Before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences would consider offering a Best Animated Feature category, eight submitted films had to qualify. In 2001, nine did. Next month, the Academy will award the first competitive Oscar to an animated feature.
If Shrek and Monsters, Inc. are nominated as expected, that competition should produce no end of fireworks as DreamWorks and Disney battle for the honor. Lost in that spectacle might be the news that of the nine qualified entries, four were created with 3D computer graphics: Shrek, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Monsters, Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, (see April, July, October 2001, January 2002).
Indeed, it would have been impossible to create Shrek, Monsters, Inc., or Jimmy Neutron without 3D computer graphics. Final Fantasy could theoretically have been filmed with real actors rather than animated digital actors, but a live action film would not have represented director Hironobu Sakaguchi's vision or preferred method of working (and of course, wouldn't qualify as an animation). Thus, one could easily argue that without 3D computer graphics there would not be an Animation Oscar this March.
One could further argue that the advent of 3D computer graphics, combined with the critical and box office success of Disney/Pixar's pioneering feature film Toy Story, has revitalized animation. 2001 saw Dreamworks/PDI's Shrek become a box office behemoth as did Monsters Inc., the fourth straight
In fact, only two of the nine films, Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu and The Trumpet of the Swan, are traditional cel animations. The Prince of Light combines Japanese anime with classical Indian painting. Osmosis Jones used Cambridge Systems' Animo to combine cel animation with live action, and artists/animators used proprietary rotoscoping software to translate live-action video into animation for Waking Life (see "Life Lines," pg. 12).
Interestingly, now that the Academy has finally recognized animation as a category worthy of recognition, it's becoming increasingly difficult to define exactly what qualifies as an animated film. The increasing use of animation in visual effects, the increasing use of visual effects in live action films, and the increasing use of live action in animated films makes it increasingly difficult to draw a distinction between live action and animation.
The rule for the Animation Oscar is that 75 percent of the film and a significant number of the major characters must have been created with animation, which allowed Osmosis Jones to qualify even though it included live action elements. Would Cats & Dogs have qualified as well?
It's common these days for "live action" sequences to be created entirely with computer graphics. Using the 75 percent rule, a "live action" film largely composed by an effects studio using "invisible," photorealistic CG effects, digital characters and digital doubles could qualify as an animation even though the film was intended to look as if it were filmed with a camera. And then there's the other side of the coin: Bob Sabiston, art director for Waking Life, was nominated by the American Film Institute as digital effects artist of the year, competing with the visual effects supervisors for three live action films: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. (Lord of the Rings won.)
I think the confusion will get worse. But, for people who use computer graphics to create animations and visual effects, this confusion is a thing worth celebrating. The lack of clear definition means creativity is very alive. Artists are creating new animation styles-new genres-and we will see stories unfold in delicious new ways.
Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast, for Computer Graphics World.