Animators, Cinematographers, Writers Groups Reveal Winners on Busy Night (Analysis)

Elsa's hair

Even though Disney's animators had wrestled with braids for 2011's Tangled, the hair for Elsa was vastly more complicated: While Rapunzel carried 27,000 extralong strands on her head, the Frozen team found themselves dealing with upward of 400,000 CG threads -- a feat that required the invention of a new program, called Tonic, to execute.

The first night of February was one of the busiest of the 2013-2014 awards season. On Saturday, while Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett was being honored at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two hours north of Hollywood, no fewer than three guilds with corresponding Oscar categories — the Writers Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers and the International Animated Film Association — dished out their own year-end accolades back in town. And Her, Frozen and Gravity, in particular, headed into Super Bowl Sunday with plenty of reasons to feel happy about their Oscar prospects.

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The Writers Guild of America, which has some 12,000 members between WGA-West and WGA-East, presented its 66th WGA Awards in New York and L.A. simultaneously — or roughly simultaneously. (Some nominees learned via social media that their category had already been announced on the other coast before it was announced in the room in which they sat!)

PHOTOS: The Scene at the WGA Red Carpet

The WGA doesn't have a great track record at anticipating Oscar nominees — over the past 11 years, only 39 of its 55 best adapted screenplay nominees and 30 of its 55 best original screenplay nominees went on to score Oscar noms — because it considers for its awards only scripts that are produced under the terms of its Minimum Basic Agreement (which applies to films with budgets over $1.1 million) or its Low-Budget Agreement (governing films with budgets under $1.1 million) in the U.S. or under comparable collective bargaining agreements in the U.K., Canada, Ireland or New Zealand.

When it comes to winners, though, the numbers are a little better.

Eight of the WGA's last 10 best original screenplay winners — but only one of the last three — took home the corresponding Oscar (Inception was replaced by the WGA-ineligible The King's Speech and Zero Dark Thirty was replaced by the WGA-ineligible Django Unchained). This year, the two presumptive top contenders for the Oscar, David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer's American Hustle and Spike Jonze's Her, were both WGA-eligible, making the result of the race actually worth monitoring for Oscar watchers. (The other nominees were Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack's Dallas Buyers Club and Bob Nelson's Nebraska, all of which also received Oscar noms.) And, in a bit of an upset, the winner turned out to be Warner Bros.' future-set romance Her, not Sony's 1970s period piece dramedy.

This appears to reflect continued momentum for the former film, which also won the corresponding Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, and would probably have to be regarded as the Oscar frontrunner now, even if Hustle is the co-leader in total Oscar noms with 10, versus Her's five. (Interestingly, both films were produced by 28-year-old Annapurna Pictures head Megan Ellison.) As Hitfix's Guy Lodge astutely noted, "You have to go back 13 years to find an Oscar winner in this category that lost (as opposed to simply being ineligible for) the WGA Award: In the 2000 race, the Guild picked Kenneth Lonergan for You Can Count on Me, while the Academy preferred Cameron Crowe for Almost Famous."

Meanwhile, eight of the WGA's last 10 best adapted screenplay winners — and each of the last three — took home the corresponding Oscar (American Splendor was replaced by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Up in the Air was replaced by Precious), but it's hard to imagine that streak continuing this year, considering that the Oscar frontrunner, John Ridley's 12 Years a Slave, was not eligible for the WGA Award. Still, it was an impressive show of support for Captain Phillips that, at the WGA Awards, it was able to top two fellow Oscar nominees: Terence Winter's The Wolf of Wall Street and Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. (The other two WGA nominees, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Peter Berg's Lone Survivor, were replaced by the writers branch of the Academy with 12 Years a Slave and Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope's Philomena; the latter, like the former, was ineligible for WGA recognition.)

One final WGA point of note: Sarah Polley's semi-autobiographical Stories We Tell, which was shortlisted but not nominated by the Academy's doc branch, prevailed in the best documentary DGA Awards race over a film that the Academy did nominate, Dirty Wars.

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Meanwhile, over at the American Society of Cinematographers' 28th ASC Awards, the awe-inspiring lensing Emmanuel Lubezki did on the space-set Gravity was recognized with the top ASC Award, the one for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases — and thereby stayed on course to win the best cinematography Oscar, as well. At the ASC Awards, Lubezki topped Barry Ackroyd for Captain Phillips, Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave, Roger Deakins for Prisoners, Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis, Philippe Le Sourd for The Grandmaster and Phedon Papamichael for Nebraska; all but Ackroyd and Bobbitt are also Oscar-nominated.


Lubezki, a 49-year-old Mexican cinematographer, probably knows not to place too much emphasis on the importance of an ASC win in terms of predicting an Oscar win -- he won an ASC Award on two prior occasions, for Children of Men (2006) and The Tree of Life (2011), neither of which were followed by Oscar victories. Indeed, the ASC and the Academy have overlapped in only five of the last 10 years.

But, for Gravity, he may have his best shot yet at finally taking home an Oscar — on his sixth Oscar nom in eight years! The ASC isn't big on recognizing 3D and visual-effects-heavy films like Gravity, perhaps because cinematographers, as much as anyone, find it's hard to distinguish between what is the work of a cinematographer and what is the work of a computer. To this end, the ASC nominated but did not award Avatar (2009), Hugo (2011) and Life of Pi (2012) — all of which went on to win with the Academy — so the fact that they went for Gravity is no small statement. And Gravity's co-leading 10 Oscar noms suggest that it has widespread Academy support that is likely to trickle down into the tech categories like this one.

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Finally, the International Animated Film Association's 41st Annie Awards were dispensed on Saturday night as well, and, as was widely expected, Disney's Frozen took home the top prize, the Annie Award for best feature.

Over the 12 years in which both the Annie Awards and the best animated feature Oscar have existed, the two groups have not always overlapped. Indeed, on four occasions, they disagreed: Cars was replaced by Happy Feet (2006), Kung Fu Panda was replaced by WALL-E (2008), How to Train Your Dragon was replaced by Toy Story 3 (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph was replaced by Brave (just last year). Some attribute a few of those earlier splits to studio stacking and block voting and other sorts of machinations that have supposedly since been addressed. In any case, it's very hard to imagine that Frozen, with its tremendous momentum -- including Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and PGA awards, among others -- won't go the distance.

The Disney instant classic topped six other competitors for the top prize — The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, A Letter to Momo, Monsters University and The Wind Rises — all of which are also nominated for the best animated feature Oscar, except A Letter to Momo and Monsters University. It also was the winner of the Annies for best directing in an animated feature production, nest music in an animated feature production (Christophe Beck, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez), best production design in an animated feature production and best voice acting in an animated feature production (Josh Gad).

At the Annies, The Wind Rises, which is the swan song of Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki, won the Annie for best writing in an animated feature production. Monsters University took home the Annies for storyboarding in an animated feature production and best editorial in an animated feature production. And Disney's Oscar-nominated animated short Get a Horse! won the Annie for best animated short subject.

Oddly, Despicable Me 2, which went into the Annies ceremony with a field-leading 11 nominations, walked away with just one win, and one that had nothing to do with its theatrical product, at that: best animated TV/broadcast commercial.

What a night.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg