Watch 3 Early Animated Shorts by ‘Epic’ Director Chris Wedge Including the Oscar Winner ‘Bunny’

By  · Published on May 19th, 2013

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

The new animated feature Epic doesn’t seem to be high on a lot of lists of anticipated summer movies, but it is sure to draw in the kids. While Fox’s Blue Sky Studios may only be the third most significant company making animated features in the U.S., that’s still very lucrative business (mostly for the Ice Age series). And director Chris Wedge, a founding member of Blue Sky who hasn’t taken the helm of a movie since 2005’s Robots, is a name you should know in the world of animation.

Even if Wedge wasn’t such a big wig, though (and even if we didn’t share a birthday, which I take very seriously), I always like devoting a Short Starts post to directors of animated works. More than most kinds of filmmakers, they tend to have begun with short subjects, and these shorts tend to be available to watch online. Both are true of Wedge’s early animated films, two of which are very crude, very short, very early examples of computer animation from the 1980s – Tuber’s Two Step and Balloon Guy – and then a later longer piece that won the Academy Award in 1999, titled Bunny.

Join us in watching and learning about all three films after the jump.

Tuber’s Two Step (1985)

Before even Pixar produced its first animated short (though after John Lasseter’s first for Lucasfilm’s The Graphics Group, which would become Pixar), Wedge made this one-minute (excluding credits) computer-generated film depicting a baby’s first steps. A baby what is the question, as this is such an early effort that the characters are mostly comprised of disconnected blobs. The baby, for instance, is just like a white diaper blob surrounded by fleshy extremity blobs. The animator had already been working in the business, having graduated from film school (where he was interested in stop-motion and puppet animation) and gone right into working on TRON, inputing data for that live-action feature’s computer-animated bits as part of a process he considered “tedious.”

Afterward he met computer animation pioneer Charles Csuri, who encouraged him to join him at Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for Art and Design and get a master’s degree in computer graphics. This is his graduate thesis project, and according to animation veteran and historian Tom Sito, Tuber’s Two Step “was one of the first CG shorts to employ a full range of squash-and-stretch techniques, the kind of organic plasticity seen only in hand-drawn animated cartoons.” Indeed Wedge has noted that his approach was just to apply the principles of animation to computer graphics as opposed to the other way around.

Technically, while listed as Wedge’s directorial debut on IMDb, he apparently made something earlier called The Daymaker in 1982, though I can’t find much info on it other than the year and length (7:23). That may have been his final student project for SUNY Purchase.

Balloon Guy (1987)

There’s a lot less written about this second computer-animated short by Wedge, at least as far as I can find easily available. The minute-and-a-half-long film seems to have been another experimental exercise in advancing techniques while he continued his study and work at OSU, where he was an artist in residence and taught animation history. This film does appear to have been used in courses and conferences in the early days of computer animation by ACM SIGGRAPH, for its development of “physical simulation.”

According to a Prix ARS Electronica ’87 program, the tech specs for both Tuber’s Two Step and Balloon Guy are as follows: “The works were realized on a VAX 11/780 computer, a Mark 1I 32-bit frame buffer, Symbolics 3670 and/or Evans and Sutherland PS 300 and in-house software.”

Bunny (1999)

In the decade following Balloon Guy, Wedge went off to teach animation at NYC’s School of Visual Arts (one of my own non-degree alma maters) and worked at Blue Sky, which he founded in 1987 with a bunch of people from his TRON days (all had been employed by Mathematical Applications Group, Inc., aka MAGI/Synthavision). There they made hundreds of commercials and, after being acquired by Fox, produced effects for many of their movies including Alien Resurrection, A Simple Wish, Batman Forever, Titanic and Joe’s Apartment, the last of which had Wedge directing the animation of the cockroaches. Then finally, in 1999, Blue Sky put out the seven-minute Bunny, its first short film, which Wedge wrote (based on Lansing Campbell’s “Uncle Wiggly” books) and directed.

Like Pixar beforehand, they got an Oscar nomination right out of the gate. Of course, unlike Pixar, Wedge also won the award (albeit after Pixar did eventually win two Academy Awards for animated short in the time since its much earlier debut). As you can see below, regardless of the gap in time between the above shorts and this one, it’s incredibly leaps and bounds more advanced. There’s a real story – of an old bunny bothered by a moth while trying to bake a cake – and not only can you tell what everything is supposed to be, everything looks really wonderfully detailed. Also, there’s music by Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, which contributes to the bittersweet tone of what’s really a tale of the bunny dying and going to heaven.

Thanks to the success of Bunny, Fox and Blue Sky made their first feature together, the original Ice Age, which Wedge co-directed with his former SVA pupil Carlos Saldanha. That also was nominated for an Oscar. And its original two-disc DVD includes Bunny as a bonus feature. You can watch the short there or check it out in so-so quality on YouTube, though not in a version that allows embedding. I also recommend, if you’re interested in the short, reading about how it was made, via Catherine Winder and Zahra Dowlatabad’s book “Producing Animation.”

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.