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Steven Spielberg’s virtual reality-themed Ready Player One combines live action with extensive CG environments and both live-action and CG characters. As such, the Warner Bros. release might quality for consideration — should the studio choose to submit it — in next season’s Oscar competition for best animated feature.
Underscoring the fact that an increasing amount of live-action motion pictures are now created on a computer, it had been argued in recent years that titles such as Avatar and The Jungle Book could have been submitted for animated feature Oscar consideration. But the studios didn’t enter these films in the category. James Cameron and Jon Landau have asserted that Avatar is not an animated film, and they are among other filmmakers that share the same view.
Most recently, the topic was raised surrounding Disney and Jon Favreau’s upcoming remake of The Lion King, which is slated to open July 19, 2019.
In the 90th Academy Awards rules, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences defined an animated film as “a motion picture in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of the two general fields of animation: narrative or abstract. Some of the techniques for animating films include but are not limited to hand-drawn animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutout animation, pinscreen, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects created frame-by-frame and drawing on the film frame itself.” Motion capture and real-time puppetry are not by themselves animation techniques.
“Animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time. In addition, a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated,” the rules state.
The branch is very much aware of the blurring of the lines between disciplines. In fact, the animated feature rules even state: “If the picture is created in a cinematic style that could be mistaken for live action, the filmmaker(s) must also submit information supporting how and why the picture is substantially a work of animation rather than live action.”
Under these guidelines, arguments could be made that Ready Player One might qualify.
These days, the term “virtual production” is commonly being used to describe films such as Avatar, The Jungle Book and Ready Player One, where a large amount of the final film is CG, but still involved live-action production techniques.
For instance, three-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato — whose credits include Favreau’s The Jungle Book and The Lion King — has often said that the “virtual production” of The Jungle Book felt like a traditionally shot live-action movie, though it was filmed entirely on a bluescreen stage and only live-action element in the movie is Mowgli and whatever small piece of set actor Neel Sethi stood or climbed on. The rest is a photo-real CG jungle, and in the action sequences, the viewer is running or swinging alongside Mowgli thanks to cinematographer Bill Pope’s camera.
Ready Player One — whose cinematographer is Spielberg’s longtime collaborator, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski — takes places in a “real world” shot on film and augmented with VFX, and a virtual world, “the OASIS,” where the lead characters appear as avatars in a VR experience. All scenes in the OASIS — which makes up an estimated 90 minutes of the movie’s two hour and 20 minute running time — are CG and were created with virtual production techniques. The avatars of the lead actors involved motion capture performances.
Industrial Light + Magic was the lead VFX house, with ILM’s Roger Guyett (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as VFX supervisor. Digital Domain and previs house The Third Floor were among the additional VFX suppliers.