Salt Lake Film Society’s Tori A. Baker Snags Oscar Attention

Image courtesy Film and Media Alliance of Southern Utah

By Phil Contrino

This month, NATO met up with Tori A. Baker, who in addition to serving as CEO and president of the Salt Lake Film Society is vice chair of The Cinema Foundation and a founder/producer for MAST. This Salt Lake City-based organization provides grants, training, and mentorship to filmmakers and animators, particularly on projects that change minds and the world. Its program includes a fellowship, labs, mentorship, career advocacy, networking, contests, productions, and funding.

Ninety-Five Senses, a short film produced through MAST, was recently nominated for a 2024 Best Animated Short Oscar.

Can you talk about how Ninety-five Senses came together through MAST? What was the development process like?

I founded an artist’s mentoring project with Miles David Romney called MAST (Media Accelerator Studio), which aims to turn artists into artist-entrepreneurs. We workshopped a concept of creating
a project with the Salt Lake Film Society that would mentor post-graduate emerging filmmakers, specifically with a focus on animation. Utah has a rich animation culture within the universities; however, we continued to get feedback that once graduation passed, talented animators were leaving the state of Utah for jobs. Our MAST vision was to turn those artists into artist entrepreneurs who could potentially create projects in Utah that would then create an economic infrastructure here that could support animation production in the state. We did this through a series of fellowship programs that mentored talent through labs and the production of this short film.

Early in the process, we approached writer/director talents Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, the upcoming Minecraft) about being involved as mentors. They, of course, have an affinity for artists in Utah and are very supportive of the Film Society’s non-profit mission to exhibit, create, and preserve cinematic experiences, so they were generous enough to offer their support in directing an innovative approach to an animation project.  The resulting film production for Ninety-Five Senses came about and allowed our animators to work with professional directors, writers, and actors on a production. Our animators were selected through our Springboard discovery and nurturing contests. Due to the work Salt Lake Film Society does within the Mexican community and other cultural outreach, SLFS also tapped animators within our reach who are from other regions internationally, including Gabriela Badillo, who has an extraordinary animation project for language preservation called 68 Voces.  

The most challenging part of this project was determining how we could highlight the very individual and unique styles of six different animators. It’s common for many animators to work on a film project, but typically, all those animators would have to adhere to the style guides and looks of the design for the film, characters, and backgrounds. We intended to have a finished project that would highlight the differences in talents of each animation team, giving these animators a showcase piece for future work. So, imagine when we tasked our writers with this challenge how difficult it must have been: “Hey, please tell a story where six disparate styles could all make sense in one story!” We were not sure what to expect. However, our talented writers, Chris Bowman, and Hubbel Palmer, delivered an extraordinary story surrounding the five senses and tied it together with one compelling character named Coy. They’ve since been one of four honorees for the 2023 Humanitas Prize, the first time in history that a non-Disney/Pixar animated short has been nominated. 

For the voiceover, it was essential to reach Jerusha and Jared’s vision for the character of Coy. It’s vital to thread the narrative cohesively together. We were humbled to have the incomparable Tim Blake Nelson (The Incredible Hulk, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, O’ Brother Where Art Thou?) accept the challenge. His performance is extraordinary and brought me to tears during recording sessions. 

Does any theatrical screening of Ninety-Five Senses stand out to you as particularly memorable?

The film has been programmed at nearly 40 festivals throughout most of the year, which is fantastic because the important animation festivals around the globe are all presenting theatrically. One of our first screenings was at HollyShorts at TCL Chinese Theatre, and we’ve screened worldwide. Indeed, I haven’t made any of the London, Ireland, or other global premieres, but our screenings here in the US have been very well received, and the film has won a top prize at many. The most memorable was seeing it on the brand-new screen at our venue, Broadway Centre Cinemas, in SLC. This private screening for donors included the artists and animators, and the opportunity for all to hear their stories of how this extraordinary project came together. Since the film has spent most of its time in festivals, we are saving the theatrical release and hope to land in Magnolia’s annual Oscar Shorts presentations if nominated. Magnolia also sometimes includes short-list films in their theatrical presentation.

This piece just sings when on the big screen. Animation is always extraordinary on a big screen since it’s so crisp, clear, and colorful. Digital projection took this to the next level, even for arthouse cinemas, who don’t release larger studio animated features but have been programming the annual Animation short film Oscar nominees for years, along with great artists like Hayao Miyazaki (The Boy and the Heron) and Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir). For those who haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, the fact that six different styles of hand-drawn animation are presented gives us a feast for visuals. Some animators leaned heavily into color, while Daniel Bruson utilizes a watercolor technique in more serious tones of gray to anchor the film with the character Coy.

How did you discover the film was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination?

At the time, I was in a meeting with my film booker, Connie White, and Miles texted me the article from Variety. I could have been watching for the news drop, but I tend to cross my fingers and hope for the best. Of those nearly 40 festival screenings, 17 have been Oscar-qualifying, and the film has won at 12 of them, so we had an early indication that it was qualified for Oscars, but getting on that shortlist requires a whole other gameplan. It is so much about the media, the voters, and some good planning with a good network and even better luck to get animation trades and voters to notice the work. Presenting theatrical opportunities for the film to be seen is critical since this film comes to a whole new life (as do all films) in the cinematic presentations. We have booked the Laemmle Royal for some Academy invite screenings, and it’s screening over the next week at Walt Disney Animation Studios and American Cinematheque—we are diligently putting efforts in for exposure. We did one Academy push in LA for voters in early November with Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Sony’s Spider-Verse franchise and The LEGO Movie) moderating Tim, Jared, and Jerusha’s panel following the screening. The shortlist was a goal, but what a category short film animation is!  It’s full of some “big guns,” let alone the top working animators in the field. We did a lot of legwork to get the word out, mainly with earned media and networking, but certainly, our film didn’t have the PR muscle some of the studios put behind nominations. So, from here, we are relying on word-of-mouth, a few LA screenings, including the one at Laemmle’s cinema, and doing what we can to give the film and these artists the chance to be nominate

What are your goals for MAST following this important recognition?

Short films must get the attention of high-level award shows like the Academy Awards to ensure that talent has a pathway to being discovered, keep movies fresh and engaging, and find the unique and diverse voices that create blockbusters of the future. We intend to continue fostering new talent in animation. MAST is fostering four filmmakers and continuing to nurture our previous cohort of 6 fellows. We’re in production on our next animation project (which is very tech-heavy, in contrast to the organic Ninety-Five Senses), with another short film production to be kicked off by the end of 2024. Since we are a 501c3 charitable nonprofit, our programs are supported by donors who love cinema. Anyone can support MAST and Ninety-Five Senses by donating at SLFStix.org/donate/mast.

Image courtesy Film and Media Alliance of Southern Utah