2023 Sundance Film Festival Animated Shorts: From Sea to Mourning to Big Meat

A still from “Well Wishes My Love, Your Love,” in the Animation Short Film Program of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

By Vanessa Zimmer

Perhaps making a short animated film is the equivalent of using your inside voice.

Not inside, as in quiet. But inside, as in inside your mind. Tom CJ Brown, a British director who has won a multitude of awards for his short films, says it better:

“Animation,” he says in a Q&A following the Animation Short Film Program at the Sundance Film Festival, “is such a great way to peer into the interiors of people.”

Eight films filled the 2023 Festival program of animated shorts, and when the screening ended, the directors stretched across the stage for the Q&A afterward like an ear-to-ear smile.

Christopher at Sea — Christopher is a young man who goes to sea on a cargo ship in search of solitude. “I just wanted to go to sea,” he says. “There are too many people on a cruise ship.” He finds red, purple, orange, and yellow sunsets bleeding into a churning, foamy ocean — and love among the male crew. In the Q&A and his Meet the Artist video, director-co-writer Tom CJ Brown calls his 21-minute short a “gay love story” and an “operatic thriller.” Brown grounds the beginning of the short in realism, based upon his own voyage on a cargo ship, and then disrupts that with fantastical images of Christopher’s obsession.

Well Wishes My Love, Your Love — Writer-director Gabriel Gabriel Garble delves into textures and colors in this whimsical and tender nine-minute short. Without dialogue, he tells the story of a mourning boy who lends a friend his prosthetic arm for a day. The latter boy attaches a recording device to it and spends the day touching items in nature. In the Q&A, Garble explains the film came to him via his own mourning. He remembers standing at the edge of a pier one night, staring at the full moon. “I felt like everything was going to be OK.”

Oxytocin — This seven-minute short is a frenetic whirl of 3D characters and whirls of purples, pinks, and blues. A woman with heart eyeballs, “Cash 4 Organs,” a character in a bathtub, a flag, a baseball field, a monster in the city. Writer-director Jeron Braxton says he is inspired by the look of old video games. The short is a riff on the American dream and the American nightmare: “It‘s what the Geico gecko dreams about when he has a nightmare.”

fur — The description in the Festival Film Guide says simply: “A crush gone moldy.” We get pulsating sepias, a classroom scene, a time lapse of a strawberry growing mold, what appears to be a hair coming off the moon. (The latter, however, is an erasure crumb, according to writer-director Zhen Li’s Meet the Artist video; she draws in charcoal on paper, which is messy.) Her MTA video suggests that her work, like a crush, is messy and primitive. Zhen Li says in the Q&A that the seven-minute short is like a secret feeling stuck in your throat, which gets worse the more you try to hide it. 

GarranoDavid Doutel and Vasco Sá’s 14-minute short, in part, tells the story of the Garrano pony, an endangered breed of the Iberian family that comes from northern Portugal. Many of the  wild horses were tamed and used as work horses. “We wanted to give focus to people who are oppressed,” Doutel says in the Q&A. Another theme in the short is the proliferation of intentionally set fires in Portugal.

By Water — This story of healing comes from director Iyabo Kwayana, inspired by a phone message left by her brother, who went missing for several years. Some archival footage complements the animation of the 12-minute short. “It is such a gift to be trusted with an extremely intimate and personal story,” says animation director Charlotte Bee Her Hong in the Q&A. The figure of the brother, with his bushy long hair and beard, carrying a bedroll on his back, is rendered completely yellow in the film. “Yellow is a very hopeful color for me,” she says.

BurgerWorld — Two young fast-food workers escape their bossy boss through a tunnel that drops them into a world where vegetables fight the all-powerful Big Meat. The two help liberate the veggies in what essentially becomes a musical, the words and music by director Maddie Brewer. “I want to give a shoutout to my boss for torturing me and giving me that seed,” Brewer says at the Q&A. She likes to go for an unsettling look in the animation: “I really like it when stuff looks shitty and ugly.”

The Sea on the Day When the Magic Returns — This 24-minute short follows Sejin, a young Korean woman who seems to bounce around between pursuit of a tourist interpreter job and obligations to her father. In the Q&A, Jiwon Han says she likes to confuse audiences as to the reality and fantasy in her stories. She wants the faces of her characters to be dynamic and show emotion, the bodies not so much. “I usually try to make [them] simple,” she says, “because I am drawing millions of frames.”

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