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What is the future of animation?

That question has been bandied about since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences created the best animated feature category last year. It surfaced again in a Los Angeles Times article that looks at the state of animation with the 2003 Oscar race as its prism.

The Times piece goes on to suggest that computer-animated film could ultimately supplant hand-drawn filmmaking. It also states that “most animators” believe the inclusion of “Stuart Little 2” in the list of Oscar animation contenders was misguided. The articles’s final conclusion? An Oscar win in March by a traditionally animated film would infuse fresh life into the hand-drawn medium and insure its continued existence.

Statistics aren’t available on what percentage of Hollywood animators constitute “most animators.” What is known, however, is the definite and decisive way the members of the Academy’s animation branch voted to make “Stuart Little 2” eligible to compete for the Oscar.

The Short Film and Feature Animation Branch Executive Committee took a bold step into the future when it defined an animated film as “a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time with a significant number of the major characters animated, and in which animation figures in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.”

“I think animators in my branch are leading the way,” says Jon Bloom, chair of the executive committee and one of the Branch’s three Governors. “When we were developing the rules for what qualified as an animated film, we looked at films like ‘Roger Rabbit,’ ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ and ‘Space Jam.'”

Bloom continues, “What we chose as the essence of animation was not the style of the film or its art direction. We chose character animation. Other issues of effects and backgrounds may or may not be part of storytelling, but by our definition, it’s character animation that defines whether a film belongs in the Academy category of animation. ‘Stuart Little 2’ didn’t just slip through a loophole.”

Adds June Foray one of the branches long-time governors, “The members of the branch confronted the question of films that have a hybrid of live action and animation and our resolution of the issue is in our rules. ‘Stuart Little 2’ should qualify as an animated feature, and under our rules, it does.”

“Stuart Little 2’s” inclusion is another adjustment to the changes in Hollywood brought forth by the digital revolution. That is why Jon Bloom’s point about art direction is crucial. Animation can’t be defined by technique, style or art direction. It is about character performance, about creating life. In fact, how could any animator look at “Stuart Little 2’s” cast of Stuart, Margalo and Falcon and not recognize them as the pivotal animated characters?

If the image and success of traditional animation is indeed sagging, it will be remedied by doing better traditional films, not by limiting the innovations of new technology. Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” is a perfect example of hand-drawn animation that is enjoying wonderful critical and financial success. Why? It’s a good film.

Rather than view the inclusion of “Stuart Little 2” as an encroachment on the medium, it should be celebrated for what it is: the Academy’s recognition of essence of animation. It salutes the ability to make you believe in and care about stories and characters that exist only in the artist’s imagination, no matter the technique.

When we consider this year’s “open field,” we should embrace all innovation. But then again, innovative filmmakers have always had to contend with controversy.

After viewing a similarly groundbreaking animated film, one prominent artist felt that animation had been seriously “corrupted.” It was his contention that the art had been compromised by “literalness” and “realism.” The year was 1938 and the animated film was “Snow White.”

Bill Kroyer is Senior Animation Director for Rhythm & Hues. Barry Weiss is Senior Vice President of Animation for Sony Imageworks. Both are members of the Executive Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Films and Feature Animation branch.

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