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“Space Jam” Producer Says Mo-Cap Isn’t Animation and Why He’s Wrong

Last July we posted the amended Oscar rules that stated motion capture would no longer be eligible for the best animated feature Oscar. The rule changes pose a challenge for Steven Spielberg who may want his upcoming film The Adventures of Tintin to be considered for an animation Oscar. In an op-ed piece in last weekend’s LA Times, Steven Paul Leiva, the animation producer of Space Jam, argued that motion capture doesn’t qualify as animation and suggested the Academy should disqualify Tintin.

As much as I personally dislike the aesthetic effects of motion capture films, I feel that both the Academy and Leiva are dead wrong on the matter. However ugly and unappealing a Robert Zemeckis film or the upcoming Tintin might be, they are still animation in my book, as is Happy Feet and even James Cameron’s Avatar.

In motion capture, more often than not there is an animator behind the scenes building and evolving those performances. The argument, therefore, becomes a mechanical question of how much of the performance was created with recorded movement and how much by an animator. Lest we forget that the exact same question could also be posed for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which had heavy rotoscoping on some of its human characters. The Disney studio’s later animated features like Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty were almost entirely filmed in live-action before being animated too, with often heavy reliance on rotoscoping for the final movement.

The more somebody attempts to label animation with inflexible definitions, the more prone that person becomes to making ridiculously misinformed statements such as the ones Leiva makes throughout his op-ed. For example, he argues that “film animation is not a fine or graphic art but is, rather, a performance art.” I could spend the next month posting links to abstract animated films, music videos and features like Yellow Submarine that are more graphic art oriented than performance based, but for the sake of ease, let’s just post the most obvious example that puts Leiva’s opinion to rest–a segment from Disney’s Fantasia:

The reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences changed their rules is understandable: they’re scared. They’re not ready to admit yet that in the next decade, feature film animation and live-action will become near indistinguishable. The kneejerk response is to throw up abitrary fences and proclaim, “This is animation” and “This isn’t animation.” Unfortunately, animation today can’t be compartmentalized. It incorporates CGI, visual effects, Machinima, After Effects puppetry and an ever-increasing variety of new techniques. The Academy will be forced into making more uncomfortable rule changes until they acknowledge the reality of animation’s evolution in the 21st century.

The traditionalists like Leiva come at it from a slightly different angle. Their position is to preserve the art of animation as if it were a dying and stagnant relic. They’ll pull out their dated “illusion of life” definitions as if Disney invented animation and made the rules for what can and and can’t be considered animation. In reality, what Leiva wants to protect is a specific brand of animated filmmaking rooted in classic conventions. Of course, take a look around and you’ll find that style of animation is still the status quo throughout the industry.

The silver lining in this whole debate is that while the Academy and the Leivas of the world rush to define animation and place labels on it, the art form will continue to evolve as it always has, in imaginative forms far beyond anybody’s wildest imagination.

  • Ryoku78

    Mo-Cap is technically animation, just not good animation.

    • reza

      how would it not be good animation when we consider animators that come close to animating things true to life great animation? by default it is good animation, but you may have room to say that a mo-capped piece has poor acting. good animation with poor acting can exist too, its not bad animation as much as it is inappropriate in context.

      i would hope that by considering mo-capped films animations, it would push the actual animators to break out of their perceived boundaries more and be more creatively and artistically challenged to do some gorgeous and undoubtedly unique work instead of spending countless of hours doing something safe and easily digestible

      • Ryoku78

        Realism dosen’t equal greatness, at least not in my book. I will admit that mo-cap is an impressive technology.

        Yet for the moment most mo-cap faces tend to look lack emotion and the movement either looks good or jello-y. Animators should work on the faces more as I know the actors are limited in that area thanks to the sticky things they have to wear.

  • Grant Beaudette

    As much as I dislike Mocap, I’m forced to concur. Curse you and your well reasoned arguments!

    • Mike

      I think the arguments are good; I just don’t know if I can ever embrace the filmmaking technique that brought us ‘Mars Needs Moms’ as animation….ugh.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    I can certainly see the point here.

