Animation Articles 02-2020

A selection of the best animation news, opinions, and features from around the world for the week ending January 11th, 2020.

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Why Coco’s Award Dominance Is A Problem For the Industry

Pixar’s latest film Coco is being endowed with so many awards, they have their own Wikipedia page dedicated to tracking them all. It’s not all good news though. The film’s dominance highlights a concern that the industry is disconnecting from audiences in a potentially damaging way.

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Why I’m Skipping Awards Season This Year

It’s that fabled time of the year, when the entertainment industry gets itself into a tizzy about shiny objects handed out to people for their efforts over the past year. It’s an exciting period to be sure, and the rumour mill is rife with who will win what, and who got snubbed this time, etc. etc. For all the season’s entertainment value on its own though, I’m giving awards season a miss this year, and the reasons aren’t as straightforward as you might expect.

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How The Academy Awards Screws Animation

So by now the winners have been announced and everyone’s done patting themselves on the back for another year. However, our coverage today has nothing to do with last night’s Academy Awards ceremony or even the winners and losers, rather it takes a look at how animation gets screwed by the Academy and those it has deals with. It isn’t pretty, but it’s the truth that will have to change before the technique is accepted with the respect that it deserves.

The Distributor

The first area where animation gets shafted is in the best shorts category. These impressive films usually receive (as part of their nomination) inclusion in a program that is offered to cinemas across the country around the time of the award’s ceremony. The traditional reason for this is natural enough; most cinemas won’t run the shorts individually so they are compiled and offered as a complete program that can be easily marketed and sold. That’s a fair enough deal and it offers the short’s creators the opportunity to get their films in front of the populace instead of just Academy voters and critics.

Such a fine proposition has existed for a number of years but this time around, something different occurred; all the shorts were made available online, and for free! The upshot was that many people took the opportunity to view the shorts. Paperman alone was viewed at least tens of thousands of times if not many more. The other shorts had similarly impressive numbers. Discussion was rampant online and off, as many fans and critics alike grasped the chance to see the films in a convenient manner.

All that changed on February 14th as a letter from Carter Pilcher of Shorts International was sent to the five respective nominees requesting that they remove the shorts from their official hosts. The letter itself is confusing as it initially states the obvious but falls back on that to ponder why the films were put online at all, since “Academy voters have other and better means of viewing the films.”

To cut through all the bullshit, what the entire fiasco amounts to is the Academy’s anointed distributor reacting to claims by its customers that their attendance is down because the shorts are available online. Business is business, but the people ultimately being sold for thirty pieces of silver are the animators themselves:

“Unlike Webbies or Ani’s, the Academy Award is designed to award excellence in the making of motion pictures that receive a cinematic release, not an online release,” Pilcher wrote. “This release of the films on the Internet threatens to destroy 8 years of audience growth and the notion that these film gems are indeed movies — no feature length film would consider a free online release as a marketing tool!”

No offence sir, but fuck you. Insinuating that animated shorts are even potentially below that of features is a smack in the face to those who create them. Shorts tell stories just as profound as features and attempting to justify their presence online as demeaning to them comes off as a rather desperate ploy.

Now all this isn’t to say that the cinema’s don’t have a legitimate claim, they very well might, but that is their problem for them to deal with. Trying to squeeze the distributor to get to the animators is a selfish act that is the cowards way of fixing things. People don’t go to cinemas just because they’re showing something, they go because it’s a social event and happens to have a 30-foot screen and other unique things that people don’t have in their own home. If you can’t offer something to compete with the shorts being on the internet, perhaps you need to look at what you’re doing wrong instead of trying to pin the blame on someone else.

The ultimate result of the shorts disappearing from the internet is that plenty of people who would have seen the shorts now cannot (we’re talking those living in the middle of nowhere and foreign countries, etc.) This castration of audience size stuffs animated shorts back into the realm of obscurity, and for what? So cinemas, the distributor and the Academy can put a few more pennies in their pockets while animators and their films get walked over at the one time of the year when they can benefit from all the publicity.

