For the Birds

Year: 2000
Genre: Comedy / Short / Animation
Studio: Pixar
Director: Ralph Eggleston

"One by one, a flock of small birds perches on a telephone wire. Sitting close together has problem enough, and then comes along a large dopey bird that tries to join them. The birds of a feather can't help but make fun of him--and their clique mentality proves embarrassing in the end." - Pixar website


Those lucky enough to have seen Pixar's animated short know that this brief description from the Pixar website does not do the film justice. Following in the grand tradition of Pixar's previous animated short "Geri's Game," "For the Birds" has been nominated and is considered the leading candidate for the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.

"For the Birds" succeeds without dialog, basing its humor on the classic humor of silent film, but is supplemented with sound effects and music for a tremendously entertaining experience. Bully is the first bird to land on the wire, followed by Chipper, Snob and Neurotic. It's quite a riot to watch the film again equipped with the knowledge of these names - the personalities show through in the animation. In fact, I found the short to get funnier and funnier on multiple viewings, which allowed me to absorb details in the animation that were ignored before. I challenge you to watch this and not end up with a silly grin on your face.

This film is the latest in Pixar's tradition of creating shorts to demonstrate their industry standard RenderMan software. These shorts are often shown in beginning computer graphics classes to show what can be done technically, as well as provide lessons in how to do animation right. Previous shorts, such as "Luxo Jr." (which provided the light in the Pixar logo) and "Tin Toy," can be seen in QuickTime glory on the Pixar site - http://www.pixar.com.

Where To See

The short premiered at the Annecy Film Festival in France on June 5, 2000, and subsequently premiered in the United States at the 2000 Siggraph Conference in New Orleans. It made its theatrical debut in front of Disney and Pixar's 2001 hit, "Monsters, Inc." The short is making its tour with Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, and will in all likelihood make an appearance on the "Monsters, Inc." DVD.

The Making Of

After "Geri's Game" won the 1998 Oscar, Pixar's shorts division took a break to help finish the feature length movies "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2." Once these films wrapped, the division once again opened with a company wide solicitation for ideas. 80 proposals flooded in, and these were narrowed to 25 finalists.

Ralph Eggleston, who had joined Pixar in 1992 as Art Director for "Toy Story," pitched an idea he'd had since his Cal Arts days. The head of Pixar shorts and later producer of "For the Birds," Karen Dufilho, remembered his pitch in a later interview. She recalled that the enthusiastic Eggleston was talking a mile a minute, and all of a sudden when the big bird was supposed to make his entrance on the wire, he blew a big horn. It was such a different and annoying sound that it immediately captured the emotional loneliness and awkwardness of a dork in high school.

Moving forward with the idea, the animators at Pixar watched lots of reference video of flamingos and swans for the big bird, Leo. They also watched National Geographic reference video to learn the cartoony attitude and shivers for the little birds. Eggleston videotaped his own green bird for several hours, and the animators learned bird behavior from watching the bird preen itself, shake its feathers, and puff them out. The team also brought in Cornish game hens to study volume and weight.

The film is also technically amazing from a computer graphics standpoint. Keith Gordon was brought in to write new code for the feathers, especially for the little birds. Eggleston had a vision of soft and downy feathers, which of course required more detailed and complicated software. There are over 2800 feathers per small bird in the film. Animation of the feathers to add personality was done last, after all other animation was finalized, because this would provide the birds with the subtle subconscious traits to make the film stand out. To perfect the look, animators often had to try something and wait overnight to see their results because of the long render times.

Watch it.

Thanks to http://www.vfxpro.com for production details.

For the Birds won the Oscar for Best Animated Short!

Two brief things to add to artshek's great writeup:

  • Generally, Pixar shorts demonstrate some new technical feat, a technical improvement, or a test of some new technology. In Tin Toy, it was realistic animation of a human character. (the baby) In Geri's Game, it was the cloth of Geri's coat. In For the Birds, it was the feathers. Watch how Neurotic's feathers stand up on end when he is surprised by the big bird, or how Bully ruffles his feathers when he settles in. Subtle and impressive. Those birds are so expressive without saying a word.
  • See a peek of it here: http://www.pixar.com/shorts/. The full version plays with Monsters, Inc. and will hopefully be available on the web eventually, with the other Pixar shorts.

"For the birds" is also an idiom meaning that something is of poor, crummy quality. Maybe of such low quality that it is below human standards, only worthy of being fed to birds. e.g. "artshek's writeup is thorough and well expressed, while kdribbs' writeup is strictly for the birds."
I'll put it to you straight: we are in musically bankrupt times. I realize that, by saying this, I'm instantly doomed to the title of Music Hating Old Fogey, but there haven't been all that many albums to come out in the past year or so that I'd want to pass on to posterity. It seems we are in the valley between listenable radio and exceptional indie, where new bands like The Strokes seem to be far too concerned with their unfashionable fashion and old bands like Built To Spill seem to be trying to break onto the radio, leaving a bit of their integrity behind. But you know this: all music sucks. There will always be someone who can find something to nitpick about. It's time to look for what's positive in modern rock. It's time to redefine our notion of what makes good music. Therefore, I put this to you: The Frames' 2001 release, For The Birds, is possibly the most satisfying rock album I've heard since The Soft Bulletin, one that, try as I might, I cannot find even a single moment on it that I thoroughly despise. This is good, honest rock music that makes the listener rich in times of deficit.

It's kind of funny that The Frames would be the band to make this album: their previous albums all, in some way or another, seem to be playing to someone, a sin to which the band fully admits in the liner notes. For The Birds is something different, though. Released on the band's own label, the record is, with the exception of some tracks laid down with Steve Albini, produced by friends of the band. There is an intimate, warm sound to the songs, like this record is the band's new home, and the listeners are merely guests. Luckily, The Frames are hospitible homeowners, but you are here, listening to their music on their terms. This is pretty important.

