Pete Hammond

There is always controversy about what is true animation, particularly with the motion capture process which uses real performances by actors and then essentially animates the scenes. I’m told that key members in the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’s animation branch conferred Tuesday night for a meeting which lasted 4 hours. Among the topics said to come up was the issue of motion capture (aka performance capture), and an insider with knowledge of the situation told Deadline that they “apparently” have decided to send a letter to the filmmakers of Mars Needs Moms, Happy Feet 2 and Tintin asking them what their “intent” was in the use of the Mo Cap process before deciding whether those films qualify. In its formal rules, the Academy states that “motion capture by itself is not an animation technique” and that the films must be done in frame-by-frame animation.

This year, 3 potential nominees use the Mo Cap process: director Simon Wells’ box office bomb Mars Needs Moms (from its co-producer Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers), George Miller’s sequel to his Oscar-winning Happy Feet, and most notably Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited entry into the animation world The Adventures of Tintin (which he also produced with Peter Jackson and Kathleen Kennedy). Based on the Academy’s past actions, it is likely that all 3 would qualify, and it would seem unlikely that the Academy would take on Oscar winners Zemeckis, Miller and Spielberg on this issue, especially since their previously stated intentions have been that they are working fully in the animated format. Even outside of the Mo Cap area, filmmakers known primarily for their live action films like those 3 have been dabbling in other forms of  feature animation including Trueba (who won an Oscar in 1994 for Belle Epoque) and Rango’s Gore Verbinski this year.

Many animators have questioned the purity of the Mo Cap process as it relates to their art form, and although such Mo Cap films as Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol have qualified for Oscars in past years, none were nominated. In fact, no film using Mo Cap either fully or partially has made the final list since 2006, when both Monster House and Happy Feet were contenders, with the latter actually winning.

Though some animators have their doubts, those behind Tintin certainly do not. Paramount sources who have seen Spielberg’s film swear it qualifies in every way, and they tell me that despite use of Mo Cap it is strictly frame-by-frame in terms of its animation. One person working on the film said, “10 years ago animators were complaining that the CGI process was not pure animation. I think when they see how this form has developed, particularly with Tintin they will start to accept it more readily”.

A Tintin insider emailed Deadline: “Steven has always believed that Tintin is an animated film. The Academy doesn’t, for example, make a distinction between hand-drawn vs. digital animation. Tintin‘s approach, using a mix of performance capture and digital animation, is simply another angle of the art form. Our current animated films use voice actors whose performances are directed. Tintin is using actors who are providing performance through voice, motion and an ability to interact with one another, but what you’re looking at in its design and conception is nonetheless animated.”

Recent comments from Joe Letteri, one of WETA’s owners, are: “It all depends on how you define animation, but to me the tools and techniques [of visual effects and animation] are all the same. Performance [Motion] Capture is not a mechanical process; it’s still an artistic process.”

A Paramount source told me the film is rendered in a way that is “completely animated” and that “once everyone sees the movie these issues will go away”.

People will begin seeing the film very soon, as a matter of fact, because in a very unusual move for a Spielberg film, The Adventures Of Tintin is being rolled out internationally first, beginning October 26th in Europe and throughout November before finally hitting the U.S. and Canada on December 21st. Sony Pictures has the film overseas, while Paramount is the domestic distributor. Nickelodeon Films and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment are also listed in the film’s credits. Spielberg will find himself in the potentially awkward position of competing for Oscar attention against DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has Kung Fu Panda 2 and the Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots in contention.

In fact, Paramount is overloaded with toon titles this season as it also has a frontrunner in Verbinski’s Rango, which is a true homebred Paramount product. With Par’s agreement with DreamWorks Animation seemingly coming to an end, the studio will make a direct foray into animation itself rather than relying on its distribution agreements with others.

Overall the animation feature race is more wide open this year after Pixar has rolled over the competition the past 4 annums straight. Cars 2 is not the kind of slam dunk potential nominee or winner that Disney/Pixar has released in the past. With today’s announcement that GKIDS (under the banner of Luma Films) will release Oscar-winning filmmaker Fernando Trueba’s animated musical Chico And Rita for a qualifying run before the end of the year, the list of potential films is now 15 by my count. That’s just short of triggering 5 nominees in the category and definitely enough to make way for 4 nominees. (To explain for those who don’t know how this works in the animation category, 8-12 films mean 2-3 noms, 13-15 films mean a max of 4 noms, and 16 means a full house of 5 noms). Final entry forms need to be submitted to the Academy by November 1st. Then vetted by the Acad’s Short Films And Feature Animation branch to see if the films qualify. If last year is any indication, the Academy will then put out a list of eligible animated features by the middle of November.

So assuming the motion capture process films get entered and everything eventually meets the Academy’s qualifications for consideration, the 15 surefire candidates as of now are: Rango, Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Adventures of Tintin (all being handled by Par’s awards crew), Fox’s Rio and Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, The Weinstein Co’s Hoodwinked Too, Disney’s Mars Needs Moms, Gnomeo and Juliet and Winnie the Pooh, Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2; , Sony’s The Smurfs and Arthur Christmas from the highly regarded Aardman Animations (with special 30-minute sneak peeks in LA, New York and London on Monday); Warner Bros’ Happy Feet 2, and GKIDS’ Chico And Rita.

In addition to those titles, there are oddities like a couple of Pokemon films announced for special weekend theatrical runs in December. And Lion of Judah, which might factor into the mix. A number of international titles could come into play as well, but at this point are not on the horizon before the November 1 deadline.

For the past two years Disney has also qualified one of their Tinker Bell straight-to-DVD feature titles in order to swell the number of entries and trigger a category of 5 nominees. (Thereby increasing the chances of a nom for their realistic contenders.) This year I have learned they will NOT be qualifying Tinker Bell And The Mysterious Winter Woods, even though it could have been a significant factor in getting the list of eligible toons to the Magic 16.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

Get Deadline news and alerts sent to your inbox.