A Little Goes a Long Way
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 11 (November 2002)

A Little Goes a Long Way

It was inevitable, but it's a surprise to see it happen so soon.

This year, the first year after deciding to award an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be asked to determine whether a hybrid film with digital characters working alongside live-action actors qualifies as an animated feature. That film, which will be among those meeting the November 1 deadline for consideration, is Stuart Little 2.

"There are two thresholds for us to cross," says director Rob Minkoff. "It will be interesting to see what happens." (To be considered for a nomination, the film must be approved first by the Executive Committee of the Academy's Short Film and Feature Animation Branch and then by the Academy's Board of Governors.)

If Stuart makes the qualifying list, it will be a breakthrough: It will mark the first time animated characters in an otherwise largely live-action film will be honored as animations rather than as visual effects—and the animators who performed the characters will be honored, by extension, as well.

When I've told people in the industry that Sony is entering Stuart, I've heard a few negative reactions such as: "It doesn't fit on the list with the rest of the animated films." "No way. Stuart Little 2 is a visual effects film, not an animated film." And indeed, Stuart Little the first was nominated for a visual effects Oscar in 2000 along with The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. But that year there was no Animation Oscar. Now that there is, there's no reason for the second Stuart not to be considered. And there are several reasons why it should.

Let's start with the criteria: "Rule Seven" in the "Special Rules for the Best Animated Film Award" for the 75th Academy Awards states: "An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture of at least 70 minutes in running time with a significant number of the major characters animated, and in which animation figures in no less than 75 percent of the picture's running time."

Stuart Little 2's title character, a mouse, is a fully digital, animated character, as are the characters Margolo (a canary) and the Falcon. The faces of the cats (Snowball and Monty) are animated as well. Thus, Stuart meets the "major characters" criterion. And with digital characters appearing in most shots in the film, it meets the "75 percent" criterion. So it qualifies, as will Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit, Spirited Away, Treasure Planet, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, and probably most of the other films that will be entered. But does it belong? Meeting the letter of the law may not be enough. Films entered in the category do not get an automatic berth on the potential nominees list. As they consider whether to include Stuart Little 2, members of the branch's Executive Committee and the Academy Board of Governors will be aware they're setting a precedent. Do animated characters in a live-action world belong in the same genre as animated characters living in animated worlds? Always? Never? Sometimes?

"I think there will be some confusion in some peoples' minds," says film buff Leonard Maltin, who reviews films on Entertainment Tonight and hosts the syndicated TV show Hot Ticket. "This will be an ongoing debate for many years because we'll see more films with a combination of live action and animation."

When it comes to Stuart Little 2, though, Maltin, who wrote a history of animation titled Of Mice and Magic, has no doubt that it should be on the Animated Feature list. "It's an animated film, a spectacularly well-animated film with terrific character animation," he says. "The human characters are secondary."

Eric Armstrong, director of animation at Sony Pictures ImageWorks (Culver City, CA) for Stuart Little 2, drives that point home: "I've heard people say that whenever you put characters into a live-action environment, the action is driving the shot, but that's ludicrous. The digital characters [in Stuart Little 2] are driving the shot."

In fact, the film's pre-production planning mimicked that of an animated film rather than a live-action film. "We brought in all the actors, even those who were going to appear on camera, and had them do a version of dialog from the movie so we could cut it together," says Minkoff, who directed the first Stuart and also Disney's The Lion King. "We storyboarded the whole movie."

Ironically, though, the reason the characters in Stuart Little 2 are so successful in the film could work against them as they're considered for the Animation Oscar: The digital characters in Stuart aren't cartoons. They have to be convincing in close-up, emotional scenes with real actors. Animating characters that need to fit in photoreal scenes requires a different style of animation than for characters populating all-animated worlds. For example, animators performing photoreal characters cannot use such common animation techniques as squash and stretch and exaggerations. But it's still animation.

"Animation in live-action films has been, quite frankly, looked down upon by the mainstream animation industry," says Armstrong. "But computer animation was once thought of as not real animation by traditional animators. Now I see snobbery if a film is not fully animated. I think people tend to legitimize their part of the industry."

In the early days of animation, few people questioned whether hybrids such as Max Fleisher's 1916 film Koko the Clown, which featured an animated clown in a live-action background, were animations or not—the genre was too new to have definitions that limited its expression. Finally, after decades of "traditionally" animated features, the medium is again filled with hybrids. All the better.

Now we have to wait and see whether the Academy will agree.

Barbara Robertsonis a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and a freelance journalist specializing in computer graphics, visual effects, and animation. She can be reached at: BarbaraRR@attbi.com.