So I keep calling this a rock record, but I should warn you: it starts out fairly unassuming. A simple bit of guitar picking opens up the first track, In The Deep Shade, an instrumental dominated primarily by piano and a warm violin. This is very calming, very pretty, but probably not the rock action you might be looking for. I'll tell you right now that this is misleading. This is the appetizer, a little dinner music to settle your nerves a bit.

Things pick up immediately in the second track, Lay Me Down, which, amazingly, remains largely acoustic. A steady, booming drum beat persists like wheels on a sad highway, the guitar kicks in, hints of banjo and violin are present. Of course, what really seals the deal is Glen Hansard's voice: he sings a melodic whisper, there is nothing harsh or grating about this voice that will be singing songs on the popular subjects of mortality, heartbreak, the end of love, failed friendships, scarlet fever. It is a soft crowbar to our hearts, which we willingly allow to pry us open. He's that good.

What will really get you is how well this album is ordered. We are slowly building to a climax here, step by step. The third song, What Happens When The Heart Just Stops, starts a notch down, simple and brooding, but builds to a honestly heartbreaking trumpet lick. This builds into the simple bass line of Headlong, which, itself, is about five minutes of instruments slowly stacking on each other, layers upon layers. This is the first song that even remotely resembles the rock action I was talking about earlier. It sneaks up on you, and amidst pounding brush drums and (at long fucking last) distorted guitars, Hansard reveals another facet to his voice: an ache, a yearning, something that seems to cry out beyond himself. It doesn't quit, either: the lyrics stop, but the rock keeps happening, building more and more upon itself, leading to a falling apart, pieces that get immediately picked up by the synthetic drum beat and banjo jive of Fighting on the Stairs. This is a pounding track, something to make the kids kick up their heels. At this point in the record, it's almost as if The Frames are showing off: they can relax you, reassure you; they can break your heart, seduce you; and now they show that they've got some basic knowledge of the elements of groove: the fuckers are making you dance.

The only track on here that I would consider weak is Giving Me Wings, which sounds a lot like an older Frames tune, and is by no means a bad song, but something makes it seem out of place. It is a low key break between Fighting on the Stairs and the next hard hitter of the album, Early Bird. At this point in the record, Hansard and company have worn down your defenses enough to make a full assault on your ears and head, and they're taking no prisoners. The guitars, once a thing of beauty, are dissonant, like sirens, howling more than singing. It's around here that a whole bevy of influences become apparent: Pixies, Pavement, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips... if it's thrashy but pretty indie rock, these guys have heard it and know exactly what elements work. The ending to the tune is even a bit surprising: Hansard, much to the horror of the studio engineers, reversed the recording reel for the last twenty seconds, and nothing could be more fitting.

Things get more sinister. Friends and Foe is a brooding, atmospheric song about resolving conflicts through apathy. There's even a bit of Warren-Ellis-In-The-Bad-Seeds violin as a bridge that really just drives the song along near the end. It is strange for me to want to call this beautiful song filler, but maybe it's because I know what's coming up. If this album has got its hooks into you already, its climax, Santa Maria will absolutely destroy you. We start out slow, plodding here, a painful tale about a couple dying of scarlet fever, abandoned by their friends in their final days. This is not your typical pop stuff: this is so much better. This is a slow build, perfect, consistent, from three minutes of lyrics to a sudden drop in sound, which just gives way to two minutes of crescendo, every instrument just barely increasing in volume over time, little by little by painful little, the building of a disease in your head, forcing its way into your ears and your ribcage and your stomach until there's just no possible way you can take this anymore when-- the explosion of sound created at the end of this build is what will kill you, just as deadly as any of Mogwai's greatest moments. There's so much happening at the end of this song -- overdriven guitar, piano, a solid bass line, precise drums -- that you'll always be able to pick out something that you never quite caught before.

Immediately afterward, we have the denouement, in the form of the simple, lo-fi Disappointed. What really gets me about these guys is that they can do depression and sadness without melodrama. This is very mature, honest music happening here, enough to break you, enough to give you hope. We end on Mighty Sword, which almost seems like a call to arms, the rising of a new sun. After forty-two minutes of having your ass kicked by this album, Mighty Sword offers a very spiritual, uplifting ending that really only gives you one course of persuit: as soon as you get through the thrashy, Flaming Lips-esque hidden track, you must replay this album. Over and over. And over and over and over. We haven't had anything as good as this in a long time, kids. Don't pass this one up.

I may not have said it enough times during this review, so here are some extra words that you may season the above few paragraphs with to your liking: honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest honest.

  1. In The Deep Shade
  2. Lay Me Down
  3. What Happens When The Heart Just Stops
  4. Headlong
  5. Fighting On The Stairs
  6. Giving Me Wings
  7. Early Bird
  8. Friends and Foe
  9. Santa Maria
  10. Disappointed
  11. Mighty Sword
Released 2001 in the UK by Plateau Records. Licensed in North America by Overcoat Recordings. Recorded by Steve Albini, Craig Ward, and David Odlum at Electrical Audio in Chicago and in Ventry, Kerry. All songs written by Glen Hansard and The Frames except In The Deep Shade, which is by Hansard, Rachel Grimes, and Odlum. Published by Perfect Songs / Toby Darling Ltd. The Frames on this record are: Glen Hansard, David Odlum, Colm MacConlomaire, David Hingerty, and Joseph Doyle.

as a side note, the album title seems to be more of a dedication than self-depreciation, as in "this is one for the birds" and not "this one is for the birds."

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