Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Best Animated Feature

By now, you no doubt know that the three nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar are Cars, Happy Feet and Monster House.

I find it odd that Arthur and the Invisibles was disqualified for not being 75% animation, yet Happy Feet and Monster House qualify. How much of those films are animated and how much are motion captured? From my perspective, motion capture is not animation, merely a technique whose look imitates animation. The Academy has decided how much animation is necessary for a film that's mixed with live action, but somehow, motion capture is not held to the same standard.

We have to be clear that the animated feature category exists for a technique and not a genre. There is no category for comedy or science fiction films. There is no category for family films, even though this year's animation nominees all fall squarely within that genre. The technique of animation is what stops these films from competing against live action films, for better or worse. Having created the category, the Academy should be vigilant about what it accepts. I would make the analogy that motion capture is like steriod use in professional sports, except that I don't think that motion capture is performance enhancing.

I don't believe much in awards except as a marketing tool, and clearly that's what the Oscars are all about. The films nominated today are the same films they were yesterday; only the perception of those films has changed. Now, they're nominees; in several weeks one will be an Academy Award winner, though it's still the same film.

However, that winning film will probably go on to earn more money on DVD and for TV sales than it would have without the award. The creative team behind that film will most likely be able to charge more for its services and may have opportunities that wouldn't have existed otherwise.

Which is exactly why it's so important that the Best Animated Feature award actually go to an animated film. I wrote here about the issue of fashion; if motion capture is perceived to be better than keyframed animation, motion capture becomes the style and keyframing's opportunities (and the opportunities of its practitioners) are diminished.

I'm not a member of the Academy but I would hope that the members of the animation branch would take this very seriously. It took roughly 60 years from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for animated features to grow enough in terms of releases and public acceptance to warrant an award from the Academy. It would be a shame if one of the animation industry's main marketing tools is generalized to any film that looks like animation.


Thad said...

Agreed completely! "Cars" (which I've yet to see) will probably win. At least I hope it does being the only REAL animated feature this year.

Most Oscars never went to the best animated films (of that year) anyway. "Der Fuehrer's Face" and "Birds Anonymous" are the only times, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. It's the first thing I've read that gives me any positive feelings about the likely prospect of Cars winning. Although I thought it was the worst of the three as a film, at least it was entirely animated! ;-)

J. J. Hunsecker said...

I think a better analogy for Motion Capture is that it is more like virtual puppetry than animation. The closest it comes to animation is it's similarity to the rotoscope device.

Anonymous said...

Films that look like they're animated...that's putting it perfectly.

I'm afraid the Academy hasn't always made the wisest choices where their rules are concerned-in fact, they're pretty famous for poor choices. What gets me is the strangely aritrary cutoff of allowable nominees(to limit the possibilities to 3 when there were at least 2 more animated features deserving of note among dozens released). Not good.

Mark Mayerson said...

Obviously, I can't add. It was roughly sixty years, not seventy, to establish the animated feature category. I'm fixing the entry upstairs so I don't look like too much of a fool.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if A Scanner Darkly would qualify as "animated".

Michael Sporn said...


Boris Hiestand said...

I agree. It's a damn shame, and members of the Academy within the animation field should let their voices be heard about this. In my opinion the 'oscars' has been a joke for over a decade anyway and their choices seem to get worse every year.

On the other hand, films like Monster House and Happy Feet would otherwise not fall into any catagory, and from a filmmaking point of view rather than animation standpoint they are much more worthy of winning any prize than Cars.

Unknown said...

I enjoy your blog and usually agree with a lot of your commentary, I've got to disagree with you here.
I am a voting member and feel very determined that certain things shouldn't be accepted in many categories (such as Andy Serkis being given a nomination for Best supportinmg actor for Gollum - at least not without the animators getting honored as well).
In this case I wouldn't think of disqualifying either of these films anymore than I would a film that was completely rotoscoped and hand drawn (such as some of Bakshi's films or Bluth's last couple of films). These 2 nominated films still took animators to work on and any animator can tell that these weren't strictly motion-captured. Motion capture when used properly (like both Monster House and Happy Feet - IMO) is just a tool and more along the lines of rotoscope was for even Disney on Snow White and too amny films since to list.

Though if the film had absolutely no animators actually working on it (I don't know if Scanner Darkley falls into this category or not - though it did qualify) then in my opinion it shouldn't. I would definitely like to be on the board to help make these determinations, but after whjat I've just said you might not think I deserve to be there.

Anonymous said...

To play the devil's advocate, and add to Mr. Gordon's point: the term "animation" might not necessarily refer only to character animation. What about the animated effects, lighting, cameras and environments in these films?

