(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Awards Watch: The Toons

Animation fans and Oscar pundits are abuzz following the Comic-Con preview of Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' latest foray into "mo-cap" (motion capture) animation. The bottom line is whether the "digitally-enhanced live action" of the film will qualify it as an animated feature under the Academy's newest rules that infer that "any film that begins with live action performance and then uses digital animation to enhance or augment that performance is not eligible."

What is interesting about this new rule (which goes into effect with this year's nominations) is that not only would it have deemed last year's nominee Monster House ineligible, but it may have also affected the eligibility of eventual winner Happy Feet (with its mo-capped dance sequences). If these two movies were left off the ballot, then third nominee Cars would have undoubtedly taken home the gold for John Lassiter and Pixar yet again.

Fast forward from Oscar night to the debut this summer of Pixar's Ratatouille, which displayed this statement prominently and proudly in its end credits:

"100 % genuine animation. No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film."

Is it a coincidence that the Academy rules were changed around the same time Pixar felt it necessary to permanently clarify the technology used on their entry into this year's awards race? Obviously having a thing against mo-cap (especially after losing to Happy Feet - that had to hurt), could Pixar have had a hand in changing the rules as to what is and is not an animated feature, at least in the eyes of Oscar?

In the meantime, the jury is still out on Beowulf, but Pixar and their top chef may have an even stronger opponent come Oscar time: Homer Simpson.

Of course, in my eyes comparing Ratatouille to The Simpsons Movie is like comparing the Mona Lisa to a Colorforms set.

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  1. The question is - how *much* mo-cap will it take to disqualify a film? Does live-action "reference" footage not directly mo-capped count?

    Suppose that the Fleischer Bros "Superman" cartoons were elegible this year - much of the character action in those is done in true rotoscope (tracing live action on the animation stand, rather than phot-processing live action, as the term has been mis-used to mean). Would they be ruled out?

  2. Mona Lisa to Colorforms...that is gold.

  3. "digitally-enhanced live action"

    Yes, that means that roto-ing (Fleischer Bros "superman") should not be qualified. Its taking the art of out animation. As an animator, I use video reference of myself acting out everything i do. However, its just reference, the animation itself is all keyframed and made its own. Animation should never be a carbon copy of what the reference is. Every animator from the days of Snow White all the way through to the Pixar films use reference of them selves (either on video or staring at themselves in the mirror). The one gray area i can think of is with LOTR's Gollum. It did start as a mo-cap, however by the end there was so much keyframe animation going over it that the mo-cap start off was just a slight shadow of what the final performance ended up being.
    I was completely against "Happy Feet" winning last year with its obvious mo-cap influences. I'm very happy to see 100% Real Animation without shortcuts to still be recognized as an art by the Academy.

  4. Simply ludicrous. A movie, regardless of the techniques used to produce the final product, should always be eligible for a nomination. I'm one to believe that even a film in the animated film category should also be eligible for best picture; sadly that's not the case. But now to eliminate the chance for mo-capped films to even be nominated is saying that it's any less of a movie; which its not. If it's entertaining, if it's beautiful, if it's interesting, then there is no reason for it not to get a nomination.

  5. Hmm, I am of mixed feelings on this rule change. First and foremost, I think we have to consider that the creation of this category was probably not a good idea in the first place, and some suggest it was to protect the sanctity of Best Picture from ever being won by films without actors after Beauty and the Beast came too close for comfort. If we accept this category, in general, then we have to analyze the fairness of this rule. Let's look at this angle. Do live action films have a similar exclusion. In other words, will any live action film that begins with animation be disqualified? Basically, in a live action film, digital effects are now commonly used all the time, especially in the area of preventing cruelty to animals if nothing else. Obviously, there's been no call for rule changes that render live action with digital animation effects to be rendered ineligible for Best Picture. Since using motion capture is simply a way for computer animators to generate effects, it doesn't seem like, therefore, this rule should have been implemented. An animated film should not be subjected to restrictions that inhibit the artists from the full range of special effects at their disposal. Meanwhile, ironically, stop motion animation, like that used for Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas would seem to open up a whole new can of worms with this rule. It is live action, frame by frame. It is not drawn or computer rendered animation based on drawings. Where does it fit? Well, maybe the rule implies the action cannot be from 'live' beings translated to the animation. Would the Lion King, therefore have been excluded as the animators spent months analyzing and utilizing the actual motion from video of real African animals in the wild?

    I think ultimately the final relevant point to consider is the one you address. Why the sudden urge to implement this rule? Who suggested it and why? Certainly, it would be odd if Pixar/Disney would want to rule out the notion of ever using the technology in their own films just because they haven't yet done so--though they do apparently spend a lot of time on the facial expressions and movement of the real voice actors behind the characters--which might be cheating a bit under this new rule.

    I guess I'd like to know more about why it was felt that they need to implement this rule when the category is relatively new.

    Very interesting topic and fun to debate! Thanks! I'll have to think about this some more.

