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A Student Film's Path to the Oscars

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Last week, my animated short film Head Over Heels was nominated for an Oscar. I'm still trying to get used to that.

Back in 2011, my producer and I assembled a crew at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) to make a stop-motion animated film. These crew members came from each discipline the NFTS offers a course in: cinematography, production design, editing, composing, sound design, and others. As a student of animation, I had made a few stop-motion exercises prior to this, but for everyone else, it was their first foray into the technique.

Stop-motion is a notoriously time-consuming proposition. Some (including myself) would call it torturous. This is the animation technique used on Pingu, Wallace and Gromit, those old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas specials, and more recently, the Oscar-nominated features Frankenweenie, Paranorman, and Aardman Animation's The Pirates!.

It's very simple. You make a posable model of your character: this is your puppet. You put the puppet on a table, hopefully in some sort of miniature set. You take a photo. Then you move the puppet a tiny bit. You take another photo. Move the puppet again. Take another photo. When you take enough of these photos (24 photos make up one second of animation), you start to see movement.

In one particularly complex shot, both characters had to walk through the scene while the camera inched slowly toward them. The film's cinematographer, Chloë Thomson, enthusiastically agreed to animate the camera movement while I moved the characters. We spent two full days in the darkened studio, walking back and forth from the set to the camera, ultimately shooting 500 individual frames (it's a 21-second shot). Chloë thanked me for the opportunity to share such a unique experience and then begged not to have to do it again.

Head Over Heels presented an unusual challenge for stop-motion because of the story: it's about a husband and wife who have grown apart over the years, and now he lives on the floor and she lives on the ceiling. This meant we had to physically hang our puppets upside down from the set. Our production designer Eléonore Cremonese built the house so that it could be taken apart and reassembled without damaging it. Our ceilings could become floors and floors become ceilings depending what we needed in the shot.

Fifteen months after the idea first came to me, we had a finished film. Then came the hard part: we had to get people to watch it! This meant submitting to film festivals. Head Over Heels played at Cannes, Encounters, and Edinburgh, among many others. And for an independent short, this is also the ticket to Academy Awards consideration.

I was in the middle of an early November film shoot when I found out Head Over Heels had made it to the Oscar short list of ten films. My brother called my mobile phone and asked, "Have you seen the internet?" The Oscars were so far from my mind and he spoke with such a tone of shock that I thought Mitt Romney must have won Ohio!

A couple months later came the announcement of the five nominees. The film's producer, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly, found the news first and sent me a link. My brother and my girlfriend leapt up and whooped, but for some reason I didn't know how to react at first. I think I was making sure my name was spelled correctly.

I can't wait to experience Oscar season. Our first event is an official luncheon with all nominees invited. Then Fodhla and I will spend two weeks in LA touring a number of animation studios, screening the film for some major Hollywood agencies, having drinks with our fellow nominees, and generally getting the film out there in front of people, undoubtedly at great cost to our sleep schedules. But we wouldn't have it any other way!

For the students involved in Head Over Heels, our Oscar nomination is huge. The work we did in the dark corners of a small school outside London has been honoured by the filmmakers who inspired us to pursue our own dreams. We hope our short film will inspire them, too!

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