Vfx pros insist cartoon toils should be eligible

For many, the idea of honoring visual effects in animated films elicits a simple reaction: “Huh?”

Which is short for: How can you separate out “visual effects” in movies entirely created by artists?

Some in the visual effects industry insist there’s an argument to be made for honoring effects in animated films. This Oscar season, Sony Imageworks is making that argument especially loudly, and it’s not alone.

“If I had to draw the line,” says Zareh Nalbandian, CEO and co-founder of Animal Logic, “anything that is part of the character performance is really on the animation side of the fence, where anything that is outside the character performance, the things we’d see in a live-action visual effects movie, should be eligible for visual effects consideration.”

Animal Logic, primarily a vfx house, did the animation and effects on last year’s “Happy Feet” and is doing the same double duty on “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks likewise did animation and effects on Sony’s “Surf’s Up” and Paramount’s “Beowulf.” SPI argues that just as animated films can be considered for sound, score or any other Oscar category, they should be considered for vfx.

“My job is the visual effects supervisor for ‘Beowulf,’” says SPI’s Jerome Chen. “It’s the same title I had for ‘Stuart Little’ and ‘Stuart Little 2.’ My job function has grown through the years to the point where now, yes, I touch every single frame … but the essence for me, my main function, has stayed the same.”

Moreover, argues “Surf’s Up” visual effects supervisor Rob Bredow, it’s not just the job descriptions that overlap.

“The exact same artists and exact same techniques were used on ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Spider-Man,’” Bredow says. “They were rendering sand, and we were rendering millions of particles of water. We were literally developing the same tools at the same time.”

The idea has enough traction for the Visual Effects Society to add an award for vfx in an animated film.

If the animated characters in a toon feature don’t count, though, animated films will be at a distinct disadvantage in any Oscar race compared with their live-action competition.

Picture vfx supervisor John Knoll, presenting “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” to the 2008 bake-off. He might, as he did last year, say something like, “Please note the lifelike Davy Jones our animation people did,” pointing to the motion-capture character as an Oscar-worthy visual effect.

But if Chen makes the bake-off with “Beowulf,” he might have to begin by saying, “Please ignore those lifelike characters our animation people did,” asking the gathering to focus instead on the fire-breathing dragon, Grendel, the sea monsters, fire, smoke, the digital environments — everything except the quality of the animated performances, which are key selling points for “Pirates,” as they were for “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong,” and promise to be for the upcoming “Avatar.”

“Every year there’ll be more convergence, and every year this debate will get more heated,” Nalbandian says. “Because we’re going to have full virtual movies that use every tool in the toolbox, and it’s hard to know what to call that.”

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