2024 Academy Award Nominee for Best Short Film: "Sterling" by Mitra Shahidi

Welcome to Cartoon Brew's spotlight series highlighting animated short films that have qualified for the 2024 Academy Awards. There are several ways for a film to qualify for an award. In this edition, we will focus on films that have won an Oscar-eligible award at a festival that is eligible for the Academy Awards.

Today's film is "Starling," directed by Mitra Shahidi (story artist for Pixar's "Luca" and the upcoming "Elio"). The short won Best Animated Short Film at the Tribeca Film Festival and qualified for an Academy Award.

Starling's moving story about love and loss is told entirely without dialogue. Instead, charming animation tells the story of a mischievous star who descends from the sky to celebrate her birthday with her family. When she gets off course, she must maneuver through a gorgeously rendered Istanbul to find her home before her time runs out.

The film was produced through Pixar's co-op program. The program allows employees to utilize the equipment available at the studio and pursue their own creative endeavors in their free time. Trevor Jimenez's Academy Award-nominated "Weekend" was also produced through the same program.

Cartoon Brew: You work for one of the top animation studios in the world, yet you still managed to find the time and energy to create "Starling." What were some of the main challenges you faced in balancing your studio work and directing your own independent short film?

Mitra Shahidi: It was quite difficult because I was simultaneously learning the ropes at Pixar and trying to perform at my best. I had to sacrifice time, other activities, and rest. The main challenges were the lack of budget, organizing a team without an actual studio, and doing it all in the absence of dedicated time. We were very fortunate that the Pixar leadership team for the film was really dedicated and amazing, which made the actual production easier. I want to give a shout out to our wonderful producer, Jessica Heitz. Everyone worked so passionately and really pushed this film to the finish line. It was an event in my life that gave me the opportunity to process my feelings artistically, not just to make something as a side project. Having a side project is so important for artists working in a studio environment to hone their skills and articulate their artistic voice.

When I lost a dear childhood friend, all I could do was paint dozens of small star paintings. She was just a radiant person, full of energy and intense love for the people in her life. I still feel her presence and influence every day. We grew up in Istanbul, and through the writing of this film, our personalities mesh together to create the character of Sterling, who will stop at nothing to get home to her loved ones. As I meditated on grief, impermanence, and love, I could not help but make this short film. I am honored to dedicate this film to her and to all those we have loved and lost.

On the creative side, I learned to trust my instincts when it comes to storytelling. During the reel production process, I gathered a lot of very valuable input and notes from experts. All of these notes helped me decide what kind of film I should make. I really had to make a decision and stick to it, but it required artistic courage and leadership. And, balancing this decision with their vision while communicating it to the rest of the team, trusting that everyone on the team was here to support the film, and truly considering every idea was also a huge learning step. I have been blessed with the best and most talented team a director could ask for. And as for the subject matter, I have learned that I need to lean on my tendency to explore subjects that are really difficult to talk about. If you don't have the words, you just need the pictures.

Tell us how you developed your visual approach to this film and why you settled on this style/method. We took great care to make every frame of the film "feel" like our character, Sterling. The colors and design were carefully chosen to match the memories of Istanbul in the 1990s and the tastes and smells that come from there. The animation style was kept engaging and simple to match the design and ambiance. The artists, all from Turkey, brought their memories and experiences of Istanbul, which added to the authenticity. Since the subject matter is so sad, we made the look very inviting to convey the message of eternal love and permanence.