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The Oscar Shorts Category Explained In 6 Steps

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Not so long ago, the Academy Awards' three short film categories—made up of nominees few outside of the industry had even heard of, much less had a chance to see—were guaranteed to wreak havoc on your Oscar pool. But over the past 14 years, there has been a shift in the awareness and availability of short films, thanks in part to Shorts International, a company dedicated not only to screening the Oscar-nominated shorts in their celebrated theatrical programs, but also to bringing the best of short films into peoples' homes with the Shorts HD network.

Shorts International's theatrical runs have become increasingly popular. So when seeking answers about how a short film becomes Oscar-nominated, I turned to Shorts International founder, Carter Pilcher. A man of many talents, Pilcher worked as an engineer, lawyer, and investment banker before founding Shorts International in 2000. The strides his company has made in short film and the exhibition of the art form earned him a spot as an Academy member in 2009. Basically, he was the perfect person to answer my questions about a short's road to Oscar. Here's what I learned.

1. The Rules Of Qualification Are Determined By Academy Branches

There are up to 18 different branches in the Academy, "and each branch is responsible for the rules around the Oscar prizes that it manages, sets those rules, and presents its nominees in those categories to the rest of the Academy," Pilcher explains. "So for instance, the actors' branch decides what you have to do to qualify as an actor and what the rules are. And then they go through a process to submit their five nominees in their four categories. Then the whole Academy votes on everything." (The only category not chosen by one branch is Best Picture. Those nominations are culled from the top ten submissions from every Academy member.)

There are three short film categories: Live-Action, Animation and Documentary.

But these categories are actually determined by two different branches. One is made up of documentarians, who determine the nominations for Best Documentary Short as well as Best Documentary Feature. Pilcher is a member of the branch that determines the nominees for Best Live-Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Animated Feature. "The total branch size is probably 600 people," he tells me over coffee. "It's a fairly large branch within the Academy. The largest is the Acting Branch, and the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch is the second largest."

As to who makes up this branch, Pilcher explains, "It's people who have distinguished themselves in making short live-action films, short animated films, or feature animations. So it's a heavily animation-oriented branch."

2. First A Short Must Make The Long List Of Qualified Films

Per the rules set down by the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, there are two methods that qualify a short film for the Academy's long list for potential nominees. The first is that a short (live-action or animation) must win a certified prize at an event the Academy recognizes as reputable enough to pick exemplary winners, like the Cannes Film Festival. "The second way you can get your short film qualified is by screening for three days in a movie theater in Los Angeles," Pilcher says. "Disney and Pixar, all their shorts get released in front of pictures. So those all qualify. And it also allows for someone to rent theater space and qualify their short. So some films go that route."

From these two methods a list is formed that boasts somewhere between 100 to 130 short films in each of the two categories. From here, these qualified films are screened for the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch. The screenings of the qualified animated shorts typically occur over a weekend, and take place in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. "You go nine or ten hours on Saturday, eight hours on Sunday," Pilcher says, "and everyone who goes turns in a ballot. Probably two or three hundred members of the branch come."

The live-action shorts have much heftier running times, and so only screen in Los Angeles. This past year, the screenings ran for four hours over Tuesday and Thursday for six weeks. Ballots are issued at each screening, but members must see at least 50 percent of these shorts to vote on which of these qualified films should earn a nomination. "It's a huge commitment," Pilcher says of this process, "and the fun thing in the American Academy is it's like being in a guild. And there's a very strong sense about your branch and about the importance of your branch of setting a standard globally for recognizing the very best film." From these sets of screenings, the shorts with the top ten scores in each category move on to the short list.

3. The Branch Picks From The Short List For Oscar Nominations

After the short list has been determined, Pilcher says, "we have another branch meeting, and everyone in the branch is invited. And not everybody comes, but I'd say more than half the people come. They do a screening in L.A., a screening in New York, and a screening in San Francisco. And we all sit in the theater for the day and watch the 10 animations in the morning, 10 live-actions in the afternoon 'til evening, almost dinnertime. Score all of them. And then the nominations are announced in January."

While people might chat and casually compare notes, there's no conference where the whole branch openly weighs their options. Instead, those members who attended this short-list series of screenings submit ballots, scoring each film from 6 to 10 points. The assumption is that no film that's made this list will be beneath a 6. However, films that get an average score of less than 7 are struck out of nomination running immediately. "So if everything scored below a seven, nothing would go forward," Pilcher says. Barring those shorts rated 7 or less, the top five animated and live-action shorts go on to get the official nominations.

4. Voter Turnout On Shorts Has Shifted Since 2012

Once the nominations are announced, every Academy member has the opportunity to vote on every Oscar category. If a member hasn't seen some of the nominated films, or feels ill equipped to weigh in on, say, Best Sound Mixing, they can choose to abstain from that category. The Academy operates on an honor system that assumes its members won't vote in a category they're incapable of for either of these reasons. Again, Pilcher emphasizes that this sense of being in a guild pushes Academy members not to take these decisions lightly. He explains, "there is a feeling amongst everyone that this is really important, what we're doing. We are setting the standards for our part of our industry, and that these prizes mean something to people's futures. It's all volunteer. Nobody gets paid anything or gets any special anything … it doesn't benefit them personally in any way."

