Dunlevy: Laughs abound in Oscar-nominated NFB short Animal Behaviour
The National Film Board’s recent animation output may be described in many ways, but funny isn’t necessarily one of them.
That was something Montreal NFB producer Michael Fukushima hoped to change when he asked veteran Vancouver animator couple David Fine and Alison Snowden to pitch him a project a few years back.
“You may not be aware of the breadth of our animation catalogue,” Fukushima said, sitting in the NFB’s Montreal offices on Monday morning, “but certainly, of late, comedy is in short supply.
“I love the films we produce, and I encourage our filmmakers, but their films do tend to be more serious and art-driven. Just plain laugh-out-loud comedy is not what we do all the time anymore. Alison and David are masters of a certain kind of dry comedy that I think the NFB needed.”
That hunch has carried Fukushima, Fine and Snowden all the way to this year’s Oscars, where Animal Behaviour is nominated in the category of best short film (animated).
It is Fine and Snowden’s fourth Oscar nomination in the category, which they won in 1995 for their NFB-produced film, Bob’s Birthday. That led to their hit animated series Bob and Margaret.
It is the third time heading to the Academy Awards with a film for Fukushima, who is executive producer of the NFB’s animation department. But the Oscars were the farthest thing from his mind when Animal Behaviour started; he was simply seeking comic relief.
He knew he was onto something when he sat down with Fine at the Ottawa animation festival and got the pitch, on the spot, for film about a group-therapy session involving an array of neurotic creatures.
“No exaggeration, I slid out of my chair, I was laughing so much,” Fukushima recounted. “Just the characterizations, even at that early stage, were so very, very funny.
“(Fine) said, ‘So we have a leech with codependency issues.’ Of course the leech has separation anxiety! And David is a very good mime, so he was doing voices for the different characters.”
Other animals in the film include a dog psychotherapist, a rapacious praying mantis, a gluttonous pig, a compulsively clean cat and an ape with anger-management issues.
Snowden performs the voice of the cat in the film, and she and Fine recruited a host of Vancouver actors for the rest of the cast.
Several Montrealers were involved in the project, including composer Judith Gruber-Stitzer and musician brothers David and Thom Gossage, plus sound designer Olivier Calvert.
And while it was mostly smooth sailing, the entire film was nearly derailed last year when Snowden had a very scary brush with death, ultimately receiving a double-lung transplant at Vancouver General Hospital.
“It was terrifying at the time,” Fukushima recounted. “It started with some kind of infection. The doctors couldn’t diagnose the root of it, and it just kept deteriorating. The medical team thought if they could stabilize her, maybe a double-lung transplant would do it, but they didn’t know for certain.”
Incredibly, Snowden pulled through and was able to finish the film.
“You would never know (that anything happened),” Fukushima said. “She’s in perfect health.”
Needless to say, being nominated for an Oscar is icing on the cake. Thoughts of winning, though exciting, are being kept at bay for the moment.
At the nominees luncheon on Feb. 4, Fukushima acted as facilitator as the filmmakers took advantage of some classic photo ops.
“I was walking up to other nominees like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, saying ‘There are a couple of nominees that would love to have their photo taken with you,’ ” he said. “It was a fun experience.”
Black civil rights
Two new virtual reality works touching on black civil rights are being shown at the Phi Centre: Traveling While Black, a 21-minute journey into one of the long-standing safe havens in a racially divided U.S.; and Accused No. 2: Walter Sisulu, a 15-minute animated documentary based on sound archives of the trial of one of Nelson Mandela’s comrades in South Africa’s Rivonia trials of 1963-64.
I recently wrote about the Sundance Film Festival première of Traveling While Black, created by Montreal’s Felix & Paul Studios in collaboration with Oscar-winning American director Roger Ross Williams.
The piece takes viewers inside Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C. The restaurant resides in a building that served as one of the safe spaces for blacks contained in Victor Hugo Green’s travel guide The Green Book.
Sitting in a cubicle in the famed restaurant, we hear owner Virginia Ali and an array of patrons talk about being black in America. In a climactic segment, Samaria Rice describes the day her 12-year-old son, Tamir, was killed by police in 2014.
As with all Felix & Paul projects, VR brings a disarming intimacy to the experience.
Accused No. 2: Walter Sisulu, by French directors Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte, puts us inside the courtroom to hear the testimony of the black anti-Apartheid activist.
Though the trials were not filmed, the black-and-white animation brings a mix of mystery and immediacy to the affecting VR piece, demonstrating one man’s resilience in the face of oppression.
AT A GLANCE: Animal Behaviour is streaming for free until the day of the Oscars, Sunday, Feb. 24, on the NFB website, nfb.ca.