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Oscar ’07: The fallout from the “Happy Feet” win


Happy Feet won. Does it matter?
The sad fact is, it may.

I won’t deny that Happy Feet was a well made, entertaining film. I liked it personally. It does qualify under the definition of an animated film. But it doesn’t respresent the medium.

Unfortunately, the win by Happy Feet will reinforce to the powers-that-be in Hollywood that motion capture is a valid subsitute for authentic character animation. That live action writers, directors and actors can make a “cartoon” without the skills honed by decades of accomplishment created by Walt Disney and his successors.

Oscar winning animator and Academy member Gene Deitch sent us his thoughts:

So, exactly as I feared, a Performance-Capture movie has won the Oscar, masquerading as an Animated Film.

HAPPY FEET is a good movie, full of charm, and with something important to say. Bravo!

But now, what about us? To paraphrase what General Douglas MacArthur once said, “Old animators never die, they’ll just fade away.” I just read that Disney will be setting up a new studio, dedicated to performance-capture production. I’m personally lucky. I’ve had five of my shorts nominated, one which actually won the Oscar. So I’ve had it.

Even better, my long-time client – nearly 40 years – Weston Woods/Scholastic, is virtually immune from mo-cap and even CGI, as they produce short films adapted from children’s picture books. Practically the only way they can be made is with traditional drawn animation. So my harangues against accepting performance-capture films for the Animation Feature Film category have not been in any way an effort to save my personal skin. I grieve for our craft in general, and for those skilled traditional animators, who will increasingly be shunted off into special-effects work. Their only hope of getting back into the big time of feature film animation will be if a powerful enough producer, with a powerful enough story, brave enough to finance a graphically advanced production – something that can only be drawn – immune from mo-cap – who will give frame-by-frame animation a chance to live. Aardman is still clinging to clay, and they may survive, but where is there a future for feature-length drawn animation?.

May the Power of Pegholes be with us!

My first thought last night was that this is the first time the Annie Award didn’t portend the Oscar winner. That made me a bit prouder of my fellow Asifa-Hollywood members who do indeed honor films created by actual animators.

I agree with most of Gene’s points – and share his discomfort with this new technique. To clarify, Happy Feet is an animated film – but it’s not a cartoon. To paraphrase Gene, where is the future of the feature length cartoon?

The plus side? 2007 is an exciting year for authentic animated features. Between Brad Bird’s latest, Shrek III, Bee Movie, the stop motion Coraline and the hand drawn Simpsons there seems to be some potential – both at the box office and with the Academy – to reverse Hollywood’s mind in this matter.

Perhaps this win will cause Warner Bros. to now take animation a little more seriously, after a history of botched releases (notably The Iron Giant and The Ant Bully). Perhaps this will inspire John Lasseter and the revived 2-D team at Disney to really prove themselves, to blow us away with something that mo-cap can never be – and force Hollywood to return the art of animation to the hand of the artist.

Let’s hope.