Animated films bring Oscar audiences to other worlds
Deconstructing one of animation’s best years
Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 18:02
When Tim Burton and Henry Selick were working on “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” stop-motion animation, the art of physically manipulating an object frame by frame so it appears to move on its own, was reserved for children’s holiday specials and art films—never for a studio-backed full-length feature films. Its success opened the door for a multitude of other stop-motion animated films in recent years, including “James and the Giant Peach,” “Corpse Bride” and “Coraline.”
This season, a record three stop-motion animated films are nominated for “Best Animated Feature Film”: Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s “ParaNorman” and Peter Lorde’s “Pirates! Band of Misfits.” Since the inception of the category, five stop-motion films have been nominated, and only one has won—a fact that may change by the end of this month, as both “Frankenweenie” and “ParaNorman” are frontrunners for the award. They face some stiff competition, though—both Disney’s “Wreck-it-Ralph and Pixar and Disney’s “Brave” are also considered possible contenders.
Regardless of which film emerges victorious, we again have five strong films nominated from a record 21 animated films. If the prolific number of films seen in 2012 is any indication, it should come as no surprise that this was arguably one of the best years for animated film in quite some time.
Animated films must always bring something to the table that live-action films do not. Essentially, they must justify their right to exist. This usually involves exaggerated characteristics, fantastic settings or a taste of magical realism that would just not blend well—or would even feel ridiculous—in a live-action setting.
One of the more famous examples is “Toy Story.” As an animated feature, “Toy Story” is remembered by a generation of children for its fun characters, but if it had been initially produced as a live-action film, the use of puppets would have come off as creepy. In an animated setting, we can easily accept that “Toy Story” captures a different world where toys come alive when people aren’t there, but in a live-action setting our brain defaults into thinking that a story is set in our world, where no one wants toys to come alive. It’s why we’re terrified of Chucky of “Child’s Play,” but love Buzz Lightyear of “Toy Story.” And don’t even try to imagine how Pixar’s “Cars” would transfer to the real-world. Did the cars kill off all human life? Did we transfer human brains into cars as the next step in evolution?
In the case of stop-motion films, the process of using real-world items to create a separate space in which the film can exist adds a texture that makes them quite otherworldly. This is why so many stop-motion films, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline” and now “ParaNorman” feature horror elements—the unsettling aspects from the “Toy Story” example still exist while not being laughable as in live-action.
Stop-motion animation often also uses real-world items to more whimsical ends, as is the case with the animated short film “Fresh Guacamole,” which is nominated in the “Best Animated Short Film” category. The works of PES, the Internet handle of Adam Pesapane—the man in charge of “Fresh Guacamole”—are most commonly found on YouTube. However, in order to be considered for an award, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences requires films to be screened in a theater to an audience. “You have to jump through some hoops,” Presapane told the New York Times. He managed to get the film played before a showing of “The Artist” at a theater in Hollywood.
“Fresh Guacamole” is the shortest film ever considered for an Academy Award, clocking in at only one minute and 45 seconds, including credits. It features a person making guacamole with everyday objects, like a grenade for an avocado, monopoly houses for diced peppers and a baseball for an onion, served in the end with poker chips. Though arguably one of the most unique films up for an award this season, it has exceptional competition within its category.
One such competitor is “Head Over Heels,” the only student film entered in the category. “Head Over Heels” tells the story of a married couple who live on opposite sides of the house—the wife lives on the floor and the husband on the ceiling, or vice versa, depending on the point of view of the camera.
Still, the frontrunner is decidedly “Paperman,” the Disney short about true love that played before “Wreck-It-Ralph.” It used a new animation technique called “final line advection,” a mix of both traditional and computer generated animation that, when presented in black and white, gives the short a classic 1940s charm.
Animated films are judged, according to the Academy, in the same way that foreign films are—on their entirety. They are not just considering the quality of the animation, but also judging the movie’s achievement as a whole. As a result, the categories that focus on animated films are places where musicals, dramas, comedies and even horror films are judged side by side, making this one of the most diverse categories at the Oscars. So while you’re taking bets on the more talked-about categories, keep an eye on this year’s batch of animated films, because if 2012 was any indication, they will be bigger and better in the years to come.