  • Why is Rango being mentioned in this post?

    “… they are still animation in my book, as is Rango and even James Cameron’s Avatar.”

    Yes I worked on it and yes it was all keyframed with no mocap. Is the “emotion capture” talk and/or behind the scenes footage of actors acting scenes out really that misleading? I’m actually curious what people think. We are in a bubble when we work on the movies, so what is the outside world consensus?

    I read comments where people (animators) just flatly described Rango as a non-animated movie, because they saw a few scenes of the actors acting scenes out. Does the animation in the movie really look like mocap or are people just dismissing it because it’s an animated feature coming from a VFX studio?


    • Kamron

      It doesn’t look like mocap JD people just latched onto the words Emotion Capture and filed it in their brains as mocap. People are just not taking the time to actually research the movie themselves.

      • That’s too bad. You’d think animators would know better.

        Gotta say though, for background characters, especially A LOT of background characters mocap can be a huge time saver. I had a shot with tons of guys in the bg, close to 100. Doing all of those by hand with photo real movement? Would have taken forever. With mocap, a few days, done. In that regard I can see the appeal for it, but for hero stuff it’s much trickier, usually a time sucker and thrown away.

    • I could have sworn there was an article years ago that mentioned “Rango” was supposed to a motion-captured film. I think that may be were some of the confusion came from.

      • Amy

        It wasn’t motion captured–but I’d hardly call it “animated.”

      • Why? Wasn’t it animated?

      • Mike

        What? It was fully animated..and brilliantly so, at that!

      • If “Rango” wasn’t animated, then I’m really impressed. I don’t know how they fit Johnny Depp into that lizard costume.

      • That’s exactly my confusion, what made it not “animated”?

    • In the end does it really matter? If the film is good it will win, honestly I don’t understand why people are so scared of bad mocap? Mocap like CGI and any other technology that has been developed has its haters and purists however animation is broad and subjective, while Avatar has animation in it i would hardly call it animation because of the amount of live action footage still there is an awful lot of really good animation.

      I think the problem lies with the animators in that we’re offended by the public’s perception of what animation is; its all done by computers. Mocap doesn’t help to dispel this myth especially when animation studios show the actors doing all the work and not mentioning that animators are involved (James Cameron helped with this by saying theres no animation in Avater). However what is is and we just have to get over it and deal with the fact that animation will never be seen for the hard work that it is.

    • Jim

      “I read comments where people (animators) just flatly described Rango as a non-animated movie, because they saw a few scenes of the actors acting scenes out.”

      You sure the people commenting were actual animators? Or were they wannabes?

      Because if they were actually animators, they’d know that the use of live action reference (which is all that “emotion capture” stuff they used in Rango is… just reference) has been going on for YEARS and live-action is still heavily used as reference in every single major studio.

      For all the doubters: here’s a video of Blue Sky animator Jeff Gabor acting out his reference for Horton Hears a Who:


      That’s EXACTLY what “emotion capture” is. It’s just reference (only in the case of “Rango” the reference was provided by the voice actors). It’s nothing new or groundbreaking.

  • Kamron

    I agree with you Amid that they are wrong and that mocap is animation. Even after mocap is taken it has to be cleaned up and certain scenes have to be totally redone frame by frame in order to reach an end result. You may want to revise your post though to exclude Rango. That movie was animated frame by frame. The Emotion Capture referred to in the credits is more of a joke from Gore Verbinski, It refers to the fact that he felt more comfortable with shooting the actors in make shift sets and then handing it off to the animators as reference. Of course like any good animator the reference was a starting point and the majority of it wasn’t even used. Just thought I might bring it up since a lot of people keep making this mistake. I will even admit that I at first made this mistake. Thanks again for posting this.

    • amid

      You’re right, I should have caught that. I initially included it to make the point that animated films rely on live-action in different ways, like the filming of actors in Rango, but it didn’t make sense in a mocap piece.

  • I suppose this has been said a thousand times but rotoscoping at Disney was used for reference only, not tracing. There was no way you could trace over the damn things and not lose the character.

