On the eve of this year's Oscar announcements, I was interviewed by James Gartler of Animation World Network, interested in reviewing the consequences of short animation wins for their respective creators. I was a too late in replying for article inclusion, but here's what I had to say for anyone who wants to know - it's interesting to look back and then also reflect on the effects a couple of years on.
When you set out to work on what would become your Oscar-winning short, were you aiming for a nomination? Was it a goal, or something you thought could be in the cards?
I suspect that most creators don't think much about awards while they are working, if they are serious artists at least, and our team was no exception. We just did the best work we could, and whatever transpired afterwards was not a great concern, it was out of our hands. Our main initial objective was to finish a film that might be suitable for the Cannes Festival (as it turned out, the jury did not agree!) and beyond that, just something we could be proud of, that we could enjoy watching over and over again. Of course, an Oscar was mentioned in the studio from time to time – who wouldn't want that recognition and exposure? – though very much as a joke. It seemed like such a distant possibility that we weren't even afraid of jinxing it with silly comments about picking out frocks and tuxedos. To be honest, I think if we'd thought too much about making an Oscar-nominated film, it would have been far too difficult. Instead of trusting our own choices and gut instincts, we might have ended up anxiously second-guessing an invisible offshore jury, or worrying about how to make a 'good film'. Instead we just made the kind of film that we wanted to see.
From either a personal or professional perspective, what did you
feel an Oscar nomination or win might bring you (back before it became
Mainly just getting people to look at the film. That's really what every artist hopes for, that there is some level of effective communication, and this is where big awards can make the difference between a cultural conversation and a forgotten obscurity. That's particularly true in the world of short animation, it's a medium that's as costly as it is ephemeral, and easy to pass below a mainstream radar. At the same time, it can reach a big audience very quickly, in comparison to an equivalent picture book for instance: the difference being whether people are curious about it. And there's nothing like an Oscar nomination to make people curious! On a personal level, I did hope that the film might lead a new audience back to some of my existing picture books, particularly an older audience who might otherwise think picture books are only for children, and not for them. The Lost Thing demonstrates that this isn’t necessarily true, even though it borrows are traditional children's book structure.
How did it feel when you learned you were, in fact, nominated?
That was the most exciting part, along with the lead-up long-list and short-list. Ever time we passed into the next round it was amazing, seeing our film pop up on the list. When it came to nomination announcement, my wife and I were compulsively checking online late at night as categories were published one by one - it seemed to take forever for ours to come around. To be honest, I didn't fancy our chances, but suddenly there we were! It was pretty unbelievable, just knowing that we would at least definitely be going to LA, and there was a consoling feeling that we weren't completely crazy after all in imagining that possibility.
Did winning Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards have an immediate effect on your career in any way? Did doors open up for you? What kinds of specific opportunities came your way?
Actually, I can't say that it had as big an effect as most people might expect, and there are a few reasons for that. Firstly, I had been working occasionally with large animation studios already, particularly Blue Sky and Pixar, during the preceding decade, and my books are well known in the US (at least within film art departments). In that sense, I'd already settled into a certain groove as an artist and freelance illustrator, and most industry people interested in our film were already interested long before Oscar season – or not! Secondly, my main interest as an artist is still books rather than film, so I was not actively seeking to open new animation doors. Also, my producer Sophie Byrne and I also did not have an immediate follow-up project in mind at the time of the win, otherwise we might have employed what Adam Elliot, the previous Oscar-winning Australian animator, amusingly called 'the golden crowbar' (he went on to produce the excellent Mary & Max). Of course, it may simply be too early to say: should Sophie and I need to use it, it's good to know that arranging meetings or seeking support and attention for a new project might now be easier, it’s just such a widely recognized award.
How would you say winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short is unique in term of its impact (compared to other awards and their impact on recipients, ex: best animated feature, or best picture,
I think it's quite different in that most nominees are coming from a position of public obscurity in this category, and are mainly independent, low-budget projects (and often first-timers like me). It's a very interesting, wild-card kind of category for this reason, and there's a sense of great opportunity for new artists, unknown surprises and discovery (and arguably the stylistic variety in this category far exceeds any other – it's genuinely experimental in a world that adores convention, even for the bigger studios it’s creative lab research). The same might not be said for Best Picture or Animated Feature, where it's more of a competition between known entities, with opinions already cementing about films already seen. The mainstream media certainly did not seem very aware of our film until it won an Oscar, and had we not been nominated, that may well have remained the case!
If you could hop into a time machine and share some wisdom with your pre-nominated self, what would you say about navigating the experience or managing your expectations?
That's a good question... probably not much! These kinds of things need to come completely out of left field, without any warning. If anything, I'd just try to tell myself to enjoy whatever happens and not worry too much. One thing that you don't notice until you are in the midst of such an event is the amount of anxiety it can engender: it can be quite stressful for all sorts of reasons, especially for artists more used to working quietly in a little studio. So my advice to anyone else in the same position: take a deep breathe and enjoy the crazy weirdness while it lasts!