An ostrich up for an Oscar: the Australian student’s animated film in contention

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It was made by 26-year-old film-maker Lachlan Pendragon at his Brisbane home during Covid

On a stage in Hollywood last month, while announcing this year’s Oscar nominees, the British actor Riz Ahmed briefly paused before reading aloud the title of a film up for best animated short. “My Year of Dicks,” he said, to laughter and cheers, before reading out the best possible follow-up: “An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It.” Even more laughter. “No comment,” co-host Allison Williams said.

Far across the world, in his home in Brisbane, the 26-year-old student behind that excellently named film, with an equally excellent name – Lachlan Pendragon – began to laugh too.

“The nominations were announced so late, but they ask to stay up and film your reaction. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, I’m probably not going to use this.’ And then to see your film’s name come up, it is so bizarre, he says. It was so late in Brisbane that he deliberated whether to wake his family to share the news. He settled on sending a text.

“And they all stayed asleep so they didn’t even find out until the following morning!” he says. “They were excited for me, but they kept having to double check – ‘What do you mean, the Oscars? What do you mean?’”

Trailer for the animated short film An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It.

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It is an 11-minute long stop-motion animated film written, directed and animated by Pendragon. He also voices the main character, Neil, an office drone who begins to realise (with the intervention of a helpful ostrich) that the world around him is be being controlled by, well, Pendragon.

Looking out the window of the office where he spends his days selling toasters, Neil’s view outside flickers between a cityscape and a green screen. “It’s pretty unusual weather we’re having,” he observes to a nearby colleague, before noticing his colleague has not been given any legs, as they’re out of shot. The film frequently breaks the fourth wall in this way, creation fighting his creator; in one beautiful and horrifying moment, Pendragon’s giant hand snakes out to grab Neil and force him back into his story.

Pendragon made the film as part of his studies at Griffith film school. It took three years of building sets, making storyboards and writing scripts, but Pendragon animated and filmed it by himself in his living room over 10 months during Covid.

“On a good day, it would be five seconds of animation. But an average day would be like one or two seconds,” he says. “It depends on the shot.”

This year’s nominees in the animated short film category: Bruno Caetano, João Gonzalez, Charlie Mackesy, Matthew Freud, Pamela Ribon, Amanda Forbis, Sara Gunnarsdóttir, Wendy Tilby and Lachlan Pendragon (with Neil and the ostrich).
This year’s animated short film Oscar nominees: Bruno Caetano, João Gonzalez, Charlie Mackesy, Matthew Freud, Pamela Ribon, Amanda Forbis, Sara Gunnarsdóttir, Wendy Tilby and Lachlan Pendragon (with Neil and the ostrich). Photograph: Rob Latour/Rex/Shutterstock

Pendragon has been interested in film since he was a teenager; he applied to study live action film-making at university, but didn’t get in. His second preference was animation. “It was a happy accident but I have never looked back,” he says. He discovered he was preternaturally suited to stop-motion animation, a notoriously laborious and slow form.

“People say you need patience to do it, but I was just very good at staying focused on it for a long time. It didn’t feel like I needed patience. It felt like I was solving a puzzle. I studied all kinds of animation at university – hand-drawn, computer – but I kept coming back to stop-motion. It’s not efficient or cost-effective, but it is the one for me.”

Stop-motion is a quick lesson in “how to be super confident and comfortable around something so fragile”, he says. The hardest thing he has ever animated was a stack of Jenga blocks moving in time to music. “That was the ultimate challenge – a Jenga stack doesn’t want to stay still and if you accidentally bump something, then you have to either get that puppet back to the place it was, or start all over again.”

You must have very steady hands, I say. “I’m very good at Jenga,” he laughs.

Lachlan Pendragon at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles, in October 2022.
Lachlan Pendragon at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles, October 2022. Photograph: Allison Dinner/EPA

Last year, Pendragon won a gold medal for Ostrich at the Student Academy Awards, an international student film competition that has run since 1973. (Previous winners include Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee and the former Pixar bigwig John Lasseter.) The win made him eligible for an Oscar nomination, but it is rare for a student: only 65 have been nominated over the past 50 years, while just 14 have won or shared an Oscar with their student work.

“It is really unusual to actually be nominated, it is unbelievable,” Pendragon says. “Sometimes a Student Academy winner gets shortlisted in the top 15, and that is considered a massive deal, let alone the final five.”

This Monday, on Australia time, he will walk into Hollywood’s Dolby theatre with his “very excited” mum. He hopes to meet Guillermo del Toro and the team behind Pinocchio (nominated for best animated film), as well as Steven Spielberg and the Daniels, the directors of Everything Everywhere All at Once – which is not dissimilar to Ostrich as a “very out there, sci-fi, meta kind of thing”. His film may win more than just laughs. “I’m very nervous – but so excited,” he says. “This is all still so amazing to me.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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