The Best Short Film Oscar Moments Of All Time
We recount the entire history of the short film categories at the Oscars, highlighting famous (and infamous) moments along the way.<
Even as the ways we create and see films change, there’s one show that keeps going on: the Oscars. Now 91 years young, this year’s production choices have already garnered their fair share of bad publicity and justifiable criticism. However, we can only hope that when the lights go down and the ceremony begins, the history, tradition and magic of the film craft can be treasured and remembered…for a least a few hours. Of course, we can expect some good memes to come out of the night.
While most Oscar-lovers can recall the year Marlon Brando rejected his Oscar or Sally Field’s “You Like Me, You Really Like Me!”, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can recall moments from the short film race. In fact, you might be surprised to learn the short film category has been around, in some form, almost as long as the Academy Awards themselves.
1931: The First Winners
It was the 4th annual year for awards when short films were first recognized. The categories would continue to go through many iterations until the 1970s, but to start things off, the short film awards were divided by genre: one we are still very much familiar with today and the other a mere “novelty” now.
The winner of “Comedy” was actually a short from the iconic duo Laurel & Hardy. Since the first Oscar year for broadcast television wouldn’t be for another two decades, we sadly will never get the opportunity to see what these two comic geniuses had up their sleeve when accepting the award. The film was The Music Box, a short which has since been accepted into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for preservation.
Next was the “Best Short Subject, Novelty” category. By this point in film history, Hollywood was starting to come into its own and the days of the film as sideshow or carnival of amusements were quickly passing away. This category would not last for long, and the Academy would try many different types of classifications (including “color” film, and “one-reel” and “two-reel” pictures). In fact, looking back on it now, the early awards designation feel as much a novelty as the films themselves did.
Also, Walt Disney was the first winner in the Animation category that year, but we will talk about him later.
1953: The Oscars Are Coming To You Live!
This was the year the Oscars could finally be seen by the masses…U.S. masses that is. International audiences would be able to tune in several years later, but at this point in time close to half of the country owned television sets. This meant a good percentage of the population finally had the chance to see the very stars they idolized receive the Academy honors.
1968: End Of The Disney Dynasty
When it was all said and done, the animator, pioneer and visionary Walt Disney had about as good a short film Oscar run as we’re likely to ever see. He ended up receiving 12 total Oscars in the Short Subject, Animation category. That’s not counting the awards he also won in the Live Action category. His love affair with the Academy may have had as much to do with his popularity and charm as it did his talent. After all, there were other incredible animators before and during his time.
Yet by the time 1968 rolled around, when Disney received his final Oscar (a posthumous recognition) for Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day there was no doubt as to the influence of Disney’s body of work. In fact, with Disney’s recent studio acquisitions, theme park expansions and streaming platform, it could be argued that Walt’s cultural influence is greater than ever.
1971: And Best Animated Porno Goes To…
In a move we just can’t imagine happening today, the adult-oriented short film Kama Sutra Rides Again was among the final nominees in the Animation category on this year. Perhaps it was a function of the times or an example of the short film categories still working themselves out, but this short was equal parts tongue-in-cheek and raucous fun. Animator/director Bob Godfrey would eventually win a Short Film Animated Oscar for a very different kind of film, but Kama Sutra would remain one of his most well-known.
Fun fact: Stanley Kubrick actually asked Bob Godfrey if he could pair Kama Sutra Rides Again with his A Clockwork Orange during its UK theatrical run. That’s about as high an endorsement from a master filmmaker as you can get.
1974: Ushering In The Modern Era
This was a very important year in Academy Awards history, largely because it set the rules (particularly in the short films division) for how we understand and operate the awards qualifications today. The three categories as divided today (“Live Action”, “Documentary”, “Animation”) began in this year. We’ve had the pleasure of seeing three distinct categories display some of the strongest talent in short filmmaking across the world ever since.
1988: Pixar Enters The Scene
The little short film that could, Tin Toy, made its debut and won the Best Animated Short on this year. Why was this film memorable? A little studio called Pixar was behind it. What started out as a test film for a new type of animation technology called “computer-generation”, eventually became one of the most groundbreaking and influential changes to the entire cinematic medium.
