Soft cels: How the Academy’s animation rules fight the progress of the art form

Soft cels: How the Academy’s animation rules fight the progress of the art form

Earlier this week, the Indiewire blog Press Play posted the first of four video essays arguing for an Academy Award for “collaborative performance,” using Andy Serkis as an example. There’s no question that Serkis is the nexus of a revolution in filmmaking, as the live-action model on which digitized characters ranging from Lord Of The Rings’ Gollum to Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ Caesar to The Adventures Of Tintin’s Captain Haddock. The Oscars, like any awards show, aren’t configured to recognize collaboration, but there’s a thornier issue with recognizing the work of Serkis and others like him. Actors make up more than a sixth of the Academy’s 6,000 voters, and they’re not likely to smile upon a method that renders them obsolete, or at least easily replaceable. Serkis’ work is invisible by nature, and it’s perfectly conceivable that, had he demanded too much money for making The Hobbit, another actor could have been fitted with Gollum’s digital wetsuit and viewers would be none the wiser.

The Oscars are, at root, awards given by an industry to itself, which means their first concern is looking out for number one. Technical awards, like those for visual effects, go to the biggest and showiest films—which, not incidentally, employ the largest number of technicians—rather than the transcendent visions of The Tree Of Life. No category exemplifies the Academy’s closed-shop mentality more than the award for Best Animated Feature. In 11 years, only six nominations have gone to films not produced or distributed by a major American studio, and that’s counting Persepolis and The Illusionist, both released by Sony’s art-house subsidiary. In eight of those years, the Academy could only muster support for the minimum three nominees, although it still found room for barrel-scrapings like Treasure Planet and Surf’s Up

Rather than embracing the technologies that have made low-budget animated features possible, the Academy’s animation branch has closed ranks, excluding movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which use a technique called interpolated rotoscoping to stretch an animated skin across the faces of recognizable actors, as well as, with a few exceptions, motion capture-driven works like this year’s The Adventures of Tintin. In 2010, the Academy explicitly stated that “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique,” which, while not ruling out films that use the process, establishes a firm bias in favor of frame-by-frame construction. The Academy sent Tintin’s Steven Spielberg, as well as the filmmakers behind Mars Needs Moms and Happy Feet 2, a letter asking them to clarify their “intent” in using motion capture, effectively asking them to pinky swear that they weren’t trying to steal jobs from “real” animators. In the end, the issue was rendered moot by the fact that none of the films were nominated.

This year’s group of nominees is unique in that fully two of the five come from outside of Hollywood: A Cat In Paris and Chico & Rita, both distributed by GKIDS, which also scored a nomination in 2010 with The Secret Of Kells. Despite the fact that every pundit considers Gore Verbinski’s Rango the odds-on favorite to win, their presence alongside Kung Fu Panda 2 is a heartening sign that the Academy’s taste may be broadening, even if it took Pixar laying a tow-truck-sized egg with Cars 2 to open the door.

Produced, unlike their American cousins, via the traditional hand-drawn technique, A Cat In Paris and Chico & Rita are vividly individual works, each frame as idiosyncratic as an artist’s line. A Cat in Paris—which, at 63 minutes, would have been ineligible had the Academy not recently lowered the minimum length to 40 minutes from 70—is the darkly whimsical tale of a roaming housecat and a sneaky cat burglar who run afoul of a widowed police detective and a gang of murderous thieves. (The French title is Une Vie De Chat, or “a cat’s life,” which could apply to feline and second-story man alike.) Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Cubist images have the quality of a deliberate throwback, giving the film the feel of a storybook page come to life.

Chico & Rita, by contrast, is all curves, from the sinuous line of its heroine’s hips to the fluid grace of a jazz melody. With its sex, nudity, and murder, it’s the most overtly “adult” of the animated nominees—the most frankly sensual movie in any category, in fact—and the most unabashedly sentimental, framed by an elderly Cuban musician’s reflections on his life and love. (Those hoping for a longshot victory take note: Chico & Rita echoes presumptive Best Picture winner The Artist in its story about a neglected pioneer redeemed by late-game recognition.)

Even if Rango does win as predicted, you can still chalk up a victory for idiosyncratic animation. Directed by Gore Verbinski, who, like Chico & Rita’s co-directors Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, comes from outside of the animation industry, Rango is stuffed with in-jokes and offhand references that will sail past younger viewers, and even many older ones. As he’s skittering across a sun-baked highway, the titular chameleon is almost squashed by a hurtling Cadillac Eldorado driven by Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas’s Raoul Duke, voiced, like Rango himself, by Johnny Depp. The climactic appearance by a Clint Eastwood doppelganger is hard to miss, but even sharp-eyed viewers might overlook the presence of a seedy, yellow-eyed rabbit whose presence pays homage to the spaghetti Western career of Klaus Kinski.

In constantly attempting to define what is and isn’t an animated film, the Academy has put itself on the wrong side of history, trying to prop up an industrial art form rather than accepting the ways technology allows filmmakers with smaller budgets, and fewer employees, to work in the medium. Motion-capture performances like Serkis’ already blur the line between live-action and animation, and as the two forms converge, the discussion will shift, as it ought to, from what methods were used to how well they were used, judging artistry rather than technique. This year’s nominees show a welcome embrace of varied tones and subject matter, as well as languages other than English, but the attempt to buttress walls that will inevitably come down risks rendering the accolade irrelevant.

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