Best Animation Companies and their Shorts
Animation is an under-appreciated art form – people often dismiss animation as a medium for kids, nothing more than light hearted comedies. But scratch beneath that surface and you’ll find a rich variety of stories being told, from the heart-warming, to the hilarious, to the dark, tragic, or mind-bending. Sometimes all at once. And it can be a real challenge to cram a complete story into a running-time under 10 minutes, which is why we at Square-Ship are always super impressed by the creative daring that can only be found in short animations. Presented for your entertainment and edification are 10 of our favourite animated shorts:
Betty Boop as Snow White
This classic cartoon from the early days of animation is from an era before cartoons were considered strictly kids stuff. Everyone went to the movies, and everyone saw the animated shorts that came on before the main event. Animators were free to get raunchy and experimental, and Betty Boop fits the bill. The animation in this cartoon is endlessly creative, following its own kind of dream logic – especially in the “St. James Infirmary” sequence, sung by Jazz Legend Cab Calloway.
One Man Band
Flash forward several decades, and we get a delightful, and hilarious short from Pixar Studios, about a couple of competing street musicians vying for an attentive audience. Though the animation is a lot more sophisticated, this short has a lot in common with the cartoons of the 40s – it finds the story through the music it’s set to, and it’s all about sight-gags and visual humour. Pixar’s short films are unusually adept at telling a compelling emotional narrative without a single line of dialogue.
The Inspector and the Umbrella
A contemporary 2D animation that combines the caricature style of the New Yorker with the zany stretch and squash antics of the Looney Tunes. The rich colours and vibrant energetic character animations show that while traditional hand-drawn animation isn’t as common, it’s still alive and kicking in the 21st century.
The Lady and the Reaper
Speaking of life and death, this film has a lot more to it than meets the eye. The style is lighthearted, exaggerated, colourful and occasionally surreal. You could be forgiven for thinking this was a Pixar or Dreamworks short. However, the subject matter is sly and blackly comic. On one level, It’s a slapstick tug of war between the Grim Reaper and a blowhard doctor trying to decide the fate of an old woman – but it’s also a story about the loneliness at the end of life and the acceptance of death. The best thing about this film is the shocking conclusion. We won’t say any more than that.
La Maison en Petits Cubes
This beautiful traditionally animated film deals with similar heady questions, but in a very different way. It takes place in a half-drowned world, gloomy and picturesque at once, and we follow an elderly gentleman who has to rebuild his home as the waters rise – and ends up taking a trip down memory lane. The worldbuilding in this short film is elegant and economical, but what really anchors it is the expressive main character – who never says a word. If you thought the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up were a tearjerker … well, just keep a Kleenex handy.
Cat Piano (NSFW)
This ain’t your daddy’s cartoon about anthropomorphized cats. Taking cues from Marrakech, Tangiers and Morocco, the noir films of the 1940s, and tying it all together with a fairy-tale-like poem read by musician Nick Cave. Cat Piano is suffused with mood, and makes extensive use of light, shadow, and silhouette (remember that noir influence?). There is also a vein of horror that runs deep in this animation – which you might find surprising, given that it’s about anthropomorphic cats. The poem lends the film a jazz-like quality, complmented by the ambiguously old-timey setting. But it also Be warned – this fairy tale is hella grim – maybe save it for AFTER work.
The Backwater Gospel (NSFW)
Speaking of grim, this stylish animation has the feel of an old-timey American tall tale … or an Edgar Allen Poe story. The character designs in this film are really something – evoking the exaggerated caricatures of Tim Burton or Ben Templesmith. The animation is a clever mix of 2d and 3d, and features a kind of setting and milieu one doesn’t often see in animation. And of course, the subject matter – a horrifying meditation on mob mentality and small-town paranoia. The characters become more and more grotesque as the story unfolds. Again – this one maybe isn’t the kind of cartoon you wanna watch on your lunchbreak – unless your office is more private than mine.
The Night I Danced With Death (NSFW)
This one’s a different kettle of fish altogether. And those fish might emerge from your belly button. A kid is at a party, not having a great time, until he eats a glowing crystal. What follows is a psychedelic tour de force – a depiction of the good and bad and the weird and wonderful that can happen when you’re young, carefree, and high as a kite. It captures that high school party vibe and the surreal logic of hallucinations through beautiful traditional animation and a thumping EDM-like score. Be warned though – parts of this trip are the kind they used to scare you in school, and being that it’s a high school party, there’s some hormones a-flying, so it might not be the best thing to watch at work.
The Meaning of Life
You probably know Don Hertzfelt best for his YouTube-famous “Rejected Cartoons”, or perhaps his nightmarish Simpson’s couch gag. But he has also produced some really experimental stuff, such as this film. It’s less a story, and more a sensory experience, as Hertzfeldt uses simple hand-drawn animation to comment on society, evolution, and the grandeur of the cosmos. Not exactly a “fun” cartoon – but it’ll certainly give you a lot to think about.
However, I feel it’s only right to end this blog post on an upbeat note. Any animation student will tell you that the Looney Tunes cartoons are high-water marks for expressive, inventive, outrageous animation. Chuck Jones was one of the all-time great animation directors, and “Duck Amuck” is arguably his masterpiece. It all starts out as you might expect a Daffy Duck cartoon to go – and then things get a little “meta” as Daffy starts arguing with his animator. Hilarity ensues. It’s got all the zany slapstick energy we expect from a Warner Brothers cartoon – and it’s damned clever too.