'Smurfs' animated feature DQ raises questions about vague regulations

Posted by · 6:15 pm · December 17th, 2011

The reality is that barring a massive LSD dose in the greater Los Angeles water supply, “The Smurfs” was unlikely to become one of the five animated films nominated for an Academy Award this year. However, the film”s disqualification does point to an interesting question: What does qualify as an animated film in today”s cinematic landscape?

Three of the qualifying submissions — “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Mars Needs Moms” and “Happy Feet Two” — employed performance capture technology. The method is interesting to think about when one considers that “Avatar” was submitted and nominated as a live-action film. The industry at large seems, as yet, unsure of performance-capture”s place in the grander scheme. The AMPAS rule on it feels almost deliberately vague. It states that, “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique.” That doesn’t clarify when or why it is. According to the Academy, “an animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters” performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.”

Of course a good portion of “Avatar” was live-action, so the category becomes even more complex when we look at the entries which are a hybrids of live-action and animation. The Wrap reports that “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” was approved for consideration, whereas Sony”s “The Smurfs” has been disqualified. According to AMPAS rules, in order for a hybrid film to qualify, “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.”

I”ve not seen “Chipwrecked,” but a significant number of the major characters in “The Smurfs” were indeed animated. More to the point, is this meant to say that 75% must be fully animated (in which case, I am not certain, but I do not believe “Chipwrecked” would meet the given requirement) or does it mean that an animated character should appear in 75% of the shots (in which case I would be surprised if “The Smurfs” did not). I”d have to re-watch “Avatar” (which, to clarify, was of course not submitted for animated consideration) to get a proper gauge of the percentages. I”d love for someone to do the math on all of these films.

What occurs to me is that according to those parameters, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” could well meet the criteria for an animated film. The performances are captured and then painted over frame by frame. It is simply that the goal is to create as photo real an image of a primate as possible. As such, it does not read as “animated.” The unstated distinction may well be a film’s intent to capture the nuanced performance of an actor rather than creating a performance on the drawing board (computerized or not) as is done in traditional animation.

Certainly, Andy Serkis would like the division to be based on the faithfulness of the rendering of the actor’s portrayal. Here is what the actor had to say on the matter in a recent interview with In Contention:

“At the end of the day, performance capture is a technology. It’s not anything other than that. It’s a way of recording an actor’s performance, and so if the performance is emotionally engaging and means something to an audience, then that is generated initially by the work of the actor. The enhancement of it in a film where the ownership, the authorship of the character originates from the actor, that’s significantly different than an animated movie, where the authorship of the character really belongs to a much bigger group of people.”

Notably, Serkis appears in both “Tintin” and “Apes,” so I wonder if he would take more or less authorship over either of those depictions.  As technology advances and evolves, it is fascinating to trace the Academy and audience”s response to the shifts. As mentioned, motion-capture has already spawned a notable debate in terms of performance (for the record, I support Serkis on his campaign for recognition).

As lines continue to blur, it seems as though two films using the same technology will be submitted as live-action or animation based on content rather than technique. Family films with broader character renderings are considered animated while general audience films which seek to indicate a sense of “realism” are considered live-action. That may be oversimplifying the matter; certainly there are some very significant players who consider it an affront for motion-capture to be considered animation at all. It is interesting to think about, however.

In any event, with “The Smurfs” disqualification, there are now 17 qualifying contenders, which means the category will still extend to five nominations versus last year”s three (16 is the requirement). Though as Kris indicated in his piece on the animated features field, with few true standouts (other than “Rango”) in this year”s race, the final five could be anyone”s guess.

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