In the past, the short film nominees were screened for Academy members in New York, Los Angeles, and London. These are the only places that ballots for these categories were distributed, while the rest of the Oscar ballot was sent to members. Typically, stacks of screeners are sent to Academy members to make seeing the nominated feature films as easy as possible. For the 2013 Academy Awards, the shorts categories followed suit, sending screeners of their nominees. The result was more of the Academy voting on these categories.

Pilcher is elated over this increased turnout of voters for his branch's categories. His feeling is that pulling from the broader base of members from all facets of filmmaking will only raise the standards of the category, and better reflect the Academy's goal of promoting the best in cinema. As to how this increase in other branches weighing in has impacted the category, he has observed that the strength of a story has become much more a defining feature of winners than it was before. For instance, last year Paperman beat out Head Over Heels, a short that Pilcher describes as "very, very interesting and charming." While its animation showed more compelling technique than Paperman's, its story wasn't as strong. And he's hearing more and more that's what's driving voters.

5. Short Animation: Oscar's Most Egalitarian Category

In award season, we often hear stories of independent films that just couldn't compete with the massive marketing campaigns waged by big studios. However, because of the possibility of entry through film festivals, the shorts categories are not afflicted by this issue. "Short animation is a place where studios with enormous budgets can compete against students," Pilcher says. "So we have a film this year called Feral that's done by one guy [Daniel Sousa] at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design … he basically hand drew the entire seven-minute film! Hand drew by himself! And it's beautiful and interesting. And he's from a design background, so it's a bit provocative and certainly more open-ended. And that film is competing directly against Mickey Mouse [in Get a Horse] … And the Mickey Mouse is fabulous too. And it's great. There's nowhere else in the Academy [where that happens]."

The other area where shorts offer more opportunity is to international filmmakers. Again, the film festivals—several of which are international—offer a shot for films from all over the world to truly compete. The trouble in the features categories is that the Academy is not allowed to just pluck what members feel is the best film out of a given country. Instead, they have to accept a nation's submitted feature for consideration. Pilcher acknowledged this is often a political process that doesn't always offer a country's truly best work, but it's out of the Academy's hands. Yet in shorts, this barrier doesn’t exist.

"The docs are normally done in the English language, so they are usually American or British," Pilcher allows. But he points out three of the five animation noms are from abroad, as are all five of the live-action nominees, representing nations from France/Luxembourg (Mr. Hublot and Just Before Losing Everything), Japan (Possessions), the UK (Room on the Broom and The Voorman Problem), to Spain (That Wasn't Me), Denmark (Helium), and Finland (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?).

6. There's A Simple Recipe To The Shorts Theatrical Screenings

Pilcher recounted to me the uphill battle of getting Shorts International's theatrical program of Oscar-nominated shorts going. When they started, your average movie-goer didn't really understand what a short film was, as they'd fallen out of theatrical culture from roughly the 1960s to the latter half of the '90s. But word of mouth has been huge for the growth of these three programs (Animation, Live-Action and Documentary). Pilcher says people often tell him they come every year, or they came because they'd heard what a fantastic cinematic event these screenings are. Word of mouth is huge for the Oscar Nominated Shorts Programs. This year, they will play in 400 theaters across the US.

Pilcher and his company have been working diligently to make short films more accessible to movie-lovers, and a major part of this means releasing these programs on VOD and iTunes at the end of February. But with a VOD release following so fast after their January 31st debut, these programs seem too risky to movie theater chains that sneer at day-and-date releases. So Shorts International works with independent theaters.

To make their programs all the more fun, Pilcher and his team even bolsters the Animation program with a few bonus shorts. This year, this includes a wacky cartoon about some hoity-toity chickens in A la Francaise, the romantic Pixar short The Blue Umbrella, and a heady adventure called The Missing Scarf that features narration from the one and only George Takei. Asked what determines which non-Oscar-nominated shorts will make the cut, Pilcher said he and his team look over the short list, and clear their picks by the Academy, but overall they're looking for something fun that will play well to their audience.

The Oscar Nominated Short Films are now in theaters. You can find a full list of theaters here. They'll be available on Demand and on iTunes February 25th. 

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8 Things We Know About Stranger Things Season 3
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[Warning: There are lots of Stranger Things season two spoilers ahead.]

Stranger Things season two is in the books, and like we all hoped, it turned out to be a worthy follow-up to an addictive debut season. Now, though, we’re left with plenty of questions, mysteries, and theories to chew on as the wait for a third season begins. But for everything we don’t know about what the next year of Stranger Things will bring us (such as an actual release date), there are more than enough things we do know to keep those fan theories coming well into 2018. While the show hasn't been officially greenlit for a third season by Netflix yet, new details have already begun to trickle out. Here’s everything we know about Stranger Things season three so far.

