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The Difficulty Of Defining Modern Animation

Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 11:26 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
The Difficulty Of Defining Modern Animation

There's been a bit of back-and-forth online over the last couple of days about whether or not The Adventures Of Tintin qualifies as animation. It appeared on the BAFTA nominations list in the Animated category, but was absent from the Oscar list* so we can't be sure whether it qualified there or not, or simply didn't win the votes. So is the entirely-performance-captured film real animation? Do we need to redefine our categories? What's going on?

Here's my position so far: I am inclined to think The Adventures Of Tintin is animation. At the same time, I'm OK with calling Avatar live-action - but no less an authority than animation guru Andrew Osmond, occasionally of this parish, would call that an animated film as well. Why do I consider one animation and not the other? Well, I'm not sure I can entirely justify it but let's give it a go.

Those who consider Tintin live-action do so on the basis that there were actors who provided the basis for the characters' performances. They not only voiced the characters, as in traditional animation, but made every decision for their movement and expression as well. Among these luminaries was Andy Serkis, a giant of the form whose work as Gollum on Lord Of The Rings was, I think, criminally ignored, and who might have qualified for a nod for his Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes work this year were there more justice in the world. So I do think that performance capture should be considered for acting prizes in some cases.

That said, I don't think the presence of performance capture means it can't be animated. This is for several reasons. First of all, and most cynically, how can we be sure, absolutely sure, that the animators didn't tweak the performances a bit in the digital production process, just to make them a tiny bit better? How can we be positive that it's all the actor's own work with no help from anyone else when someone else is so intimately involved with the role?

Even if the animators tried to stay completely pure, there are still decisions to be made in the course of turning Jamie Bell's face into Tintin's face, for example - and those, too, are creative decisions that are not within the actor's control. Maybe some sort of joint nomination in cases of performance capture would be appropriate, to acknowledge that both parties need to be on top form.

And most importantly, what on Earth makes everyone think that all animators aren't actors? If you go to Disney Animation Studios or Pixar, you'll hear more about the way they work - and suddenly it sounds less the rather mechanical process that many outsiders imagine and more like, well, acting. At Disney, each character has a "key" animator who is, in their eyes, like a live-action star in that they are responsible for that character. The key animator determines their character's body language and facial expressions; heck, they often design the character in the first place, making them a combination of star, casting agent, costume designer and hair and make-up. A key animator on many productions is MORE important than an actor, not less. And yes, they do film themselves or others moving to use as a reference for the animation, further blurring the line between performance capture and, well, animation.

Sometimes, animators provide the voice; otherwise, they work with the director and an actor to work on the voice. They may riff on an actor's work: Eric Goldberg, key animator on the Genie in Aladdin, famously encouraged Robin Williams to go nuts in the voice booth and then animated that character, astonishingly, to match the star's flights of fancy. Others video the actor's facial expressions as they deliver lines and use that as a reference / inspiration for their animation. But in the case of many - maybe the majority - of animated characters, it's the voice actor who's the hired hand and the animator who determines everything else.

The more you know about animation proper, the more difficult it becomes to accept the arguments of the performance capture cheerleaders who think it's an entirely separate and revolutionary art**. I don't think performance capture is separate: I think there's an argument that it's just animation with the involvement of a named star. And while I would never wish to dismiss the work of Serkis and company, I also don't think we should overlook the animators.

Why don't I consider Avatar animation? Well, it's partly live-action at least, and has more set elements than did Tintin in the real world. But really it's just an impression and I wouldn't argue particularly strongly against the counter point.

In the end, I suspect that Tintin didn't get an animation nod because actors, the Academy's biggest voting block, thought it would be disrespectful to the actors who worked on the film - and didn't worry so much about being disrespectful to the animators who worked with them.

The point is that these distinctions are becoming increasingly untenable: John Carter, from Pixar's Andrew Stanton, will have more effects shots in it than a Pixar film as well as containing performance captured characters, but we're calling that live-action, while those who described Avatar as animation generally did so as a term of abuse.

The best thing to do, it seems to me, is to get rid of the animation ghetto and start considering the animation form alongside live-action films on an equal footing. Where there are judgment calls to be made for performance-captured performances, let's have a group of experts sit down and consider each case and declare it eligible or not on its merits - or institute a separate category for those works. 

But the current system is bizarre and unjust: animated films are being overlooked on their merits, and this attempt to distinguish performance-captured films and thereby escape the animation ghetto is something based less on a logical distinction and more on desperation. To quote Hairspray (and, OK, the US Civil Rights movement), "Segregation never! Integration now!"

*The Academy doesn't publish an Animation long list anymore, apparently because the Animation category is now a permanent feature and doesn't need to be "activated" each year.

**And we haven't even discussed rotoscoping, which has generally been considered animation and doesn't seem hella different from performance capture in any way that matters to the quality of the work.

