Animation category could swell if hybrids qualify

For only the second time in the animated feature category’s six-year history, Academy voters are likely to have a full five nominated films to choose from — unless a single pic falls out of the race, bringing the count back down to three.

Academy rules require at least eight submissions to hold the race at all (otherwise, the committee can recommend a single “special achievement” award be given in the category). If more than 15 qualify, the pool grows from three to five nominees.

Unlike other categories, animated feature contenders must submit paperwork for consideration by Nov. 1, then go on to receive a sufficiently positive score when rated by the screening committee to qualify.

Last week, the Academy announced 16 films, featuring different levels and forms of animation, cleared the first hurdle. Prints for all pics are due Nov. 17, and three of those films still must play a one-week run in Los Angeles before Dec. 31 or risk disqualification.

“Our board of governors’ meeting is not until December, but given the depth and breadth of this year’s work, it seems highly likely we will have five nominees,” says Jon Bloom, chair of the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch.

In a robust year for animation, a wider race benefits everybody. High-polish front-runners “Cars” and “Happy Feet” are almost sure to be nominated, regardless of the count, and the third spot likely will go to a top-grossing big-studio toon such as “Over the Hedge” or “Ice Age: The Meltdown.” But broadening the race to five slots could make room for one or two more unusual choices.

From this point, the dynamic depends on the group’s decisions.

In addition to ruling on the number of films, the committee must consider the ongoing debate about which techniques define “animation” itself. Last year’s race favored “traditional” styles over cutting-edge CG wizardry. All three nominees — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” and eventual winner “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” — were made using hand-drawn or stop-motion techniques.

Style guides

This year, by contrast, 11 of the candidates are full-fledged CG affairs, and a couple more marry computer-assisted animation techniques with elements of live performance. In the rotoscoped “A Scanner Darkly,” director Richard Linklater shot the film on video, and then artists went in and literally animated over his footage. On “Renaissance” and “Monster House,” the actors wore special motion-capture suits that recorded their movements and helped translate it into animation.

An even bigger challenge facing the committee is deciding whether hybrid movies, or even visual effects movies that feature overwhelming amounts of animation, belong in the category. This year, the Weinstein Co. is submitting Luc Besson’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” in which a live-action child is transformed into a computer-animated “Minimoy” for an adventure that exists in both worlds.

“We can only go on a case-by-case basis,” Bloom explains. “‘Star Wars,’ for instance, was never submitted to us for consideration, but if it had been, we would have had to seriously consider it under our feature animation definition. A couple years ago, I remember we debated whether ‘Team America’ should be allowed to enter the category. The executive committee made a choice that it was not an animated film, since filmmakers made a creative choice to simply film performances of the puppets in real time at 24 frames per second like a live-action film, rather than making the movie one frame at a time like an animated film.”

Who decides?

This year for the first time, Bloom says, at least half of the screening committee will be comprised of members who hail specifically from the animation industry. Unlike other categories (the doc branch selects documentary nominees and the directors branch names the directing finalists, for instance), the animated feature selection group represents a mix of branch members and volunteers from AMPAS’ general voting body.

The Academy definition — “a motion picture created using a frame-by-frame technique 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” — allows for a wide range of interpretations.

Academy member Tim Johnson co-directed DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge” (with Karey Kirkpatrick). “At what point does a film fall out of this category to be considered a live-action film?” he wonders. “I see a trend that will continue to blur lines about what makes for an animated picture, but I do think that animated films have a certain feel, or quality, to the storytelling that is more about fantasy, that interprets the world.”

While conceding that it’s a hard category to navigate, Johnson’s peers are happy about the advantages that come with receiving serious Oscar consideration for their work. On the other hand, no one jumps into the typical two- or three-year production cycle on such films focusing on Oscar fantasies.

“When ‘Wallace & Gromit’ won the Oscar last year, it was a wonderful moment,” says Dave Bowers, co-director (with Sam Fell) of Aardman’s first all-CG feature effort, “Flushed Away.” “But I can honestly say that during the making of ‘Flushed Away,’ nobody was thinking about awards. It’s an expert group of our peers that decide, and I would imagine it would be a disastrous road to try and outsmart them.”

(Michael Goldman is senior editor of Millimeter magazine.)

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