Oscar-Nominated Animated Films Display Wildly Different Visions

When the Motion Picture Academy launched its animated feature category 15 years ago, innovations in computer animation were breaking fast. CG looked so enticing that pundits predicted it would overwhelm hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. But this year’s nominees belie that expectation, says Academy governor Bill Kroyer of the animation branch.“We have one of the most diverse slates of animated features ever.”

While the Disney/Pixar blockbuster “Inside Out” is the odds-on favorite, it’s also the only CG film to be nominated. The other contenders include the Aardman/Lionsgate stop-motion hit “Shaun the Sheep Movie” and two hand-drawn films distributed by GKids: “Boy & the World” from Brazil, and “When Marnie Was There” from Japan’s renowned Studio Ghibli.

Rounding out the field is Paramount’s “Anomalisa,” an R-rated stop-motion drama by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. So Academy voters must choose not only between apples and oranges but also kumquats and pomegranates.

“You have films that are so different they don’t fit into the normal boxes of three-act structures and wise sidekicks,” says “Inside Out” writer-director Pete Docter. The last time we saw a similar Oscar slate was 2009, when Docter’s Oscar-winning “Up” was also the lone CG nominee. That tale of an elderly widower confirmed Docter’s belief that animation could explore more than kid-centric stories.  It emboldened him to imagine “Inside Out,” which personifies people’s emotions. Instead of CG wizardry, the innovations of “Inside Out” lie in its story — and its ability to visualize ideas that could only be done through animation.  (It’s notable that six of Pixar’s seven animated feature winners were also original screenplay nominees. Docter and his fellow writers are up in that category as well.)

“When we set the rules for animated features …
we never specified how something should look.”

As he assesses the animated feature contenders, Docter thinks animators today are able to explore more varied ways of expressing ideas due to more affordable technology and inventive ways to attract audiences. Quoting his late Pixar colleague Joe Ranft, he says: “It’s called showbiz for a reason – it’s part show and part biz.”

The business aspects of this year’s nominees are striking in several ways. “Shaun the Sheep” became a success via Aardman’s global strategy, which built upon the character’s prior TV presence in markets worldwide. As producer Paul Kewley says: “Shaun is a globally recognized brand in 170 territories. He’s a superstar in Indonesia. Even Australia’s Aboriginal people love him. We didn’t have to rely on the American market.”

This is Aardman’s third animated feature nomination, but it differs from its predecessors in that it’s dialogue-free. It’s more Buster Keaton than Wallace and Gromit (the wisecracking characters that originally put the British stop-motion shop on the map).

Kewley believes that in addition to transcending language barriers, films like “Shaun” bridge age gaps as well.  “The Western view is that animation can only be used for family-driven movies. But ‘Anomalisa’ shows that’s not the case. Animation is a technique, not a genre.”

Many animation pros believe that innovations often emerge in films that are made indigenously – and affordably – and then attract global attention for distinctive points of view. That’s certainly true for “Boy & the World,” the hand-animated nominee by Brazil’s Ale Abreu that’s won festival honors worldwide. Propelled largely by music, the pic’s kaleidoscopic images explore complex environmental ideas through the adventures of a stick-figure child. It exemplifies how artistically ambitious stories are being told in animation, says Eric Beckman of GKids, the film’s U.S. distributor. “Thinking of animation as not just for kids is a huge paradigm shift. Once you’ve done that, the blinders come off and you see a much wider range. If Ale Abreu could make his movie in three years with $400,000, then any number of people can make animated movies.”

Such “outsider” determination has made GKids a consistent player in the Oscar nomination game. This year marks the third time that the indie distributor garnered two of the five nominations – all for hand-drawn films by international animators. The company also has been a staunch champion of Studio Ghibli, which this year earned its fifth animated feature nomination for “When Marnie Was There.”

“Marnie” spins an intricate tale of a girl’s identity using the studio’s signature painterly style – which nearly always attracts animation veterans in the Academy. There’s a particular poignancy to this nomination, because the retirement of Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning leader Hayao Miyazaki raises questions of whether the company will continue.

Whatever happens, GKids remains determined to promote indie animation. “China is making an insane number of movies, and their animation industry is taking off like a rocket. That will be quite disruptive,” says Beckman. He also cites the impact of crowd-funding for film financing, and the distribution power of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon. “On a purely economic level, our films have done well on those platforms.”

In fact, the crowd-funding site Kickstarter was crucial in jump-starting “Anomalisa.” This adult stop-motion film, which Charlie Kaufman co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, was a darling of the festival circuit and could easily appeal to anti-establishment Oscar voters. For his feature animation debut, Kaufman says, “We wanted to do something very nuanced and not cartoony.”

The result is a distinctly different kind of animated film – and not just because “Anomalisa” shows naked puppets having sex. Voice acting is used in innovative ways, along with the mask-like faces and lifelike eyes of its 12-inch puppets.  Operating on a shoestring, the filmmakers had what Johnson calls “creative autonomy. But we worked under the constant pressure of running out of money.” Of course, once Paramount picked up “Anomalisa,” it received the exposure befitting an Oscar contender.

Kroyer thinks the widely diverse styles of this year’s slate reflect the strength of modern animation and the interesting innovations that keep propelling it forward. He believes that if you showed a frame from any of these nominees, you’d know immediately which film it represented and that’s a credit to the animation medium.

“Years ago when we set the rules for animated features, the only criterion was that the performance of characters had to be created frame by frame. We never specified how something should look.”

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