After losing an Oscar, Walt Disney once remarked, “Disney has never actually been part of Hollywood ... I think they refer to us as being in the cornfield in Burbank.”
Consider this the year Hollywood invaded the animation cornfield. The animated feature Oscar field is crowded with traditionally live-action Hollywood filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (“The Adventures of Tintin”), Gore Verbinski (“Rango”), George Miller (“Happy Feet Two”) and Guillermo del Toro (executive producer of “Puss in Boots” and “Kung Fu Panda 2"). At the same time, two high-profile filmmakers from Pixar Animation Studios are now directing big-budget live action films: Brad Bird (“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol”) and Andrew Stanton (“John Carter”).
It’s no coincidence that more filmmakers are moving between the genres of animation and live action: Once rigidly distinct art forms, the two have become more and more alike. Live-action movies rely increasingly on digital effects, often created using the same techniques as those in computer-generated animation films. Meanwhile, animated films are depending more on motion capture, a filmmaking method in which the performances of human actors are used to animate digital character models.
There are financial reasons too for the genre migration, according to Bill Damaschke, co-president of production at DreamWorks Animation, where Del Toro serves as a creative consultant and where “The Squid and the Whale” director Noah Baumbach is currently writing the animated “Madagascar 3.”
“Every year there are three to five animated films in the top 10" at the box office, said Damaschke. “Live action is a business that’s contracted a bit. Fewer films get made, and many of them are branded properties. Working in animation, a medium that’s breaking boundaries technology-wise, doing incredibly high-quality work for a wide audience is very attractive for the live-action filmmakers I’ve spoken to. The attention to story and detail, the control, being able to finesse and direct every aspect in such a slow and thoughtful process is something many of them have come to love.”
“The Adventures of Tintin,” which Spielberg directed and Jackson produced, is stretching the very definition of animation. The story of a boy adventurer created by the Belgian artist Hergé, “Tintin” makes the leap to the big screen via motion capture, with Jamie Bell as Tintin and Andy Serkis as his sidekick Capt. Haddock. Snowy, Tintin’s canine companion, is a wholly animated character.
The tools Spielberg used to make Tintin are in many cases identical to ones James Cameron relied on for “Avatar,” a movie treated by critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as live action.
“We used the same technology for both. The difference is the director’s intention,” said Jamie Beard, animation supervisor at Weta Digital, Jackson’s visual effects house, which worked on “Tintin” and “Avatar.” “Jim [Cameron] wanted a real world for Pandora. He wanted it to feel real. With ‘Tintin,’ we wanted to bring the world of Hergé, we wanted it to be unto itself. You wouldn’t walk into Hergé's world. It was a mind shift.”
In both cases, animators and visual effects artists did pivotal work placing those human performances in fantastical worlds, a factor crucial for the academy to consider a film animated. Academy rules added in 2010 stipulate that “motion capture by itself is not an animation 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.”
In many ways, motion capture is the latest iteration of the constantly evolving art form of animation, according to “Happy Feet Two” director Miller. “Happy Feet,” which Miller also directed, used motion-capture footage of dancers, such as Savion Glover, to help create the film’s key effect: its dancing penguins. That film won the animated feature Oscar for 2006.
“In the old days, every raindrop was animated in ‘Bambi,’ every bit of water that ripples across a pool was animated,” Miller said. “But now that’s done as a simulation based on some algorithm. Motion capture … is yet another tool. As the filmmaking advances, the tools are used in better and better ways.”
In motion capture, once an actor’s movement is recorded, animators and visual effects artists begin their digital artistry on the image — turning a human dancer into a penguin, or an actor like Bell into a stylized character like Tintin.
“Happy Feet Two” is 94% animated, Miller said, with the rest of the film relying on motion capture and live-action filmmaking. As with the first film, the motion capture was used selectively, just for the scenes of penguins dancing.
“To be a great dancer, to be a Savion Glover, you’re born with an innate gift, and you’re dancing from the moment you’re on your feet,” Miller said, explaining why he used the technique. “An animator sitting at a desk drawing is a lifetime skill as well. To have those two skills combined [in one person] is unlikely. And to have that in many people — which you need for scenes with lots of characters — is even more unlikely.”
The rapidly changing technology creates a dilemma come award season, however. Is that kind of on-screen magic the work of an actor or an animator? Is it a visual effect, which should be honored by the visual effects branch? What about the sweeping cinematography in this year’s animated films — should it be considered by the cinematographer’s branch?
Consider the opening sequence in “Cars 2,” a James Bond-esque action sequence that takes place on the open sea. The technique used to create the digital waves helped earn a visual effects nomination for the 2000 live-action film “The Perfect Storm.”
“Because of motion capture and CG animation, there’s a whole lot of new stuff in terms of how we make these films,” said Jim Morris, general manager and executive vice president of production at Pixar. “Some of it gets down to how you want to define it and how you want to recognize it. But it brings up a lot of questions. The beautiful camera work that Steven Spielberg does in ‘Tintin’ or Gore Verbinski does in ‘Rango,’ that stuff hasn’t been traditionally recognized by the cinematography branch. None of it’s been recognized much by the production design branch. There is as much artistry in the cinematography and the production design of those movies as there is in any live-action film. We’re confronted with changing times and changing technologies, and it always takes time for people to recognize that and honor it.”