The Voting (and Voters)

As if animated films weren’t already getting screwed in some way by this years awards, along comes The Hollywood Reporter with an article that looks at how one voter casts his ballot as well as his thoughts as he does so. Under the title of An Oscar Voter’s Brutally Honest Ballot, we get an inside look at what happens when votes are cast. Most of the article is interesting enough, but as you would expect, the animated categories are where things start to heat up.

Take for starters the animated short category:

BEST SHORT (ANIMATED)

[Had not seen any of the films, but had heard good things about Paperman so he voted for it.]

Vote: Paperman

And that, is pretty much how a lot of other voters picked their choices as well. The audacity of it all is that this guy had not seen any of the short documentaries either but abstained from that category entirely as he had heard nothing about any of the nominees. Eh? Just because you heard good things about one of the nominated films, you decide to vote for that one? Not exactly fair now is it. This act immediately excludes all other contenders because Disney, as ever, is making a lot of noise about its films and ultimately has a good bit of clout to boot. Once again, animated shorts are screwed.

Now how about those animated features:

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

“It’s a tough category because everything is mediocre. I’m definitely not voting for The Pirates. I’m not voting for Frankenweenie. Brave was unimpressive. So I guess it’s between ParaNorman and Wreck-It Ralph. So… ” [At this time, he assigned the screen-side of his iPhone to the former and the back-side of it to the latter, and spun it on his desk.]

Vote: Wreck-It Ralph

Now fair enough, the animated feature field is a bit average this year, but that does not excuse such behaviour. Perhaps we can telepathically read his thoughts on each of the nominees:

  • The Pirates – “not a hometown production, didn’t gain from its nomination or will gain from a win. No vote”
  • Frankenweenie – “Tim Burton? Yuck! Ugly dog + the undead = shite. No vote”
  • Brave – “Just another princess movie the same as the others that I’ll never vote for, even if it is by Pixar. No vote”
  • ParaNorman and Wreck-It-Ralph – “Fuck it, I’m bored just talking about these films. Let’s just pick one and get on with it”

It’s tempting to think that the guy simply has no interest in animation, which may very well be the case, but the problem is that if he’s not taking the animated categories seriously, then who really is? Judging by the winners year after year, it pretty clear that most voters simply pick the one that is the best/most well known.

A few years ago, The Secret of Kells managed to sneak in and during the nominee announcements, we had George Clooney proclaim for all and sundry that nobody had even heard of it. While such a gesture was surely symptomatic of how Kells won the nomination in the first place, it nonetheless revealed the truth that even serious actors didn’t see the animated feature category as something that rewards the best rather than the most obvious.

This voter’s decision making isn’t the worst part though, for the article reveals that the best picture nomination is by preference. In other words, you pick a favourite, second favourite, etc. Anyone familiar with such preferential voting systems knows that they tend to benefit the smaller players, as they can gain from picking up second preferences once the lowest nominees get eliminated.

How does that screw animation? Well the best animated feature category is a straight vote. No preferences. The result is that films win based on totals rather than averages, so even though Brave may have been everyone’s first choice, ParaNorman may have ranked higher among voters overall.

This placement of animated features on a secondary voting system provides even more proof that the Academy views animated features as a category to appease certain players in the industry [coughDisneycough] rather than a serious attempt to convey any sort of cultural approval as they so often claim the awards are.

Conclusion

Both of these practices should prove beyond any doubt that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not, and probably will not see animated as an equal. Their eponymous awards are sold as something that conveys honours on the best of the best, but they are really nothing of the sort. Why, as an animator (independent or otherwise) would you throw money and time at them in the hope of a payoff is beyond me. Until things improve, save your money and accommodate your fans; they’re the ones who feed you after all.

Obligatory Academy Awards Post

Yours truly with an Academy Award. I was outshone by the woman who showed up wearing a full gown.
Yours truly with an Academy Award. I was outshone by the woman who showed up wearing a full gown.

