Oscar Watch: Animation

The animated feature nominees represent three distinct views of the world

And then there were three -- though there could have been five. Just three animated feature films have made the Oscar nomination grade, though 17 of them were released in 2008, enough to reach the threshold required for five nominations. But, for various reasons, only a relative handful of features were submitted for consideration.

"WALL-E" is the film to beat, having garnered almost every award possible. Even so, "Kung Fu Panda" was a masterful feature, worthy in every way and sure to endure as a classic, while "Bolt" was another delightful addition to the Disney canon.

But perhaps the most interesting nomination this year for an animated feature was Israel's "Waltz With Bashir," which earned an Oscar nom in the best foreign-language film
category. That's eloquent proof of what animators have been saying for years: Animated films are films first.

Click to jump to a nominee: "Kung Fu Panda" | "Bolt" | "WALL-E"

Click for director bios

"Kung Fu Panda"

The filmmakers of "Kung Fu Panda," a lush picture that melds the expansiveness of ancient China with the finest kung fu fighting and the most improbable of heroes -- saw their film as a widescreen Cinema-Scope production and insisted on its accuracy: One of Hollywood's top experts on all things Chinese, DreamWorks artist Wei Xiaoping, was consulted, while production designer Raymond Zibach and art director Tang Kheng Heng were inspired by Chinese art, architecture, mythology and landscape. The result is a film true to Chinese culture that has become a huge hit not only here but also in China.

Finding the sweet spot between being emotionally believable and broad was a balancing act, especially in scenes that convey deep emotion and slapstick. "If it's easy or obvious, it's not in the movie" was their motto. To create the level of production values required by such detail, DreamWorks partnered with Hewlett-Packard, which provided its most up-to-date, powerful hardware.

Boxoffice: $632 million*
Voice talent: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu
Original music: John Powell and Hans Zimmer

Next: "Bolt"


"Bolt" represents numerous "firsts" for Walt Disney Animation Studios: It's the first animated feature to be conceived and produced with Oscar-winning director John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, and Ed Catmull, the computer animation pioneer who helped create Pixar Animation Studios and who now serves as president of both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. The movie is, in addition, the directorial debut of two veteran Disney artists: Chris Williams (14 years in story and development) and Byron Howard (15 years as an animator).

"Bolt" also is Disney's first 3-D animated film to be created at the studio and to be conceived and designed in 3-D from its inception. Two previous Disney animated features -- 2005's "Chicken Little" and 2007's "Meet the Robinsons" -- were released in 3-D versions, but the 3-D was a postproduction conversion process created outside of the studio. For "Bolt," the filmmakers created a "depth" script that determined the 3-D convergence point for each shot based on its emotional intensity and dramatic requirements. They specifically utilized 3-D as a storytelling tool to create an immersive environment and subtly impact key moments.

The super-dog Bolt was the source of a certain degree of canine research, including animators who filmed their own dogs and got down on all fours to see the view.

Musically, one of the film's highlights is the original song "I Thought I Lost You," performed by John Travolta and Miley Cyrus. A second song, "Barking at the Moon," was written and performed by Jenny Lewis, an indie rock performer who founded and is the lead singer for Rilo Kiley.

Boxoffice: $213 million*
Voice talent: John Travolta, Miley Cyrus, Susie Essman, Mark Walton, Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton, Greg Germann
Original music: John Powell

Next: "WALL-E"


The film takes a big leap with its dialogue-free first half, and Pixar's storytelling and animation skills soar in these scenes. WALL-E, however, is far from silent, and his robotic beeps and squeaks aren't voiced by an actor but created by Ben Burtt, a four-time Oscar-winning sound designer, whose expertise in robot voices includes R2-D2 of "Star Wars" fame.

Pixar also took some cinematic leaps with the camera work. The digital camera was tweaked to capture 70mm large-format film, and the artists relied on inspiration from NASA, old sci-fi movies and original concept paintings for Disneyland's Tomorrowland.

Adding to the film's visual look were two heavy-hitter consultants: cinematographer Roger Deakins and long-time ILM visual effects master Dennis Muren.

The remaining creative pedigree on "WALL-E" is also top-notch: director Andrew Stanton, who wrote the screenplay with Jim Reardon (which was, in turn taken from Stanton and Pete Docter's original story), executive produced by John Lasseter and produced by ex-ILM chief Jim Morris. Stanton also got to work with one of his childhood heroes, rock legend Peter Gabriel, who collaborated with composer Thomas Newman on the film's signature song "Down to Earth."

Boxoffice: $533 million*
Voice talent: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
Original music: Thomas Newman

*As of 2/5/09. Worldwide gross. Sources: Nielsen EDI/THR industry sources.

Byron Howard ("Bolt")
While in college, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (1988) and "The Little Mermaid" (1989) inspired Howard to seek a career in animation. He got his foot in the door of Florida's now-shuttered Disney Animation Studios by working as a "host" on the animation tour in 1991. By 1994, he had reached the entry-level position of "in-betweener" and then became part of the "Mulan" (1998) team. "Bolt" is his directorial debut.

Chris Williams ("Bolt")
Williams was picked by John Lasseter to co-direct "Bolt" after the Pixar chief saw "Glago's Guest" -- a Disney short, the company's first in CG, that Williams wrote and directed -- at the famed Annecy International Film Festival. Like Howard, Williams got his start at Disney's Florida studio, as an intern in 1994 and later worked as a writer on "Mulan." "Bolt" is also his feature directorial debut.

Mark Osborne ("Kung Fu Panda")
Osborne is an expert multi-tasker. Starting out in the business, he juggled making short films and designing graphics for TV with working as a freelance animator and stop-motion filmmaking instructor at CalArts. His short film "More" (1998) was lauded on the festival circuit and landed him a job at DreamWorks, where he developed "Kung Fu Panda." Most recently, he snagged a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to return to personal filmmaking.

John Stevenson ("Kung Fu Panda")
For more than three decades, Stevenson has been an art director, illustrator and character designer, working for many big names in animation, from Aardman to Elmo. In the early 1990s, he was a digital animation pioneer at Colossal Pictures. Some of his quirkier credits include England's Wonder World theme park, the Children's Museum of Bogota, Columbia and the record sleeve for Madonna's "Dear Jessie."

Andrew Stanton ("WALL-E")
When Stanton was a high schooler in Rockport, Mass., he was involved in musical theater. That background came in handy years later as he worked on "WALL-E" and searched for an iconic piece of film or music that WALL-E would play over and over and that would contrast with the ruined earth depicted in the movie. What could be more appropriate than "Hello, Dolly!"? A graduate of CalArts, Stanton joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1990 as the company's second animator and ninth employee. One of four screenwriters to receive an Oscar nomination in 1996 for "Toy Story," he has received screenwriter credit on "A Bug's Life" (1998), "Toy Story 2" (1999), "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and "Finding Nemo" (2003). He made the proverbial splash with his directorial debut on "Nemo," which he also co-wrote based on his own original story. "Nemo" won the year's best animated feature Oscar, the first Pixar received for a full-length feature.

-- Debra Kaufman