9 animated shorts that give Pixar a run for its money

Who needs Disney? You can watch the best computer-animated short films the Internet has to offer right here, for free.

Summer blockbuster films aren’t always about the best actors and scripts, but the biggest explosions and special effects, which aren’t even real but are added by computers in post-production. Why pay outrageous ticket prices for the latest computer-generated imagery when you can see the best CGI for free?

Here are nine of the best CGI shorts that independent artists and animators have released in the last seven years. In these films, CGI isn’t used as a special effect to enhance live action; rather, the entire video is animated using computers. Some shorts tell moving stories; others feature thrilling action; still others will have you in stitches. In every category, these indie films give Pixar a run for their money.

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Pigeon: Impossible

With their annual releases, Pixar makes it seem easy to churn out a feature-length CGI film. Lucas Martell discovered that when you're working without Disney's vast resources, budget, and manpower, 10,000 man-hours equates to five years of work to produce a six-minute short. The result is Pigeon: Impossible, a comedic spy send-up to everything from Get Smart to North by Northwest.

Martell's exhaustive documentation of the film's creation spans 23 video podcasts. He is currently developing his next short, The Oceanmaker, which he estimates will take "only" 3,000 hours.

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Sintel

The same year that How To Train Your Dragon hit theaters also saw the release of Sintel. This award-winning short was developed in Blender, a free, open-source 3D graphics program.

In Sintel, a street urchin adopts an abandoned baby dragon, who becomes more a friend than a pet. For the first time in the waif's life, she's not alone — until "Scales" is taken from her. Thus begins a quest to find and rescue her friend, a journey that has a heart-wrenching ending that stays with the viewer for long after the credits roll.

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Kara

Trailers for video games often feature pre-rendered animation sequences that do not accurately reflect actual gameplay. Quantic Dream, developers of the award-winning PlayStation 3 game Heavy Rain, created a real-time PlayStation 3 engine that would bridge that gap. As a proof of concept, they produced this stand-alone demo, dubbed Kara. Its brief plot, perhaps inspired by Isaac Asimov's short story Bicentennial Man, is a dialogue between an android and its unseen creator. A tense, fast-paced climax raises the age-old question, can a video game make you cry?

Also check out the behind-the-scenes featurette.

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The Chase

By avoiding complex animation and special effects, CGI can be well-suited to thoughtful and occasionally ponderous shorts. Philippe Gamer’s The Chase proves that the medium is just as effective for fast-paced action sequences with multiple sets, characters, and explosions.

What appears to be an entire squadron of police cruisers is in pursuit of four women who have no intention of going quietly. If you pay attention to the dialogue and rapidly changing scenery, you may figure out why they’re on the run before the big reveal. Although the last 24 seconds technically violate my prohibition of live action, the lack of interaction between the two formats makes for a clever juxtaposition.

(Contains some NSFW language)

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Kiwi

"Always aim for the Moon, even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." But what if you can’t fly at all? That is the challenge faced by one flightless bird in Kiwi. Some dreams are worth dedicating your entire life to — and the addition of a single sound effect at the film’s closing demonstrates just how much this dream meant to this kiwi.

This touching, poignant short was produced by Dony Permedi using Maya, After Effects, and The Setup Machine while earning his MFA in computer art.

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Saga of Biorn

"Some might ask, who is this Viking, and what made him throw a dwarf off a cliff?" An excellent question with which to open The Saga of Biôrn, in which a warrior seeks an honorable death that will earn passage to an afterlife in Valhalla. Unfortunately, no opponent can offer a reasonable threat against the bristly barbarian’s life. When Biôrn finally decides to play the hero, will it prove his salvation — or his undoing?

The Saga of Biorn was a student animation project at The Animation Workshop, an animation school in Denmark.

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Rosa

The brief nature of a short film doesn’t always leave time to spell out the beginning, middle, and end of the story. In Rosa, three cyborgs awakened in a post-apocalyptic future. The video’s description indicates that it is one cyborg’s charge to restore natural life to the planet — and the other two must stop her via some Matrix-style gunplay and fisticuffs.

Dark lighting and unusual camera angles reduce what could be spectacular battle choreography into mere slap fights, but Rosa is still an intriguing example of the worlds and characters that CGI can conjure.

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Star Wars: The Musical

In 2015, we'll see the first new Star Wars film in ten years — a decade in which the Internet has not been idle. George Lucas has generously allowed fans to play in his sandbox with their indie films, going so far as hosting an annual Fan Films Awards.

For the 2005 contest, Hunter Nolen animated a song from his score for Star Wars: The Musical (based on Episode IV: A New Hope). In "One Season More" a young Luke Skywalker laments in song his perpetual fate as a moisture farmer on the desert planet Tatooine. "I just want to sing!"

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Paintballing

CGI films often have telltale qualities, such as smooth, rounded characters with a 3D look to them. Paintballing is an entirely different style of CGI, looking like it’s animated not in Blender but in Microsoft Paint — a thematically appropriate choice for a short in which paintball is a matter of life and death for two camouflaged armies. War is hell... and, apparently, quite messy.