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The line blurs between animated and live-action films

For decades, it was easy to tell the two media apart: There were real people in live-action movies; animated films had drawn characters or stop-motion figures. But as filmmaking technology has grown more complex, it’s not clear if a single term can encompass movies as different as the five Oscar nominees for best animated feature, the additional 15 films that qualified for the category and the visual effects in movies such as “Avatar.” An often heated debate over what is -- and isn’t -- animation rages among animators, filmmakers, critics and fans.

“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” put singing computer-generated rodents into a live-action film and was considered animation; “District 9,” which used the same techniques to create the alien “prawns,” wasn’t. Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture version of “A Christmas Carol” was submitted in the category, but “Avatar,” which used similar, if more advanced, technology wasn’t.

The rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences define an animated feature as “a motion picture with a running time of at least 70 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.” But that definition leaves a lot of unanswered questions and gray areas.

“ ‘To give life to’ -- that’s the definition of animation: You start with something inherently inanimate, and through the way you move it, you give life to computer data, an articulated puppet, a hunk of clay or a pencil line on paper,” says John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. “That’s what’s so exciting this year: You look at the animated films, both the ones that were nominated and the ones that weren’t, and there’s a fantastic variety. It’s a banner year for animation!”

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Oscar nominees

The five nominees for animated feature showcase the different ways talented animators can give life to their characters. In “The Princess and the Frog,” 197-year-old voodoo priestess Mama Odie’s movements reflect her age, her arthritic joints and her irrepressible personality. In contrast, Brandon in “The Secret of Kells” moves less fluidly, but in ways that feel appropriate for his angular, stylized design and adventurous personality.

The skeletal hands composed of needles that sew a doll of the title character in “Coraline” have a ghostly life of their own, but Wes Anderson chose a less expressive style of motion for the characters in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” In the early scenes of “Up,” Carl’s brusque movements reflect his loneliness and anger after his wife Ellie’s death; in the flashbacks of them together, his motions reflect his shyness and his delight in her company with a subtlety that sets a new standard for CG animation.

The essence of animation has always been the creation of a performance; live-action film records a performance. Sandra Bullock hugged Quinton Aaron in “The Blind Side”; the embrace between Tiana and Naveen is a series of drawings that move only when “The Princess and the Frog” is projected.

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Clear enough, but what about Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri in “Avatar”? When the actress showed Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully how to shoot a bow, sensors recorded her movements, which were transferred to a CG rig. But animators worked with that data to create nuanced, believable movements and expressions. Should that performance be considered animation?

Directors of films with motion-capture effects have tried to distance themselves from animation, which rankles many animators, who feel they haven’t received due credit for their contributions to the performances of Gollum and other characters. At the Producers Guild Awards, “Avatar” director James Cameron said, “People confuse what we have done with animation. It’s nothing like animation.” But one of the artists nominated for visual effects for “Avatar” is Richard Baneham, a well-respected animator who did both drawings of Hogarth and CG work on the title character in “The Iron Giant” before shifting into effects.

Lasseter argues that motion capture “is a high-tech version of rotoscoping, which has been around a long time.” Invented around 1915 by Max and Dave Fleischer, the rotoscope enables animators to trace live-action footage frame by frame, either to match their drawings to the footage or to copy it.

Bakshi’s rotoscoped ‘Rings’

In 1978, Ralph Bakshi told The Times he rotoscoped his entire film of “The Lord of the Rings” “to get the total realistic motion that animation has never gotten before.” But the results looked weightless, awkward and far less convincing than good freehand animation. The film elicits snickers when it screens today. Regardless of the technology, copying live action literally produces stilted, unconvincing movements on the screen, until artists “massage the data” to enhance the performance.

“Pure motion capture is essentially another form of puppetry, and we don’t consider puppetry, which involves real-time manipulation, to be animation,” explains Bill Kroyer, an animation director at the Rhythm and Hues effects studio. “We’ve always defined animation as frame-by-frame filmmaking, which means the artist has the ability to go in and manipulate the action frame by frame.

“It gets tricky because it’s all hybrid now, especially motion capture,” he continues. “You’re starting with a real-time file, but in almost every film, the motion capture has been adjusted frame by frame. Even in ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘Beowulf,’ they couldn’t capture eyes and mouths; those had to be animated.”

Some filmmakers have begun using motion capture for animated films, further blurring the distinctions: Tap dancer Savion Glover performed the musical numbers for Mumble the penguin in “Happy Feet” (2006), and the kids’ movements in “Monster House” (2006) were based on motion capture data.

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“Maybe ‘animation’ is becoming a redundant term,” says Nick Park, the Oscar-winning “Wallace & Gromit” director. “They used to define it as anything that wasn’t live action, but now the two are kind of merging. It can be difficult to tell what’s animation, but the only time that really becomes a problem is when you have to figure out which category to enter for awards.”

calendar@latimes.com


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