So yes, tonight is the Academy Awards; Hollywood back-slapping, back-scratching, self-congratulating etc. etc yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah. Basically a media event designed and marketed to cater to the manufactured ‘glamour’ that the large studios pretend still exists more than 50 years after it actually has. The luster has long faded, at least for me, but I will watch tonight because it provides ample amusement for the evening.

Naturally, you are all wondering what my choices are. Well, in the tradition of that university professor who so graciously awarded his students two grades (the one they earned and the one they deserved), my predictions for the animated categories will be similarly split, between the real winner, the bookies winner and my personal preference; with justifications for each.

Don’t forget to check out tomorrow’s post too. Not for the results, oh no, you can find those instantly. Instead, I will discuss two ways how the Academy screws over animation. And I promise that it won’t be pretty.

The Choices

Best Animated Feature

Here you go:

The real winner: Brave – There is no way the Academy will give the award to a movie about video games. Suck it up Gen Yers. Tim Burton is too weird, and the rest lacked the marketing budget and the future potential to sway Hollywood kingmakers.
The bookies favourite: Brave (11/10 from Paddy Power) – Same as above.
Personal favourite: ParaNorman is the best of a relatively mediocre bunch. Although not perfect, it is at least honest and makes an attempt (however small) to move the game on a bit.

Best Animated Short

Here they are:

The real winner: Paperman – Disney, clinical, love; the trifecta for voters. A flawed short that had millions thrown at it and the Disney machine in full force. Too much for voters to ignore.
The bookies favourite: Paperman (2/7 from Willian Hill) – See above.
Personal favourite: I have not seen all the shorts, but Fresh Guacamole by PES is the quintessential short film. A complete story told in a few minutes with lots of ingenuity and heart.

When Chris Rock Pissed Off Some Real Voice Actors

So you may have seen Chris Rock present the Best Animated Feature at last week’s Academy Awards (I did not, sleep was more important to me at that stage of the day), and you may have noticed that he apparently loves doing voice work in animation. If you didn’t see it, the clip is here, but before you click, please take a moment to admire the idiocy of the Academy for putting it online but disabling embedding.

What I’m sure Chris meant by all of this was to slag off the live-action folks who go into animation thinking that it’s an easy gig. We’ve all seen it before, where in the “making of” you hear said actor gush about how they can show up to work in jeans or shorts or hotpants or whatever. The only problem is that Rock comes off as a bit self-congratulatory when he mentions he earns a million dollars.

What you may not have seen or heard was the aftermath of his speech, which took place over on twitter in the days following the awards, when respected voice-actor Maurice LaMarche had this to say:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174532519457329154″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174732544145764352″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174752694488154112″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174834448792158208″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/MAURICELAMARCHE/status/174839487661228033″]

So Maurice was pretty pissed, but how about Tara Strong? She decided to take the humorous route instead:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173979076258832386″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173989067535564800″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/173992141775839232″]

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/tarastrong/status/174003560881725440″]

Wired’s Geekdad on Mo-Cap

The article may be a week old, but I can’t help writing about it.

It’s a regrettably misguided article that makes a few presumptions about animation and motion-capture while simultaneously rounding on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for failing to see technological advancements when it’s staring them in the face.

Let’s start with this paragraph:

Ever since the Lord of the Rings films, it seems the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t quite know what to do with this technology, which translates an actor’s movements into the digital realm. Is it animation? Special effects? Trickery? Do performances have to be “live” to qualify as acting? And what exactly defines animation?

Well, let’s see, performance is generally defined as including much more than just movement. It is the expression, tone of voice, the setting. All of it goes into a performance, whether it is live-action or animated.

What mo-cap purposes to do is take live actions and transfer them into a “virtual” space where they can be dressed in layers of clothing, settings and yes, movement.

The article continues:

I’d argue that most voters in the animation category probably find something intrinsically fake or cheap about motion-capture-generated cartoons, that they’re a shortcut compared to old-school, animate-each-frame-of-movement cartoons.

Well, yes, they are! Traditional animation depends on the animator to create movement. Now you could argue that rotoscoping is no different. And you would be right, except that even rotoscoping was done frame by frame. Mo-cap is not; the entire performance is transferred intact to the virtual space.

Lastly, we get to the final paragraph:

The only question is, when the Oscar is someday awarded for a motion-capture performance — and some day, it will be — does the actor accept the award solo? Or, accompanying him or her onstage, should there also be the team of animators, artists and technicians who made the entire performance possible?

Let’s put it in simple terms. The Academy does not recognise animation as it currently exists as being “acting”. That just isn’t the way it is. And as for having any animators up on stage? Forget it. The only way for an animator to get on stage at the Oscars is to do a short film.

That is where the whole idea of including mo-cap falls short. The Oscars (and awards in general) are all about individuals. Individual actors, directors, technicians, etc. Yes, they all worked as part of a team and they had a multitude of people supporting them, but in the end, they had a degree of responsibility that enabled them to take the credit.

You simply cannot assume that an actor using mo-cap is any more deserving of the performance than the entire team that worked with them. On the other hand, animators can be more deserving because they can assume the degree of responsibility necessary to take credit.

Mo-cap as a technology is fascinating, but to infer that it is deserving of inclusion into an existing category or even a category of its own is a false belief. Until mo-cap can be distilled into a single talent, it is likely to remain on the fringes of performance recognition.

Preamble: Today’s Oscar Nominations

Later on today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars.

I don’t particularly want to comment on proceedings until they occur, so I won’t. I’ll post an update later this afternoon.

UPDATE: And the nominations are in!

Toy Story 3 did get the anitcipated Best Feature nomination, but it also received a spot in the Best Animated Feature category, much the same way Up did last year. I doubt we will see history being made on February 27th however.

Also nice to see The Illusionist get a nod although it faces stif competition from Now To Train Your Dragon and the afforementioned Pixar juggernaut. Again, there was no good reason for having a three-spot shortlist when it could have been so easy to find just two more animated films that are worthy. Cartoon Brew has a good summary of all the aniamation-related nominations.

In the short film section, it’s disappointing to see that Bill Plympton will have to wait another year for a crack at the golden statuette. At this point, it would seem that Day and Night is leading the race for that category.

So, overall, it’s the usual suspects once again, in both animation and live-action. There’s no real surprises and the best films are excluded in both the general and technical categories. Perhaps I ought to make like that one guy and hold my own alternative awards show the night before, where I announce my winners.

The 2011 Academy Awards Animated For Your Consideration Ads: Part 2

Via: Animation Magazine (click through for their full Awards page)

This is the second part of my look at the annual slew of advertisements asking for consideration for films at award time. You can read the first part here.

The Illusionist

Another film that I have yet to see (although my compadre David Levy has and loves it) The Illusionist is thus far (as I flip through the magazine) the most traditional ad, with the title, who made it, some review quotes and the request for inclusion in “all categories”.

As great as this film appears to be, it stands an outside chance in almost any category besides best animated feature. I would personally love to see it clinch a statuette but if The Secret of Kells couldn’t muster one against Up, there is little hope for The Illusionist. The upside is that the free publicity accompanying an nomination will serve the film well over the next few months, which for some, is just as good.

Legends of the Guardian

By all accounts, the closest thing we’ve got to an animated film that looks live-action. Stunningly beautiful but hopelessly technical in it’s beauty. It’s yet another one I have not seen, but it is gunning for the Best Animated Feature Award. I don’t know the odds, but it’s yet another film that could be said to be on the fringes.

Day & Night

Yup, the funny little “cartoon modern” style short is looking for the Best Animated Short nod and while it is a fantastic little film with plenty of spunk to it’s two characters, the competition in the shorts category is much stiffer than the features. The reason is simple, shorts cost a heck of a lot less than features so more people can afford to create them. As good as it is, I think it would be a shame for Night & Day to get it, what with all the excellent films that are also in the running for the nomination alone.

