Steven Spielberg was inspired by Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Ben Affleck was provoked by a Middle Eastern hostage tale. Adam Pesapane wanted to transform a hand grenade into an avocado.
All three directors will walk the red carpet at Sunday's Academy Awards, but for Pesapane, 39, the shot at Oscar gold for his 1 minute, 46-second stop-motion animated film represents more than a chance to add a fancy statuette to his mantelpiece.
The English major-turned-commercial director, who goes by the professional moniker Pes, is hoping the Oscar attention for his "Fresh Guacamole" movie, made for less than $100,000 by Showtime Networks, can help him climb the show business ladder and give him a chance to direct his first full-length feature film.
There's certainly a history of short-film directors using Oscar glory to advance their careers: Taylor Hackford, Dean Parisot, Kenneth Branagh and David Frankel on the live action side and John Lasseter, Nick Park, Pete Docter and Chris Wedge in animation all were Academy Award nominees or winners for short films.
In "Fresh Guacamole," which Pes spent about two months shooting and another two months editing, the director (his hands are featured in the film) makes an unusual batch of chip dip.
The hand grenade serves as the avocado, and a baseball becomes an onion — when chopped with a knife, it becomes dice and then smaller dice (the pun is intentional). A pin cushion doubles for a tomato, a green golf ball plays a lime, and a small light bulb serves as a chile pepper. As for the chips, you'd normally see them stacked on a Las Vegas poker table.
Produced without computer effects, "Fresh Guacamole" was, like all stop-motion films, made at a deliberate, exacting pace. On bad days, Pes would get only three seconds of footage.
As "Fresh Guacamole" attests, his work is primarily focused on ordinary objects and their secret, sometimes unexpected inner lives. In "Roof Sex," one of his earliest short works, a couple of pieces of furniture enjoy some outdoor romance.
As a student at the University of Virginia — "Edgar Allan Poe was a big inspiration" — Pes' passion was printmaking. He would make paper out of recycled materials such as old underwear. "You can make paper out of anything as long as it's 100% Fruit of the Loom," he said.
He landed an entry-level job at the New York advertising agency McCann-Erickson and quickly looked for something more fulfilling than booking car service trips for senior executives. "I yearned for something more," Pes said. "My passion was trying to figure out how to make a living with my own ideas — the classic artist's quest."
Around his agency obligations, he spent odd hours making short films — including the live-action "Dogs of War," in which World War II bombs are transformed into frankfurters. "I liked the format — in 30 or 60 seconds you could have a great idea and not have to worry about character development," Pes said.
Influenced by provocative commercial directors like the Swedish collective Traktor, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, Pes eventually migrated toward making commercials. "It was a way to write my ticket out of the agency," Pes said.
He won several awards for his ads, but outside of his Sneaux commercial, little of his work felt personal, Pes said. When Showtime asked him to create small movies of his own design for the cable network's "Short Stories" series, "Fresh Guacamole" had a sponsor.
Pes says he's no longer interested in becoming a commercial director for hire. "I want to get the first movie off the ground," Pes said in his new offices in Inglewood, a converted warehouse populated by artists. Among his potential feature film projects are two ideas based on Topps trading cards: "Garbage Pail Kids," which spoofed Cabbage Patch Kids, and "Wacky Packages," a parody of popular brand names.
Pes knows he's facing stiff competition Sunday night. This year, several nominees in his category have heavyweight credentials and high profiles: "Paperman" was directed by Pixar Animation Studios veteran John Kahrs and debuted at the start of Disney's "Wreck-It Ralph," while "Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare" was made by David Silverman, who co-directed "Monsters, Inc.," and played before Fox's "Ice Age: Continental Drift."
"For all of their 'For Your Consideration' ads, I thought I would put one out that said, 'For Your Amusement,'" Pes said of having far fewer resources to conduct an Oscar campaign for "Fresh Guacamole."
But no matter what happens Sunday, Pes has already cemented a place in Oscar history: According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, his film is the shortest work ever nominated for a statuette.