9 is a computer animated short film by Shane Acker released in 2005 as a student project. Tim Burton saw the film and was so impressed by its artistic vision that he went on to produce an almost feature-length adaptation called 9 (2009), directed by Acker and distributed by Focus Features.
9 is a sentient rag doll who appears to be the last of his kind, living in the ruins of a decaying, post-apocalyptic Earth. He is first seen making simple constructs out of detritus - a swinging armature of scrap metal, an upright book with string tied around it, and a dummy rag doll full of tar, though the purpose behind these things is unclear.
Hunting 9 relentlessly is the Cat Beast, a mechanical monster wearing a cat's skull for a head. It appears to be guided by a small glowing talisman which it holds in its claws.
Sitting quietly, 9 stares into the mirrored surface of his own strange talisman and has a flashback...
Once he searched the ruins with 5, an older, grumpy, one-eyed rag doll. They gathered useful bits and pieces and stored them in the cloth linings of their own skin. With 9's help, 5 was able to salvage a lightbulb and operate it using pieces of wire. 5 gave the functional bulb to 9 for safe-keeping.
Almost immediately after, 5 drew the mirrored talisman from inside his chest. It glowed green, warning of danger. 5 gave the talisman to 9 then pushed him into cover. Extending a homemade folding spear, 5 stepped out to confront the threat. But the Cat Beast circled behind him and snatched him up with a metal pincer, shearing off his right arm. Though he struggled, 5 could not break free, and the Cat Beast sucked 5's soul out through his mouth using its talisman. Horrified, 9 escaped in panic, almost giving away his location to the Cat Beast by scraping the light bulb against a rock.
9 is woken from the memory by the warning green glow of the mirrored talisman. Taking the light bulb, which he has attached to the end of a staff, 9 flees into a ruined house. The Cat Beast follows and we see that it has not just taken the other rag dolls' souls: it also wears their numbered skins like a garment. The number 5 shows prominently on its back.
The Beast pounces on what it thinks is 9, but which turns out to be a marionette - the dummy created by 9 at the beginning of the film. The Beast's claws stick in the tar and 9 is able to hop onto its back and steal the Beast's talisman. 9 leads the Beast on a panicked chase through the house and finally runs out onto the end of a broken plank, which extends over a several-story drop. Thinking it has 9 at bay, the Beast walks out onto the plank. But it has fallen into 9's trap.
Nearby is the metal armature, and the upright book. 9 leaps off the plank onto the armature, which swings him around to the book. He kicks it and it falls into the pit. The string, tied at one end to the book, has its other end tied to the plank. The weight of the falling book drags the plank into the pit, and the Beast with it. The Beast crashes through a hole in the cellar floor and is presumably impaled by the sharp end of the falling plank.
Now free from fear, 9 salvages the skins of the other rag dolls and prepares them to be ceremonially burned. As he looks sadly at the skin of 5, the two talismans begin to glow. 9 realizes that they are two halves of a whole and puts them together. A beam of green light erupts from the united talisman, and the souls of the eight slain rag dolls emerge, returning to their rag doll skins to be at peace. Before disappearing, the soul of 5 turns to 9 and nods in approval.
In the morning, when the ashes have cooled, 9 - bearing the light bulb staff, a symbol of the persistent light of knowledge and learning - walks off into the wasteland, leaving the empty talisman behind in the sand.
The short film took four and a half years, on and off, to create. Originally, Acker wanted to make it as stop motion, but then went for CGI when realizing it would have turned out too expensive . He used Maya 1.5–5.5 for 3D modeling, Photoshop for the textures, After Effects for compositing, and Premiere for editing. There are homages to Acker's influences like Brothers Quay and Pixar placed throughout. Most of it was rendered at 720x540 pixels on a three-computer dual-processor render farm. For distribution at film festivals like Sundance, Rhythm and Hues Studios offered to print the short film to 35mm using their film printer and image resizing techniques. The credits show that beyond Acker, there were five other animators and three other lighters that worked on the film.
The film was released through a company founded by Shane Acker called 9LLC