    I used rotos in several Disney films, and mainly, I found them a pain in the ass.

    • amid

      Floyd – That’s why I wrote, “The argument, therefore, becomes a mechanical question of how much of the performance was created with recorded movement and how much by an animator.” Even if roto was used for reference, it cannot be denied that the performance was inspired by filmed movement and didn’t originate in the mind of an animator. The amount of reliance on roto differs vastly in a Disney film and a Bakshi film, but the underlying principle is the same as mocap in that the performance originates in live-action.

      • Bud

        And despite what anyone says, Disney DID use Roto for more than “reference.” But they were smart to stage the live action well–as a ballet–and were smart in how they used it. But there are plenty of scenes in Snow White and Cinderella that were pure roto.

    • Just like mocap.

      • My last comment was regarding this: “I used rotos in several Disney films, and mainly, I found them a pain in the ass.”

  • jordan reichek

    plain and simple: would he consider puppet performance films live action as opposed to animation?

    a ‘live actor’ is manipulating a ‘real world’ object in real time to create the illusion of life from an otherwise inanimate object.

    >>animation- noun /ˌanəˈmāSHən/ 
    animations, plural

    4. The manipulation of electronic images by means of a computer in order to create moving images<<

    as ugly as much of it is, mo-cap, by definition, is animation.

    drop the animation shame, buster!

  • Great post. This as well as all the amazing shorts put up recently (Fear Me Not, Family Portrait) have chipped away at my prejudice massively and I feel a bit more enlightened. Cheers!

  • Scott B.

    Amid has it right. I’m an illustrator, and saying mo-cap movies like Tintin aren’t animation is like saying Norman Rockwell’s paintings aren’t illustrations because he painted from photo reference rather than “freehand.” Or that Spielberg didn’t direct “Raiders” because it was heavily storyboarded. It’s just ridiculous how people who don’t understand a thing are able to set the definition of it.

    • andreas Wessel-Therhorn

      it takes some balls to accuse the executive board of the animation branch of the academy as not knowing what they are talking about. people obviously have different opinions on this, but lets not just discard the experience and know how of colleagues who serve in the animation branch. I have worked on several Disney features that had live action shot for reference and not once did i trace any scene. i looked at bits of acting that i liked and added my own ideas, or i discarded the live action all together. if the process of mo cap and the amount of involvement by animators isnt clear, its the fault of the producers who keep stressing that the performance comes strictly from the actors and any animators that may have worked on the scenes are kept in the closet and at the end of the credit crawl. while we have an oscar dedicated to animation, it is the duty of the branch to define what that means.

  • What in the cel

    I do hand drawn animation for commercial studios and have worked on 3D mocap for game studios. In my opinion fixing hand poses and making feet sync up to the next set of ready made keyframes isn’t really animating so much as it’s fixing what the computer couldn’t do for itself. And in the near future there will be less need for clean up as the tech gets better for hand and facial capture. Regardless of how it looks in the end, the tiny percent of frames that need full character hand key adjustments doesn’t compare work-wise to the capture ready code you just plug in. And from my experience the tiny amount of sequential frames in a row you actually hand animate, just doesn’t add up to me feeling like an “animator”. You do get to direct actors in suits which is fun, but you didn’t create these actors or their animated output, you just clean it up. It’s a tough call but I will never feel like it’s animating.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    Good article and food for thought, Amid.

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    This controversy goes back as far as the 10th century when the camera obscura was invented. I remember seeing a report on TV about the revelation that reniassance artists used this tracing device. To the non-artistic reporter, this was some kind of disillusionment. Generally, if an artist is behind the technology it is a tool. If a hack or rushed job is behind the technology, it is a crutch. There is a difference between an artist tracing a subject, like anatomy, that they have a profound understanding and years of study and a non-artist with vellum and a coloring book. Unfortunately for laymen, they do not understand the difference. Even fine artists, if they are paid, are commercial artists, and subject to schedules and the need tools to help. Laymen have an idea of what an artist should be. I had a witch of a grade 5 teacher (not an artist) who said that a true artist doesn’t use a ruler. That messed me up until college.

  • Animation is a frame by frame process.

    It has nothing to do with the magic endowed by an animator working on it.

    If motion capture is a frame by frame, then by all means -it’s animation.

    If, on the other, it’s information of point A being interpreted and applied across time through point B -that’s not animation. It’s motion graphics.

    It’s a special effect.

    And that’s great too. But it scuttles all ontology if something is “animation” because an “animator” worked on it.

    • NC

      If, on the other, it’s information of point A being interpreted and applied across time through point B -that’s not animation. It’s motion graphics.

      Would that also apply to motion and shape tweening in Flash? Because a lot of Flash animators use both techniques for animating in the traditional use of the term.

      • Yes, to me, the “tweening” in Flash makes it not animated. It’s computerized puppetry.

    • Skeptical

      “Animation is a frame by frame process.”

      So is live action filmmaking. The camera records the actor’s performances one frame at a time. There is no difference between the process of capturing mocap data and live-action film data. Your definition is pointless.

      • Have you ever made a live action film, anonymous? Hardly a frame by frame process.

        The construction and recording are two entirely different things.

        Process means everything it takes to get the end result -animated film vs. live action film. Two fundamentally different processes.

        Motion graphics/special effects fall inbetween -though clearly closer to “animation”. Which, by the way, is a process of film making (that can be applied to other media).

        As for Flash “tweening”, I agree with Michael. It’s akin to motion graphics but with characters.

        These aren’t “good” vs. “bad” value judgements. The chief importance of them is in determining the best technique to tell the story. “Avatar”, for example, animation might not have been it -this motion capture it’s a new thing, not really animation -that probably was. “The Princess and Frog”? Animation. “Beauty & the Beast”? Definitely Cocteau-live action.

      • Oh, and by saying “there is no difference between the process of capturing mocap data and live-action film data” you help prove the point that this is special effect process more than anything else.

        Clearly not animation by your terms.

      • Skeptical

        You seem to miss my point, Richard. I’m making the point that mocap data IS captured in exactly the same way that live action filmmaking captures its data, and is therefore NOT animation. Talking about mocap as something done frame by frame, as you did, is an oxymoron. It’s not motion graphics, either. It’s its own thing, neither fish nor fowl.

      • I didn’t say that motion capture was a frame by frame process. I said “IF” it was it “WOULD” be animation.

        Since it isn’t a frame by frame process, it clearly isn’t the same process as animation.

        It’s akin to motion graphics in many ways -moreso than it is to animation- but no, I didn’t say it was motion graphics either.

  • I’ve never considered Motion Capture to be animation. For me, it’s a digital version of prostetchic make-up effects. I mean, there’s a reason why Stan Winston and his company were heavily involved in the creature design of “Avatar.” The aliens were essentially high-tech make-up jobs, as the goal was to maintain the actor’s performance. Keyframed Animation can be similiar as sometimes animators use reference, but it’s not the same as manipulating pre-existing data to make it more polished.

    My two cents, of course.

  • I think there is something to be said of the validity of both arguments but what may be glossed over or lost in the argument over what is the medium and the interpretation of the arguments is the spirit or intention of the award.

    These movies made with motion capture I’m sure employee a great many animators to augment, refine, and correct and as such can be argued to be animation, there are also elements to these movies like Avatar where characters are included that could not be motion captured because they don’t exist and there isn’t a adequate representation to directly capture their motion. In Tin Tin I’m guessing there wasn’t a dog on set wearing ping pong balls and I don’t for one second believe that the any data captured of Andy Serkis was directly applied to a rig of Gollum and printed to film, so I wouldn’t argue that animation was not involved in making these films, but just because a production has animation in it does not an animated film make.

