Oscar Watch: Animation

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Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), the first-ever U.S.-made animated feature, was destined to become a classic -- but not before the Hollywood community derisively dubbed it "Disney's Folly" during the three years (and $1.5 million) it took him to make it. And though animated shorts have been honored by the Academy since 1931, Hollywood has taken a long time to warm up to the animated feature film. Even as Disney continued to test the animated feature waters with 15 films between 1940-60, including the classics "Fantasia" (1940) and "Sleeping Beauty" (1959), animation during this era, for the most part, found a much friendlier home on the small screen.

In 1991, Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" ushered in a new golden age of animation. With spectacular storytelling, the use of 3-D camera moves and a soundtrack that nabbed two Academy Awards, "Beauty and the Beast" was the first -- and so far only -- animated feature nominated for best picture.

Four years later, the direction of the animated film was forever changed when Pixar produced "Toy Story" (1995), the first-ever fully computer-generated animated feature film. With Pixar's arrival, along with rivals Pacific Data Images and DreamWorks Animation, Hollywood was suddenly awash in a new kind of animated feature -- witty and technologically cutting edge, appealing to adults and children alike. In recognition of the strides being made in the field, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established the best animated feature Oscar in 2001.

By design, caveats were built into the award. It's only bestowed if there are eight eligible animated features (of at least 70 minutes in length) released in a given year. Initial doubts that there would be enough to fuel the category were quickly dispelled: The award has been given every year since it was created and each of the seven Oscar winners exemplifies an outstanding quality emblematic of the animation zeitgeist at the time.

"It's a relatively young category, so there aren't a lot of winners to reflect on," says Pixar's Andrew Stanton, who directed the 2003 Oscar winner "Finding Nemo." "Looking back, it's hard to argue with any of them."

Stanton yearns for the day when the best animated feature is simply the best film. That's an animator's dream that has yet to come true, but in the meantime, Oscar has helped to give visibility to the very best animated features, a synergy that draws audiences and encourages studios and animators to create more of them. "Animation has the ability to truly transport the audience to some place they might never be able to imagine," says DreamWorks Animation co-president of production Bill Damaschke. "When it works, it's truly magical."

Shrek (2001)
Directors: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson

Disney's "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty" are closely based on traditional fairy tales, a familiarity that "Shrek" turned on its head with a parody that richly incorporated pop culture references. "Shrek" was also a first in its extensive use of well-known actors -- instead of voice actors -- with winning "appearances" by Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz. "It coalesced what a Hollywood studio animation feature could be," says animation historian and author Jerry Beck, who notes the film grossed almost $500 million worldwide, unprecedented for an animated film at the time. "There was something fresh about 'Shrek.' People loved it because it was a funny film, not because it was a funny animated film."

Spirited Away (2002)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Animators heap praise on Japanese animator Miyazaki's win for "Spirited Away," a 2-D, hand-drawn anime tale that took viewers into a colorful, supernatural world. "The win validated how powerful hand-drawn animation is in the hands of someone as masterful as Miyazaki," notes Pixar's Brad Bird, who directed two Oscar-winning features, "The Incredibles" (2004) and "Ratatouille" (2007). Animation cognoscenti gave the win not only to Miyazaki and anime but to signal that CG had not made 2-D animation obsolete. "He's the kind of filmmaker who would have won Oscars had he made live-action features," says Beck, who calls Miyazaki "the living master of the anime medium." "Miyazaki is a legend, and his body of work is worthy of an Academy Award."

Finding Nemo (2003)
Director: Andrew Stanton

Stanton says Pixar "never set out to try to make breakthroughs" when creating "Finding Nemo," the studio's first feature-length Oscar winner. But it made breakthroughs nevertheless -- most notably in the creation of water, which has always been difficult to depict in the 3-D, CG world. To get a true sense of the milieu they were creating, animators became trained scuba divers and, as a result, produced a world that was believable for Nemo and his fish friends. Animating underwater creatures was another breakthrough. Animators usually struggle to make CG characters grounded for believability, but in "Nemo," they had to float and still express character. Stanton emphasizes that story comes first at Pixar, and the technological breakthroughs were achieved in service of compelling imagery. "(The creation of technology) is not what gets us out of bed," he says. "We're interested in telling a story that hasn't been told with images that are fresh. And that demands that something new will be created."

The Incredibles (2004)
Director: Brad Bird

Leading CG-animated characters hadn't been sustainable before "The Incredibles," says Beck, who calls this Pixar story "head and shoulders above everything else that came out that year. It was a great film, not only technically fantastic, pushing the envelope for CG human characters, but the storytelling by Brad Bird is knockout."

The challenges in creating human characters are Herculean: from hair and cloth simulation to rigging. The characters had to be realistic enough to believe -- which meant attention paid to how skin moves over fat and muscle -- but caricatured enough for animation, which added the classic squash and stretch. Bird surmises that "The Incredibles" won because "it took people by surprise. It was an action movie," he says. "And people expect comedy from animation, not nail-biters."

Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Directors: Steve Box, Nick Park

Wallace and Gromit are not only beloved clay-animation characters, but also Oscar winners, for shorts "The Wrong Trousers" (1993) and "A Close Shave" (1995). "The question was, 'Could they make a feature and be just as good?'" Beck says. The answer was a resounding yes, but the time-intensive art of clay-animated stop-motion meant it wasn't a slam dunk.

Produced by DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Animations, "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit" took five years to develop from concept to premiere. Add to that animators' warm affection for Aardman, and an Oscar win was a lock. "Those characters are hilarious," Beck says. "And if there is such a thing as state-of-the-art with clay animation, this film was it."

Happy Feet (2006)
Director: George Miller

A bit of an odd duck (or penguin), Warner Bros./Village Roadshow's "Happy Feet" was an animated feature that was also a full-blown musical, including tap dancing choreographed by Savion Glover. "We're used to the 2-D fairy tale musicals of the Eisner era," Beck says. "But how many have we seen in CG? 'Happy Feet' may be the first one, and it was refreshing and felt different, something we hadn't seen before."

The feature's reliance on motion-capture gave those penguins moves as smooth as Glover's, another successful use of a technologically challenging medium. That and its quirky sensibility made it a favorite of audiences and Academy voters alike.

Ratatouille (2007)
Director: Brad Bird

"Ratatouille," Pixar's third Oscar winner, was a spectacular accomplishment: a rich and believable world filled with complex characters acting out an unlikely tale of a rat who longed to be a chef. Bird admits that "Ratatouille" didn't feature any big technological breakthroughs but instead benefited from the convergence of many small, subtle advancements. "If you look at the film, you could tell it was different," he says. "What you saw was the sum total of those tiny advances: For the first time, everything looked tactile -- the food looked tasty, the human skin glowed, eyes felt like they were lit up from within."

"Ratatouille" also had an unusual production history, with Bird taking over directorial duties midstream. He had to get a hold of a floundering production and make a hard deadline, neither of them easy tasks. "He made a souffle out of ratatouille," Beck jokes. "He really made a superior entertainment."
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