Oscar's animation race hits milestone

Oscar’s youngest category turns 10 this year, which seems a good time to reflect on how much the animated feature field has changed in a decade’s time.

When the Academy introduced the category in 2001, it was designed to rectify the fact that toon features didn’t stand a chance at winning any Oscars other than song and score. Prior to that, only one film, 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” had ever cracked the best picture category, and 1995’s “Toy Story” had been the sole screenwriting nominee.

“It was just a momentum thing,” says Academy governor Bill Kroyer, who represents the org’s short films and feature animation branch. “It was a situation where the animated features coming out were some of the best reviewed, most successful, most popular films of their year. And these films, if they were not in the animation genre, would have been considered automatically for best picture.”

That first year, all three nominees were computer-generated features: “Shrek” (the winner), “Monsters, Inc.” and “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.” The latter was already a testament to how dramatically computer animation was changing the field, allowing a feature to be made in Texas.

Since then, the Academy has recognized a wide variety of artists and techniques, including CG (Pixar has won five times), stop-motion (short film fave Nick Park won for “Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit”), performance capture (“Monster House” made the cut for 2006) and hand-drawn animation (last year, Disney’s return to 2D, “The Princess and the Frog,” was nominated).

Much has changed in 10 years’ time. In 2001, computer animation had yet to master realistic human skin (it helped “Shrek’s” case that its hero was green), and the distinction between live-action and animation was much clearer. Though it didn’t meet the Academy’s standards, the hybrid quality of 2001’s “Osmosis Jones” was far easier to make out than such recent animation-intensive films as “Where the Wild Things Are” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

Kroyer says the Academy anticipated the convergence of animation and live-action.

“I was senior animation director at Rhythm & Hues, and we had just finished a feature called ‘Along Comes a Spider’ with Morgan Freeman,” he recalls of the year the category was created. “Right in the middle of that film is a scene that is 100% computer generated, and we dropped it right into a live-action movie, and people didn’t even know it. You can no longer define an animated feature by how it looks. It can look like a cartoon, or it can look completely indistinguishable from a live-action feature.”

Directors now go back and forth between animation and live-action, and it’s not just guys like George Miller (“Happy Feet”) and Wes Anderson (“The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) toying with toons. Performance capture pioneer Robert Zemeckis has straddled the line with his last three projects (“Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol”), while “The Incredibles” winner Brad Bird is now helming the “Mission: Impossible” sequel.

DreamWorks Animation has been in the race five out of the nine years with six different films. “We were just in London for the press junket of ‘Megamind,’ and they were also doing press for ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘Narnia,’?” says DWA production co-prexy Bill Damaschke. “It was like a big reunion for (“Megamind” director) Tom McGrath, (“Shark Tale” helmer) Rob Letterman and (“Shrek” alum) Andrew Adamson. They’ve gone on to direct these enormous live-action features.”

Prior to the creation of the category, the top-grossing animated film of all time was Disney’s “The Lion King.” Years earlier, in the wake of the freak success of “Fritz the Cat” (the 1972 X-rated toon scored to the tune of $25 million), numerous studios and distributors had tried and failed to attract an adult audience for animated fare. Somewhat surprisingly, Disney was the studio to pull it off, from “The Little Mermaid” on, making toons that everyone wanted to see.

“I remember the weekend that ‘Aladdin’ opened, there was a line around the block at the El Capitan, and it wasn’t toddlers. It was a Friday night, and it was young adults lining up to see a new Disney animated cartoon feature,” recalls historian Leonard Maltin. “Once they started making serious money and being serious contenders in the mainstream of moviegoing, everyone started paying more attention.”

This year, “Toy Story 3″ is the year’s top-grossing film, earning $1.063 billion worldwide, with “Shrek Forever After” ($737 million), “Despicable Me” ($537 million) and “How to Train Your Dragon” ($493 million) rounding out the top 10. But when it comes to recognizing toons, the Academy doesn’t seem to factor box office too heavily. Over the decade, they’ve nominated several indies, including Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001), eccentric French cycling saga “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003) and Iranian expat Marjane Satrapi’s black-and-white “Persepolis” (2007).

“I was really encouraged last year to see ‘The Secret of Kells’ nominated, because it said there was room for a small, independently made animated film alongside the big boys,” Maltin says.

Last year also marked the first time since “Beauty and the Beast” that an animated feature had ever earned a best picture nomination, with the distinction going to Pixar’s “Up.” (A case could also be made for considering James Cameron’s “Avatar” as animation.) Though the breakthrough coincided with the expansion to 10 slots, this year’s contenders suggest the possibility of more animated best picture nominees ahead.

Speaking of expansions, the animated feature category has also scaled from year to year, depending on the number of eligible films submitted. According to Kroyer, one reason for the category’s delayed creation was the Academy wanting to ensure there would be enough toons produced each year to justify its existence. If fewer than eight enter, the award isn’t given; if more than 15 qualify, the category swells from three to five nominees (which has happened twice in the past decade, for 2001 and 2009). This year fell one film short of the threshold — a reflection of how robust the field is today.

“Between this year and next, there will be more animated feature films made in one year than have ever been made since the beginning of cinema,” says Aardman Animation co-founder David Sproxton. “People’s expectations of animated films have changed. It’s not all just 2D animation coming out of Disney. There’s a whole galaxy of stuff now.”

Looking back on the toon category, Kroyer says that “the Academy is 95% made up of live-action filmmakers, so we had to create a place where animation could be recognized.” And though the category remains focused on recognizing artists who are “giving life” and “creating character performance” from scratch, Kroyer has seen a major evolution in his peers’ thinking.

“The respect of the entire medium of motion pictures is evolving so rapidly,” he says. “The complete illusion of what we see onscreen is so different today than it was 10 years ago.”

Animated Feature Winners & noms

2001
“Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius” (DNA)
“Monsters, Inc.” (Pixar)
WINNER:“Shrek” (DreamWorks)

2002
“Ice Age” (Blue Sky)
“Lilo & Stitch” (Disney)
“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (DreamWorks)
WINNER:“Spirited Away” (Studio Ghibli)
“Treasure Planet” (Disney)

2003
“Brother Bear” (Disney)
WINNER:“Finding Nemo” (Pixar)
“The Triplets of Belleville” (Sylvain Chomet)

2004
WINNER:“The Incredibles” (Pixar)
“Shark Tale” (DreamWorks)
“Shrek 2″ (DreamWorks)

2005
“Howl’s Moving Castle” (Studio Ghibli)
“Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” (Tim Burton/Laika)
WINNER:“Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (Aardman)

2006
“Cars” (Pixar)
WINNER:“Happy Feet” (Rhythm & Hues)
“Monster House” (ImageMovers)

2007
“Persepolis” (Je suis bien content/Pumpkin 3D)
WINNER:“Ratatouille” (Pixar)
“Surf’s Up” (Sony Pictures Animation)

2008
“Bolt” (Disney)
“Kung Fu Panda” (DreamWorks)
WINNER:“Wall-E” (Pixar)

2009
“Coraline” (Laika)
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” (Fox Animation Studios)
“The Princess and the Frog” (Disney)
“The Secret of Kells” (Cartoon Saloon)
WINNER:“Up” (Pixar)

More from Eye on the Oscar: Animation:
Decade proves toons’ worth | Indie pics keep hand in game | Non-toon talent brings life to animation

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