    There should be a predominance of animation within the production to qualify for the recognition of this award should there not? Which, for the sake of argument takes us to the point what is and isn’t animation? I don’t know if anyone ever argued like this about stop motion and traditional, perhaps they did or maybe it was all animation it was just called stop motion and traditional but when CG came along I remember tension and with certain commercial successes along with this sense of wonder with what artists were doing with it, and exploded with great rush of power within the movie making community that had an unfortunate impact on traditional animation and it was the villain. It was embraced by creatives that wanted to bring characters to life but who might not be able to draw and eventually through either a genuine interest or a survival instinct was adopted by the community at large to be animation as well, just CG animation. It always seemed more an evolution of stop motion than anything else to me at least but no arguing it’s animation and some amazing stories are being told with it commercial or not on or off the Academy radar.

    So it’s traditional, stop motion, and CG and now as technology continues to move forward motion capture enters the scene and perhaps it could be considered as a way for creatives to bring characters to life who neither can draw or are particularly adept at using a puppet or a curve editor. So it can be argued that it is animation and maybe one day thats all it will be considered, just another method of animating, but I’m curious if you asked the folks who put on these suits on these sound stages if they thought of themselves as animators or performers what response would be the most dominate and it is on this point that I find which side of the debate I land within my own mind.

    If these performers are being recorded, data or film, to be the character on screen either their literal body and face, clear or in makeup, or in the digital prosthetics of a Na’vi, a shell of a man kept alive by an unnatural force within a ring, or a stylized cartoon of a young boy they are actors performing and not animators. This is the conclusion I’ve made for myself, it isn’t to say that animators are not performers, it is certainly important for them to bring that to their craft and in my mind that is more the point that they are craftsmen and women, students of anatomy, kinetics, acting, cinematography, composition, timing, emotion and their job to marry their craft with the performance of the voice actor.

    These, I think, are very separate crafts acting and animating and why, I believe, there exists the separate category and is the spirit of that award.

    Amid, you spoke of reference in your response and it is very true that historically and up to this very day reference is a big part of an animators tool kit and while I can’t argue that reference weighs heavily on the result as I study the medium today as an aspiring animator I can tell you from the mouths of my instructors, currently employed at Dreamworks, you don’t copy the reference, you analyze the mechanics otherwise the results on screen with a character like Po for instance you end up with what looks like a performer in a suit, and also you record yourself acting out your own reference and while that may not have been the case years ago at Disney I believe it is pretty much the norm today so our creations more often than not do in fact come from our minds.

    So Mr. Spielberg wishes for his Tin Tin to be considered an animated film I suppose ultimately that is to be decided by people we can all too easily deride and criticize regardless of what verdict they return but for my money as a movie-goer, a fan of animation, and an aspiring animator it is acting with digital makeup and visual effects animation. Brandon Routh could no more fly as Superman than Christopher Reeves could but for him there was a wireframe instead of wires, animation used to augment the performance, animation for visual effect, animation to be sure but not an animated film. Tin Tin could have been keyframed in a computer by a team of animators instead it was acted out by performers in front of a camera that shoots with positional data rather than film, animation used to augment the performance, animation for visual effect, animation to be sure but not an animated film.

    Am I a labeler? Perhaps. A traditionalist struggling against evolution? Maybe. What the dictionary, the academy, and the majority define as animation may evolve but I won’t lament my desire to hold on to keys, breakdowns, and in-betweens as animation and everything else as… not, with all my stubborn ignorance and reverence for the art.

    • K.A.Healy

      I bow down to the master. Since i could never say it like Jason does, I’m just going to say, ditto.

  • Sorry Mr Leiva

    Space Jam wasn’t animation because Michael Jordan was in it.

    Actually while we’re at it: neither was Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

    Every “mo-cap” movie has dozens of animators working to fix and enhance the performances. Plus there are dozens more animators working on the parts you can’t capture: tails, toes, faces, wings, hair etc.

    To say nothing of the non-captured characters. As someone said: they ain’t putting a dog in a capture suit for Tintin.

    The only legitimate point to question is whether a film has *sufficient* animation in it to qualify in the Animated Feature Academy Award category.

    But it’s just an award category.

    • Bud

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “Be considerate and respectful of others in the discussion. Defamatory, rude or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted.”]

