This year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts are a particularly existential bunch, asking big questions about the meaning of life through a wide range of human experiences: A young boy searching for his place in the world, a teenage girl looking to lose her virginity, and a father and son trying to move on from loss. Plus, a sailor defies death and an office worker realizes he's living in an animated short. The entries range from tenderhearted to haunting, psychedelic to transcendental, and are rendered in either traditional hand-drawing, computer animation, stop-motion, or a combination of various types of animation. Yet, they are all striking and truly original animated short films.

Below, watch the nominated Best Animated Short Films and hear from the filmmakers behind each one.

Watch the full short on Apple TV+.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

A story of kindness, courage, and hope in traditional hand-drawn animation, following the unlikely friendship of the title characters as they journey in search of the boy's home. Based on the book of the same name.

Your book is beloved and has touched so many readers. What did you hope to achieve adapting it into a film that went beyond what you'd done on the page?

Charlie Mackesy (writer/director): The process of adapting the book into a film has been an adventure I'd never imagined I'd have. The film, I think, will introduce the boy, the mole, the fox, and the horse to new audiences… who haven't found the book or don't or can't read. Bringing motion, music, voices, actors into the story creates new ways of connecting with people, and ultimately it's all about connection. Perhaps you know, these times are difficult. We're in hard times, so maybe the film speaks to people and makes them feel a bit better, a bit more connected, a bit less alone, a bit more hopeful about each other and about relationships and about, you know, that we all have an arc.

That when life is difficult, it might not always be that way, and we’re there to comfort one another. It's all I really wanted from the book, it's all I've ever wanted from the film, was to meet people, and make them feel something good, and lighter, and more hopeful, and more loved, and more encouraged I guess.

How did you pull together this voice cast, including Jude Coward Nicoll, Idris Elba, Tom Hollander, and Gabriel Byrne? And what was it like to collaborate with them to capture the voices of these characters?

For me, it was an incredible experience to work with these actors, and they were so kind and generous with how they went about it I think. The actors all came to us in different ways and seemed drawn to the work. I wanted the four characters to work musically together, like a quartet, so the boy being the treble, the mole being the alto, Gabriel Byrne being the tenor and the fox being the bass — Idris with that deep rasping sound he makes. And I remember thinking when we were recording the boy and the mole, just how well they worked. You know, the sound of their voices worked so well.

What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?

It's very hard to put into words what happened to me when I heard the news. I laughed and cried because the nomination is not just for me, but for the countless people who contributed to the film in so many different ways. I'm so grateful and still in shock.

How would the mole react to being an Oscar nominee? What about the fox and the horse and the boy?

The mole would be excited on the basis that there might be food at the ceremony. The fox would be wary to begin with, but would watch the reaction of his friends and join in. The horse would sigh with gratitude and be so pleased for his friends. The boy would be thrilled that they would all go somewhere new together, and would love to see the reactions of this friends.

What's next?

It feels like a whole new world of possibility and I’m excited.

The Flying Sailor

Two ships collide in a harbor, an explosion shatters a city, and a sailor is blasted skyward, where he soars high above the mayhem and toward the great unknown. This is a contemplation of his journey.

How did you first become interested in this story, and then how did you decide you wanted it to be the subject of your film?

Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby (writer/directors): About 20 years ago, we visited the Maritime Museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a section dedicated to the catastrophic Halifax Explosion of 1917, there was a short blurb about a British sailor who was launched by the blast and flew an astonishing two kilometers before landing stark naked (but for one boot) and pretty much unharmed. We were captivated! What did he see? And hear? And feel? Our idea was to expand those few calamitous seconds into as many minutes, and imagine the story of the sailor's flight as a visceral and transcendent near-death experience.

What were your goals for the visual look of the animation in this, and how did that evolve through the process?

Whenever we start a new project, we say to ourselves, "This one will be fast and loose!" —and then it invariably gets slow and complicated. For The Flying Sailor, we created our animatic using all manner of drawings, photos, and archival footage. We loved the gritty, grainy realism of the photographic images, and it soon became clear that if we were to capture the depth and ferocity of the exploding city, 3D was the way to go. With the help of animator Billy Dyer, we created a virtual "model railway" version of 1917 Halifax. Aesthetically, we were aiming for a hand-tinted nautical postcard look. As we'd become quite attached to some of the photos and archival footage we had pulled into the animatic, we decided to keep them, as they seemed to play well with the CG.

It was important that the sailor be distinct from all that smoky mayhem, so we rendered him in our usual 2D painterly style. In the arse-over-tea-kettle sequence (immediately after the blast), we used a combination of the 3D animation and hand-painted abstract imagery to convey the chaos of the sailor's subjective experience. Everything was knitted together with plenty of smoke, debris and After Effects shenanigans. The whole process was highly experimental and, of course, infinitely more complex than we had first imagined.

