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New Oscar Category Will Change Animation

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Finally.

One Sunday evening in March 2002, a mere 64 years after Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with a special Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--advising him, “Don’t be nervous, Mr. Disney"--the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will give its first award ever for best animated feature. Or at least it might.

The new award, the first to be added since the makeup category in 1981, comes after more than a decade of lobbying and debating within the academy. And a caveat: There would have to be at least eight feature animated films released during the year (starting in 2001) for the award to be given. If eight to 15 feature animated films are released, a maximum of three films can be nominated; if 16 or more are released, five films are eligible.

Announcement of the award last month lifted spirits in the animation industry, which has suffered through some setbacks during the past year, including the failure of “Titan A.E.” and the closing of Fox’s animation unit. But it also raises concerns that could fuel controversies and all-out competition in the future.

Many animators welcomed the announcement of the new Oscar category, seeing it as a reflection of the growing acceptance of animation as a valid form of filmmaking. One animator sent out a mass e-mail proclaiming, “No more unloved, red-haired stepchild status for us!”

Although animated features often have ranked among the most successful and best reviewed films of recent years, they have been scandalously underrepresented in the major Oscar categories: “Beauty and the Beast” remains the only animated feature to be nominated for best picture. Animated films generally have been relegated to the original song and score categories.

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“People in the animation community are very excited that the academy has chosen to recognize our achievements,” says Tom Sito, president of the Hollywood Animator’s Union. “Animated features consistently occupy a sizable portion of the lists of the greatest films and the most successful videos of all time, yet they’ve never received regular recognition by the academy. We’re looking forward to the challenge and excitement of the competition.”

But some artists complain that the new award will only serve to continue the ghettoization of animation, which has long been a sore point within the industry. Both Walt Disney Studios President Peter Schneider and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg frequently have expressed a desire to see animation accepted as part of mainstream filmmaking.

Films nominated for best animated feature would still be eligible for other major awards, including best picture, but people within the animation community discount that possibility.

To be eligible, a film must be at least 70 minutes and be “primarily animated.” (At least eight animated features will be released in 2000, but the award category begins with films released in 2001.) But in recent years, the extensive use of computer animation for special effects has blurred the line separating animation and live-action--and spawned a debate over which films qualify as “primarily animated.”

“Stuart Little” has been at the center of this debate, and a minor controversy erupted a few weeks ago when it was nominated for several of the Annie Awards given by ASIFA/Hollywood, the local chapter of the international animated film society. For most people, “Stuart Little” belongs in the live-action category because it featured live-action sets, props and actors. The counter-argument is that because the main character was a computer-animated figure, it should be considered an animated feature.

If “Stuart Little” can be considered an animated film, what about “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” which had effects, characters and entire sequences done in computer animation? Audiences regarded Jar-Jar Binks as an annoyance, but no one denied he was animated. Some animators maintain that “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” should be counted as animated features as well. As one artist noted: “Did anyone go to ‘Jurassic Park’ to see Laura Dern and Richard Attenborough? No, they went to see dinosaurs come to life, which could only be done through animation.”

But “Jurassic Park” also used life-sized props, actors in dinosaur suits, miniatures and animatronic figures; would a director have to submit a list of scenes that were animated and their times to qualify? Disney’s “Dinosaur” used live-action background plates--would that affect its status as an animated feature? Even more vexing is how to classify live-action/animation combinations such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Space Jam.”

The introduction of the new award could change the way studios market animated films--and also raise the competitive stakes for the studios releasing them.

If the award were to be given this year, would DreamWorks and Disney be slugging it out in campaigns for “Chicken Run” vs. “Dinosaur” (or “The Emperor’s New Groove,” slated for the holiday season), as DreamWorks and Miramax did in 1998 for “Saving Private Ryan” and “Shakespeare in Love”? Studios already spend millions of dollars in increasingly aggressive Oscar campaigns for live-action films--and it’s likely the same tactics will apply to animation as well.

Merchandising and product tie-ins are already a very important ancillary business tied to animation: “The Lion King” accounted for an estimated $1 billion in product sales, far more than the movie made in its feature release. Winning an Oscar--or even an Oscar nomination--could be a valuable marketing tool, especially considering how animated films tend to stay in theaters long after their initial release and that new ways of selling the film are needed.

An Oscar nomination might have helped a film such as last year’s critically praised but financially unsuccessful “Iron Giant.” Warner Bros.’ ineffectual promotional campaigns have been blamed for the failures of “Iron Giant,” but one can’t help but think that the chance for an Academy Award might have pushed the studio to publicize the film more effectively; a nomination might have also brought in new audiences.

It’s a bit early to start handicapping the 2001 race, but some possible candidates for the first-ever feature animation award include:

* Disney’s action-adventure “Atlantis,” billed as having fewer songs and more explosions, from Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, the directors of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

* “Monsters, Inc.” from Pixar.

* Warner Bros.’ “Osmosis Jones,” a spoof of noir detective films set inside the human body, with gross-out gags from the Farrelly Brothers.

* DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” a computer-animated fantasy based on a book by New Yorker cartoonist William Steig.

* Possibly also from DreamWorks in 2001 will be “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron,” a drawn feature about wild horses.

One thing seems fairly certain: There will be more than eight animated features in 2001 so the category should be eligible. So, animators, don’t be nervous. Your time in the Oscar spotlight is about to come.


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