A Short History of the NFB at the Oscars

Ryan, the NFB's 2004 Oscar winner, is one of a dozen films to win Academy Awards for the organisation.
Photo from the production, courtesy of Copper Heart Cut, Inc. and the NFB.
The most recent Oscar race illustrates how Canadian films have the goods to compete with Hollywood heavyweights. Long before Room and Brooklyn became award season rallying points for the Maple Leaf, the hallmark of Canada’s success on the road to Oscars was, and remains, the films of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). The NFB’s success at the Oscars is unparalleled for any organisation working outside of the Hollywood system. With 73 nominations and 12 competitive wins to its name, as well as an honorary award in 1988 to mark its 50th anniversary and “its dedicated commitment to originate artistic, creative and technological activity and excellence in every area of film making,” the NFB accounts for much of Canada’s recognition on the film industry’s biggest night.

Sunday/Dimanche, an Oscar nominee in 2011.
Photo from the production, courtesy of the NFB.
Credit for the success of NFB films at the Oscars largely goes to the innovative voices working in short film. Shorts allow for experimentation and invention. They house new approaches to form as filmmaker riff on styles and approaches without the constraints imposed on narrative features by commercial concerns. Film buffs may see advances in film technology, for example, in the work of Colin Low, including the Oscar nominee Universe (1960), and Arthur Lipsett, a nominee for Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), breaking ground in documentary and animation, respectively. The NFB nominees and winners are frequent pioneers in their field as the creative minds in documentary and animation advance the art form.

Here are some highlights in the “short” history of the NFB at the Oscars:

Directed by Stuart Legg
Winner: Best Documentary (1941)

Many writers and film buffs say that documentary is Canada’s national art form, so it’s only fitting that the NFB’s first Oscar win also happens to be the very first award the Academy ever handed out for a documentary film. Churchill’s Island, Stuart Legg’s compelling feat of reportage, remains a foundational documentary of the classic era. This beautifully composed piece of wartime filmmaking often finds itself classified as a work of propaganda, but Legg’s attention to form and storytelling elevates it above other docs of the period. Legg splices the newsreel footage in a stirring rhythm, a patriotic rallying cry for audiences across Canada as the watch the war efforts of the soldiers overseas. While American wartime propaganda uses Mickey Mouse, Churchill’s Island favours hard-hitting images, but Legg frames them within an upbeat and inspiring tone as it brings news of rough battles overseas. The scope is inclusive and extends Canada’s relationship with British soldiers as a larger pull of solidarity needed to win the war. The voiceover narration and animated graphics that complement the images from the front lines are iconic markers of the Griersonian era of the NFB, and their influence on informative films is apparent in countless international works that followed.

Directed by Norman McLaren
Winner: Best Documentary, Short Subject (1952)
Nominee: Best Short Subject, One Reel (1952)

The NFB won its second Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject eleven years after Churchill’s Island kissed the little gold man, and the leap from one winner to another shows the range of radical work coming out of the NFB during the 1940s and 1950s. Leave it to Canuck maverick Norman McLaren to win an Oscar for a wartime parable that couldn’t be more different from Churchill’s Island. His film Neighbours is a cornerstone for Canadian film not only for its poetically experimental wartime fable, but also for its formally daring advance of pixillation, a stop-motion technique that animates McLaren’s live action subjects frame by frame. Neighbours playfully envisions a war on home turf as two neighbours go to battle over a single flower, and the film humorously chops up their world frame by frame, pitting them against one another in a staccato rhythm of blow for blows. McLaren’s manipulation of live action images remains provocative for its time as he uses the effect to make the men abuse their female neighbours and kick some babies in the head. The controversial film defied distributors’ expectations by scooping the Oscar, perhaps indicating that McLaren’s effort to consider the futility of war through a meditative approach, rather than through propaganda techniques, struck a nerve with audiences during the Korean War. The film’s win in the documentary category, rather than the animation category, future marks it as an early and rare win for a poetic documentary at the Oscars, as films rarely win Oscars today unless the conform to classical perceptions of documentary form.

Directed by John Weldon and Eunice Macaulay
Winner: Best Short Film, Animated (1978)

Special Delivery deserves to shatter any misconception that publically funded films need to be dry or didactic. This hilarious film written, animated, and directed by John Weldon and Eunice Macaulay is one of the funniest works ever to emerge from Canada. This black comedy recounts the story of Ralph, a lazy man who neglects to heed the advice of his wife Alice when she suggests he shovel off the front steps. As is often the case with deadly Canadian winter, Ralph and Alice’s slippery steps claim a life, that of the letter carrier, whose death Ralph covers up in a case of ludicrously funny behaviour. “Ralph, fearing the wrath of the letter carrier’s union, carried the body into the house,” narrator Sandy Sanderson drolly explains as Ralph covers his tracks and creates a messier web in the process. The sparse coloured pencil animation uses its messy style to convey the hurried, frazzled state of mind of its protagonist in one of the NFB’s darker and edgier works. Special Delivery proves that even morbid comedies offer moral fables as Ralph, Alice, and company find their lives turned upside-down by neglecting to care for the mailman and the icy steps that create a treacherous path during his daily duties.

