Difference betwwen f/x, animation weighs on new category

When Porky the Pig talks, it’s animation. But when Babe the pig talked, it’s a special effect — right?

It should be a simple to distinguish the two. In one case, the producers used techniques other than standard movie photography to create an image on film. But in the other instance … wait a minute.

The distinction may be of only minor interest to moviegoers, but now that there’s an Oscar for feature animation, the line between animation and live-action is of major import. But it’s one that digital technology is blurring.

“It is a very fuzzy line between special effects and animation,” says John Lasseter, executive vice president of creative at Pixar Animation Studios, and exec producer of the Pixar/Disney toon “Monsters Inc.”

Lasseter says the best place to start is the dictionary, which says animation means “to give life to.” “When you take something that’s inert, and through motion, give it life, make it appear to be alive, living, breathing thinking and having emotions, that’s animation,” says Lasseter. “But when you take something that’s live-action, and move a part of it, that’s a special effect.”

But the definition that matters is the one in the Academy’s Oscar rulebook. There, an animated feature is defined as “a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time and where a significant number of the major characters in the film are animated, and animation figures in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.”

The letter and spirit of that regulation, particularly the emphasis on the concept of character, will probably — and properly — exclude movies that are full of more subtle CGI effects, such as the creation of misty breath on cold days, or the digital insertion of snow or other backgrounds that aren’t really there.

It’s a good definition, animators say, but as movies contain more and more computer-generated effects and CG characters, there is likely to be some controversy.

“When you set up these arbitrary rules you’re going to have to let them mature,” says Richard Hollander, president of the film division at Rhythm & Hues Studios, the shop that made Babe talk and turned the stars of “Cats & Dogs” into planetary warriors. “I think the spirit of the award is that the movie should be driven by the animation — that if you didn’t have the animation you wouldn’t have the story at all.”

“Cats & Dogs,” a film full of characters that were either fully or partially computer generated, did not qualify for the animation Oscar because the percentage of time that animated characters appears was not high enough. But observers say the fur will likely start to fly when live action films — such as the next “Star Wars” installment, which will feature computer-made characters like Jar Jar Binks, or the upcoming “Stuart Little 2″ — employ completely animated main characters.

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