Torill Kove sweeps back the curtains in her small office at the National Film Board in Montreal and leans over the old wooden animation table that her visitor has just asked about. Its surface is scarred by innumerable X-Acto cuts by generations of animators. It was at this table that Kove did all of her hand drawings for her Oscar-winning animated short film, The Danish Poet (2006).
"It's been so long since I used this, I barely remember how," she says in her soft monotone. She drew all her more recent work, including this year's Oscar contender Me and My Moulton, with a customizable digital stylus and animation software.
Much has changed in animation in recent decades, including the way it is exhibited. Kove is old enough (56) to remember when people watched animated shorts every time they went to the movies, right before the main feature. The cartoons slipped away, ads took their place and shorts lost the only public platform they had shared with the big-picture industry in Hollywood.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has retained a fondness for the little films, perhaps because they're kin to the feature-length animated films that have done very good business for the likes of Pixar and Disney. The academy still gives out a gold statue for best animated short, briefly reminding a billion watchers that the genre still exists and still matters.
Oscar voters have been particularly sweet on Kove's lighthearted yet serious works, giving her a nomination for each of her three shorts at the NFB, including her debut effort, My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts (1999). That film began as a scriptwriting exercise for a class at Concordia University and like its two successors, was co-produced with a company in her native Norway and scored by her husband Kevin Dean.
Tove was born in the small town of Hamar, and all three films are set within fairly close range of that lakeside corner of what she calls "the Norwegian Saskatchewan." Me and My Moulton is an autobiographical tale about her adolescent desire to be normal, have nice things and not be embarrassed by her parents. It's about the loud dresses her mother made for her and her sisters, about her father's creative eccentricities, and about the folding Moulton bicycle the girls had to ride because their parents liked advanced design.
"I thought it would be nice to put these little vignettes together into one story," Kove said, "to become a kind of homage to this strange, funny, great family I had that no longer exists, in that form." Her father died years ago, and when she started the script her mother was showing early signs of Alzheimer's. "Sometimes it made me feel really sad and almost tearful while I was writing it."
The task became more difficult when she decided to include a traumatic incident from those days: the death of her best friend's father. "But as I was working on the script, I thought it felt wrong to have something so dramatic and turbulent woven in as a secondary story. I also felt I was using information from this friend's life that seemed disrespectful." In the finished film, the father is shown not dying, but leaving his family. At the friend's request, there is also a note that "events have been fictionalized."
Kove came to Montreal in 1982 to pursue a romance and to study anthropology. She ended up with a master's degree in urban design and worked in that field for a few years in Toronto and Montreal. In the early '90s, unemployed and wondering what to do next, she discovered the NFB animation archives and had "an 'a-ha' moment, like 'I can do that,'" she says.
Her drawings made a sufficient impression on NFB animator Wendy Tilby – another multiple Oscar nominee – to get Kove into the remainder of Tilby's animation class at Concordia, which was already in progress. The NFB soon hired her as an assistant and she began pitching her script for My Grandmother Ironed the King's Shirts to producers in the building. One of them, Marcy Page – who later won an Oscar for Ryan – took the script to the Norway Short Film Festival and made a co-production deal with Studio Magica.
Tove's next film will be her first set in Montreal. "I've lived here, in the same apartment, longer than I lived in Norway, so I think it's time," she says with a laugh. "There are so many wonderful visual references in Montreal." Like her previous short animations, it will be based on her own experiences. "I'm not very good at just making something up from nothing," she says. "I need some kind of hook."
Another hook that could make a film some day was the shock, when she was 13, of moving with her family to Nairobi for three years while her parents worked for an NGO. Aside from the unaccustomed dangers of a big African city at night, there was the comedy of her camping-averse parents' sudden eagerness to pitch a tent on the Kenyan plains.
As for the Oscars, Kove is obviously glad that short animation still gets a moment on the big stage. "What I think would be really great would be if the academy's taste in animation would branch out a bit. Here at the film board and other places in the world there are people that make beautiful animated films that are maybe a little more demanding of the audience. I think it would be wonderful if they would get some recognition and I'm sure that time will come."