Ten years ago, when the Academy created the animated feature category, the discipline was still quite distinct from how the rest of Hollywood makes movies. But that’s changing, as live-action directors seem increasingly willing to try their hand at helming toons. This year alone brings examples from Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn”), Gore Verbinski (“Rango”) and George Miller (“Happy Feet Two”).

Miller made the move from the “Mad Max” and “Babe” franchises to animation with the 2006 Oscar-winning animated feature “Happy Feet,” but for Spielberg and Verbinski, directing an animated movie was a new challenge.

“I was on a completely different planet,” Spielberg says of tackling the “Tintin” process, which required him to direct actors wearing motion-capture suits on a bare stage called a “volume.”

“It was unfamiliar to walk into a volume, which is clinically white, and not be able to look around and have the great outdoors to inspire me or some phenomenal set to trigger a gazillion ideas of where to put the camera. I knew that was going to be the biggest danger for me, shooting a movie in a perfectly empty space,” Spielberg recalls.

He credits “Tintin” producer Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital with creating rough CG background imagery that he and his actors could view on a monitor for reference during capture sessions. Spielberg describes this as “a very crude, Saturday-morning Nickelodeon-style replica of the world that we were going to fully render a year later. That at least grounded me. I was hoping that I could bring some of the filmmaking tools of my trade to a medium that I had never explored before, and that really did the trick.”

Another challenge facing live-action directors who tackle animation it trying to do without a familiar sidekick — the director of photography. As Spielberg notes with a laugh, “This picture took two years. I couldn’t keep a d.p. on a movie for two years.”

So Spielberg operated a hand-held virtual camera himself on his mo-cap stage, which was another first.

Miller, who also used motion-capture for a huge cast of characters on “Happy Feet Two,” says: “I tend to sit at the console rather than try to operate the camera myself. I get too self-conscious. I’m thinking about where I am in space rather than watching where the performers are in space.”

But for toons that rely on old-school keyframe animation, such as “Rango,” the process is even less hands-on. Verbinski, who worked closely with ILM while making the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” pics, says, “In live action, I’m used to blocking the actors and walking with a viewfinder. Based upon how I walk, the crew puts tape down where the dolly track will be. If I bend my knees we know we know we’ll put a boom. Try describing that to a guy at a computer with a mouse.”

To enhance the live-action feel in “Rango,” Verbinski added photographic artifacts, such as lens flare, to certain shots. “You have to fabricate them based on a filmic language that we understand as feeling ‘real.’ I wanted it to feel like I’d had a camera on my shoulder filming a tortoise talking to a lizard.”

Because animation is such a painstaking, frame-by-frame process, the medium comes with a built-in danger of wringing the life out of over-worked footage. “Iteration after iteration lends itself to sort of a Hitchcockian approach, but you’re never going get a Hal Ashby vibe,” Verbinski notes.

Not surprisingly, all three of these directors have come to animated features after making visual effects movies, which typically contain complicated sequences that are broken down shot-by-shot. “I’ve certainly been animating and previzing on live-action movies for a very long time,” says Spielberg, who cites 2002’s “Minority Report” as his first foray into digital storyboarding, vs. his usual technique of sketching thumbnails by hand. “But here’s the irony: You would think I would have used that longstanding process on my first fully animated movie. But I didn’t storyboard a single frame of ‘Tintin.’ I simply sat with the animators and we made up all the angles and the set pieces as we moved through the story.

“That was probably the most stimulating and fun thing I’ve done in years,” says Spielberg, who used the process to create shots he never could have staged in live-action, including a climactic chase scene that transpires in a single unbroken shot.

“It evolved. It didn’t feel like early planning that’s suddenly stale six months later when you’ve actually got to shoot the elements; it felt very vigorous and healthy because we would just commit to these crazy shots and long takes with no cuts. Then they would previz them back at Weta, and I’d look at them and make adjustments and changes before we ever sent it to animation.”

The “animation evolution” that live-action directors are spearheading leads Miller to say animated pictures may increasingly exist on a continuum with visual effects films.

“The proof of the pudding is seeing live-action directors like Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski and Bob Zemeckis doing animated films. And you’ve got wonderful animated film directors like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton going into live action. This convergence is purely driven by technology.” Miller, who will next shoot another “Mad Max,” says, “The lines are blurring. We’re not restricted to one genre or another anymore.”

Toons in contention
Studios setting tales far, far away