  6. Oscars are for good films... regardless of being completely animated. The Simpsons Movie was a bad movie.

  7. You idiot! I said chloroform not Colorforms.

  8. Anyone Else think that maybe Pixar had influence in this because Ratatouille (or however you spell that investment disaster) kept having to justify itself as a "quality" film to Disney since it was not a box office smash like their past films (sure, Cars lost the Oscar, but it was a blockbuster!)? If it knocks out the competition and wins the Oscar, it would be forever known as Pixar's "Street Cred" film as opposed to its financial abomination. Just a thought...

  9. I am thrilled about this new rule. Though I feel that motion capture does have advantages when the animation itself is not the focal point(video games and the like). And I love certain effects of rotoscoping like in Scanner Darkly or Waking Life. I do not, however, feel that it can really be classified as animation. One of the traditional characteristics of good animation is exaggerated movements. Motion Capture almost eliminates this. If you look at the character acting in Monster House, it's almost too subtle and too realistic to be a cartoon at all. It's almost creepy. Motion Capture is fine when you need to get movement data for a a character quickly and easily, but it's not animation. Mo-cap movies should be eligible instead for the visual effects categories.

  10. The entire concept of the best animated feature category is unacceptable.

    On one hand, the inclusion of this category into the academy awards effectively creates an animation ghetto, denying any animated feature, no matter how good, from being considered for the coveted best picture nomination.

    On the other hand, it could conceivably hand out false acclaim to a non-deserving film in the years when none of the animated features are really up to the highest standard. For instance, Shrek in 2001.

  11. I always wondered why 'A Scanner Darkly' wasn't even nominated...

  12. I agree, the Simpsons movie is a lot like the Mona Lisa; excellent despite imperfection.

    What? You meant that metaphor the other way?

  13. I think there's another reason why "Ratatouille" had the 100% animated logo: I know people who thought that all of the backgrounds were real, and they just animated characters over them. They almost didn't believe me when I said, "No, really, the whole thing was animated -- even the backgrounds."

  14. So that means if Snow White or Sleeping Beauty had been introduced today, they would both be excluded within these guidelines.

    Why you ask? Have you ever watched the making of these animated films? They filmed live actors playing the role of every character and rotoscoped a large majority of the performances by literally tracing a projection of an image from single frames of film.

    As an apprentice of Ruben Apodoca (known for his work on Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty) I consider myself a traditional animator skilled in 2D and 3D animation. And it makes me very sad to see Motion Capture considered to be a "shortcut". Cars had some great elements, but after all that’s said and done the story wasn't anything new (Doc Hollywood) and production only went for 3 years. Where Happy Feet had an original story and took 7 years to produce. Why did Happy Feet get that award that year? To put it bluntly, it was just a better story. I’m sorry but you can’t win them all Pixar.

    "any film that begins with live action performance and then uses digital animation to enhance or augment that performance is not eligible."

    Um... How unspecific can the academy get? Watch the making of any Pixar film and you will see that every animator had filmed themselves performing their scene at one time or another. Isn't that the very definition of a live action performance that is then enhanced by digital animation? Mocap isn’t much different, it just gives you a 3D reference instead of a 2D one. If you think that mocap simplifies things and that what they get in the take goes straight to film, you’re sorely mistaken.

    All I'm saying is I've been on both sides of the spectrum. The last film I worked on was King Kong, and I find that to be one of the best animated characters in the short history of CG. But without Andy Serkis' core performance the character wouldn't have had the same depth, AND without the heavy makeover of key frame animation, it would have looked like another live action Kong film of a guy in a gorilla suit.

    I share the academy award for the visual effects in that film. I regard it as one of my greatest achievements. It just saddens me that this new rule will handicap the possibility of draw dropping mergers of key frame and mocap creations like Kong and Gollum to be considered for this level of merit. In my opinion this is a HUGE step backwards for the animation industry.

    They need to let the story be the focal point, not the technique!

  15. Motion Capture is not animation, this new ruling is just fixing a loophole that "Happy Feet" took advantage of. But who cares, "The Best Animated Feature" is a sham category anyway. They only created it because "Beauty and the Beast" went up for best picture and a bunch of Acadimy members rallied against that happening again.

    It's clear that motion capture, like it or not, is here to stay, and will continue to be implemented as a special effects technique. You can use it to make a feature film (ie Monster House, etc) but it's a miserable way to work an gets you pour results (ie Monster House). There's far easer/faster/cheaper/better ways to make a film. So why do it?

  16. You are wrong about LOTR and Gollum. That is the perfect example of Peter Jackson insisting that Gollum's performance was EXACTLY Andy Serkis's. Not only was the motion capture used, it was never touched by an animator. And parts of the character that did need animation were meticulously rotoscoped, frame by frame. Not only was the original footage of Andy Serkis referenced, it was matched exactly. BTW- I know cause I was a supervisor on the show.

  17. Happy Feet was a much better story than Cars, yes Happy Feet did use motion capture, but the performances transformed from human to penguin, caused allot of dis figuration with the penguins, in particular their legs and required complete rebuilds in there performance so much so that its a fact that the motion capture cleanup department finished almost the same time as the animation department, and if anyone who worked on the picture (like myself) gets the following joke "more blinks!, more eye darts!" then you know what I'm on about otherwise you be the judge. seven years is a long time for a film that supposedly took "shortcuts" motion capture is messy when you are gunning for the on screen character and not the actor behind the scenes ;)