to a short live-action film.

As the Academy itself gained in prestige in the 1930s, so did the awards for short films. Movies began to get more ambitious in the productions such as 1935 winner Wings Over Everest that featured dramatic photography of an expedition to climb the famed mountain and the 1936 victor The Public Pays that revealed the impact of organized crime in the milk business. The American Revolution was featured in the 1938 winner Declaration of Independence while Sons of Liberty, in 1939, recreated the life of Haym Solomon with a first-rate cast headed by Claude Rains and Gail Sondergaard and directed by Michael Curtiz who would, a few years later, direct the Oscar-winning Casablanca.

As America went to war in the 1940s, live-action short films joined the effort to boost the nation’s sense of patriotism. Ronald Reagan provided the narration for the 1942 winner, Beyond the Call of Duty, highlighting the selfless contributions of an American bomber pilot while the two winners in 1945 featured moral messages. Star in the Night recreated the story of the Nativity in the American West and Stairway to Light focused on the plight of the mentally ill during the French Revolution. Of course, not every winning film was serious. The 1943 winner, Heavenly Music, featured characterizations of such composers as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (with the help of an angel) and Walt Disney — best known for his animated short films — won a live-action Oscar for his nature short, Seal Island, in 1948.

The Disney studio, in fact, won several more Oscars in the live action category in the 1950s for nature films. Among the Disney winners were Beaver Valley (1950), Nature’s Half Acre (1951), Water Birds (1952), Bear Country (1953), The Wetback Hound (1957) and Grand Canyon (1958). As the 1960s began, the subject matter of live action shorts expanded to include such winners as the exploration of art in Day of the Painter (1960), the development of ship building in Seawards the Great Ships (1961) and a portrait of a great musician in Casals Conducts (1964). Oscar honored the life of Robert Kennedy with an award for Robert Kennedy Remembered in 1968 while painter Norman Rockwell’s work was highlighted in the 1972 winner, Norman Rockwell’s World, An American Dream. Director Taylor Hackford, who was nominated for Best Director for Ray in 2004, won an Oscar for his short film Teenage Father in 1978.

In recent years, the Oscars in this category have honored short films with a range messages, subjects and origins. The 2001 winner The Accountant focuses on the challenges of a family farm while The New Tenants, from 2009, highlights one couple’s efforts to confront drug traffic in their neighborhood. God of Love, in 2010, celebrates how a lounge singer expresses love for an unlikely recipient while The Shore, in 2011, tells the story of two friends who confront the realities of the conflict in Northern Ireland. On the lighter side, the 2006 winner, West Bank Story, offers a parody of the Oscar-winning West Side Story, while Le Mozart des Pickpockets a year later looks in detail at the lives of people who steal from the rich to feed themselves. And last year’s winner, The Phone Call, tells a moving tale about a woman who works in a crisis center.

Thanks to the creative work of ambitious filmmakers, this category celebrates what stories movies can tell when talented people step in front of and behind the camera. And the magic can happen in just a few minutes.

See you at the movies.

Oscar’s Short Films Long On Movie Magic

On Oscar night, most movie fans usually focus on the feature-length movies competing for honors. And, if you want to score high in that office Oscar pool, look at the short films nominated for Academy Awards. This year’s finalists offer a range of stories, styles and characters in movies with running times of 30 minutes or less.

In the running for Best Live Action Short Film, the most charming entry may be the most accessible. In Stutterer, a film from Great Britain, a young man wishes to experience a meaningful relationship with a young woman he meets online. For six months, as they trade messages, they develop a friendship this man cares about. But he hesitates to meet the woman in person, perhaps because he’s not sure how she will react to his speech impediment. Benjamin Cleary’s 12-minute gem fills the screen with rich characters, touching situations and real insight into how people react to the fear of rejection. The director carefully uses sound to help us hear what this young man cannot clearly say. And he makes us believe in the potential of unlikely love.

This light-hearted romance is miles away from the domestic drama in the German film, Everything Will Be Okay. This heartbreaking story of a divorced father’s love for his eight-year-old daughter – and the severe steps he plans to spend time with her – highlights the emotional shrapnel that adult relationships can leave. Writer-director Paul Vollrath makes us believe in the father’s love for his daughter as well the poor judgment he demonstrates without anticipating the inevitable consequences. Young actress Julia Pointner beautifully captures the hope, caring and fear that any child would experience when her routine is so abruptly interrupted.

Of the nominees, the most tragic entry comes from the first Oscar nominee from Kosovo. The 21-minute drama Shok painfully reveals the impact of war on the friendship of two young boys. As they play their way through a war-torn village in 1998, the boys have little regard for realities. To them, life is a game, complete with villains, heroes and suspense. But they never imagine, at such young ages, how they could find themselves in the middle of battle tension. By focusing on the friendship, and how the boys relate to each other, moviemaker Jaimie Donoughue uses his limited screen time to paint a picture of war far more personal than what news broadcasts might report. To these boys, this war comes home, with more pain than glory.

The blood of war is at the center of the sole American nominee for the short film Oscar, Day One from director Henry Hughes. In this 25-minute film, a young woman finds herself in the middle of military tension in Afghanistan on her first day as an interpreter for the US military. While she assumes her job will involve translating conversations, she has no idea that, within minutes, she will find herself in the middle of conflict as she tries to help a local woman who is about to give birth. The lines between enemies soon blur as people try to help others as the war surrounding them explodes. Hughes brings the horrors of war to the screen by focusing on the innocent victims trying to protect the sanctity of life.

Rounding up the five nominees for Oscar is Ave Maria, a whimsical tale about religious differences set in the West Bank. When a Jewish family has a minor car accident outside a Catholic convent run by silent nuns the rules go out the window as confusion overwhelms any sense of religious convention. Should the nuns help their uninvited guests? Should the guests stretch the rules of the Sabbath to address their dilemma? How should the nuns treat their commitment to silence? Director Basil Khalil has a lot of fun with his 15 minutes of screen time to make this weekend pleasure drive far from the relaxing excursion the travelers expect.

With limited screen time, the makers of these nominated films use every possible approach to make the most of each sound and image. And they remind us how much story can be told in just a few minutes. Look for these films to make their creators proud on Oscar night no matter which one ultimately wins.

The Oscar-nominated short films are currently on screen at local theaters and available online and on demand.