By: Dani Kessel
I’m a huge cinephile. Ever since college, I became entranced with film, story, cinematography, composition, animation choices, score, diegetic and non-diegetic sound choices. Obviously, I love the acting side of things, since I have acted my whole life. But, there is so much more that goes into any movie, and it plays into its success or failure. Some of the best examples of this are Disney/Pixar shorts. I adore Disney/Pixar shorts. They’ve told some of the best stories in a matter of minutes. And, they often experiment with elements of cinema.
If you’re interested in film components or if you are just looking for some entertainment, here is a countdown of my 11 of my favorite Disney/Pixar shorts.
11. La Luna (2011)
Animation inspired by Hayao Miyazaki and Osvaldo Cavandoli, La Luna depicts the generational story of a son, a father, and a grandfather. The father and grandfather work in the family business of sweeping stars from the moon. They take the son to work for the first time. The grandfather and father disagree on how to do everything, and the son must decide whether he will follow one of them or discover his own way. Director Enrico Casarosa utilized watercolor styles to add texture to the 3D computer animation. As the short film was inspired by Italian stories, it’s fitting that award-winning composer Michael Giacchino (who has dual American and Italian citizenship) created the score for the film.
10. Sanjay’s Super Team (2015)
Director Sanjay Patel based Sanjay’s Super Team on his own experiences as a first-generation Indian-American attempting to reconcile his father’s traditions and Hindu beliefs with his love of Western pop culture. In the short, as the father attempts to teach his son the practices of Hinduism, the character Sanjay daydreams an intense battle with a demon fighting him and his super-team–Durga, Hanuman, and Vishnu. Sanjay comes out of the battle with a fused perspective that both he and his father can appreciate and bond over. This short uses cel-shading animation which fits heavily into the cartoon style Sanjay (character and director) loves but fuses in traditional Indian art styles. It’s a beautiful representation of existing in two cultures at once.
9. The Little Matchgirl (2006)
Get ready to cry. The Little Matchgirl tells the story of an impoverished young girl living in Saint Petersburg at Christmas time. She’s trying to sell matches to live, but nobody cares. So, she spends her night in a snowy alley striking the matches trying to stay warm. As the matches burn down she has visions of a happy life. Each time the match reaches its end, she is left back in the cold, harsh world. This short is different from most. Because it was created for a scrapped Fantasia film, it is set to a classical piece called “Nocturne” from String Quartet No. 2 in D Major written by Alexander Borodin played by the Emerson String Quartet. It was also the last movie created with the CAPS animation system, visually composed in the Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 style. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.
8. For the Birds (2000)
In a matter of three minutes and twenty seconds, Pixar managed to tell a compelling story with the morals “what comes around goes around” and “ostracizing others hurts everyone.” A big, lanky bird wants nothing more than to hang out with the tiny, squeaky birds, but they instead choose to be mean, exclusionary, and bullies. By the end, karma happens. For The Birds has beautiful visuals. The background is hand-painted while the powerline, wheat, and birds were all computer-animated. More than that, each feather on every bird was layered and animated to be able to move individually from each other. The mix of primarily close-up and medium perspective shots allowed the animators to depict the emotions of the birds. They also included non-diegetic bird tweeting sounds to help establish the setting. Overall, its quirky story and impressive animation choices created a memorable Pixar short.
7. Luxo Jr. (1986)
A groundbreaking production, Luxo Jr. was the first Pixar short ever created. It shows a small, child desk lamp and an adult, parent desk lamp as they play with a ball. Luxo Jr. bounces on the ball, not realizing that it would pop and deflate. After feeling sad about losing his ball, he goes on to get an even bigger ball to play with. The director and animators made the bold choice to do one extended shot with zero camera movement. Instead, they focused on personifying the lamps and establishing emotion through human-like movement. Its photorealism draws in a viewer, especially when thinking of the technology development at the time of creation. This short shifted the ideas of computer animation. It was a technological and cultural phenomenon. Luxo Jr. will not be forgotten any time soon.
6. Bao (2018)
I told you to be ready to cry with The Little Matchgirl; be ready again because this one’s another tear-jerker. Bao speaks to family-centric cultures from the viewpoint of an empty-nest Canadian-Chinese mother. The mother gets a “second chance” at being a parent when one of her dumplings, Bao, comes to life. Everything up to the climax is symbolism for what we assume the actual mother-son relationship was like, then the resolution brings in this woman’s real-life son. (I will keep it spoiler-free.) The score’s pacing guides us through time’s speed of passage in the short. It also uses crescendos and decrescendos to elicit emotions. Bao is a masterpiece and especially impactful for those who’ve lived in cultures where families are everything.
