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Is animation stuck in Oscar ghetto?

Talents fear Acad misses individual contributions

Is Oscar ready for an animated best picture? What about a CG character for best actor?

In its 80-year history, the Academy has nominated only one animated film — 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” — for Oscar’s top prize.

By contrast, other countries have no trouble singling out toons as their top selections. This year, France’s “Persepolis,” a hand-drawn B&W film from graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, became the 12th animated feature to be submitted by countries as diverse as Chile and China to the foreign-language race (none has made the final cut).

With the exception of music, the stigma against animation extends to nearly every category. Even classics such as “Pinocchio,” which won song (“When You Wish Upon A Star”) and score in 1942, couldn’t get traction in any other category — in a year with 10 best picture nominees, no less.

So why does the Acad have such a hard time taking toons seriously outside their designated category? And where does that leave the talented pros who make them?

When “Beauty and the Beast’s” nomination was announced, “I was shocked,” recalls producer Don Hahn. “Because, let’s face it folks, it’s a cartoon! If ‘Beauty and the Beast’ came out today, it would likely get nominated in the animated feature category (instead).”

Now in its seventh year, Oscar’s animated feature award has recognized significant achievements, but it may have relegated toon talent to a single-category ghetto in the process. In recent years, comics such as Eddie Murphy and Ellen DeGeneres received Oscar heat for their vocal contributions to “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo,” but a nomination never followed.

That hasn’t deterred Paramount from touting the stars of Robert Zemeckis’ performance-capture “Beowulf” in Oscar ads, and “Happy Feet” helmer George Miller has no trouble imagining award-winning animated performances, though he cautions that actors shouldn’t be held solely responsible. “To animate a character, you have to go through the same process an actor does — except in really slow motion,” he says.

The case for writing seems to be easier, and even though the process differs from live action, Academy members have been more open to acknowledging the craft: “Shrek,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” were each nominated.

Directing is a different story. “I don’t think people see how an animated film is directed,” bemoans “Ratatouille’s” Brad Bird, one of the few toon helmers who registers as a household name. “Obviously you’re not standing there with a megaphone in virtual land, but we still have to analyze whether people can follow an emotion through a film. We still deal with camera angles and the rhythm of shots.”

Bird worries the Academy may not think of him as a “proper” director until they’ve seen his next project, a live-action film. “Monster House” nominee Gil Kenan is now helming the live “City of Ember.” But why shouldn’t their achievements in the animated realm also register?

Well-versed in multiple arenas, Miller believes distinctions will blur as directors move between live-action, visual-effects and animated projects, citing Zemeckis’ “Beowulf,” as well as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s upcoming collaboration on “Tintin.” “It wouldn’t be foolhardy to predict we’ll get a best picture nominee that’s predominantly animated,” he says.

Oscar-winning “Shrek” producer Aron Warner feels progress could come in other categories: “I’m hoping that eventually we’ll get recognized in areas like costume design. As animation technology gets more complex, you’ll be looking at the talent behind the design, not how the fabric flows.”

Producer Steve Starkey agrees, remarking that “Beowulf” d.p. Robert Presley “still had to place the camera in much the same way as on a live-action movie. If you consider what’s the best cinematography from the point of view of how the story is told photographically, ‘Beowulf’ should be considered.”

Oscars for editors and art directors might also be possible, Hahn says: “Tim Burton used a live-action set designer for ‘Corpse Bride,’ which shows that craftsmanship is more important than union category.”

Hahn hopes that he won’t always be the only animation producer nominated for best picture. “Frankly, I would like some company,” he says.

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