Of the year’s 10 top-grossing films, three fit what the Academy celebrates via its 13-years-young animated feature category: “Despicable Me 2,” “Monsters University” and “The Croods.”
But then, what do you call “Iron Man 3,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” “World War Z” and “Gravity”? Each of those more-digital-than-not blockbusters could be “animated” enough to fit the Acad’s definition, “in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.”
“Gravity” makes an especially intriguing case, since Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s faces are often the only practical element that appears onscreen. Director Alfonso Cuaron has repeatedly described the innovative process they developed to create the film as being akin to that of making an animated movie. Only after the team had spent 2½ years nailing down the lighting, angles and character animation in a detailed previsualization did it reverse-engineer a way to shoot footage of the actors.
At last month’s VES Summit, Bill Kroyer pointed out the expansion of animation techniques into traditional filmmaking — an evolution that has been under way since such half-toon hybrids as “Song of the South” and “Mary Poppins,” well before the advent of computer-generated imagery.
“I believe every year we’ll see increased uses of animation techniques in filmmaking,” Kroyer says. As governor of the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch, Kroyer faces the unusual challenge of having to decide where to draw the line — though he believes the success of “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” illustrate that moviegoers aren’t the slightest bit distracted by how the lines are blurring.
So what do you know? The director of Gravity nailed down character animation, lighting and the rest before photographing the Bullock and Clooney inserts.
Sounds remarkably like an animated feature to me.
But the lines between animated and live-action features have been blurring for years. Titanic had animation. All the super hero epics that audiences flock to see have animation. And certainly the Jurassic Parks had animation ... as far back as twenty years ago.
CGI has expanded animation's role in every corner of movie-making, no question, but using animation in live-actor flicks isn't a new phenomenon. The Fleischers and Disney did it in the twenties. Gene Kelly hoofed with Jerry the Mouse in the forties. And beyond character animation, Walt Disney Productions cartoon department sub-contracted visual effects work on Forbidden Planet fifty-nine years ago.
In the analog era of the 1950s, animated special effects were pretty much a one-off, but that's no longer the case. Now there are "live-action" movies that are mostly built in computers with abundant key-frame animation. The public might think of Avatar and Gravity as features of the live action persuasion. But industry pros know better.