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1 Drew_231
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 13:02
I'm glad this is getting so much attention online lately (although I doubt Academy will acknowledge the debate for a while at least).

What I don't understand though is, while the characters in Tintin are all based on the actions of real actors, everything else within the film is traditional cgi. Every piece of minute background detail has been animated, and to simply ignore the work done by the Weta team is ridiculous

This years nominations, more so than any I can remember, really show the Academy up for the out of touch organisation is so painfully is

2 sipi
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 14:09
I would have thought that if the film is done entirely as an animation then it should be considered an animated film. Avatar had many sequences that involved life action footage, and therefore can't be considered a holistically animated film.

any live action on Tintin was simply there to enhance the animation - to make it more realistic and stylistic. but nonetheless when projected onto the screen it was animated.

it's really about what you make it important - how it's final version is shown or how it is produced. And when Oscars and other awards make arbitrary division such animated and live action, then the only satisfactory route is to look at the final product, rather than how it was done.

3 Ambition
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 14:25
Just a small point; if you're going to argue that animators always have a hand in performance captured acting, and therefore the actor can't be given sole credit for what's on screen, you could also argue that the editor of a live action film manipulates an actors performance to a similar degree. Chopping together moments from different takes, combining and remixing, engineering reaction shots, or structuring reams of meandering improv into something ultimately more effective than the actor could have crafted alone.

4 Helen OHara
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 14:38
That's true Ambition - but then that's also true in live action so isn't unique to either form. But then we should all sing editors' praises more generally! Also: cinematographers, production designers, and the rest....

5 ronniem
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 15:15
Who says that's why it was even overlooked??? The Academy are seriously out of touch with audiences and auteurs alike methinks. This is just one in a long list of quite baffling omissions. And they wonder why people don't even watch the Awards show at all??! Let's face it...these nominations are quite literally jaw-droppingly surprising. Daldry the Oscar baiting director strikes again...quite ludicrous how Drive didn't get any love from the Academy too. Speilberg overlooked for both War Horse AND Tintin??? Not to mention Transformers:Dark of the Moon nabbing THREE nominations. I guess the Mayans were right about 2012 then :(

6 Nicky C
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 15:18
Nice article. Cans open ... worms everywhere. Plenty of food for thought. Here's my suggestion, just to throw yet another cat among the pigeons (who may or may not be feasting on the aforementioned worms):

It's the category TITLE that is wrong. Don't have it called 'Best Animated Feature', call it 'BEST ANIMATION'. I think the Academy should award outstanding work in the field of animation and whether that animation is used in a live-action movie or an animated feature is redundant in this decade. In this way Tintin, Kung Fu Panda, Avatar, John Carter and the upcoming Frankenweenie all have a shot at the title, because we're only judging the quality of the animation on display. However, this makes the animation category a technical category, but I don't actually think that's a bad thing because animation is, technically, a b*tch to make awesome and easy to make rubbish.

As for performance capture (PC), the actor provides data ... but it's data that only they can provide. I think what's holding back the idea of PC as being 'acting' is actually the technical constraints i.e. how much data can the animators capture in realtime? When we get to the next generation or two of performance capture we might find that we're able to capture so much data that if the actor is, ahem, a bit lacking in acting experience (cough ... Sam Worthington ... splutter) then the PC itself might noticably suffer. However, it could mean that truly great actors might want to try PC for themselves and consider it a viable option for their craft. Imagine if capture was so good that somebody like Sean Penn could give the characters not just a physical life or a 'somewhat' emotive expression, but an internal life as well. Actors spend a lot of time adding layers to their research to give their characters a history that their body talks to us about. When we can capture THAT, then capture will be acting.

Gosh, I do envy your job Helen ;D

7 zeech1941
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 17:16
Disney used live-action as reference for animators, Sleeping Beauty, so you could argue motion capture has been an animation tool for years and no one doubts Sleeping Beauty is animation. But I would call Avatar live action while Tintin is animation.

8 Adrian
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 17:39
To me, the difference is the execution and intent. TinTin is an animated film, as you state (pun not intended). It is such because the PC is used to enhance the animation. Avatar is arguably as much a polar opposite to that as you can have within the PC medium. It's a live action film through design and intent. the PC is used because to create it purely live-action, a/ would have likely cost 10 times more and b/ wouldn't have worked nearly as well. Sure, the actors could have practised stilt-work and used prosthetics to play 9ft tall blue cat-people. but then, their performance would have been lost behind the prosthetics and they would've been slower moving and awkward (plus, just people with really long legs, let's face it). Moreover, to put them in the world seamlessly. The PC therefore was the best way to make the world and characters (i.e. the Na'vi) of Pandora 'real'.

