We celebrate the beauty of two art forms that don’t get nearly enough love — short film and animation — with a look at five SXSW standouts.
In part one of our SXSW Short Film coverage, we highlighted five of the most outstanding narrative shorts. But the festival’s animated short films are definitely worthy of celebration, delivering some of the most engaging, endearing, creative, and compelling content of the entire slate of world-class programming.
Below are five of my favorites, ranging from the tender to the twisted, the lighthearted to the profound. Showcasing a variety of artistic styles helmed by a wonderfully diverse group of artists and filmmakers, this animated lineup blew me away.
1. Sprout (Zora Kovac)
Despite being a sweet and deceptively simple family-friendly tale, Sprout tackles some pretty hefty ideas in its short runtime.
A reclusive scientist lives alone in a large mansion, controlling every aspect of his life with a series of machines that allow him to avoid interaction with the outside world. Startled by a knock at the door, he inadvertently knocks over a container of seeds into one of his machines, creating a plant creature that takes the form of a baby. Despite being closed off to human connections, he bonds with the plant baby, learning to love for the first time.
As the creature grows and their relationship deepens, the scientist prohibits the curious youngster from venturing outside into the big, dangerous world. But one day, the plant grows too big to control or contain. Desperate to hold on to the only meaningful thing in his life and terrified to let go, the scientist fights to hold his grown sprout back. But it breaks free and swallows the scientist whole, bringing him along on a journey into the outside world.
Once outside, he discovers the world is not quite as ugly or frightening as he once thought. In fact, it’s quite beautiful.
My favorite quote is from writer Anaïs Nin: “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” And this beautiful and affecting short from Zora Kovac exemplifies that idea, exploring what it means to love and form meaningful connections — to be open to taking risks even if we’re afraid we’ll get hurt.
2. The Debutante (Elizabeth Hobbs)
A young socialite feels burdened with the pressures of a polite society. To escape her life of oppressive luxury, she makes daily trips to the zoo, connecting far more with the animals than with her elite peers. While she loves all animals, her best friend is a hyena, who she is able to communicate with. She bemoans to the hyena how frustrated she finds her dull life and the obligations to entertain.
One day, she complains to the hyena how much she dreads a dinner dance, her least favorite activity. The hyena expresses how eager she’d be to trade places with the debutante, believing a dance sounds thrilling and magical. After realizing how envious they are of each other’s lot in life, the pair hatch a devious plan. The hyena will attend the party in the debutante’s place. But how they pull off such an impossible ruse is surprisingly dark and twisted.
What begins as rudimentary black ink drawings soon explodes into a kaleidoscope of various artistic styles and colors that channel the chaotic energy of the tale of escalating horror and dark humor.
Directed by Elizabeth Hobbs and based on the short story by former debutante Leonora Carrington, The Debutante is funny, visually striking, wholly original, and delightfully demented.
3. Spring Roll Dream (Mai Vu)
Linh is a single Vietnamese-born mother living with her young son in America. Her visiting father from Vietnam offers to cook the family a traditional Vietnamese meal of spring rolls. Rather than embrace the kind gesture, she becomes irritated, curtly explaining that she plans to make macaroni and cheese. After an argument, the hurt father explains to Linh that he made the rolls for her, a reminder of when he used to feed them to her as a little girl. But she snaps back that she never liked them.
Despite her struggles to outrun her past and the culture she left behind, Linh is confronted with the pain of loss from abandoning who she was. And she trepidatiously allows her father to serve spring rolls for dinner. To her surprise, her son loves the rolls, adding a bit of ketchup to them, symbolically blending the East and West and forming a harmonious union between the family’s ancestral roots and the place now planted.
It’s a beautiful and investing tale of family and the blending of cultural influences — and how we bridge the gap between the past that has shaped us and our current place in the world.
4. Beyond the Fringe (Han Tang, Costanza Baj & Giulia Zanette)
Amidst the pages of a handmade book, the paper fibers spring to life, and a figure emerges. At first eager to burst out of the pages and into the vast, unexplored world, the paper figure soon becomes crippled with fear and anxiety. It retreats back into the book, seeking comfort and security, but eventually finds the courage to step off the page and venture out into the great unknown.
A minimalistic but striking short, Beyond the Fringe is an imaginative tale about growing up and facing fear.
It doesn’t just speak to the literal act of becoming an adult and braving the world alone, but it resonates with anyone who has ever felt held back by worry and doubt, speaking to anyone who has ever metaphorically rolled themselves into a ball to avoid the world or stayed hidden in a comforting fantasy to avoid an uncertain reality.
This lovely short reminds us it’s okay to be scared, but there’s tremendous beauty in bravery. It also manages to feel incredibly tactile through the sheer power of visuals.
5. Sandwich Cat (David Fidalgo)
In this whimsical but wickedly dark tale, an artist named David discovers his beloved cat and best friend (who gets his moniker, Sandwich Cat, from the fact that he’s wearing a piece of bread around his head) now has the power of speech. Unfortunately, that’s due to the alien that has swapped minds with the cat in order to observe the human race up close and determine if there is enough goodness in humanity to save it from extinction.
After coming to terms with the fact that he’s the “chosen one” tasked with saving the human race, the alien asks David to explain what’s good about humans.
After trying and failing to wow the being with a razzle-dazzle tour of tourist attractions, David finally lands on the only answer he can come up with: beer. Turns out, it’s not a bad answer. The alien finds the beer rather delightful. But the next question is a doozy, and David must now try to explain what makes humans bad.
Realizing mankind is doomed, he tries to explain the horrors of the world by letting the alien watch the news — clip after clip of the worst aspects of humanity, from rape to nazis to poverty, war, global warming, corruption, corporate greed, and more atrocities. When the alien realizes how fundamentally flawed mankind really is, David tries to make a case that people are inherently good. But it’s a hard case to make in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.
Sandwich Cat manages to be both playful and endearing while also maintaining a defiantly dark edge and a cynical undertone. It’s as delightfully charming as it is sobering. And it’s one of the absolute highlights of the stellar short film programming at SXSW.