Pixar faces uphill battle for best pic nomination

Could “Wall-E” ride its zeitgeist momentum all the way to a best-picture nom?

It’s a longshot, to be sure, but many in Hollywood are wondering just what it takes to carry a popular and critically acclaimed film — albeit an animated one — to Oscar’s top prize.

The best-reviewed movie of the year, the sci-fi pic about a plucky little trash-compactor robot has seen its themes, music and politics commented upon far and wide, from the New York Times’ Frank Rich to Barack Obama, who gave the pic the thumbs-up after taking his daughter to see it on her 10th birthday.

But movies like “Wall-E” just don’t seem to sync up with Academy tastes.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is still biased toward live-action filmmaking and the old-school production paradigm: screenplay, prep, principal photography and post-production. And with actors comprising the largest single block (23%) of Acad voters, they’re looking for performances. A little robot with limited vocabulary may not resonate with them.

At this point, animated performances in live-action films are considered visual effects by Academy voters. But truth is, the visual effects in movies like “Iron Man,” “Wanted,” “Hellboy II” or “The Dark Knight” are created with the same technology as the computer animation in “Wall-E.” Many of the best sequences in the movies we love are created by effects houses.

And some of the finest performances in recent movies, from Peter Jackson’s and Andy Serkis’ Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the mighty ape in “King Kong” to the Chaplinesque Wall-E, were created by groups of collaborative storyboard artists, animators and voice talent (in Wall-E’s case, sound artist Ben Burtt).

So why can’t there be an animated performance category to recognize the teams that create toon characters, from voice actors to animators?

“There’s a tremendous resistance to adding new categories at this point,” Academy executive administrator Ric Robertson says. “There’s no proposal for animated performance that has risen to the board level.”

Blurring the lines further are motion capture movies like Robert Zemeckis’ “Polar Express” and “Beowulf” that feed live actors’ perfs into computers and then use animators to refine them. How much of Angelina Jolie’s performance in “Beowulf” was her? Only her animator knows for sure.

Zemeckis feels strongly that these movies should be considered live-action, not animation, in part because he knows live-action is more respected by his industry, which tends to look at animated films as strictly kiddie fare.

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” earned a 1991 best pic nom partly because the movie was a classic period fairytale musical with adult human leads. By 2001, at the behest of DreamWorks Animation czar Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Acad instituted an animated feature category.

And in all likelihood, that’s where “Wall-E” will wind up.

If Disney and Pixar want “Wall-E” to escape from the animation ghetto, they face an uphill battle. “You’ll always find resistance to documentaries, foreign language and animation in general,” one studio Academy consultant says.

It takes a village to get to a best picture nom. Disney would have to commit some serious bucks to a full-on Oscar campaign. At this point, says Disney Oscar campaigner Jasmine Madatian, “It’s still far too early for us to talk about our plans for the awards season.”

Craftspeople who apply to the Academy with animation resumes are funelled to the short film and feature animation branch (numbering 339 members). Thus it is difficult for an animated film to summon much support from all the other live-action oriented branches.

Historically, writers, sound and music branches also have nominated animated films. (Pixar’s “Ratatouille” earned five nominations last year.) But the directors, art directors, costume designers, editors and cinematographers never have nominated such a film.

More costume designers and art directors are moving fluidly between live-action and animation. Designers draw costumes and sets and props in both live-action and animation. In one medium, things are constructed in the real world, while in another they are built inside the computer. But isn’t the artistry involved worthy of consideration in either case?

While Sony Digital exec Penny Finkelman Cox feels strongly that animation production design deserves more award recognition, “I don’t know if there’s enough respect for the art form of animation to make it happen,” she says. “You’d be looking for a publicity campaign to increase awareness of these movies.”

Crafts guilds like the Art Directors, as well as the Visual Effects Society, are adding categories to recognize the increasingly complex digital and animation aspects of film production. And more and more, animation producers like “Wall-E’s” Jim Morris are importing craftspeople from the live-action side. Both director of photography Roger Deakins and ILM effects master Dennis Muren were consultants on the look of the future world in “Wall-E.”

One test of the Academy’s flexibility could be a big-budget hybrid like James Cameron’s upcoming digital 3-D movie “Avatar,” which will feature live actors performing opposite animated motion-capture synthespians. “Cameron is often the one who breaks through things,” says one visual effects maven. “The Academy is a cruise ship and it turns very slowly.”

There doesn’t seem to be much likelihood of an animated performance category being added any time soon. But the time has come for Academy members to look more closely at how movies are made and reflect those realities in their choices. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.

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