There is however what I shall dub The Beowulf Complication. That film is/was something of a hybrid of the two. PC was used for the sake of making real the world and making Ray Winstone a Schwarzeneggerian man-mountain, making Grendel able to be a seamless part of the film as well as Grendel's mother and whatnot.
But it's also sort-of animated by design. the stylised feel and look was also intentional. Whether, with today's technologies, they'd have made the film look fully real is perhaps debatable, but I personally think not (and rightly so, the look works well for it). So which side of the fence would a film such as Beowulf fall on?

9 jediyodathefourth
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 21:24
maybe the answer is to redefin the catagory as best non-live action film and define non-live action as traditionally filmed humans appearing in no more than 15% of the runtime this would exclude the likes of avatar but include the likes of tintin, beowulf and puppet film such as dark crystal and team america.

10 jediyodathefourth
Posted on Wednesday January 25, 2012, 21:26
also the likes of james and the giant peach which features live action book-ends

11 Dr Science
Posted on Thursday January 26, 2012, 13:03
First things first: The Oscars are not representative of either the modern audience or the global industry, and for these reasons I am hopeful that they will either be forced to 'reboot' soon, or that some other, more relevant and representative awards process will supercede them in both credibility and cachet (maybe the Empire Awards?)

12 Dr Science
Posted on Thursday January 26, 2012, 13:16
Second things second: The reason that animation is given its own category is that the mainstream still considers that as a medium it is either only suitable for children and families or very niche art-house audiences.

There should either be a separate acting category to cover both voice work and PC, or all acting performances regardless of the medium should be included in the same category and judged on their own merits.

Animated features should be included in the Best Picture category and Best Animated Feature should be scrapped.

Animation should be recognised as a technical award that can cover PC, CGI contributions and traditional styles of animation. Any example of animation should be included, including animated inserts in live action work and also animated credit sequences.

13 chris kilby
Posted on Friday January 27, 2012, 15:04
It's a tricky one and no mistake.

But I'd like point out that Disney have been rotoscoping (drawing over) live footage of actors since Snow White. And Peter Pan, for one, was shot entirely with live actors on a bare stage (sound familiar?) prior to being animated - I have seen countless stills over the years of Bobby "The Voice of Peter Pan" Driscoll performing in full costume.

For all I know, Disney did this with all its animated films. So if that counts as "proper" animation then so does Avatar and TinTin. The Star Wars prequels too as George Lucas himself likes to point out.

And yeah, if anyone deserves an Oscar it's Andy Serkis - "The Lon Chaney of The Digital Era." (c. Kim Newman!) He'll NEVER get one though. Not unless he ever plays a blind nun in a wheelchair with Alzheimers and a nasty cough. Which tells you everything you need to know about the merits of acting awards.

14 Miikesmama
Posted on Saturday January 28, 2012, 09:51
This is something I've been thinking about lately (but in a different context):

You wrote: "...First of all, and most cynically, how can we be sure, absolutely sure, that the animators didn't tweak the performances a bit in the digital production process, just to make them a tiny bit better? How can we be positive that it's all the actor's own work with no help from anyone else when someone else is so intimately involved with the role?..."

See, the thing is this doesn't only happen in animation. First of all, the director and editor chooses the ONE TAKE out of sometimes dozens where they feel the actors gave their best...ok, no problem with that.

But in the Making of... on the The Social Network-BluRay you could clearly see that they are now have the software to tweak the performances WITHIN Scenes as well!!! I was quite shocked to see that simple, basic scenes like a dialogue between 2 guys is tweaked (not cut!) to such a degree that you can't really recognize the actor's natural timing anymore, and can't really speak of a "performance", rather a "composition"

[Example: Arnie Hammer and A. Garfield are in the same frame, talk. Hammer says something, Garfield thinks about that, answers. Now, for the director the pause seemed too long, he takes a couple of seconds out of Garfield's performance, without cutting away or anything, in the same sequence where Hammer is talking (on the left side of the frame). The result is a completely different performance: Garfield has another expression on his face while listening to Hammer, the pause is shorter, therefore his answer seems more eloquent and fierce. It has a completely different dynamic, and this was just a small example they showed, I wonder how much they used it on TSN, or any other film since then???]

I say: This changes the way we should think about actor's and their performances! It's like with pictures and Photoshop, everybody knows that what you see is what you DON'T get!

15 thosemovieguys
Posted on Tuesday January 31, 2012, 13:51
Interesting argument, but maybe we are overlooking the fact that Tintin wasn't a great film and didn't deserve a nomination. That's not to say that Puss In Boots or Kung Fu Panda 2 do either, but Tintin was a turgid, bloated film with terrible performances and completely lacking in suspense or story.

I would argue that they should remove the Animation category, as with the Foreign Film, category and that if the film is good enough it should be up for Best Picture, rather than having to limit and hamstring itself by choosing one of the niche categories (for want of a better expression).

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