As character animators, we're all naturally inclined to think of characters as the only "animated" things in our films. But the general public doesn't seem to share that view. Nor, apparently, do Academy members!

Anonymous said...

you can't argue with the fact that live-action directors have found a way to enter into the animation world by using a method that they can only understand...live-action.

Mo-Cap gives them control over the performance, they can shoot tons of coverage and pick what they want.

Most live action directors are oblivious to what goes into making an animated film. Polar Express is a great example of film-making that removed the soul of animation and left us with nothing but talking corpses.

Steve Segal said...

Actually, Snow White did win an Oscar, albeit an honorary one, and animated films have always qualified in many of the categories, Beauty and the Beast even got a best picture nomination. I've heard claims that the title character of Snow white was rotoscoped (though I believe the artists claim that they used the live footage for study, not tracing). Still it could be true with copious enhancement. That wouldn't diminish the achievement of the film. It would just be a case of using the best tools to get the best performance. The penguins in Happy Feet don't move like humans, if mo-cap was used it was worked over enormously. I truly believe that mo-cap gives inferior performances most of the time and hopefully the audiences will appreciate the art of character animation for purely what it is.

As a voting member of the Academy, I might naturally defend the voting practices. I had no input in the selection of the features; if I had, I would have included Flushed Away instead of Monster House. Anything that uses people's opinions will be subject to disagreement, but in my category (short films) I feel there have been some outstanding winners: Ryan, The Moon and the Son, Tango, Anna and Bella, A Christmas Carol, The Man Who Planted Trees, Tin Toy, Geri's Game, For the Birds, to name a few.

chia said...

YES!YES!YES! I 100% agree! I raised this same argument a while back over at the channel101 forum when monster house first came out and I was mocked and ridiculed, so I'm glad to see I'm not the only person that feels this way. Motion/ Performance capture is a special effects tool, not an animation tool. Films like monster house and happy feet are merely animator assisted, not a film led by animators. If the logic is they should be accepted as animated features because animators assisted the live performances, then films like the King Kong remake and superman returns should also be considered animated. Of course that wouldn't make sense and neither should calling monster house and happy feet animated films.

Boris Hiestand said...

I'm amazed at some of these responses.

Chia, of course King Kong is animated! Films like that aren't up for best animated films because they are LIVE ACTION films with only parts of animation in it.

And even though you believe mocap is a vfx rather than animation tool, you bet your ass that a lot of work by very talented animators goes into making it look the way it does, wether you like that look or not.

Cassidy Curtis has a very good point.
I don't think a discussion like this will ever be resolved, as the only thing that's true is that the line between visual effects/live action/animation is very, very thin and blurred.

Even though I'm an animator myself, I think people should judge films for how good they are, not by HOW or by what tool they are put on the screen.

Anonymous said...

I can't say I completely agree. Do we need a new category for motion captured films or should those films be eligible for the other categories that animated films aren't? Or should they be discounted altogether? The closest category both Cars and Happy Feet fall into is the Animated category. They have the same target market as cars and the same types of stories, and there are even real live animators working on them, albeit in a different fashion than traditionally animated films. I think the whole argument reeks of elitism and fear of motion capture taking over, the same as it did when 3D was just starting out. I'm sure 2D animators back then were talking about how 3D films weren't "real" animation either since - hell, those guys don't have to draw anything!

Anyway, the only solution besides sticking those films into the animated category is to either disqualify them altogether, which isn't a solution. Or have those other films compete with the film categories which would promote motion capture more since the studio execs will say "Why are we only going for the animated category when we could go for them all?! Make it motion captured!" and not to mention the effect it would have on the viewing audience when they see Monster House nominated in a number of categories and Cars nominated just in Animated Film. Animated Films are already treated as second class citizens of the feature world. You're saying you don't want the third class mixing with the second at the expense of promoting it to third.

murrayb said...

since we are speaking of definition:
Animation means "to give life" mocap is already (technically)live, is it animation? I feel some of Bakshi's work was not animation, especially the live action scenes in Lord of the Rings that were just xeroxed onto cels to make them look drawn.
animation is frame by frame crafted motion, not LIVE motion capture, unless the mocap performer was a re-"animated" corpse. So until zombie mocap, it ain't "animation". Not to say its not a valid art form. Why not call the category "best non live action feature"? then puppet films can be in there too.

chuck said...

It would be nice to have a 2D animated feature to vote for

Oh shit I forgot we're not making
those anymore

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that opinions are mixed on this one. I'd hate to see animation, a medium founded on experimentation, start to put up rigid definitions. I don't think McLaren would be so quick to judge (would Chairy Tale qualify as an animation? Would he give a shit about the label?) The haunted house itself at the end of the picture was the best thing about Monster House, and that wasn't mocap. Should those animators be slighted?

