Oscar winner accused of plagiarism

Last updated 09:16 28/02/2013
Fairfax Australia

The recent Best Animated Short at the Oscars compared with the Australian 2008 short Paperman.

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The Disney-backed winner of this year's Academy Award for best animated short has been accused of plagiarising an Australian film, though the director who has allegedly been ''ripped off'' dismisses any imitation as nothing more than a form of ''flattery''.

Since at least July 2012, some visitors to animation and film industry sites have been pointing to what they see as the striking similarities between Patrick Hughes' 2008 10-minute live-action short Signs - which has been viewed more than 10 million times on YouTube - and the seven-minute Paperman by John Kahrs, which won the Oscar this week.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Hughes' film, and elsewhere on social media, the tone this week has become more strident, with the claim ''Disney copied you!'' being typical of the commentary. But while Hughes, who also directed the 2010 western-suspense film Red Hill, says he can see why some people might level such accusations, he doesn't share their outrage.

''There are similarities, but I really admire the short, I think it's beautiful,'' says Hughes, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Melbourne. ''Every piece of work I've ever done, I've had someone say the same things about me.''

Signs is an almost silent film in which a lonely male office worker spies an attractive young woman in a neighbouring building. The two communicate by scribbling on sheets of A4 paper. Eventually and inevitably they meet and love blooms.

Paperman is an almost silent film in which a male office worker bumps into an attractive young woman on a railway platform, loses track of her, then spies her in a neighbouring office building. He attempts to gain her attention by sending paper planes folded from A4 forms across the street. Eventually and inevitably (and with the aid of a little Disney-style magic) they meet and love blooms.

The similarities are striking, though there are some major differences. (Some have also pointed to similarities between Paperman and the 1995 French short Parole en l'Air by Sylvain Vincendeau, in which the paper plane motif figures strongly.)

Paperman had the deep pockets of Disney to make the film, to distribute it (it played before Wreck It Ralph in cinemas), and to finance its Oscars campaign. By contrast, Signs was shot over three ''filthy hot'' days on a budget of $80,000. But this is no story from the annals of credit-card filmmaking; Hughes' film was one of five commissioned by ad agency Mojo Publicis for Schweppes as part of a global campaign.

Hughes was the last cab off the rank, and by the time he was ready to start it had become clear the other filmmakers had all made ''really dark kitchen-sink dramas ... so I got a call from the client: 'Please can you just make something romantic'.

''It was out of my genre, but whatever,'' Hughes says. ''It was a good warm-up for Hollywood.''

The short won a Gold Lion award at the Cannes advertising festival. A fan called Hughes from New York to ask if he could post it on YouTube; a week later he called again. ''He said, 'Dude. You've had a million views.'''

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Soon after that, Hollywood producers started to call.

The film is still being invited to festivals. Next week, it will screen in South Africa. And if one day it screens alongside Paperman, that will be just fine.

''I certainly don't want to be some whingeing filmmaker after a guy has won an Academy Award,'' Hughes says. ''You're only as good as your next piece of work anyway.''

- Sydney Morning Herald


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