For the Birds Controversy

The Internet which is always looking for a good controversy is trying to stir one up over a Pixar short. Lineboil.com pointed out a recent survey on Rotten Tomatoes that asks whether Ralph Eggleston’s For the Birds (2001) resembles a CalArts student film from 1993 called Small Fry. The director of Small Fry is Stevie Wermers-Skelton, who co-directed the recent Goofy short How to Hook Up Your Home Theater and Disney holiday special Prep and Landing.

Here are the two films in question:

Small Fry

For the Birds (an edited version with different music and sound)

The basic set-up of the shorts–a bigger bird wants to land on a wire populated by smaller birds–is similar, but hardly unique enough for it to be considered, in legal parlance, “probative similarity.” From that point forward, the films take completely different paths: Wermers’ Small Fry is about how the smaller birds don’t allow the big bird to land on the wire, whereas the small birds in For the Birds move over to make room for the bigger bird to land. None of the gags are similar because of the differences in the situation; in fact, Small Fry doesn’t even have much in the way of gags until the payoff. The shorts are most similar at the end when the smaller birds get their inadvertent comeuppance at the hands (or wings) of the larger bird, though the idea works better in For the Birds because the actions of the smaller birds causes their misfortune.

There’s also another aspect to consider. While For the Birds wasn’t released until 2001, Eggleston came up with the idea much earlier. In my book The Art of Pixar Short Films, I interviewed Ralph about the genesis of For the Birds and he told me that the idea developed while he was attending CalArts, which would be in the early-1980s. Here is an excerpt from the book:

For the Birds began its life in the early 1980s, as a design assignment that Eggleston created for design instructor Bob Winquist’s class at CalArts. Fellow classmate Ken Bruce suggested that Eggleston turn his concept sketch into a film. “I actually boarded some of it at CalArts,” remembered Eggleston, “and I couldn’t finish it because I dreaded the idea of having to draw all those little birds.” Since his idea also lacked an ending, he filed the project away for another day.

If there is a concrete connection between these films, it would be that Ken Bruce is thanked in the credits of both For the Birds and Small Fry. Bruce, as mentioned above, was the classmate of Eggleston who encouraged him to turn the design assignment into a film.

Perhaps the best evidence favoring the innocence of For the Birds is this drawing by Eggleston printed in The Art of Pixar Short Films. In the book, it’s dated 1985, eight years before Small Fry:

For the Birds concept drawing