Innovation, artistry equally represented in category as well as in features arena

Picture a competition of films from the U.S., Great Britain, Japan and France; stop-motion vs. cel animation; CG vs. clay — such is the international flavor and diversity of techniques recognized by the Academy’s animated feature category since its inception in 2001.

But that kind of diversity would have been inconceivable 25 years ago, when animated features were generally dismissed as simple kids’ fare and foreign cartoons were routinely dubbed with mile-a-minute dialogue. That wasn’t the case, however, in the animated shorts category, where filmmakers indulged in a wide array of artistry and invention.

Since 1928, the Walt Disney Co. had dominated the medium. In fact, it was the Mouse House’s pioneering artistic achievements that inspired the 1932 decision to establish an Academy Award for cartoon short.

For the next 27 years, it was Walt Disney himself — with an occasional nod to the other Hollywood cartoon departments — receiving a gold statue at the annual Oscar ceremony. Once Disney shifted his attentions from shorts to more ambitious feature films, his competitors were able to enjoy more Oscar glory.

MGM won eight awards for its Tom & Jerry shorts; Warner Bros., noted for its various Looney Tunes stars, took home seven; Columbia Pictures received three for the innovative UPA cartoons. Other studios were nominated occasionally — even low-budget cartoons featuring Andy Panda (from Universal) and Mighty Mouse (from Fox) were up for Oscar consideration — but these were token nods, more likely to recognize animation pioneers Walter Lantz, Max Fleischer or Paul Terry than to celebrate greatness.

In several instances, true merit was rewarded. There is no denying the historic importance of such Disney Oscar winners as “Three Little Pigs” (1933), “The Old Mill” (1937), “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (1942) and “Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom” (1953) as well as UPA’s “Gerald McBoing Boing” (1950). However, most years Academy members merely rewarded a favored animation studio with an additional statuette for continued excellence or current popularity.

Meanwhile, feature animators went uncelebrated. Technical innovation and outstanding filmmaking skill were recognized by the Academy in rare, and unavoidable, instances.

In 1938, Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with one large Oscar and seven little ones for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Five years later, George Pal was given a special award (a plaque) for his “novel methods” in making stop-motion Puppetoon shorts for Paramount, and King Kong’s animator Willis O’Brien received an Oscar for special effects, not for Kong, but “Mighty Joe Young” (1949).

Oddly, both Chuck Jones (“So Much for So Little,” 1949) and Norman McLaren (“Neighbors,” 1952) won additional awards for their animated films in the documentary short category.

By 1958, with the grip of the major studios loosening, the Acad couldn’t ignore the emerging indie and international shorts, which began to address mature subject matter and incorporate modern art techniques missing from Hollywood’s primarily childish creations.

Suddenly the dynamic changed, and nominees and winners represented shorts that were socially conscious, abstract and even nonnarrative. There were transitional years, when Winnie the Pooh or the Pink Panther would challenge a John Hubley personal film or a National Film Board of Canada short (amazingly, the Panther and Pooh won such bouts in 1964 and ’68, respectively), but the traditional Hollywood cartoon soon would give way to the personal vision of the independent animator.

In 1971, the cartoon category was rechristened “animated short.”

Most importantly, new techniques were evolving, and fresh talent emerged, including such visionary creators as Hubley, Richard Williams, Will Vinton, Ernest Pintoff, John Halas, the Zagreb and Pannonia studios, Bill Plympton, Aardman Animations, Chris Wedge and, of course, Pixar.

It’s no surprise that many of these same animators now lead the way in creating feature films, achieving Oscar noms for their current efforts. The cels, puppets, clay, pixilation, computer graphics and various rotoscoping techniques that distinguished the animated shorts competition for decades now characterize the feature arena as well, with innovation and artistry equally represented — and recognized — in both categories as they never were before.

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