1. THERE WILL BE ANOTHER TIME JUMP.

The third season of Stranger Things won’t pick up right where the second one left off. Like the show experienced between the first two seasons, there will be a time jump between seasons two and three as well. The reason is simple: the child actors are all growing up, and instead of having the kids look noticeably older without explanation for year three, the Duffer Brothers told The Hollywood Reporter:

“Our kids are aging. We can only write and produce the show so fast. They're going to be almost a year older by the time we start shooting season three. It provides certain challenges. You can't start right after season two ended. It forces you to do a time jump. But what I like is that it makes you evolve the show. It forces the show to evolve and change, because the kids are changing.”

2. THE IDEA IS TO BE SMALLER IN SCALE.

If the series’s second season was about expanding the Stranger Things mythology, the third season won't go bigger just for the sake of it, with the brothers even going so far as to say that it will be a more intimate story.

“It’s not necessarily going to be bigger in scale,” Matt Duffer said in an interview with IndieWire. “What I am really excited about is giving these characters an interesting journey to go on.”

Ross Duffer did stress, though, that as of early November, season three is basically “… Matt and me working with some writers and figuring out where it’s going to go.”

3. THE MIND FLAYER WILL BE BACK.

The second season ended on a bit of a foreboding note when it was revealed that the Mind Flayer was still in the Upside Down and was seen looming over the Hawkins school as the winter dance was going on. Though we know there will be a time jump at the start of next season, it’s clear that the monster will still have a big presence on the show.

Executive producer Dan Cohen told TV Guide: "There were other ways we could have ended beyond that, but I think that was a very strong, lyrical ending, and it really lets us decide to focus where we ultimately are going to want to go as we dive into Season 3."

What does the Mind Flayer’s presence mean for the new crop of episodes? Well, there will be plenty of fan theories to ponder between now and the season three premiere (whenever that may be).

4. PLENTY OF LEFTOVER SEASON TWO STORYLINES WILL BE IN SEASON THREE.

The Duffer Brothers had a lot of material for the latest season of the show—probably a bit too much. Talking to Vulture, Matt Duffer detailed a few details and plot points that had to be pushed to season three:

"Billy was supposed to have a bigger role. We ended up having so many characters it ended up, in a way, more teed up for season three than anything. There was a whole teen supernatural story line that just got booted because it was just too cluttered, you know? A lot of that’s just getting kicked into season three."

The good news is that he also told the site that this wealth of cut material could make the writing process for the third season much quicker.

5. THERE WILL BE MORE ERICA.

Stranger Things already had a roster of fan-favorite characters heading into season two, but newcomer Erica, Lucas’s little sister, may have overshadowed them all. Played by 11-year-old Priah Ferguson, Erica is equal parts expressive, snarky, and charismatic. And the Duffer Brothers couldn’t agree more, saying that there will be much more Erica next season.

“There will definitely be more Erica in Season 3,” Ross Duffer told Yahoo!. “That is the fun thing about the show—you discover stuff as you’re filming. We were able to integrate more of her in, but not as much you want because the story [was] already going. ‘We got to use more Erica’—that was one of the first things we said in the writers’ room.”

“I thought she’s very GIF-able, if that’s a word,” Matt Duffer added. “She was great.”

6. EXPECT KALI TO RETURN.

The season two episode “The Lost Sister” was a bit of an outlier for the series. It’s a standalone episode that focuses solely on the character Eleven, leaving the central plot and main cast of Hawkins behind. As well-received as Stranger Things season two was, this episode was a near-unanimous miss among fans and critics.

The episode did, however, introduce us to the character of Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), who has the ability to manipulate people’s minds with illusions she creates. Despite the reaction, the Duffers felt the episode was vital to Eleven’s development, and that Kali won’t be forgotten moving forward.

“It feels weird to me that we wouldn’t solve [Kali’s] storyline. I would say chances are very high she comes back,” Matt Duffer said at the Vulture Festival.

7. OTHER "NUMBERS" MIGHT SHOW UP.

We're already well acquainted with Eleven, and season two introduced us to Eight (a.k.a. Kali), and executive producer Shawn Levy heavily hinted to E! that there are probably more Hawkins Laboratory experiments on the horizon.

"I think we've clearly implied there are other numbers, and I can't imagine that the world will only ever know Eleven and Eight," Levy said.

8. THERE MIGHT NOT BE MANY SEASONS LEFT.

Don’t be in too much of a rush to find out everything about the next season of Stranger Things; there might not be many more left. The Duffer Brothers have said in the past that the plan is to do four seasons and end it. However, Levy gave fans a glimmer of hope that things may go on a little while longer—just by a bit, though.

“Hearts were heard breaking in Netflix headquarters when the Brothers made four seasons sound like an official end, and I was suddenly getting phone calls from our actors’ agents,” Levy told Entertainment Weekly. “The truth is we’re definitely going four seasons and there’s very much the possibility of a fifth. Beyond that, it becomes I think very unlikely.”

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Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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