I like John Lasseter's take on the issue from Charles Solomon's NYTimes article last week:

"Mr. Lasseter said the distinction lies in the filmmaker’s intent. “For me the fundamental question is: Do you want the audience to know this world does not exist, or do you want to make it look like the real world and just expand what you can do in live action?” he said."

Okay, it isn't perfect (what about a marionette film like Team America?), but I think it gets to the heart of the issue. 20 years ago it would have seemed sacriligious to think that a film made by a computer could be an animated film. Let's let the medium grow, not restrict it, and judge the work on its merits.

The more important point is, why aren't there BETTER animated films? None of these films would even be considered for nomination for Best Picture if not for the Animation category.

Adriaan said...


The funny thing about it all, is that none of these nominated films amount to JACK, GHE!
My good friend Scott Roberts, despite being an ugly son of a gun, has a very good point! Let's stick our wrinkly heads together and work towards making better pictures, instead of bickering over who has the biggest cock!


Anonymous said...

I think everyone's right to bemoan the lack of awareness of what good animation is that underlies the response to Happy Feet (and which I talk about in my review of the film at my site). But to say it's not animated I think is stretching it. Is a heavily rotoscoped film like Bakshi's Lord of the Rings not animated? Maybe you could say so - but I think it's much more defensible to just say that rotoscoping / mo-cap are a particular technique in the medium, one which should be talked about and criticised as necessary, but not to the extent that it isn't animation any more.

The elephant in the room, here, seems to be the legitimacy of the Animated Feature category itself: Pixar and Miyazaki have saved it fro embarrassment over the last few years, but I think we're now finally going to see it won by a really mediocre film. (I haven't seen Monster House but am not terribly keen on Happy Feet, Cars, or the unnominated Flushed Away). Is the artform really being well served by making animated films battle it out in their own little ghetto? Wouldn't it have been better, for example, to see Miyazaki's films go up for Best Foreign Film? Or a really excellent US feature - when one comes along again - go up for Best Picture the way Beauty and the Beast did?

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in how the Academy came up with "75%" as being the amount of animation needed to qualify -- scientific process or arbitrary number (discussed over cocktails)?

What about Lord of the Rings? Jackson, not Bakshi. I wouldn't be surprised if over 75% is animation appearing on screen, regardless of live actors front and center. However, you can't make that trilogy THAT realistic without CGI and 3D animation. Certainly it won awards for effects and sound design, but as I remember it won awards for more than just that, but never as a film entered in the animated feature category.

(Oddly, as a contradiction, does not 3D look more "real" than 2D? Hence, how would that qualify as a more true form of animation -- in the Academy's eyes -- than motion capture, if motion capture looks even more like something from the natural world? Perhaps if Frodo talked in Bugs Bunny's voice, with Bugs' ears and feet, and hit the bad guys upside the head with a frying pan, it would be animation.)

So many valid points made here on this topic. I'd have to go along the lines of those who believe that it was not all that long ago that the 2D animators questioned the 3D computer-keyframers idea what animation is. And the person who commented "films that look animated." By extension, then; How many of the 2D animators who straddled the line into 3D during the changeover feel about it? No doubt they must have still considered themselves "animators." However, 3D probably didn't look like the type of animation they were used to looking at.

As time goes on I'd wager that not just motion capture, but CGI as well, and whatever else that does not look like an actual actor or does not exist in the real world but looks fantastic (as in "not real") all get lumped together under the single definition of what is animation.

Indulge me in using an overlong analogy of a Jazz music section at any vendor:
No vocals and not classical and certain instrumentation must mean it is Jazz. But what about Surf music -- not filed under Jazz? Well, it must be the instrumentation, especially guitars. Wait, I can give you the name of many Jazz guitarist albums which use the same instrument combination, that are filed under Jazz, not Surf. Well then, you say, it's the backbeat, Surf music has a backbeat and Jazz does not. Well, go tell that to Kenny G., et al, and their backbeated rhythm sections, and other lite and diluted smooth forms, that get listed in the Jazz section and win Grammys in the Jazz category. It ain't Surf, but it's got a sax and no vocals so it must be Jazz. Roll over Coltrane. It doesn't even get filed in the catchall Instrumental Music section. Over an extended period of time, this music is now perceived as Jazz in the the same way that an Academy official perceives Animation...it LOOKS like animation, or SOUNDS like Jazz. Is it is or is it not?

As time goes on the great homogenation takes place. In animation it is being assisted and hastened by technology. Motion capture used in animated films is thought of as animation with other technologies soon to follow, no doubt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice post!

Anonymous said...

'The Princess and the Frog' was nominated for an Oscar. If that isn't an achievement, I don't know what is!