Creating an animated short film presents unique excitements and challenges— it’s a cinematic environment in which filmmakers can experiment with their medium and further develop their diction of film language; however, they must now also consider the added constraints of both the budget and time. As such, it can be arduous to bridge this gap to create films that can contain the animator’s imaginatively eclectic and honest thoughts while simultaneously translating those thoughts concisely.
In 2017, Pixar announced a new experimental shorts division, later officially titled “Sparkshorts”— a new brand under which they strove to produce smaller-scale short films led by premier directors; as put by the studio, it’s a way of “giving filmmakers a little bit of time and just a little bit of money, and they can make whatever kind of film they want.” Short films have, of course, always held an integral place in Pixar’s filmography; since its inception, the studio has utilized the cinematic format as a playfield for testing new technology (like with The Adventures of André & Wally B and Luxo Jr.) and exploring new storytelling techniques (like with Day and Night and Bao). Indeed, since its debut, Sparkshorts has persisted as one of Disney/Pixar’s most interesting projects for how it allows an outlet and a platform for up-and-coming directors to experiment with telling more personal, mature, and innovative stories to come from the studio— or any large American animation studio furthermore— in a quite a while. It’s been an exciting and refreshing time following these films’ releases, and of the ten Sparkshorts released (thus far), I have selected three of my favorites to bring to your attention as particularly inspiring, as well as discussing the series’ companion film Spark Story. Of course, I would love to see your favorites in the comments!
Kitbull (2019, Dir. Rosana Sullivan)
Released in the initial batch of Sparkshorts (alongside Purl and Smash and Grab), Kitbull follows the eventual-blossoming friendship between a tiny stray kitten and an abused pitbull, who together devise a plan to free the pitbull from his owner. This film immediately sets itself apart from much of Pixar’s filmography with its prominent use of hand-drawn 2D animation, the first Sparkshort to do so, and creating a precedent for other shorts to follow. The film visually combines its cute, pervasive “lil dude energy”-character designs and pastel-esque linework with very dramatic and emotional cinematography and lighting; that further underscores the bittersweet but fervently hopeful tone of the film. Moreover, Kitbull’s willingness to dedicate itself to its characters’ development exists as its more compelling aspect; through the brilliant character acting and empathic storytelling; you wordlessly understand and feel for the kitten and pitbull— these two hurt characters who both must navigate themselves and the world so they can learn to trust someone else. Even years later, this film still had me in awe throughout (and blubbering by the end)— its sweetness does an excellent job of endearing you to its characters and world so it can more vehemently exhibit both the clouds and sunbeams of its sky. The film brings an emotional complexity that Pixar’s best work often does; however, it never wavers in its consistency nor its persistence to convey and explore this complexity to a complete understanding and ambition.
Burrow (2020, Dir. Madeline Sharafian)
Premiering alongside Soul, Burrow stars a small rabbit as she digs underground, searching for the perfect spot to make her home, only to find herself continuously stumbling into other animals’ homes. I remember particularly being excited for this film’s release because of Sharafian’s prior excellent work writing and storyboarding for Cartoon Network’s We Bare Bears, and I’m happy to say she continued her winning streak in the “cute characters doing cute things” genre. The aesthetics of the film remain immediately striking; its storybook-esque linework and color direction add a warm, inviting, and lovingly handmade feeling to the piece, which beautifully punctuates the delightful character animation and expression work. Particularly, I also want to praise the character designs and the set design of the film; even with its volume of distinctive animals and locations, Burrow does an impeccable job of imbuing each character with their lively personality further underscored by their idiosyncratic but evidently lived-in homes. The film exhibits passion in every frame and feels as homely as it does characterful.
Twenty Something (2021, Dir. Aphton Corbin)
Twenty Something tells the story of Gia, a woman reckoning the insecurities of becoming an adult— which become exacerbated when her sister Nicole takes her to the club to celebrate Gia’s twenty-first birthday. Gia imagines herself as three kids stacked in a trenchcoat—hoping no one notices how precariously put together she feels as she navigates the adult world. Twenty Something epitomizes the maturity of Sparkshorts both in its direction and subject matter. Corbin’s confidence as a writer and director elates the film with an energetic self-assuredness that allows it to glide through its intricate and relatable emotions; its core feeling very intimate, but, through its understanding of its own tenderness, still able to have fun with itself. So much of what Corbin accomplishes with Twenty Something— its incredible character design work, inventive concept, clever dialogue, and the well-accomplished difficulty of animating and portraying a character that is technically three characters— portrays itself with such effortlessness and wit. It isn’t just that the film feels lived in (which it thoroughly does), but that it fully realizes its ideas, both the grounded and the abstract, in a way that feels experienced, enjoyed, and honest.
A Spark Story (2021, Dir. Leanne Dare & Jason Sterman)
Additionally, if you’re interested in how a Sparkshort like Twenty Something gets made, A Spark Short provides audiences an inside look at the animated filmmaking process— from the story’s initial spark to its final execution. The first documentary, as well as the first primarily live-action film produced and released by Pixar, A Spark Story follows directors Aphton Corbin and Louis Gonzales through their processes of directing their Sparkshorts (Twenty Something and Nona, respectively). For animation fans (especially Pixar fans), this film does an excellent job of gilding the audience through their artists’ creative process and delving into the studio’s artistic ethos. Moreover, Corbin and Gonzales act as perfect focal points for the film, not just because of their differing backgrounds and levels of experience, but particularly for how they approach their artistic philosophies; both of them decide to portray personal stories that pay tribute to/ reflect their cultures exuberantly. Corbin explores these impetuses through a dialogue-heavy 2D animated, loosely-autobiographical film that abstracts the experience for a young person moving forward into the unknown of their future; Gonzales directs a mostly-silent 3D/ CGI animated film about an older person moving forward from their past. The duality yet connectedness of this divergence in approach allows the documentary a sense of integrative cohesion as the two explore their concept in their own unique ways.
The two directors’ varied yet somewhat complementary creative viewpoints make the sequencing and flow of the feature feel natural, especially excelling in its most intimate moments where the artists are allowed to discuss their inspirations, fears, and excitements regarding their films. Admittedly, I will mention that the film can feel a bit too sterile at times as if it’s merely a campus tour advertisement through the self-alleged utopia of the studio. And don’t misunderstand, the Pixar studio is immaculately beautiful, and I would love to go there; email me anytime, Pixar. Nonetheless (and maybe it’s just me), I genuinely forgot artists directed both of their films during quarantine— an aspect of their production the film bafflingly glances over despite existing an intriguing concept for a documentary unto itself. Even still, the documentary remains an enjoyable watch that entertains as much as it sheds light on the creative process of up-and-coming directors at one of the most prolific American animation studios.
There is a particular moment during the film that struck me, though, where— following a previous interview in which an executive at Pixar describes animated filmmaking as symphonic in nature— Gonzales describes his approach to creating Nona as being more alike in ethos to an indie garage rock band— embracing limitations of budget and time as an aesthetic unto itself that accentuates the personality of the final film. In this conception, Gonzales iterates what, for me, make animated short films so captivating— even when produced by one of the biggest animation studios in the world, their relative scrappiness allows for the brushstrokes of each artist contributing to remain more viable. In each of the films discussed, there exists an endearing and infectious passion for the stories told— their experienced intimacy shining through as each artist focuses on saying one thing as personally and lovingly as they can. It becomes a reminder of the effort, talent, and adoration that goes into making animation— as well as being brilliant films in their own right.