But in 1988, we still had no idea what was in store for us. Pixar was still a plucky little studio with big dreams. They were hanging on a wing, a prayer and early investment by Steve Jobs. As of 2019, Pixar has won three more Short Film Oscars, with several more nominations and wins in the Animated Feature category to go along with it. And with Bao being the clear front-runner of this year’s Animated Short Film race, we may see another Oscar on Pixar’s trophy mantle.
1995: It’s A Tie!?!?
In the first and only case of this in short film Oscar history, two films tied for Best Live Action Short: Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life and Trevor. In 2019, with the ratings slipping and the show’s producers doing everything in their power to cut down the running time, it’s nice to look back at a simpler time, when two winners of a Short Film category could get up on the stage and speak for as long as they wanted. No getting played off. No Film Twitter (oh, the nostalgia!).
Also shown in the below clip is another interesting piece of 1995 Oscar trivia. In a pre-recorded clip, Bugs Bunny presented the winner of Best Animated Short (Bob’s Birthday). Now, over 20 years later, the Oscar-winning directors Alison Snowden & David Fine are back in the race this year for Animal Behaviour. This would turn out to be a momentous year for the National Film Board of Canada, the animation studio behind both films, as it signaled their 60th Oscar nomination.
1999: One Last Look Back Before The New Century
Many critics and film enthusiasts call 1999 one of the best film years of all time. But it was also a very unique one for short films as well. The voters in all three categories that year, whether they realized it or not, were giving one last call back to different times, before plunging into the 21st century and all the trends and topics that seem to dominate the short film Oscars now.
The winner of the Best Live Action Short Film, My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York, has an unassuming fish-out-of-water premise that feel light as a feather compared to the gravitas-laden selections more often nominated now. Instead of dealing with a major humanitarian crisis or current events issue, the winner of Best Short Documentary — King Gimp — follows an artist with cerebral palsy. Perhaps the most obvious display of embracing the past came in the Animation category, eschewing 3D computer animation for slow-drying oil paintings on glass with an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.
2002: Post 9/11 Ceremony
There were many touching moments of remembrance for the events September 11, 2001 during the 2002 Oscars. With the event itself having been a mere few months beforehand, the wounds were still very fresh and the country still processing. So it was perhaps fitting for the show to start with a stripped-down and simple opening from Tom Cruise about the importance of art in scary times.
However, no moment brought things home more clearly than when Twin Towers, a film chronicling two brothers who did what they could to save lives during the attacks, took Best Short Documentary. Though there were to be many more fictionalized and documentary perspectives on the event itself, none were more immediate (and justified in winning) than this one.
2005–2006: Two Auteurs Make Their Debuts
It’s almost unheard of for major auteur directions to start their Oscar journey with a short film. However, in back-to-back years we got a double whammy of generational cinematic talents who, we’d find out later, were just getting started. The British female director Andrea Arnold has gone on to make several award-winning features, but she first made a name for herself with the short film Wasp. One year late came the famous playwright Martin McDonagh’s first crack at filmmaking with the short Six-Shooter. If film-lovers didn’t know him by then, they’d know him soon enough for his debut feature In Bruges.
2018: Short Film Oscar Acceptance Speech Steals The Show
The 2017 Oscars were best remembered for their Best Picture gaffe. So thankfully one of 2018’s most memorable moments came from a decision very thoughtfully planned out. The winner of Best Live Action Short The Silent Child is a film about a deaf girl and the need for education that treats her like an equal and someone with the ability to learn and function. So when the screenwriter/co-star accepted her award, she gave her speech in sign language. This powerful statement perfectly reflected the film’s themes and goals while also confronting a major stigma on live national television.
We are so happy that one of the most heartwarming moments of the year came from a short film winner, reminding the Academy and world over how important and vital this form still is.
2019: The Traditions Continue (Thanks To A Little Help)
2019 has been a very rocky year for the Oscars producing team. It all started when the decision to include a Best Popular Film award backfired, and was eventually rescinded. The same exact order of events happened when looking for an Oscar host and when deciding whether to cut certain categories from the live portion of the telecast (including Live Action Short Film).
While thankfully the Academy decided to air all categories live, we know that the ceremony itself still has plenty to prove in order to detract the naysayers and the ones controlling advertising dollars. The best solution to us? Just keep celebrating the movies, both long and short. It’s a tradition that’s almost been going for 100 years now, so it’s important to remember how this show is so much bigger than its one year. It’s about an entire history of an art form being celebrated for various achievements within. We hope, and believe, that will never get taken away.