Case Study: Opera uses animation to create a moving modern day renaissance painting.

This year’s Oscar nominations for best animated short film had an obvious winner, and it wasn’t the film that ended up winning. Erick Oh’s Opera was an absolutely mind-bending modern day Renaissance painting-meets-film designed precisely for the biggest screen at the biggest kind of film exhibition. It showcases how animation can be used as a means to explore weighty topics in a small amount of time in ways that live action simply couldn’t. In just eight minutes, the 8K animation explores human society and history in all its forms — from war to racism to pollution. The film depicts a literal pyramid of life where thousands of faceless animated people do tasks to ensure the pyramid doesn’t figuratively topple and reset itself. With so much happening on screen, every watch of this film feels different than the last. Your eyes never really know where to look for fear of missing something somewhere else on the screen. Opera felt like such a clear winner to the point where certain members of the Above The Line team were shocked to their core when it lost.

Opera’s director Erick Oh is a Korean filmmaker based in California and has an interesting background. He started off working as an animator for Pixar in 2010-2016, before branching away to start making his own work in collaboration with Tonko House. It’s an interesting transition going from working for the most successful animation studio in the world to making films that are clearly passion projects. This is a project that would probably be too far away from a standard narrative to ever be able to be made at Pixar. The risk of leaving the big corporate powerhouse paid off, as Opera stood out as one of the most unique nominees for this year’s short animated film Oscars.  

Trailer for Opera

Opera plays out like a painting that lives and breathes. Taking inspiration from Renaissance fresco murals, Erick Oh dares us to rewatch this movie multiple times in the same way you can’t stop looking at every corner of Bosch’s The Last Judgement and spot something new every time. In order to achieve this incredible vision, this film was developed over the course of four years and used a team of thirty four animators. They didn’t use any high end technology to get the incredible look that the film has — there’s no CGI, everything you see is digital 2D animation hand painted by artists. An immense amount of planning went into mapping out how every single individual story within the giant puzzle of the pyramid would play out, with Oh spending half a year planning the details out by himself with rough hand drawn sketches.

The details within the gigantic puzzle of the pyramid are tightly packed with various different topics. At the top of the pyramid you have a Godlike creature who resets the egg-timer that kick-starts civilization's progression. Below him are the upper classes who live seemingly easy lives lounging around, and a monarch who eats so much that they get unimaginably fat. As the camera pans down, babies are being born and people’s lives come to their natural end in hospital beds. In one section of the pyramid there’s a very clever metaphor about communication showing two people trying to send love hearts to each other on a very scrambled wire — by the time the love heart arrives to the recipient, it’s changed colour.

Further down into the middle section of the pyramid things start getting more sinister. There are race based beheadings showing people with different coloured heads to everyone else being sent to the guillotine, there are classes of children being indoctrinated in some way or another, and there are slaves being told to fight to the death. We then come to the bottom of the pyramid and the underbelly of the society. At this point there are two distinctly different sides of the pyramid, both representing industry: the left side represents the mining industry, and the right side (where the skeleton of a giant fish lays) represents the fishing industry. Both of these show how we pillage our natural resources until there’s nothing left. Both sides meet in the middle in a great hall under the statue of their monarch. Inevitably, war breaks out and the entire pyramid’s foundation figuratively collapses, and the skeleton of the fish is seemingly reborn and takes its revenge on humanity. Eventually the pyramid is reset and the cycle continues again as the god starts the egg timer once more.  

This is just a small portion of some of the things being explored in this film, and from multiple rewatches there is so much more to be gained from it. This sheer amount of content crammed into eight minutes would normally produce a mess of a short film, but Oh utilises the form of animation with such efficiency that these ideas are explored well enough to actually showcase multiple systemic problems within a society whilst remaining utterly awe-inspiring to watch. When film exhibitions reopen, this will definitely be one to look out for — it’s designed to be projected onto the biggest screen imaginable in order to become fully immersed in the film’s tapestry and to pull apart all its details. This is the closest thing we have in the modern age to a moving renaissance painting, depicting both the heavenly and hellish nature of humanity. It is mind boggling that the Academy didn’t give this the Oscar considering the amount it managed to achieve in a year where this film feels more relevant than ever. However, at least we can revel in the fact that this got any recognition at all.

Find out more about Opera and Erick Oh's work at his website: