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Short Spotlight: Pixar’s ‘Day & Night’

Ingenious blend of 3D and 2D looks to halt Pixar’s losing streak in the Animated Short category

They may be the most consistently successful company in the history of animation, but Pixar can't get much love in the Oscars' Best Animated Short Film category anymore.

The studio that has now made 11 consecutive commercial and critical hit features, picking up 40 Oscar nominations and eight wins along the way, is battling a losing streak in the short category. It has received 10 additional nominations for its shorts, but hasn't won since "For the Birds" in 2000.

That short was its third straight nominee to take home the prize – but since then, the company is 0-for-5.

The change? The Best Animated Feature category was created in 2001, and Pixar's "Finding Nemo" won the following year. Voters may feel as if Pixar, having won the feature prize five times, is too big a player for the shorts category — or maybe they just respond to work that appears to be more personal and less polished.

Also read: Oscar's Animated Shorts: Kids' Books vs. 3D

Day & NightThis year, "Day & Night" becomes the latest Pixar short to try to break the streak. Directed by Teddy Newton, the film has already won an award from the Visual Effects Society as 2010's best animated short.

It's a remarkable piece of work technically. The short follows a pair of lumpy characters who exist on a flat, two-dimensional black plane – but we, and they, can look through  the 2D characters and see a full 3D world, in daylight through one of them and at night through the other.

The story is about the two learning to get along with each other; it's wordless until the end, when Newton uses snippets from a speech by self-help author and speaker Wayne Dyer, which he remembered his mother listening to on cassette in the 1970s. 

The 3D effects in "Day & Night," which showed with "Toy Story 3" in its theatrical run and is also included on the "TS3" DVD, are rich and dazzling – and crucially, Pixar persuaded the Academy to screen it in that format in the members' screenings at which Academy voters cast their ballots.

Newton, who was brought to Pixar by Brad Bird and did extensive design and title work on Bird's Oscar-winner "The Incredibles" (as well as supplying the voice for the talking telephone in "Toy Story 3"), says that 3D was part of the plan from the beginning with his short.

"I knew Pixar wanted to do a 3D short, so I was practical," he told TheWrap. "I thought, let me do something that's designed specifically for 3D, not something that has to be shoehorned into 3D. And I figured that if we do something like a keyhole, we can have a flat world on top, and a tactile, tangible, dimensional world inside."

Pixar chief John Lasseter, he said, got very excited by the idea – but the execution proved to be extraordinarily difficult at a company where virtually all the computer animation is rendered in three dimensions inside the computers, even if it's not always projected that way.

"One of the problems with making the movie is that we don't do 2D animation at Pixar, and we don't really have a pipeline to do it," he said. "The system we had was not capable of viewing the 3D background and the flat art simultaneously, which became a problem."

Day & NightAt first, he said, animation tests just "eyeballed" the problem, but always came up short. "If a tree fell down in our 3D world, for instance, I had to make sure that our 2D character would parallel those movements. But most of the time we'd come back with something where he was either too small so you couldn't see the whole tree, or he fell too early … We had to break the pipeline we had to create another pipeline, and we did that four times over before we landed on something that worked."

For a while, he said, he was convinced he was going to be fired. "It was a mess, and it didn't make any sense visually. I think everybody knew what it was supposed to look like, but as far as making even one shot work, that seemed like an impossible fantasy."

Unusually for a Pixar film, Newton said he was dealing through the process not with the Pixar "brain trust" of directors and trusted insiders that usually consult on each project, but with Lasseter alone. 

"I don't know of any other film that did that at the time," he said, "but I think it was best. It helped keep the unique identity of the film intact, instead of breaking it down because of too many inputs coming in."