Saturday, May 4, 2013

Best Live Action Short Highlights - A Chairy Tale (1957)

So I was so eager in getting the Non-Nominated Highlight up for What's Opera, Doc? after the 1957 review that I plum forgot that 1957 also had one of the strangest nominations in the history of the shorts category: an animated film getting nominated for the Live Action Short category. Of course, there's no rule that absolutely says I have to post one of these highlights in the year where the film was made. I just chose to do so*.

*However, there was an animated documentary that was nominated for the Best Documentary Short category back in 1991, but I never posted about it because it wasn't online. Of course it's online now so I'll have some catching up to do after this.

Anyways, back to the topic at hand. How is it possible that an animated film gets nominated in the Live Action Short category? The answer lies in one of the most interesting of animation techniques: Pixilation

Pixilation is the term often credited to Canadian animator Grant Munro to describe stop motion animation using real life actors. It is one of the earliest techniques in animation, having been utilized in some of the earliest stop motion films from the 1900s. It is still used today, having been the technique of choice for the animator known as PES for years, including in his Oscar nominated film Fresh Guacamole. Pixilation is a technique that straddles both animation and live action. It is animation because it involves the creation of the illusion of movement, but at the same time it involves the use of live action filming. Both Fresh Guacamole and another pixilation film in Monsieur Pointu were nominated in the Best Animated Short category, but there was enough static live action shots that A Chairy Tale qualified for the Live Action Short category.

One of the greatest practitioner of pixilation is Munro's colleague at the National Film Board of Canada, Norman McLaren. He started his career experimenting with animation where images are scratched directly onto the film, but by the 1950s he was working in pixilation. One of his pixilation films was highly regarded and won an Oscar in 1952*, and five year later he collaborated with younger animator Claude Jutra to make A Chairy Tale.

*We'll be reviewing that film in a few weeks.

A Chairy Tale is about young Jutra wanting to relax with a good book. He sees a chair sitting out in the open and thinks he can use it to his liking. However, as he sit down the chair moves away. He tries getting in it but the chair keeps itself just out of reach. This began a lengthy chase between Jutra and the chair. Finally Jutra gives up and decides sitting on the floor was better than messing with the chair. However, the chair doesn't seem to want to leave Jutra alone. Can he figure out what the chair wants even though he doesn't speak chair? Can he ever read his book in peace?

A Chairy Tale was made during a time when McLaren was using film as a medium to promote social progressiveness. On the surface it is a film about a man and an obstinate chair. It's a cute film, especially with the antics of the chair. However, it can easily be seen as an allegory about the importance of communication. Communication between parties is one of the most important aspects in everyday life, but it is a skill that is harder that one might expect, especially if the parties don't understand each other. The first part of the film show the trouble that Jutra has when he doesn't attempt any communication with the chair. After a short middle section where he realizes the chair wants something, he spends the second half attempting communication. It seems a bit strange trying to communicate with inanimate objects, but it can easily seen as an allegory between two different parties. Trying to attack the opposing party when it doesn't conform to our will would lead to war. It is only through good communication that the two parties can ends in peace. This can apply to neighbors or even countries.

The animation is done quite well. It seems about half of it is done in regular live action and half is done with pixilation, but it's rather hard to tell. There are a few moments where the pixilation aspect is obvious, especially in the chase scenes, but for the most part it moves quite seamlessly between the two. The animation of the chair is especially great, as it gives the inanimate chair a sense of energy and personality that really adds to the film's charm. The music is supplied by the great Indian musicians Ravi Shankar and Chatur Lal. It's a bit strange to hear the distinctly Indian tunes in the opening credits, but the music works quite well in the film itself and gives the film a particularly compelling feeling. If there's any complaint I have about the film is that it drags a bit at times. Still, A Chairy Tale is a great example of the creativity going on at the National Film Board of Canada in the 1950s. Unfortunately, the Academy didn't agree and gave the Oscar to the Disney nature film The Wetback Hound (one of the rare times where an Oscar winning film film released by Disney Productions didn't get Walt Disney an Oscar.)

Enough talk. Here's the film for your enjoyment.

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