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Animation Instructors' Short Film Earns Oscar Nomination

Co-director Andrew Coats and co-writer Mark Harris made Borrowed Time during their spare time at Pixar

A little over a year ago, Andrew Coats screened his animated short film, Borrowed Time, for a private audience at Pixar. John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and Jim Morris were all there.

“That remains the most stressful/scary screening I have ever had in my life,” said Coats, an animator at Pixar and instructor at Academy of Art University, who directed the film with his friend and coworker Lou Hamou-Lhadj. “Pixar is probably filled with the toughest critics we know. So the outpouring of support we got was amazing. John [Lasseter] even came up after and gave us big hugs. It meant a lot to hear him tell us how much he liked the film and how proud he was of our accomplishment in finishing it. I will remember that for the rest of my life!”

After racking up awards on the festival circuit, Borrowed Time, which runs about seven minutes, earned an Oscar nomination this year. It’s a magnificent achievement for the first-time directors who spent five years working on it at night and on weekends, as well as the rest of their team of Pixar coworkers, which included co-writer Mark Harris, a 2005 Academy graduate, who along with Coats, teaches classes in the Academy’s Feature Animation Training Series.

Otherwise known as FAT Tuesdays, the semester-long series of Tuesday night character animation classes is taught by industry professionals from Pixar. “Andrew and Mark are two of the instructors in the program and they’re a great inspiration for our students,” said David Latour, animation coordinator for the School of Animation and Visual Effects. “Not only are they working at the top of their field while finding time to train the next generation of animators, they also make award-winning short films in their spare time!”

Produced independently through a program at Pixar, which offers employees the opportunity to use the professional studio environment to develop their own projects in their free time, Borrowed Time is an animated Western drama about a sheriff who returns to the scene of a tragic accident. Themes of redemption, self-forgiveness, and letting go of past mistakes permeate the story, which comes to life with remarkable CGI animation. Characters like the Sheriff seem truly human with emotions of sorrow, regret, and determination so clearly reflected in their facial expressions.

It’s a heavy story, laden with the weight of a haunting life event—not the type of film Coats and Harris  normally work on at Pixar, which include family favorites like Brave, The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out. But Coats said expanding beyond that audience was one of his goals for making Borrowed Time.

“Animation is a medium to tell a story. It is not, in itself, a genre. Any genre of film can be made in animation,” said Coats, “and it’s unfortunate that in popular culture in America, animation is seen as synonymous with children or family films. So for Borrowed Time, we thought, what better way to expose that misconception than to target something uniquely American? The Western.”

While Harris and Coats have worked on some of the most beloved animated films of the last decade, they both agree that the experience of working on Horton Hears a Who! early on in their careers at Blue Sky was one of their favorites.

“I have fond memories of the whole experience, but I especially remember sitting at Mark’s desk and creepily asking if I could just watch him work,” Coats recalled. “I was 2-D trained and had so much to learn about the 3-D animation workflow, so it meant a lot that he took the time to teach me. The whole team had such an open and sharing culture that was so positive. We were figuring out how to do cartoonier animation all together in a time before that style had really been done in 3-D animation.”

Since then, Coats and Harris have firmly entrenched themselves in the league of 3-D animation experts, but they say it’s important to continue learning and developing, and that their experience creating Borrowed Time has been tremendously educational.

“Being able to experience a project from such a wide perspective helped me recognize how the surrounding context of a character informs both the character’s choices and the animator’s choices,” said Harris, who is currently the directing animator on Cars 3. “It brought my animation on other films to another level."