'Animation Feels Like Home': Directors Jerusha and Jared Hess on the Oscar-nominated Animation Short 'Ninety-Five Senses'

Ninety-Five Senses collage of animation still and directors

They directed one of the two US 2024 Oscar-nominated animation shorts, beating Disney ('Once Upon A Studio') and more traditional offerings. Jerusha and Jared Hess are newcomers to the world of short animation with 'Ninety-Five Senses'; in the film, a death row inmate (voiced by Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson) contemplates his life and the various senses and sentiments -in carefully, distinctly animated segments.

Yet the directing duo is not new to the world of independent filmmaking in general, having made a bang with feature films like the indie darling 'Napoleon Dynamite' (2004), 'Nacho Libre' (2006), and 'Gentlemen Broncos' (2009). So, it is a welcome surprise that their first Academy Award nomination (check all nominees here) comes from a collaboratively made animation short.

'Ninety-Nine Senses' had also its own festival run, winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Animated Short at the Florida Film Festival (an Oscar-qualifying film festival), also getting awards from the Palm Spring Animation Festival, Animation Dingle and Rhode Island Internation Film Festival. It is a sensitively made, and even colorful at times short that reflects on past mistakes and the possibility of redemption -while at the same time making the poignant point of a death sentence being the instigator behind all this process.

Directors Jerusha and Jared Hess talked to Zippy Frames:

ZF: Congrats on the Oscar nomination. What attracted you to this story? Is it an original story or based on an existing death-row situation?

J&J: The film is an original story written by Chris Bowman and Hubble Palmer. They were inspired by real exit interviews of inmates on death row.  But what attracted us to this project are the universal themes of redemption and hope.  There is something powerful about reflecting on a life of heartbreak and mistakes and still finding gratitude and beauty.

Watch the 'Ninety-Five Senses' Trailer:

ZF: How was the process of collaborating with your scriptwriters, especially since everything had to be condensed in just 13 minutes?

J&J: They did a remarkable job of telling someone’s entire life story in such a short amount of time. By the end of the film, you really feel like you know this person and have deep empathy for him.  This was a massive collaborative effort between Chris and Hubbel,  our producers Miles David Romney and Tori Baker, and our very talented group of young animators, all working in different parts of the globe.

ZF: This is your first foray into the animation field, after successful turns both in feature and TV filmmaking. Was it smooth sailing all along creatively or did you have to invent things differently for this very visual medium?

J&J: When we started this project, we had already begun production on our first animated feature 'Thelma the Unicron' for Netflix.  So we jumped into this with some animation experience under our belt. It was a joy working with such a talented team of young artists — some of the animators were still in film school.  The hardest part of the production was creating a cohesive, emotional story with such different animation styles.

ZF: You had to cast, along with your producers, 6 teams of animators. How did you go about recruiting the ones fitting for the job? What were the 'job requirements'? And, creatively, was it a challenge or a blessing to have so many different visual scenes in just one film?

J&J: “Ninety-Five Senses” was produced by Miles David Romney and Tori Baker of the Salt Lake Film Society. They recently started a nonprofit program called MAST to help mentor up-and-coming filmmakers. We were excited to be involved from the get-go. Miles ran a worldwide animation contest and spent weeks pouring over hundreds of submissions and picked the best of the best to share with us. We all felt really passionate about the six animation teams we selected. The script was designed in chapters as a vehicle for these different styles.

Meet the Animators from 'Ninety-Five Sensess'

ZF: Was Tim Blake Nelson the first choice for voicing Coy?

J&J: Yes. Tim Blake Nelson was our muse from the very beginning. We felt so lucky when he agreed to sign on.  He’s as real as it gets.  His beautiful performance anchors the entire piece.

ZF: Did you have any production headaches? Animation shorts are still shorts, but their budget tends to rise exponentially

J&J: Much of the film was produced during the pandemic. All of our animators were dealing with the stress of that and yet were still able to create inspired work.   We were constantly blown away during our animation reviews.  Everyone put their heart and soul into their different sequences and you can really feel the compassion they have for the character. This film was a labor of love, no one did it for money.

ZF: Do you have any favorite scenes or segments in the film? A scene in which everything (animation, voice acting etc.) went your way all along?

J&J: Every segment packs a different emotional gut punch and each of the animators vividly captured those moments. When the Grandma slaps young Coy, suddenly you realize this story is going in a different direction than you thought. But for us, it is the intimate, reflective moments with Coy in his prison cell that ground the narrative. The animator, Daniel Bruson, hand painted these gorgeous scenes and also the final montage at the end. 

ZF: More and more respected filmmakers (including Guillermo del Toro and many more) contend that 'animation is not a genre, is a medium'. You now had your first animation-directing experience with a film that is most assuredly not a 'children's film'. What's your take?  And would you do another one?

J&J: We absolutely LOVE animation. Visually you can make things interesting and accessible to all ages.  Much of our live-action work has an animated spirit about it, so the move to animation has felt very natural to us. We plan to keep creating in this space.  It feels like home.

'Ninety-Five Senses' animation short has premiered at the FAST Channel Documentary+ . The 96th Academy Awards will be handed out on 10th March 2024.

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