This is your third and fourth Oscar nomination, respectively. What does it mean to be nominated again and with this film?

Whether it's the first time or the fourth, a nomination is a huge thrill, and it's not something we take for granted! Apart from the fun and fuss that swirls around the Oscars, it is most gratifying for us to know that our film is being seen and appreciated.

Have you discovered the secret to your creative partnership? What makes you work together so brilliantly?

We met at art school (38 years ago!) and it was there we discovered a shared aesthetic and a similar sense of humor. We love and admire the same things — and as we go along in our partnership, our interests have become even more entwined. Early on, we both had a hand in all tasks, but in recent years we have moved more into our own lanes. Amanda does the lion's share of the drawing, animating and rendering, while Wendy tackles most of the editing, compositing and preliminary sound work. Even so, we talk through every detail. For us, two heads are better than one; rather than a dilution of the creative process, we find that collaboration yields better ideas and is much more fun. We don't always work together brilliantly, but we wouldn't have it any other way. Put simply (and to paraphrase the philosopher Francis Bacon), a great partner doubles the joys and cuts the griefs in half.

What's next?

We’ve been so busy escorting our sailor around that we haven't had much time to think! That said, we do have a few ideas bubbling on the back burner, and though it's a little early to say which is next, we do know for sure that it will be fast and loose.

Ice Merchants

Every day, a father and his son jump with a parachute from their vertiginous cold house, attached to a cliff, to go to the village on the ground, far away where they sell the ice they produce daily.

What was the initial inspiration that became Ice Merchants?

João Gonzalez (writer/director): Like I did for my two previous student films, I always start with an image/scenario that comes from my subconscious. These images usually appear either while I'm dreaming or about to fall asleep. They sometimes also appear during the day when I'm daydreaming. I'm particularly interested in using those bizarre and surrealistic scenarios that I already have a big connection with unconsciously — in this case, the tiny house attached to the cliff — and use them as metaphors to talk about something that touches me, or concerns me, in my more "real" reality. In this case, I knew it was going to be a film about loss.

João, you wrote, directed, edited, and composed the music for this. What was the biggest challenge you overcame making this film?

Gonzalez: I would say that my biggest challenge in this project also ended up being one of the most gratifying parts of the film's process. It was my first time directing a team, unlike my previous two student films in which I was working alone. For example, for the animation and coloring part, that meant that I not only had to animate and color some shots fully, but also had to prepare layouts and keyframes with instructions for the film's other animator, the brilliant Ala Nunu, and the amazing team of colorists that we had working in the film. This kind of pre-production and structure was something I was not used to at all, and at first it was a bit hard to adapt since I was used to a more "chaotic" way of working.

But at the end, seeing what everyone brought to the film with their uniqueness and personal touch, also making the whole production run way faster and smoother than what I could possibly have done by myself, was one of the most gratifying parts of making this film. The same applies for the music! It was the first time I composed for more than one instrument at a time, and I had the honor of collaborating with not only a bunch of amazing instrumentalists, but with artists like Nuno Lobo (orchestrator) and Ricardo Real (sound engineer) that helped making the soundtrack sound what it does today.

What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?

Bruno Caetano (producer): For years, in my youth, I always tried to stay up late to watch the show live. Keep in mind that in Portugal, it starts at 1 a.m. and finishes at 4 a.m. I failed miserably in my first attempts but got better at it with time and persistence. I would go to school on the next day with only a few hours of sleep but eager to talk to my friends about the awards and how our expectations were met. To be able to be present at the ceremony now, as a nominee, it's hard to put into words the crazy amount of feelings it brings up. At the end of the day, it's more than having a pat on the back for a job well done. It's the realization that your younger self would be immensely proud of you and what you have accomplished.

Gonzalez: It's still something absolutely surreal for me to process! The Oscars are something that everyone has heard about their entire lives, and it always felt like something so unreachable, a distant fantasy… I'm still thunderstruck by this, but above all, I'm so happy that this film's incredibly talented team is being recognized for their hard work with such an immense honor and prestige. They are not only some of the most talented artists I've ever met, but also some of the best human beings I had the pleasure of crossing paths with.

Ice Merchants is the first Portuguese production to be nominated for an Oscar. What has the reaction been to this historic recognition?

Caetano: The reaction has been overwhelming. The love and support we have been getting since the 24th of January is extremely heartwarming and humbling. The Portuguese audiences, because of the great media coverage the film has been getting, are taking to social media and sharing not only their affection for the film, but also their appreciation for this achievement. We are also immensely happy that this could bring more attention to the talented filmmakers, especially when it comes to animation, that we have in Portugal. We grew up watching films from some of the pioneers of Portuguese animation, those that taught us so much. To be able to continue to develop animation in our country and receive this type of attention is a kind of blessing that we cherish dearly.

