Monday, May 27, 2024

Analyzing The Awards Chances For “Star Wars: Visions” Season 2

This past May 4th, Lucasfilm dropped a second volume of “Star Wars: Visions” short films onto Disney+. Unlike the first volume, which exclusively featured anime, Volume 2 spreads its reach to animation studios worldwide. From 2D hand-drawn animation to 3D claymation and beyond, the collection is an incredible showcase for not just each animation studio but the art of animation as a whole. For this reason and more, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Volume 2 has awards potential come the fall, especially in the Best Animated Short Film category at the 2024 Academy Awards. Some may be quick to skepticism following the first volume’s awards performance. However, this second opportunity has new stipulations that could increase its chances. 

“Star Wars: Visions” Volume 1 Set The Precedent

Usually, a short film dropped straight onto a streaming service would not qualify for Oscars consideration. However, in September of 2021, one of the shorts from Volume 1, “The Village Bride,” screened for one week at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre. This made the short eligible for consideration. Unfortunately, the film failed to even make that year’s shortlist, ultimately losing the award to Alberto Mielgo’s “The Windshield Wiper.” 

Volume 1 was recognized by other awards ceremonies, including the Annie Awards and the Primetime Creative Emmy Awards, though they chose to honor “The Duel,” a separate episode in the collection. It’s unclear why Disney and Lucasfilm submitted “The Village Bride” for Oscar consideration but not “The Duel,” especially considering the latter is inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. That being said, one has to wonder if they simply chose “The Duel” because it is the first film in the collection and, thus, by default, representative of the series.

Though “Visions” Volume 1 did not set the awards community ablaze, it did set an important precedent. Clearly, the animation community appreciated the series, with Emmy voters nominating it alongside other acclaimed series such as “Robot Chicken” and “Love, Death & Robots.” We also know that the ASIFA-Hollywood, the voting body for the Annie Awards, overlaps with the AMPAS, as their nominees overlap year after year. Who is to say that, under different circumstances, those voters couldn’t be convinced to recognize “Star Wars: Visions” beyond just the Annies?

An Anime Has Never Won Best Animated Short

Despite Studio Ghibli’s consistent showing in the feature category across the 2000s and 2010s, an anime has never won Best Animated Short Film. In fact, the last anime to be nominated in the category was “Possessions” in 2013 – coincidentally, another single short that made up a larger project, Sunrise, and Shochkitu’s “Short Peace.” Before that, only two other Japanese shorts rendered in non-traditional anime styles had ever been nominated. Furthermore, none of the studios involved in Volume 1 have ever even been nominated for an Academy Award, though many have submitted films.

This is all to say that the decision to expand “Visions” to include other animation styles may be beneficial in garnering awards contention. Only two shorts in Volume 2 are anime-inspired (neither comes from Japan); the rest are hand-drawn, computer-generated, stop-motion, or a hybrid of either three. These styles are far more common across previous nominees and winners and are more accessible to seasoned awards voters.

More Studios in Volume 2 Have Been Recognized at the Oscars

However, in including a wider selection of studios, “Visions” has far more Oscar-caliber talent on its resume. In just this volume alone, four of the participating studios have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film: Cartoon Saloon (“Late Afternoon”), Punkrobot (“Bear Story,” which won the award in 2016), Aardman (five times, winning three for “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers,” and “A Close Shave”), and Triggerfish (“Revolting Rhymes”). Cartoon Saloon and Aardman have also been nominated for Best Animated Feature multiple times and hold a strong reputation with the animation community for their beloved work.

With a far more robust history of Oscar love in its studio lineup, Disney and Lucasfilm could very easily leverage this goodwill toward a strong awards campaign. This is especially true in the advent of streaming shorts being heavily campaigned by companies like Netflix and Apple, both of whom now have Oscars for Best Animated Short Film (“If Anything Happens I Love You” and “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse” respectively).

“Star Wars” Has History With The Academy Awards

Some may consider this a moot point, but the Oscars have a history with “Star Wars.” As of “The Rise of Skywalker,” no single “Star Wars” film has gone without at least one nomination. The original trilogy, collectively, earned 18 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for the original “Star Wars,” and eight wins. Though the prequel trilogy received less love – only five nominations between all three films – the sequel trilogy and “Solo” and “Rogue One” racked up 15 nominations, including Best Visual Effects for all five films.

None of this is hard evidence that a “Star Wars” short film could get nominated. Still, it does remind us that members of the film community, especially craftspeople, have a special relationship with George Lucas’ original creation. It is practically embedded into anyone who makes movies in one form or another. If Disney and Lucasfilm made a solid push to garner the brand a first-of-its-kind nomination, they could use the franchise’s long-standing history to unlock the hearts and minds of the animation branch.

Which Short Would Be Nominated?

With all of this in mind, it begs the question: which short film would/should Disney and Lucasfilm campaign for the category? It can be assumed the studio would only campaign one, like last time, though the sheer amount of award-winning talent could push them to campaign multiple. It isn’t likely more than one film would earn a nomination, though, and we wouldn’t want to split the vote, so best to put all the eggs in one basket. Though every short is impressive, the ones with awards history are most likely to see the spotlight.