Dir. Eugene Fedorenko
Winner: Best Short Film, Animated (1979)

1979’s Every Child marks a high point for NFB animation as it brought the Canadian powerhouse its third consecutive Oscar in the animated short film category after 1977’s The Sand Castle and 1978’s Special Delivery. (The NFB also won the Live Action Short Oscar in 1977 for I’ll Find a Way, a lone award in the category for the organisation as future budget prioritised docs and animation.) Every Child furthers Special Delivery’s proof that there is an art to making message movies, for this short comes from a feature-length anthology film that celebrates UNESCO's Year of the Child by illustrating a principle from the Declaration of Children’s Rights that says every child is entitled to a name and a nation. The film begins with a recording session between sound artists Les bruits électriques and a cooing infant, and the live action images dissolve into animation as one artist flaps his hands like a bird and the film presents a cartoon bird in a flight of freedom, like a stork delivering a bouncing baby to the world. As an infant arrives on the doorstep of a busy bureaucrat, Every Child uses pointed humour to convey the many things that some people value over another human life, like their job, dog, or love interest. The film smartly offers a soundtrack of indecipherable dialogue as the adults speak the language of Babel and pass the baby from house to house, thus addressing a universal problem, until two homeless men invite him into their care. The film uses lively comedy to underscore the tragedy of an innocent child without any place to call home as Fedorenko encourages audiences to get their priorities straight. Every Child is one of the few films to net top honours in Canadian animation with a trifecta of wins at the Oscars, the Genies, and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. 

Directed by Chris Landreth
Winner: Best Short Film, Animated (2004)

The titan among the NFB Oscar winners might be Chris Landreth’s Ryan. The film surely boasts the most impressive tally of international accolades with a Genie win, OIAF Grand Prize, and three prizes from the Cannes Film Festival among its whopping tally of awards. This formally audacious short, like Norman McLaren’s Neighbours, challenges the borders of documentary form as director Chris Landreth (who was shortlisted in 2013 for Subconscious Password) interviews NFB animation pioneer Ryan Larkin and brings the legacy of Larkin’s work to the screen. The film celebrates Larkin’s films like Walking (1969), itself an Oscar nominee for its ingenious simulation of human behaviour, and confronts the wasted potential of this acclaimed filmmaker as Landreth examines Larkin’s alcoholism and fall from artist to pan-handler. As Landreth interviews additional subjects, like Larkin’s ex-girlfriend and former colleague Derek Lamb (who scooped an Oscar as the producer of Every Child), the filmmaker uses his own innovative approach to animation to meditate upon the creative process. Ryan  puts Landreth’s signature 3D animation in dialogue with Larkin’s own innovative style and meaning, showing the legacy of Canadian animation as one filmmaker draws inspiration from the other and uses the art form to bring a fallen icon back to life. It’s one of Canada’s true masterworks.

Dir. Torill Kove
Winner: Best Short Film, Animated (2006)

Torill Kove is the NFB’s most recent Oscar winner for 2006’s The Danish Poet and she also happens to be their most recent nominee Me and My Moulton. Both films are wonderfully whimsical shorts that recall storybook tales with their sense of childlike wonder. Kove’s playful animation brings out the kid in all of us as her unpretentious drawings invite warmth and humour with their accessible charm. A highlight of The Danish Poet, too, is the memorable narration by the incomparable Swedish actress Liv Ullmann, proof that even small Canadian films have the goods to attract some of cinema’s biggest international icons. Ullman gives The Danish Poet an international flavour that feels very appropriate given the film’s status as a Canadian-Norwegian co-production, as the NFB stays ahead of the game by embracing the potential of international partnerships. This makes The Danish Poet an early turning point for new Canadian cinema as more high-profile co-pros like Incendies, Room, and Brooklyn pass the baton through the Oscar race.

Directed by Patrick Doyon
Nominee: Best Short Film, Animated (2011)

Some years even mark the range of work with multiple nominees in the same category, like 2011’s animated contenders Wild Life and Sunday, the latter of which marks one of this blog’s favourite shorts in the years covering NFB films, Canadian content, and the Oscars. Sunday should have won the NFB its thirteenth Oscar in the 2011 race (The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore won), but Wild Life is an equally worthy nominee. Sunday is a personal favourite, though, since the film offers an enchanting fable about life in rural Quebec seen through the eyes of a child on one grey Sunday. The dry, comical style of Doyon’s animation is a whimsical slice of life palette that evokes the child’s innocence while drolly highlighting the cacophony of adult noises, which emerge like squawks from the crows, as his parents and grandparents babble about the local economy. As the boy fritters away a few coins and flattens them on the train tracks, Sunday celebrates a child’s imagination and laments a world of innocence passed.

These films are just a few of the landmarks in the NFB’s journey through the Oscars. Additional stops along the way include wins for Best Documentary Short Subject If You Love this Planet (1982) and Flamenco at 5:15 (1983) in the animated shorts race, additional wins include Bob’s Birthday (1994), which was later popularized as the animated series Bob and Margaret. The winners and nominees, plus far more films on the annual shortlists for short films and documentaries, all bring unique approaches to form and invigorating engagements with timely subjects, and make for refreshing alternatives to mainstream fare. Here’s to many more years of award-worthy innovation!
Me and My Moulton is the NFB's most recent Oscar nominee.
Photo courtesy of Mikrofilm As and the NFB.

Watch more of Canuck Oscar winners at the NFB website, including the films mentioned above, here.

*This sponsored post was commission by a third party.
All films discussed in the post were selected by the author.*