Winner's circle

A look at the three animated features vying for the Oscar

The impressive number of high-profile, big boxoffice animated features released in 2006 that were eligible for an Academy Award nomination -- 15 -- made it a banner year for the animation world. "This year, more features entertained audiences and were successful at the boxoffice than in years past," Animation World Network editor Sarah Baisley says. "The quality level was so high, and there were fewer of the small, niche-oriented movies."

Even so, critics groused that with a number of similar themes and characters among them, it was hard to keep them straight. Happily, that's no longer an issue. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has spoken, and we're left with three films that are dramatically different in look and theme: Whether it's the one about a race car stuck in small-town America, a colony of singing-and-dancing penguins or a truly scary story about a house that's alive and eating toys, these computer-generated films do have one thing in common -- they're all winners for making it to the top of the pack.

Cars (Buena Vista)
Boxoffice: $244.1*
Voice talent: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton
"Wow" factor: Turning hard-bodied cars into expressive characters is a new benchmark from Pixar, the company that invented the CG-animated feature film.

Writer-director John Lasseter picks topics that he's passionate about, a good idea since animated features take years to make. Films such as 1995's "Toy Story" and its 1999 sequel, "Toy Story 2," were naturals for a guy who has an office stuffed with an amazing assortment of trinkets. The development of "Cars" also was a no-brainer: Lasseter is a major aficionado of automobiles.

Newman's passion for cars landed him one of the movie's key roles, that of Doc Hudson. More and more big-name actors are gravitating toward voicing roles in animated features, but producer Darla K. Anderson says nabbing Newman was a highlight of the production. "We were unbelievably blessed to have him," she says, revealing that they used digital photos of Newman's eyes to get the right shade for Doc Hudson's orbs. "He had a lot of input into his character and the story, and he had a lot of opinions about the racing scenes. It was very important to him that it stayed true to car racing."

The idea for "Cars" was actually born out of a conversation between Lasseter and co-writer/director Joe Ranft about small-town America. (Tragically, Ranft died in a car crash during production of the film. "Cars" is dedicated in his honor.) They watched "Divided Highway," a 1997 documentary chronicling how the interstates transformed American life, killing off the towns without an offramp. It was an easy leap to picking cars for their characters -- but a challenging one. Without arms or legs, cars can only express personality with their fronts, which became their faces. "Having cars be characters is really, really brave," Anderson says.

"Squash and stretch" is the animation term for the free-flowing distortions that allow many animators to create characters out of inanimate objects, but Lasseter is a big believer in "truth to materials." In other words, the object in question must stay true to the materials out of which it's made. "That creates lots of interesting challenges," Anderson says. "You'll notice there's a lot of detail paid to the chassis, how the car fits on the wheels and its suspension. The mouth and eyes have 'squash and stretch,' but the rest of the chassis is true to materials."

To bring the race cars to life, the animators took a field trip to Hot Laps, a racetrack in Sonoma, Calif., and zoomed around the track as passengers of real race-car drivers. "They could really feel the G-forces," Anderson says. "It got them pumped up for the movie."

"Cars'" huge success is gratifying and, Anderson adds, a tad ironic. "It's interesting that we use all this high-end technology to delve into a story that's nostalgia for a time gone by," she says.

Happy Feet (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Boxoffice: $192.1
Voice talent: Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams
"Wow" factor: There's something for everyone in this full-blown, feel-good musical.

Director/writer/producer George Miller has tried his hand at numerous genres, from 1980's action-adventure release "Mad Max" (and its 1982 and 1985 sequels, "Mad Max 2" and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," respectively) to the wholesome tales of a little pink pig in 1995's "Babe" and its 1998 follow-up, "Babe: Pig in the City." But he'd never done a fully animated feature until "Happy Feet."

Realizing that 2006 would be a bonanza year for animated features, Miller was taken with the idea of making his film one that looked different and was a "more serious musical, with proper singing and dancing."

Miller designed the visuals to set them apart from classic cel animation. "We went for a very photoreal look," he says. "Given in the first place that it's a fantasy about singing-and-dancing penguins, we tried to follow what nature offers up as closely as possible, with (regard to) the behavior of the penguins and the environment (around them)."

"Happy Feet" is a meld of many genres, Miller says, explaining that he "tried not to fall into some sort of pattern recognition with the story." Calling the film a love story, he adds, is as correct as calling it an action-adventure movie, a hero's journey, an environmental saga or a coming-of-age tale. "If it was simply any one of those things, I don't think the film would have had much density," Miller says. "I tried to weave it all together so it never settled down into one thing. It's all those things."