Aardman has often taken home the actual award, making them the most obvious choice. Their short, “I Am Your Mother,” is the lightest of the nine, a charming mother-daughter action romp rendered in the British company’s signature claymated style. This shouldn’t count out Punkrobot, though, who have also won the award and, more recently, Aardman. Gabriel Osario, who directed “Bear Story,” returns to direct “In The Stars,” an environmental tale of two sisters who fight to take back their land against a greedy Empire-run oil rig. Messaging like that could strongly resonate with current voters, not to mention its stop-motion-adjacent look and feel (the short is actually computer-generated with 3D-scanned, hand-crafted models).

Triggerfish’s “Aau’s Song,” also beautifully animated in faux-stop-motion, is arguably the most accessible short of the nine for non-” Star Wars” fans, featuring far fewer references to franchise lore. It’s a stunning technical showcase for the studio, who have yet to break through to the mainstream. Meanwhile, Cartoon Saloon truly outdoes itself with “Screecher’s Reach,” a gorgeous hand-drawn short that devolves into a stunningly dark horror piece by the end. Though some may be shocked by its frightening content, many dark and challenging works have been nominated for Best Animated Short Film. Just look at recent nominees like “My Year of Dicks, “Bestia,” and “Mémorable.”

“The Pit” Could Be Lucasfilm’s Big Play

However, amidst the shorts with less Oscar history lies a potential sleeper hit. If you look closely, you’ll see that Lucasfilm co-produced one of this year’s shorts, “The Pit,” with American-owned anime studio D’Art Shtajio. Technically, Lucasfilm assisted in developing all of the shorts in one way or another, but “The Pit” began as a pitch from Lucasfilm’s own video assets manager, LeAndre Thomas. After writing the script and taking a meeting with Kathleen Kennedy, it was decided that the short would make for a strong episode of “Visions,” after which Lucasfilm agreed to collaborate with D’Art Shtajio.

Lucasfilm’s involvement in the short gave it a slight edge over the rest of the films in the collection. For one, it has the most recognizable voice cast, including Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton“), Anika Noni Rose (“The Princess and the Frog”), and industry legend Steve Blum (reprising his role as the voice of the stormtroopers from “Star Wars Rebels”). It is also scored by Daniel Lopatin, also known as Oneohtrix Point Never, who has garnered popularity in the film community for his work on the scores for the Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time” and “Uncut Gems.”

However, beyond mere name recognition, the short is an uplifting story of unity and rebellion that serves as an allegory to the struggles of many resistance movements currently questioning our largest political and cultural institutions. Conceived during the pandemic, Thomas designed the pit as a symbol of the uneven playing field many of these groups are forced to reckon with when targeting oppressive systems of inequality. In a moment where the Academy has never tried harder to welcome more progressive voices into its community (and winners circle), the collection’s most politically striking film, one helmed by majority-Black creatives no less, could be a powerful awards play should Lucasfilm align it with Disney’s ubiquitous “Star Wars” branding.

In fact, Lucasfilm has already screened “The Pit” theatrically, though only for one night, as part of this year’s Pasadena Film Festival at the Laemmle Noho 7 in North Hollywood. The festival is not an instant qualifier for awards, so this screening was likely just a promotional event for the season’s release. However, they hypothetically could have picked any short to screen at the festival. It’s no coincidence they chose their own, not to mention Thomas had come out for a Q&A. This could be the first of many promotional screenings!

Obstacles Which Stand In “Visions'” Path

There are still several obvious setbacks that “Visions” would face going into Oscar season, the same setbacks that likely caused Season 1’s “The Village Bride” to not make that year’s shortlist (aside from the short being an anime). The largest obstacle is that “Visions” is a television show, and each short film is presented as an episode in an anthology. This is why the series has previously been nominated for Emmys. A short from an anthology has never been nominated for Best Animated Short, excluding “Possessions,” which was given a full theatrical release as part of “Short Peace.” Despite the artistry and craftsmanship being at the same level as a short film, the stigma surrounding film versus television will certainly hamper voters’ perception of whatever short they campaign.

Furthermore, the way that a majority of short films are recognized by the Academy’s Short Film and Animation branches is through traditional festival runs. Beloved animation festivals, such as Annecy and Encounters, as well as larger film festivals, like Cannes and TIFF, help give animated short films a platform to capture the attention of voters who attend the festivals. Every nominee from last year (minus “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse,” which likely coasted on the source material) toured the festival circuit, with some even winning major awards. “My Year of Dicks” won a Cristal at Annecy, and “The Flying Sailor” won a Short Film Jury Award at Sundance for Best Animation. “Visions” is not slated to appear at any qualifying festivals, which could hurt its chances of being seen organically by members of the voting body.

What do you think? Is there enough newfound opportunity for Disney and Lucasfilm to snag a nomination for a short from “Star Wars: Visions”? Do you think they will push “The Pit” as their main contender? Is there room for other shorts to contend? Is promotion simply not enough for the streaming short to break through? Let us know in the comments or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Larry and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @_heylarry_

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