5. Inner Workings (2016)
Director Leo Matsuda’s memories of seeing the Encyclopedia Britannica graphics of the body systems helped bring Inner Workings to life. In this short, we meet Paul–the vessel for the story–and his organs–the real main characters. As the organs try to guide Paul through his daily activities, his heart and his brain battle it out for control. Through the visuals and animation choices, we see who is in control. When the brain takes over, everything is dulled and low contrast with cool tones. When the heart is in control, the colors are high contrast and brighter with warmer tones. Similarly, the heart’s desires, outside and surfing and fun, are curvaceous; whereas the brain’s choices, work and inside and boring, are boxy. These decisions on the part of the creative team enhance the overall viewing experience.
4. Out (2020)
This short will make LGBTQ+ viewers tear up. Out centers on a man named Greg who is afraid to come out to his parents about his sexuality and his boyfriend Manuel. In a zany manner, when Greg’s parents show up unexpectedly, two magical animals named Mags and Gigi switch the brains of Greg and his dog. Will Greg evade coming out or will he learn a lesson that allows him to be his truest self? Out is funny, emotional, and impactful. Though the choice to include voices was divisive (considering Pixar shorts usually contain zero dialogue), it really enhanced the storyline. In addition to having the first LGBTQ+ couple at the center of a Disney/Pixar film, it is very loosely inspired by the emotions of director Steven Hunter’s coming out experience. Obviously, the animal and fantasy aspects were invented as catalysts for telling the story. While Hunter worked with his team, the animators took visual inspiration from illustrator Mary Blair and the Little Golden books. It spurred a vibrant crayon and watercolor style aesthetic. Overall, Out is a moving and visually gorgeous short.
3. Piper (2016)
After three years of hard work, Piper emerged as one of the most phenomenal Pixar shorts ever created. The story shows a hatchling sandpiper (using they/them pronouns because it is a bird) leaving their nest to find food for the first time. Then, they discover that they have to brave their fear of the water and waves to reach the bivalves (what a sandpiper eats). The director, Alan Barillaro, refused to anthropomorphize any of the animals. He and his team spent months studying real-life sandpipers. They then went on to animate 4-7 million feathers on each and every bird. Animators borrowed technology from feature films Brave and Finding Dory to create a fully photorealistic short. The rule of thumb in Pixar animation is to pick one–feathers, sand, or water–to animate. Instead, Barillaro insisted on animating all of them. It paid off. Piper is a beautiful short film, and it absolutely deserved its win of the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Animated).
2. Geri’s Game (1997)
Oh man. Geri’s Game is so high on my list because of nostalgia. But, to be fair, it also possesses a clever plot, strong characterization, and great animation choices. The basic concept is that Geri goes to the park to play a game of chess against himself. Geri is drawn in caricature style, exaggerating his features. The background is muted which allows us to really focus on the plot. As Geri’s Game goes on, the shots shorten and shorten which speeds up the pace, raises anticipation, and builds to the climax. Animators used facial and body expressions to distinguish between the two Geris. Given that this was created before the turn of the millennium, it’s impressive how detailed the chess pieces and hands are. (Note: hands are notoriously some of the most difficult human body parts to draw or animate.) Every part of Geri’s Game makes me smile and laugh. The stakes of the story may not be high, but all of the elements come together to make us care about Geri.
1. Paperman (2012)
Every single time I watch Paperman, my heart swells. The short tells an urban love-story in which Meg and George meet at a train station. Their meet-cute is short-lived as Meg leaves on a train, George only noticing as it pulls away. Once at work, George notices Meg in the next building over. To get her attention, he folds paper airplanes and attempts to throw them from his window across the street into her window. After using all of his papers, he fails to get her attention and gets in trouble at work. But magic and fate work together. The paper airplanes come to life in Fantasia-esque style, drawing George and Meg together once again. Paperman was created by fusing 2D hand-drawings with 3D computer animation. It is all done in black and white with the exception of a kiss mark on a paper. This choice indicated to viewers that the paper with the kiss mark would be important. The cel-animation and sketch/charcoal style drawings fuse perfectly together in a piece of masterful beauty. And Christopher Beck’s score guides emotions and pace. Paperman is a work of art, and I will be surprised if any Disney/Pixar short ever surpasses it in my heart.
I hope these shorts entertained you and allowed you to see the hard work that goes into every element of an animated film. I’m constantly in awe of animators, composers, and directors. Every one of these Disney/Pixar shorts brought magic into the hearts of viewers. Each person who works on these films is impressively skilled. And, I’m grateful that Disney/Pixar continues to foster creativity, innovation, and technological growth.
What is your favorite Disney/Pixar short?
Let us know in the comments below.
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