Miller had some previous animation experience with the "Babe" films, both of which featured digital lip-syncing on real animals, and that experience ended up playing an important role in "Happy Feet." "I'm a bit of a lip-sync Nazi," Miller confesses. "I was obsessed with 'Babe' in getting the lip-syncing as close as possible." Keyframe CG animation gave him the lip-syncing precision he required.

Miller says he learned a lot about filmmaking from making an animated feature. "I thought I was good on camera (from having done live-action films), but I learned more from having a virtual camera (in the computer). Having the opportunity to move the camera, without cost, to find optimal angles was a great moment of learning." And, yes, one can expect more animated features from Miller, who says he's just finished a script that's very different from "Happy Feet."

"I'm hooked on animation," he says. "I just feel so lucky to be working in this age where the frame is so plastic, you can do whatever you like within that frame."

Monster House (Sony)
Boxoffice: $73.7
Voice talent: Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Catherine O'Hara, Kathleen Turner, Jon Heder, Fred Willard
"Wow" factor: Motion capture for animated films can work without being the slightest bit creepy. And everyone loves a scary story.

Parents liked it, children liked it, even teenagers liked it. "Monster House" is an unusual breed: a horror story that just happens to be animated. When three children explore a mysterious house that is apparently devouring toys, they discover that the house (voiced by Turner) is haunted. From the point of view of its story line alone, "Monster House" stands out from the pack of animated 2006 films.

First-time helmer Gil Kenan had read approximately 150 scripts by the time he got the one for "Monster House." "This script blew every single script I'd read out of the water," Kenan says. "I flew through it in one hour and went crazy, drawing immediately." Kenan says that the three kids, D.J., Chowder and Jenny (voiced by Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner and Spencer Locke, respectively), were such well-drawn characters, even in the script's first draft, that he knew his work would center on creating a real emotional character for the house.

The "Monster House" team skillfully used motion capture for what it does best and integrated keyframe (frame by frame) animation for everything else. Although the vast majority of the body animation for the three children was derived from motion-capture data, facial animation, for example, was not pure motion-capture data but liberal keyframe animation for enhancements, exaggerations and tweaks. The house, which required some very complicated rigging, was entirely keyframe-animated since translating an actor's shape into a house is too extreme for motion-capture software tools. In creating a look for the characters, Kenan determined that the movie's main characters -- the three children -- would be human but also stylized, with no attempt at photorealism. In fact, their anatomical proportions are closer to cartoons than anatomical drawings, with outsized heads, eyes and hands.

Much has been written about the potential for motion-capture technology to free animation directors, allowing them to helm an animated feature much like a live-action film. That's exactly how it panned out for Kenan. "It was a dream," he says. "What this allowed me to do was strip away the entire artifice of filmmaking -- sets, costumes, props -- (leaving) performance, which is what I was able to focus on. I don't think I would have been able to get a world of characters who interact as naturally as they do in the film if it wasn't for this technology."

Director's spotlight
The love of animation goes way back for these helmers
by Debra Kaufman
Gil Kenan
"Monster House"
Having one's very first feature film get nominated for an Oscar is a dream, and Kenan feels like he's been living one since he got a call from Robert Zemeckis' office to interview for the director's job on Sony's "Monster House." The dream began when Kenan's student film, "The Lark," won the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television's Spotlight Award in 2002. It screened at the DGA Theater, which led to his signing with CAA and eventually his "Monster House" directing gig. Kenan started making his own stop-motion films as a teenager and began directing theater productions when he was in high school. He's now in preproduction on a sci-fi tale.

John Lasseter
Lasseter's love of animation ignited in his freshman year of high school, when he began feverishly studying art and learning how to draw human and animal figures. He was the second student to be accepted into Walt Disney Studios' animation program at the California Institute of the Arts in the mid-1970s, and both of the student films he made there won Student Academy Awards. After five years at Walt Disney Studios, he accepted an invitation from Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull to visit the computer-graphics unit of Lucasfilm in Northern California. He stayed, becoming an integral player in the creation of animation powerhouse Pixar and the driving force behind the studio's many computer-generated films.

George Miller
"Happy Feet"
Going from 1980's "Mad Max" to Warner Bros. Pictures' "Happy Feet" sounds like an improbable career path, but Miller is all about surprises. The physician who became a film director, writer and producer might have started out with action-adventure movies, but animation has always been on his mind. Classic Disney cartoons were among his first filmic influences, and his first action-adventure hero was Chuck Jones' Road Runner. The man who had a hand in writing, producing and directing 1992's "Lorenzo's Oil" and 1998's "Babe: Pig in the City" is now at work on a second animated feature project.