Live action-cartoon hybrids pose a challenge

For most of the history of cinema, it was easy to understand what was animated and what wasn’t. Animation was made by people slaving away for months, creating the illusion of movement one frame at a time, either with pen and ink or with stop-motion puppets. There were films that mixed live-action and animation, such as “Anchors Aweigh” and “Song of the South,” but they were rare.

With computer generated imagery, the results began to look different and became harder to define. Nowadays, even experts can’t always agree on what qualifies as an animated feature. Some of today’s best animation happens in “live-action” films, like “Spider-Man 3,” and looks as real as the actors in the frame, while some films that look like they were drawn with pen and ink aren’t “animated” at all.

“Since the (Oscar) category was first created, the challenge has been to define what is an animated film,” says Barry Weiss, a senior VP at Sony Pictures Imageworks and member of the executive committee of the Academy’s animation branch. “Not a year goes by when we’re not trying to clarify a certain section of the rule.”

In fact, the Academy recently changed its definition of an animated feature, in anticipation of a certain kind of film that may look like animation but really isn’t.

“In defining what an animated film is, the consistent thinking in the branch has been that the thing we need to hold onto is the performance of the characters,” Weiss says. “In the creation of the visual look of the film, the only thing we can call our own is the characters. That is the department of the film that is uniquely the domain of animation and animators. Again, I’m being a purist here, but animation is the art of creating a character that otherwise doesn’t exist.”

Yet thanks to the march of technology, even that concept has its gray areas.

The Acad’s new rules specify: An animated feature must be at least 70 minutes long; “a significant number of the major characters must be animated”; their movement and performances “are created using a frame-by-frame technique”; and animation must figure in no less than 75% of the film’s running time.

Even a rule as simple as that 75% requirement is complicated in practice. Last year’s “Arthur and the Invisibles,” which mixed animation sequences with live action, was ruled out because its animation didn’t reach the 75% mark. “Literally we took a stopwatch to the thing,” Weiss says.

When a film mixes animated and live-action characters in the same scene, the Academy is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. “We give a lot of weight in the word ‘figures,'” Weiss says. Taking “Stuart Little” as an example, a scene between the animated Stuart and his live-action parents would all count toward the 75%. “The idea was that animation figures into the entire scene,” he says.

By that standard, a film like “Enchanted,” in which an animated Disney princess tumbles into the real world, or “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” which mixes the CG rodent rock band with flesh-and-blood actors, might have a far higher portion of “animated” running time than meets the eye.

That’s where the “significant number of major characters” rule comes into play. The first “Stuart Little,” for example, would not have been eligible for the animated feature Oscar because most of their characters were live-action. In “Stuart Little 2,” though, Stuart’s friends and the villains are animated animals, so that would have made the cut.

It’s the “frame-by-frame” rule that provides the acid test.

The new language exempts films like “A Scanner Darkly,” in which live-action footage is altered to look like drawings, unless animators do major work altering the actors’ performances.

The same requirement ruled out “Team America,” which was submitted to the animated feature category. “We said no, those aren’t animated characters, those are puppeted,” Weiss says. “The art of animation is the art of creating these non-existent characters on a frame-by-frame basis, rather than pointing a camera at a puppet in real time.”

The impetus behind this rule change is the growth of motion-capture animation.

Last year, the Academy gave animated-film honors to “Happy Feet,” which had a significant mo-cap component, and Sony’s all mo-cap “Monster House” got a nomination. So the Academy’s animation branch has no beef with motion capture per se.

But Academy executive director Bruce Davis explains, “What they’re trying to do is to make a distinction between a kind of pure motion capture, where nothing is done to the footage after it’s shot, and techniques where there is some (keyframe) work after an initial motion-capture phase.”

Nonetheless, this fall’s big mo-cap release, “Beowulf,” may stump the rules — or at least have the Acad asking the filmmakers to answer a few questions.

With mo-cap, actors’ performances are “captured” digitally as coordinates in space rather than photographed on a light-sensitive emulsion, but they are captured nonetheless. So while the images shown on the screen may be created in a computer, the characters are, in a sense, live action.

“It does seem to be clear that we’re looking at a new form of cinema altogether, doesn’t it?” says “Beowulf” producer Steve Starkey. “That’s what everybody’s slowly circling around, that the movies we make don’t fit into a genre type in this big thing we call motion pictures. It came on so fast that it defies categorization.”

Starkey has worked with director Robert Zemeckis since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (another notable live-action/animation hybrid), and says of the helmer: “He has made a life commitment to this form of cinema. He finds that it is the closest thing from writing and imagining what he sees to being able to show it visually on the bigscreen.”

With motion capture, Starkey says, Zemeckis is able to concentrate on getting his actors’ performances first, without having to bother with placing the camera, lighting the scene, etc. Later, he can choose to put the “camera” anywhere, lighting and decorating the scene digitally.

But such advances are exactly what worries the Acad’s animation branch. As Weiss explains, “If the technology were ever to get to the point where you go on the motion-capture set, you do your performance with your cast, and that is the sum total of how the performance is created, it becomes akin to puppeteering.”

Director Kevin Lima, who drew on his animation experience (“Tarzan”) for the mostly live-action “Enchanted,” says that animation has always excelled in creating worlds that couldn’t be captured in-camera.

“That line between animation and live action is so blurred now that I think you’re allowed to go on that journey in the live-action world.” he says. “I don’t see it being two separate forms. In both avenues, we’re trying to tell great stories with great characters.”

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