The split second before an Oscar winner is announced is one of the most nerve-wracking moments in the entertainment world. David Stephan (Animation `78) is among those who watch Oscar night – but with the added curiosity of wondering how his vote will play out. For 20 years, he’s been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That means he, along with other Sheridan alumni who are also members, gets to vote on the Academy Awards. Stephan has decades of experience as a feature and live action animator to inform his vote. He’s worked on films like The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. In honour of the Academy Awards, Ovation asked Stephan to share a glimpse into what happens behind the glitz and glamour of the red carpet.
Q: When did you join the Academy?
A: In 1996, the head of the feature and shorts animation branch asked me to become a member. Beauty and the Beast upset the apple cart because an animated film was nominated for best picture in 1991, so the Academy created the feature and shorts animation branch. It was becoming apparent that these films were not only really, really good, but they were making lots of money and were very popular. You couldn’t deny the craftsmanship. Those artists deserved recognition. By 1996, a lot of us had worked on Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rescuers Down Under, Lion King. We had a huge body of work under our belts.
Q: How do you choose which films will receive Academy Award nominations?
A: This year, we watched 128 animated shorts to be considered for an academy nomination. All branch members can watch online, and they can sign up to vote for nominees. I go online, watch my films over two or three weeks and then vote. Then we get down to the final 10 for the live action short and the live action animated short. We’ll spend a day up at the academy theatre screening those films. Everybody votes on that. Then those five that get the most votes, will be the five nominees in those categories. It’s hard to pick, some of these are so good.
Q: What do you look for in the five that will be nominated?
A: For me, it’s the story. Shorts have to be one minute to 40 minutes. That’s a different format to tell a story. Then I look at the execution and the style they use. Did the filmmaker speak to me? This year in the live action shorts there were an awful lot of films based on refugees. They’re a real reflection of what’s going on in the world politically. The animation shorts are all sorts of different styles from all over the world.
"Animators bring the characters who you fell in love with to life so you forget you’re watching a drawing – you’re watching a real living personality. I lucked out to be an academy member."
Q: Once nominations are announced publicly, how do you vote on them?
A: Two weeks later, I will get a ballot in the mail. I get to vote on each category. They just started voting online, but I always like to get my paper and I’ll mark my ballot. The ballot has all the categories on it, it’s like a little pamphlet that folds out. It’s registered mail, they’re really very careful. I put it in the envelope and off it goes. I don’t know who wins until everybody else does. People have to realize this is not a popularity contest. As working professionals in the business, this is our place to vote on our fellow peers who we thought did a great job that year.
Q: Is there anything challenging about working with the Academy?
A: The challenge is, really, when I’m judging. There are 128 live action short features. We have to watch a minimum of 80 films. But all the Academy members watch them all, because you want to give everybody a chance. Some really stand out as being well made. Animators bring the characters who you fell in love with to life so you forget you’re watching a drawing – you’re watching a real living personality. I lucked out to be an academy member. I love to animate and I was at the right place at the right time to graduate from Sheridan in animation’s golden age.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.