'Polar's' motion-capture technique presents problems

Produced by a shop better known up to this point for its digital-effects work, “The Polar Express” presented a unique challenge for the Academy committee governing the feature animation category.

Officials had to ask themselves: Is this animation?

Sony Pictures Imageworks used an innovative “motion-capture” technique to create the film, converting the live-action performances of actors including Tom Hanks into computer animation.

Ken Ralston, a five-time Oscar winner in the f/x area, supervised this motion-capture process. And at the same time distributor Warner Bros. promotes “The Polar Express” for the animation prize, Imageworks officials are billing it for an f/x trophy.

The film is as much f/x movie as it is animation, says Tim Sarnoff, president of Imageworks.

“It was created exactly in the same style as most of the digital characters that have been made in this company for photorealistic live-action films,” he says.

Ultimately, however, the decision to include “The Polar Express” for feature animation consideration wasn’t difficult to make, notes Bill Kroyer, a seven-year veteran of the animation branch’s executive committee, since Academy rules don’t specify how characters must be animated. “It wasn’t straight (motion capture) performances just spun out on screen,” he explains. “Animators still worked with the motion-capture data frame by frame.”

“The definition of animation is deliberately a little vague,” adds Academy executive director Bruce Davis. “After trying to define a whole range of techniques that might qualify a film, the committee decided to focus on characters, and that was partly to distinguish animation from visual effects.”

One reason for this was to insure that films using live actors in animated environments would not be considered animated films. Indeed, the official rules specify that to qualify as an animated feature, a “significant number of major characters” in a 70-plus minute film must be animated.

Conversely, the fact that its characters weren’t rendered frame by frame was the reason why Paramount’s puppeteered pic “Team America: World Police” was ruled ineligible for animated feature consideration.

“We had quite a debate about that,” Kroyer says. “Our consensus was that animation is frame-by-frame filmmaking, not a real-time recording process.”

Of course, if it just had puppet movies to worry about, the Academy might have an easier job in determining what’s animation and what’s not.

The decisions will prove much harder as CGI technology advances, and the line between f/x and animation continues to blur, Kroyer says.

“There will be discussions in the future if somebody perfects a motion-capture technique that’s a straight pass-through,” he explains. “As synthetic filmmaking becomes the norm and animation becomes indistinguishable from live action, where will we draw the line?”

Sarnoff, for one, predicts there will come a time when it’s impossible to separate the two disciplines.

“My gut instinct is that the line will become more distinct and that the categories will become blurrier,” he says. “I think that people are going to draw arbitrary lines so that they can try to keep some semblance of how these things are different, but there is so much more about them that is the same than that is different.”

Regardless, the executive committee of the Academy’s animation branch will have to keep wrestling with questions about its guidelines, Kroyer acknowledges. “We have some of the longest meetings because hardly anybody is facing the innovations and questions that we’re facing. We’re right on the bleeding edge.”

(Michael Mallory contributed to this story.)

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