Animated Features Hunt for Respect in Crafts Awards

Animated features are a vital addition to Hollywood’s balance sheets, and are contenders for the best animated feature Oscar and on occasion even compete for the best picture gold. But in some crafts, animated features remain ghettoized.

Features that adopt the “animated” moniker have never been Oscar-nominated for their cinematography. Yet three recent cinematography winners, “Avatar,” “Life of Pi” and “Gravity,” had more computer-generated imagery than photography, and might have qualified as “animated” if they’d been so submitted. Animated films get nominated for sound and music, but not for art direction and costume design.

Why not? Why are designers on “animated” films ignored in favor of live-action?

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Sound designer Randy Thom believes animated films are at a disadvantage because they’re often marketed for families or children and often lean toward the comedic, which can mean they’re not taken as seriously. (Academy voters’ disdain for comedies is legendary, after all.)

Thom, who won one Oscar for live action (“The Right Stuff”) and another for animation (“The Incredibles”), has “Rio 2” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in the race this season.

“With animated films, you have more freedom in some ways,” he says. “You’re doing things like finding voices for dragons, which makes it more work but it’s also less frustrating, because the sound you have is clean — since it wasn’t recorded on a noisy film set.

But you still have all the creative challenges that exist for a live-action film.”

Deborah Cook, a costume designer and puppet modeler who worked on “The Boxtrolls,” thinks animated films also face another problem: They’re seen as a newer art form and some voters might not be as familiar with how they’re produced.

“With ‘Boxtrolls’ I’m doing what you’d do on a live-action film but I’m doing it in miniature,” Cook says of the stop-motion film. “I’m still selecting fabrics, patterns, designing and fashioning the costumes for an entire cast.”

Cook can’t shop for costumes or rent them. Her “Boxtrolls” costumes are hand-dyed to create patterns that look correct to the scale of the characters. She chooses fabrics with a rich, constructed look, then cuts them with a laser. The resulting garments have to drape and hang beautifully, as with any other costumes, but must be sewn with even greater precision, since they will be shot in extreme closeup.

Anthony Stacchi, co-helmer of “The Boxtrolls,” says, “There’s that old line about Ginger Rogers having to do everything that Fred Astaire did but she had to do it backwards and in heels. Deb is doing everything that costume designer Edith Head did, but she’s doing it in miniature and you often have to be able to fit and hide a mechanical arm in what she’s making.”

The writing-directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie,” 22 Jump Street”) see the same issues at work as Thom when considering the awards season performance of animated films.

“Generally, things that give you positive emotions somehow don’t feel as important (to voters),” says Miller. “I’m not sure why that is, but it wasn’t always that way, because there was a time when big Hollywood musicals were seen as important works of art.”

Those attitudes may return, though, and the days when animation is discounted from some awards may be numbered, according to sound designer Thom.

“I think there will be a change as this next generation of filmmakers becomes Academy members,” he says. “They’ve grown up with CG animation, they see it as an important type of filmmaking and may not have the same bias against it as older generations.”

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