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CG features have hybrid fever

Pics blur the line between animation and live action

An “animated feature film” is defined by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences as “a motion picture (where) a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time” — a definition just vague enough to confuse an industry whose own sense of the medium is very much in flux.

Does that cover “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” in which six CG characters star in an otherwise live-action feature? What about James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which mixes “traditional” footage with performance-capture characters rendered in virtual environments?

“The truth is, so many of the big films today have some kind of animation, from ‘Harry Potter’ to comic­book films like ‘Iron Man,’ even if you wouldn’t call them ‘animated’ films,” says director Terry Gilliam, whose “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” alternates between practical sets and a CG world reminiscent of Gilliam’s early work with the Monty Python troupe.

Regardless of where the Academy stands on the issue, many of today’s top blockbusters simply couldn’t exist without extensive character animation. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” would be unthinkable without the spectacle of enormous animated robots bashing the pixels out of each other. “G-Force”? Mission impossible without its animated guinea-pig stars. And on “Where the Wild Things Are,” director Spike Jonze embraced nuanced CG performances when the monsters’ animatronic faces proved too inexpressive.

The filmmakers themselves may still think of their projects as “live action,” the way James Cameron does “Avatar,” but for those working below the line, there’s no denying how dependent these films are on the discipline of animation. Speaking about “Avatar,” co-production designer Rick Carter insists: “It’s an absolute hybrid. It’s got animation, and it’s got live-action performances that are being recorded both with a camera and in a digital volume space (using) performance capture. Those two realms have come together to the sense where there’s no real sense of pre-production, production, post-production.”

“G-Force” helmer Hoyt Yeatman, who won an Oscar for his vfx work on Cameron’s “The Abyss,” mixed disciplines again for his directorial debut. “I always saw ‘G-Force’ as a hybrid mix of live action and animation, and my background in visual effects was a big help,” he says. After Disney bought his Dream Quest f/x shop in 1996, Yeatman transitioned to feature animation, where he worked on such films as “Mighty Joe Young.” “They were called visual effects,” he recalls, “but they really revolved around a main character that was digitally created. I really felt that animation could be much bigger and broader than how it was defined by the major animation studios.”

Yeatman cites “Kangaroo Jack” as “a perfect example” of a digitally animated character becoming “one of the stars.” It was that pic’s produ­cer, Jerry Bruck­heimer, who “had a very open mind and com­pletely embraced the hybrid con­cept,” says Yeatman, who adds that when he pitched the project around town, “Most deemed it ‘not animation.’And visual effects houses all went, ‘It’s really animation, not visual effects!'”

With Bruckheimer onboard, all the vfx and animation were done at Sony Imageworks, a com­pany where the notion of the hybrid is baked into its busi­ness model, using the same tal­ent to work on “Spider-Man” sequels and animate “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”).

As for “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Our film was very animation-centric,” says animation/vfx supervisor Daniel Jeannette, who has also worked on such hybrids as “Casper,” “Dragonheart” and “The Mum­my.” “Traditionally, animation was very limited in visual effects, but as the technology and techniques have improved, it’s becoming more and more common to combine (the two).” Of the 1,150 vfx shots in “Where the Wild Things Are,” Jeannette estimates 950 featured animation. “We could have shot it all greenscreen or used motion capture, but Spike really wanted to do it as a hybrid film, mixing the suits and the animated faces. That way, Max could really interact with all the creatures on-set,” he explains.

Where vfx was once the domain of particle effects, digital sets and backgrounds, animation pros have become increasingly important to the process (for example, after leaving Pixar, animator John Knoll went on to work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” characters at Industrial Light and Magic). Even with a comedy like “Land of the Lost,” thesps shared screen time with animated dinos more realistic than those seen in “Jurassic Park.”

The CG characters in “Trans­formers: Revenge of the Fallen” (as with “Terminator Salvation”) make their predecessors look stiff-jointed, even by robot standards. Per ILM’s Scott Benza, animation supervisor on the “Transformers” franchise, “We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of being able to give the robots far more emotional range. We had about 450 digi­tal animation shots — 100 more than the first — and 46 robots compared with just 14 in the first film, and the robots had a lot more dialogue and face time, so we had to work on all the subtle nuances and details, and they all got big technical upgrades to cope with that.”

The resulting film is “definitely a hybrid,” he adds, “and in many ways, it could be classified as a digital feature, a completely computer-animated film.”

Sums up Gilliam, “This trend of hybrid films will grow, simply because animated films — however you define them — are the most successful movies being made today, so filmmakers want to make them.”

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