What's next?

As a production cooperative, COLA Animation, we are lucky to have several ongoing projects from extremely talented filmmakers. We will continue to strive to create the best possible safe place so that ideas can come to life in the most varied animated techniques. João Gonzalez is currently developing his next short animated film that, in April, will be applying for funds in our national film institute. Bruno Caetano is currently in the pre-production phase of his second film, Sequential, alongside art and animation director Ala Nunu.

My Year of Dicks

An imaginative 15 year old is stubbornly determined to lose her virginity despite the pathetic pickings in the outskirts of Houston in the early 90's. Created by Pamela Ribon from her critically-acclaimed memoir.

Riz's reaction when he announced My Year of Dicks' nomination was priceless. What was your reaction to his reaction?

Sara Gunnarsdóttir (director): As soon as I heard the word "MY," I started screaming and missed the rest of the announcement but realized that something happened when I started paying attention again, because they were struggling to finish the category and chuckling. We immediately went back to see it, and I felt giddy that we made such a splash! 

Pamela Ribon (writer): Same here, there was so much celebrating in my family we missed the first wave of giggles, but definitely heard Allison Williams' quick quip at the end. Riz and Allison made such a great team for those announcements, leading with a warning that the room was punchy, and then playing to those fatigued emotions with glee.

What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?

Gunnarsdóttir: I mostly just feel very proud of us all. It's important to get acknowledgement and the encouragement that comes with it to continue making good work. It's fuel.

Ribon: And I hope it shows anyone out there with the wildest dream that with the right team, you can make change happen. Silence and shame are weapons of the powerful. You can reach the entire world with your passionate voice.

What were your goals for the visual look of the animation in this, and how did that evolve through the process?

Gunnarsdóttir: I wanted the film to have a natural tone as a foundation, so both the characters' looks and movement help us relate to them as real people. Then the animators could take ownership over certain moments with certain genres in mind and there the animation would break free from that foundation we laid and take flight. At first, the animators were shooting their own references, but it evolved to having the same person shoot references for the same characters for consistency. So, we did end up filming most of the actors over Zoom, and then me and Pam and my husband Ethan filmed a lot of it ourselves as well.

Pamela, what is the experience now of seeing your memoir and experiences come to life in this new form?

Ribon: I moved around a lot growing up — I went to thirteen schools, including college. It made me someone who holds onto memories in a way that little moments and small encounters find their way to become core memories more than probably happens to most people, I've learned. This feels so very much like the girl inside of me all those years finally gets her chance to speak. It's made me grateful for my friends, back then and now — especially the ones I made on this film.

What's next?

Gunnarsdóttir: We would like to make My Year of Dicks into a full animated show, 10 episodes each about 20 minutes.

Ribon: She's so specific! I love it. LET SARA GUNNARSDÓTTIR'S REIGN BEGIN!

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It

When a young telemarketer is confronted by a mysterious talking ostrich, he learns that the universe is stop motion animation. He must put aside his dwindling toaster sales and focus on convincing his colleagues of his terrifying discovery. Its scary business living in a stop motion world, where your faces come off and a giant hand controls your every move.

What does it mean to you to receive an Oscar nomination for this film?

Lachlan Pendragon (writer/director): It's an incredible honor to be recognized by the Academy at such an early stage in my career. It's really gratifying and means I must be doing something right. I'm excited for the projects ahead of me.

This is an ingenious meta deconstruction of stop-motion animation and celebration of the form. What was the initial inspiration for this story and to tell it in this way?

There's a rich history of reflexivity in animation where we get to peek behind the curtain and celebrate its artifice. For example, in Duck Amuck, when Daffy yells at the animator to finish drawing the background. Being a stop-motion animator, I often think about the puppet's perspective on the stop-motion process. If they were conscious, it would be a horrific experience for them. I have exploited this for humor but there is still a lot of underlying existential themes (i.e. think The Truman Show or The Matrix) where you're questioning what it means to be human. This kind of story was the perfect opportunity to showcase the behind-the-scenes in a way that's unconventional but still makes sense narratively. I am a fanatic when it comes to the behind-the-scenes of stop motion and so being able to play with this in my film was very creatively fulfilling and is my love letter to the craft of stop motion.

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It is, of course, an incredible title. Did you always know that would be the title?

The title was one of the last decisions. We couldn't figure out a good fit and one of the strategies was to go through all the dialogue and see if there was a line that stuck out. One of my supervisors was the first to suggest the title and it took a little while to take it seriously. But retrospectively it's exactly the kind of title the film needed. I'm very happy with it.

If you learn something on every film, what did you learn making this?

I learnt to be more accepting of mistakes and to not get too held up in perfecting everything. I've realized that I'm always improving, even if it doesn't feel like it sometimes.  

What's next?

I'm exploring ideas and would love to work on an animation feature.


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