CGI complicates Acad categories

As if falling ratings weren’t enough for the Oscars to grapple with, digital filmmaking is giving the Academy a silicon-fueled headache.

Each year the Acad finds more movies confounding traditional Oscar categories and leaving their makers miffed if they’re overlooked.

That has prompted almost every branch of the Motion Picture Academy to take a look at its Oscar rules.

One insider calls it the widest-ranging review of Academy policies since talkies came in nearly 80 years ago, with some 10 to 15 Academy bodies discussing digital-related issues.

So far, there have been only a few rule changes as a result of these discussions. But everyone recognizes these puzzles are going to become more and more common.

Talks extend to the most basic issues. Academy rules define a motion picture by how it’s exhibited, so digital cinema has forced a re-examination of what is a film; for some, celluloid is no longer necessary.

Charles Bernstein, chairman of the org’s rules committee, said the Academy Awards exist to recognize achievement, and the goal is to match that achievement with an existing category. But, he added, “Each year, there seem to be certain pictures that challenge the nature of the award.”

Puzzling questions

This year’s big head-scratchers include “Sin City” and “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.” Both received praise for their visuals, and both make extensive use of digital sets. On “Sin City,” even the high-contrast shadows were digitally enhanced. Is that production design, cinematography or visual effects?

If the Academy’s approach is to honor who’s responsible for the achievement, then maybe it’s the director who should get a nod. That’s what Frank Miller thinks.

Miller, who created the “Sin City” comicbooks, credits his co-director on the film, Robert Rodriguez, as the person most responsible for the film’s look. “The comicbook was mine,” Miller said, “but he had the idea for how it could be achieved digitally.”

Likewise, George Lucas is clearly the main brain behind “Revenge of the Sith” and its look.

Their kind of digital artistry doesn’t seem to match with what the Acad has considered outstanding achievement in directing, though.

The tech branches face shifting lines among visual effects, animation, cinematography and production design.

The effects branch likes to honor groundbreaking technology. But it’s only a matter of time before digital sets or lighting demand recognition for artistic merit alone.

For films that straddle the line between visual effects and art direction, for example, “Both could claim it,” Bernstein said, “or reasonable people could determine where they think the true achievement lies.”

That means taking things on a case-by-case basis, he added.

Actors off the hook

The actors’ branch hasn’t had to face this kind of puzzle — yet. Actors like to see the actors they honor, and they seem to regard motion-capture about the same way they do voiceover performances in animated films. That is, as something to be ignored.

But with motion capture, it’s hard to be sure who’s responsible for the telling gesture or facial expression you see on the screen — it could have been the actor, after all.

Oscar’s first digital acting flap may come as soon as this year. There’s already buzz about Andy Serkis’ perf as King Kong. With improvements in facial motion-capture, there’ll be a lot of Serkis in Kong, though Serkis won’t actually be seen onscreen. Would the Acad consider honoring him?

Miller believes hybrids like Yellow Bastard in “Sin City” and Yoda ultimately need a new category.

Such changes seem likely but are not inevitable. Some parts of the Academy long ago made peace with the idea that they’d honor what’s on the screen, regardless of how it got there.

Gossip abounds, for example, of actors who took home Oscar gold for performances that editors could barely cobble together, or screenwriters who collected statuettes for scripts that were completely rewritten by others.

Still, nobody asks to see the dailies, the outtakes or the rejected drafts to decide who deserves a statuette.

The tech fields aren’t eager to follow that example, though. The day that a cinematographer, costume designer or production designer seems to be in line for an Oscar for work that was really done by a digital artist, look for a slew of rule changes in short order.

Changes slow

Otherwise, major category changes may take years, if not decades.

First, the Acad will have to define a “film.” To be eligible for Oscar consideration, a movie must be shown in a qualifying theater, not be on TV for a certain period of time, etc. Features must be shown on 35mm prints or larger, while docus and shorts get by on 16mm.

Then digital projectors arrived. If a project is shot and edited digitally and shown on a digital projector, is it still a “motion picture”? With the likes of James Cameron talking about making movies that must be projected digitally, that’s a question the Acad must answer in the next few years.

The shorts and documentary branches have already decided they will not force producers to strike a print just for Oscar eligibility. They’ll accept digital films provided they’re shown on a proper digital cinema projection system.

“We’re talking about all these sorts of things, and some things you’d never think of,” Bernstein said. “We try to be as forward-looking as we can.”

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