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Oscars 2013: Best Animated Features come to life

AnimatedShortsPic1The medium of animation is one that’s evolved more than perhaps any other film industry niche. Rapidly growing technology enables movies to present incredible visual style to supplement their narratives, further blurring the line between pure art and live action. The classic aesthetic of Disney staples from Bambi to The Lion King has found itself in the company of modernized efforts like the arcade epic Wreck-It Ralph and the ubiquitous Pixar releases, including this year’s Brave.

The Oscar category of Best Animated Feature often feels misrepresented, if not wholly unnecessary, as the list of nominees in previous years has been as little as three entries and the undeniable domination of a usual front-runner eliminates any suspense about the winner. This year, however, the five films nominated for Best Animated Feature showcase the most diverse and perhaps deserving collection in recent memory, and the use of classic stop motion techniques in three of the five hearkens to an era of animation often forgotten by cutting edge trends.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted a symposium this week featuring the directors of all five Best Animated Feature nominees. The Samuel Goldwyn theater in Beverly Hills is home to many pre-Oscar events, and this one featured a panel discussion with the auteurs as they discussed the inspiration and dedication that brought their visions to the screen.

When moderator Rob Riggle asked Brave director Mark Andrews whether or not his movie would have worked as a live action feature, Andrews pointed out how animation’s wider artistic scope can actually help convey themes and emotions more easily than a traditional movie.

“I think when we’re watching an animated film there’s more of an acceptance of it because it’s not something we see every day,” Andrews said, noting the exaggerated aesthetics animation uses to help get a message across. “It’s caricaturized, it’s specialized, so when we look at these characters we go, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a troublemaker with all that hair,’ ‘Oh, that guy’s big!’ To get those same reactions instantaneously out of live-action film, you have to do a lot of work … I think there’s just a quicker emotional core to an illustration. We’re more forgiving of it than live action.”

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph adds an extra level to Andrews’ theory, presenting video game characters within the technical construct of an animated feature. This dual existence was a purposeful move on part of Ralph’s director, Rich Moore, who jumped on the chance to finally complete the long-delayed project on his own terms.

“For many years at the studio, there was a desire to make an animated film about the life of video game characters,” Moore explained. “So when I came in to the studio in 2008 as a director and discovered that they’d just put it on the shelf again, I thought it seemed like a rich world to set a story in.”

Moore couldn’t help put joke about how appropriate the subject matter was for his production staff. “We drew a lot from our past. You would be amazed that in an animation studio, there’s a lot of people who like video games,” he deadpanned.

ParaNorman’s directing team also used childhood memories as the basis of their film, shaping the tale of a supernaturally gifted boy with social troubles at school within the framework of their love for the horror genre. Chris Butler explained how his lifelong connection with scary movies provided ParaNorman with such sturdy subtext for a film aimed at children.

“What it came down to was that in wanting to make a zombie movie for kids, I looked at all the zombie movies and they’re all social commentary. They all use zombies as a metaphor, and that was really the idea behind [ParaNorman],” Butler confirmed. “What would our social commentary be? And it turned out to be bullying.”

Butler’s directing partner, Sam Fell, expanded on the notion of using generational experience as an inspiration, specifically comic books in addition to horror films. “I think I’ve been heading to this project since like 1972, when I saw my first Ray Harryhausen movie,” Fell confessed. “And for some reason, DC comics were readily available when I was growing up. All of this kind of American pop culture was coming to Britain at that time, and we were just kind of immersed in [it] the whole way.”

Butler agreed, using an analogy that spoke to a large number of audience members who likely brought their young children to see ParaNorman. “Because this so specifically references definite things and it’s definitely referencing the 80s, we always talk about it as John Carpenter meets John Hughes, and all that was in the script. That was always intentional.”

No other Best Animated Feature director encapsulates the idea of using macabre subject matter to tell a children’s story more than Tim Burton, whose nominated film Frankenweenie is a stop motion update of his debut live action short from nearly 30 years ago. Burton described how the opportunity to revisit his idea with a fresh perspective helped him tell the story in a way he never could before.

“It just felt like a more pure version of it and there was something about the Frankenstein story and inanimate objects coming back to life which, you know, fits the medium very well,” Burton said. “And I got to explore Burbank again without actually going there, which was nice.”

Burton’s winking distaste for his suburban roots is notable throughout much of his repertoire, from Edward Scissorhands to Beetlejuice. For Frankenweenie, however, the experience of using his own memory of the original project helped insert an even more personal factor this time around.

“The whole goal was to go back to the original drawings I did for the live action [short]. It was trying to get back to the purity and memory of Burbank, you know, the feeling of the classroom and the school and City Hall,” Burton said. “I knew we were getting there when I started getting a queasy feeling.”

The use of stop motion animation in decidedly modern films is a concept all the directors agreed helps innovate the medium, whether they used it for their nominated movie or not. The Pirates! Band of Misfits director Peter Lord couldn’t help but offer a jovial dig at the more digitally focused techniques nonetheless, despite two of his fellow nominees hailing from Disney and Pixar.

“The fact is, in our world [of stop motion] we’re working with paint and cameras and lights and toys, the most amazing toys in the world. It’s a lovely, lovely environment,” he began, adding that the work of more traditional animation is often “dull.”

AnimatedShortsPic2“We love stop motion best,” continued Lord, whose work on 2000’s Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit series has made him a respected figurehead in the medium. “I’ve done it for a very long time, since high school, and we’ve built a team of people who are brilliant at it and love doing it.”

The ParaNorman team also sang the praises of stop motion and discussed their use of puppets in creating their cast of characters, but Butler acknowledged how technological breakthroughs in the genre can help enhance such a classic method.

“We use a lot of computers,” Butler admitted. “[Producer] Travis [Knight] always calls us ‘Luddites who’ve embraced the loom,’ in that we will use whatever technology is available to us to make sure that what you see on the screen looks the best that it can … and at its heart is stop motion.”

Burton agreed, noting how “the opportunity to do black and white with 3D just felt special,” but also supported Lord’s assertion that the physical elements of stop motion do lend a sense of realism missing from other forms of animation.

“It’s so tactile. Being on a set and seeing the characters and feeling it, I think you feel the artist’s work. You see the textures better,” Burton said.

Although Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph, like Brave, uses entirely computer-generated visuals, the director appropriately cited Pixar and Disney creative head John Lasseter to succinctly evoke the effort put into animated films regardless of the specific techniques.

“We don’t finish films, we release them,” Moore quoted, with help from Andrews, explaining in one short sentence what encompasses an entire lifetime of work for these directors. Luckily, for them, it isn’t work at all.

“I probably shouldn’t say this out loud,” Moore said. “But I’d do this for free in my garage.” It’s a safe bet he, and the rest of the Oscar-nominated panel, have already spent many years doing just that.

Don’t miss the Oscars tonight, February 24, at 8:30EST/5:30P on ABC

Images courtesy of the Motion Picture Academy.

2 Comments

  1. I’m a little bummed that Brave took home the Oscar this year – Pixar has more than its fair share, and there were other, more creative and interesting animated films that were released this past year. I would have been much happier if the endlessly creative Frankenweenie had won, or if ParaNorman, which was equally fascinating had given Laika an Oscar. Sure, Brave was fun, but it was not as innovative as either of those two films.

  2. All I care for is that my Christoph Waltz won a second BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR trophy!!!

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