Short films remain, compared to their lengthier siblings, under-appreciated and unknown today. But, as anyone who’s ever seen an art film (or an exploitation film) knows, a lack of commercial appeal can bode extremely well for artistic potential.
A seeming irony, there’s nothing shocking about this contrast at all: not having to find commercial success and not needing to appeal to a conventional audience grants a filmmaker far more artistic freedom to experiment and move away from the norm. True in live-action cinema, but perhaps even more-so in the world of animation, where “convention” and the need for popular success are married to immaturity and idiocy.
Low and behold, at the same time, there is an ever flourishing surfeit of untapped animated short films that entertain and enlighten in equal measure, pushing forth the genre and using their relative shortness of breath to pack every second with innovation and exploration of animation as an art form.
Animated shorts are as diverse and exotic and filled with discovery as their more popular full-length brethren, not to mention their live-action counterparts, but, perhaps due to the stigma of animation and perhaps due to their own complex, challenging nature, few of these films have entered the popular consciousness.
To help correct this, here is a list of 25 of the greatest animated short films ever released, limited to only one short per director for variety’s sake, and presented in order of release year.
1. Out of the Inkwell Series (1918-1929, Max Fleischer)
Perhaps the only entry on this list heavily weighted for its own influence, Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series is simply unavoidable in the field of animation, taking the Polish style and adapting it for American audiences and pushing the world of animation forth through techniques such as Rotoscoping, or tracing over live action images in a literal feat of “animation” by giving everyday reality a life its own.
No one individual short stands out today, but the corpus of early works not only refined the art of animation, but played around with the idea that it was animation. This was the wild years, folks, the 1920s and 1930s when film was still discovering itself, and the same was true of animation.
It approaches us like an alien artifact from a time when the art form was an active, endless pool of discovery, and Fleischer’s habit of emphasizing the artificiality of the animation, and his own involvement in creating it, allowed for a playfulness of theme and style that thrived on its own joy of the future. His art is never anything less than positively enraptured to be trying new things.
2. Papageno (1935, Lotte Reiniger)
Far more (justifiably) famous for her surviving full length feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926, “Papageno” shows that a decade of time did nothing to dull Reiniger’s ever adventurous, mythical cinematic spirit.
Here is someone who managed to capture everything lovely and transformative about silent German cinema and transfer it to the world of animation in a way that not only retained its spirit but afforded it a new sensibility of whimsy altogether. Her signature style of silhouette animation, adapted from Wayang puppet theater, took cardboard cutouts painted black and placed them in front of tinted backgrounds.
In doing so, she elegantly conveyed an arch simplicity without sacrificing (and in many ways actually enhancing) the fluidity and nuance of emotion experienced in the animation world at the time. Few animation styles convey texture and narrative through simple character movements quite like Reiniger’s; each subtle motion, both jerked and graceful, hints at much more than it explicitly reveals.
With so much going on in the foreground through the frame by frame animation, it’s easy to forget the breathy textures of the background, layered to convey mystery and levels of distance before the invention of the multiplane camera to properly frame z-axis depth in animation.
Whichever short you choose in the catalogue, Reiniger is technological innovation and prime storytelling all in one, and she is one of the most important animated forces ever to grace the cinema.
3. The Old Mill (1937, Wilfred Jackson)
Sometimes written off as a mere test run for what Disney would achieve later the same year with their first full length animated release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, “The Old Mill” is instead a perfect encapsulation of all of the advancements made by Disney over the prior ten years during one of the most consistently innovative times for animation in history.
Famously, “The Old Mill” pioneered the use of the multiplane camera, thus allowing for separate cells to be run through a camera at different distances simultaneously so as to convey three dimensional screen depth. The effect is to construct a fully realized, cohesive world as animation had never before achieved, without losing any of the essential mystery and poetic discovery of the world itself.
This story of a thunderstorm tormenting the local animal communities of an old abandoned mill perfects the clashing of impressionist, expressionist, and naturalist styles melded into a unique, storybook whole, the style that would serve Disney well for most of its best releases.
One can see, on the merits of “The Old Mill”, why Wilfred Jackson was asked to spear-head the finest moments of Fantasia, the fatalistic hell of “Night on Bald Mountain” and the ensuing impressionist resurgence and calm, quiet lifeblood of “Ava Maria”.
Handling two polar opposites, pure contorted, alarming, and confrontational destruction matched to the endlessly restful emptiness of rebirth, is no easy feat, but the endless complications of “The Old Mill” silence any claims that Jackson wasn’t up to the challenge.
4. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946, Robert Clampett)
When one looks down the barrel of a great Looney Tunes short, it is more than likely that Chuck Jones will holding the trigger at the other end. “Duck Amuck” is his masterpiece, but “What’s Opera Doc?”, “One Froggy Evening”, the “Rabbit of Seville” and many others owing to his pen are among the great animated shorts. But Jones was not the only master holding it down at Warner Bros animation.
There was the countrified elemental quality of Tex Avery, the ambidextrous postmodernism of Friz Freling, and there was the all-over-the-place tomfoolery of Bob Clampett, one of the few animators who actively understood the main players of Warner Bros like Bugs and Daffy but consciously chose to work with the more obscure entities.
Still, Clampett’s best short, and maybe the best non-Jones from the company entity altogether, is perhaps the most perfect parody of the artificial hard-edge of film noir and detective fiction ever: “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery”, and in the role of the intrepid detective, it could only ever feature Daffy Duck. Subtle visual touches, like when a shadow of Daffy morphs into a chiseled-jaw human for a few frames, announce it as more than a mere noir parody.
The typical Looney Tunes commentary on the nature of art and audience is at its fullest as well, especially when Daffy does something superhuman and he gleefully turns to the camera breaking the fourth wall, to defend himself and implicitly the seeming superhuman ability given to so many detectives who ought to have died somewhere between villain 13 and 37.
When Daffy falls into a noirish nightmare, Clampett lets loose with the key understanding that governed all noir: it was essentially German Expressionism only slightly diluted for American audiences.
His imagery, all doctored up with abstract color backgrounds, heightened detail differences, and absurdist literal realizations of the over-the-top names of typical crime fiction villains, at once captures and mocks the spirit of the form, sending it off in fine style post-WWII (when it was on its way out anyway) with a poison pen love letter in typical Looney Tunes fashion.
5. Begone Dull Care (1949, Norman McLaren)
A Scottish animator working for the National Film Board of Canada, Norman McLaren proved time and time again that to test the boundaries of a single art form one had to match it to other forms normally assumed unrelated.
Sure, Walt Disney made Fantasia one of his great personal projects, and surely it matches music to animation in exceedingly satisfying and abstract ways. But it does not, as it is often reported to do, capture the “essence” of what the mind’s eye knows music to be; the shorts, as lovely as they are, tend to conform to narrative logic in a way that music never does.
“Begone Dull Care”, its title in tow as a proud command to any dull, normative forms of animation to remove themselves from the room, accomplishes this. It takes a sprightly low-key jazz number and matches it with the off-kilter, only vaguely representational animation the mind is capable of concocting when the eyes are busy elsewhere.
The key is that it does not try to imagine a story to the music; it simply rests, and lets the music imagine the colors and shapes for it, reminding not of the way a person might try to invent an arc for music but the way their restful mind might unconsciously envision shapes and colors onto closed eyelids even when the consciousness itself is passive.
6. Gerald McBoing Boing (1950, Robert Cannon)
UPA, long forgotten in the animation world as of the 2010s, was a mid-century chopping block for American avant garde animation experts who felt that the other more popular monolithic companies were mired too heavily in convention and the norms of naturalism.
Cannon and his friends had a few words for this arch focus on detail and human-like features, concocting “Gerald McBoing-Boing” to bullet animation into the future by tearing it down to its bare essentials. Without ever losing the whimsy of a Disney or the iconic zaniness and tossed-off absurdity of a Warner Bros, Cannon radicalizes his elemental story of a boy who speaks in sound effects.
Firstly, he implements a bare minimalist aesthetic of sketchy, high-impact lines that draw the attention for their relative dearth yet still convey a certain impression of longing and emptiness.
The glorious abstract color backgrounds, meanwhile, complement them with splotches of color that suggest but do not demand real world locations and utilize the least possible amount of specificity in endlessly fascinating ways. They at once hint at the consumerist modernity of early 1950s America and strive for something more abstract and non-representational to fall back on.
It’s the sort of story so elemental and so prescient that it can be as revolutionary and visually exciting today as it was in 1950 (and with this sort of minimalism, every single thing that does appear on screen bears more weight and is thus far more exciting than anything that went for a denser approach). It’s a delight, sure, but it’s also a revolution lurking in children’s clothing.
7. Duck Amuck (1953, Chuck Jones)
Maybe the most subversive short in the entirety of American fiction, Duck Amuck is both Warner Bros’ greatest short and one of the pinnacles of American animation (short or otherwise), representing not only one of the earliest works of American anti-narrative but one of the first popular releases in any medium to truly ask the question “what is an author?”
From there it proceeds to tackle the truth of the relationship between artist and art and to openly critique the entire idea of truth or objectivity in fiction, pitting Daffy Duck in open contest with the animator, and implicitly, the audience.
As if that wasn’t enough, the animation finds Warner Bros at their most non-representational and playful, trading on color and and shape as mediums of candy-coated post-structuralism, and it captures more perfectly than any Warner Bros animation the true essence of the insufferable, miserable id that was Daffy Duck and the low-key, insidious form of power-hunger and smug ego that defined Bugs Bunny.
That it is also brilliant comedy is almost assumed, but that it is so low on the totem pole of this short’s achievements says enough about its merit.
8. The Tell Tale Heart (1953, Ted Parmelee)
One of the few post 1940 horror films to understand the essential connection between art cinema and horror cinema, and to know their linkage in the foul, festering inner regions of the human mind, Parmalee’s “The Tell Tale Heart” almost matches one of the great short films – the 1928 American adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher – for primal potency.
This Poe adaptation however is almost as radical and experimental, but arguably even more wrenching at a gut level. It animates, with a lusty, animalistic quality, the inner mind of a person driven to murder by a pulsing, omnivorous heart refusing to end its own torment.
The heart, of course, is his own, although he doesn’t know it, and this film explores the central ambiguity of human fear with pulsing, visceral shadow and morphing camera angles straight out of expressionist painting.
It’s positively haunting, and its opening gambit, of a dreary castle revealed upon zooming out to be positioned within a camera frame, reveals with a quiet gesture all we could ever need to know about the connection between art and everything that is scary about the world.