Tangled

Released late in the year, this film is still fresh in everyone’s mind, a fact that often plays into the minds of voters. The ad (which is quite similar to the one at the top of the post) is also very traditional, with a few stills from the film, a listing of which categories it would like a nod in and the requisite “for your consideration”.

Tangled stands a good chance in the animated category, and is certainly a film worthy of the award. It does irk me however, that it doesn’t go for any categories outside the animated ones besides Best Original Song. It’s as if Disney (read: Pixar) would like to keep this film squarely confined to the categories that all ‘traditional’ Disney films are confined to, all the while Pixar continues its lust for glory as it competes against the live-action boys.

Yes, I know both firms are joined at the hip, but there does seems to be a two-tier system in place that perhaps is the last remnant of the Eisner days. Hopefully in years to come, Disney itself will put out film of the same calibre as Pixar and that both of them can together clobber some live-action film for Best Feature. In the meantime, I’m going to have to wait for my bookie to get back to me on what the odds are for Tangled. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be disappointed if it won something.

So there you have it, a long post I know but it was worth it. Now we just have to wait and see how wrong I was!

The 2011 Academy Awards Animated For Your Consideration Ads: Part 1

Via: Animation Magazine (click through for their full Awards page)

It must be award season already. How do I know? For one, the latest issue of Animation Magazine that came through the letterbox when I was away is the annual ‘award’ issue, which means it jammed full of ads asking me for my ‘consideration’. Which would be great, if only my consideration counted for something, which right now, it does not much of anything.

So let’s take a quick peek at what animated films are grovelling for requesting consideration for the various accolades that will be handed out in the coming months.

Toy Story 3

Beginning with the one on the cover, we see Woody sitting on a toilet bowl with the words

Not since On the Waterfront…

Now I’m no cinematic genius, but I know that said film is well known as one of the best ever made, it was also our film study in Levaing Cert Higher Level English, so I am familiar with the intricacies of the plot and the characters. And still, how Toy Story 3 compares to it and the Academy Awards is quite beyond me. It’s well known at this point that it is gunning for the Best Picture Award, so perhaps that is what they are attempting to compare themselves to.

The only problem is that if you are comparing yourself to a true classic like On The Waterfront, you’d better be darned sure that your film is up to par, which sadly, Toy Story 3 is not. As good of a film as it is, it can’t even hold a candle to the original in terms of character and story quality and I’m afraid to say that at this point, Pixar is starting to trade on a lot of the public (and Academy member’s) goodwill.

How To Train Your Dragon

There’s a special insert for How to Train Your Dragon that is really just a mini-issue with the articles on the film that have been published in previous issues. It’s a clever ploy as it gives the reader much more detail about the film and its background than does a simple ad, which is found on the back page.

My fondness for this film is well documented, so let’s just say that I am eager to see this one succeed. There is no listing for which honours it is chasing, but as mentioned here previously, the Best Feature Award is within DreamWorks’ sights. Personally, I think Dragon stands a much better and more deserved chance of winning than Toy Story, but that’s just my personal preferences.

Despicable Me

Next up is Despicable Me, which wisely sticks to the animated feature, song and score categories. Despite it being a still from the film (which I thought would have been a lot sharper), it depicts Gru and the three girls coming in the door from the fair, their faces covered in silly paint (Gru is a rabbit).

This film, I think, stands a good chance of one-upping the establishment. it’s proven to be popular with audiences, and although I have not seen it myself (I know, I know, the shame, the shame), I am pretty sure that it has the solid storyline and characters to back it up. This is certainly one to watch over the season.

TRON Legacy

The original film was the nexus point for CGI theatrical films and this one is perhaps the ultimate blurring point between animation and special effects, although I believe it falls much more into the latter as a result of using live actors (Jeff Bridges aside). Comments will have to wait until another day, although it again, wisely chases the technical categories.

And that’s it for part one. Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this thrilling, two-part post!