  • fremgen

    To me it’s very simple, could capture that frame without some sort manipulation? No, than it’s animation. And if your movie has more animated frames than non-animated ones, you made an animated movie. Simple :)

  • This question has come up very recently in Ron Diamond’s Facebook group devoted to members of the Motion Picture Academy animation branch. The consensus is overwhelmingly that mo-cap is NOT animation. I guess that jibes with the change in rules, but this group does not always agree with the Academy. I can see both sides, so I would want to take it on a case-by-case basis. Happy Feet = animation, Avatar = not animation. It’s not practical, I know but who ever said animation was practical.

  • Mark Sonntag

    I agree Amid, it’s what you do with the mocap afterwards that makes it good or bad. Hell, artists have used models for centuries, is that cheating? does that make Da Vinci a fraud? It’s a tool for creation.

  • What about all of the other artists who work on animated films, like modellers, texture artists, riggers, lighters, compositors, etc. They were all working on an animated film frame by frame, regardless if it was mocap or hand animated.

    If the animation elitist want to keep saying that the only process that defines an animated film is if it had been hand animated, then I am going to keyframe some animation which will drive the movements of a robot, film it with a camera and call that animation.

  • Matt B

    On a lot of the points you’re both “correct”.

    You’re simply looking at the issue from two different perspectives while holding more firmly to certain ideals than to others.
    That’s often a difficult thing to wrap your head around in any “argument”.

    Does anyone really care about these labels?
    They’re just gonna do what they do.

  • I wrote an article for an arts/media blog on this very subject.


    I’d love to hear what you guys think.

    As far as Academy Recognition goes, I agree with Amid in that it’s very difficult to draw the line between ‘animation’ and ‘performance’. Even if the “pure animator” is capable of animating a character without any reference whatsoever, they are still shackled to the vocal performance of the voice actor. In modern animated feature films, without the voice actors, there’s no animation to be made. You could be a jerk and argue that the entire animated performance is like adding “make-up” to a radio play. Ah, but the final result is a collaboration between the voice actor and the “pure animator” of course. But if we allow for the definition of “pure animation” to accommodate an unbreakable symbiosis between actor and animator, what happens to the collaboration between the mo-capped actor and the animator “touching up”?

    You could argue that the mo-cap animator is deferring to the actor. So that implies a ratio of contribution. The actor does 80% of the work, and the 20% that comes from the animator is merely “touching up”. So how do you apply that metric to a “traditional” animated performance? Is it always 50% voice actor and 50% animator? Can an A-list animator make a C-list vocal performance oscar worthy? Can an A-list actor’s incredible, transcendent performance be ruined by a C-list animator? Is either animated performance more or less “pure”?

    You could go down the semantics rabbit-hole forever. The Academy is now and has always been in the un-enviable position of being the de-facto arbiter of filmmaking semantics. But at the end of the day, they just want the right people to get the right recognition for their work.

    I think the Academy Awards do a pretty crappy job at that to begin with, but I honestly don’t know what they should do with motion capture. I think we need to hear more from Spielberg as to why he thinks it’s an Animated Film. How about we interview the team that’s making Tintin? I’d like to know how they feel about it.

  • I said it before and I’ll say it again:

    If there is an essence in a motion captured performance, it comes from the actor. The job of the motion capture technicians is to accurately reproduce it. Any animated additions they make are a result of the technology’s shortcomings or the director’s change of heart. By contrast, an animator, if successful, creates the essence of the motion. This is no small distinction. There is a world of difference between reproduction and creation.

    • Student


    • William

      I agree.

      If different technologies are incorporated into filmmaking, objective standards should be developed and identified for them. This topic does seem to stradle a line between art and engineering but, from a technical standpoint, they certainly can be compartmentalized.

      Especially if objective decisions are made at award ceremonies to reward those technologies.

    • wendy

      What if the actor is the animator? I’m an animator and I capture my performance and then enhance. Where does the essence come from in my case. When I’ve planned and designed my motion in my head? When I’m capturing my performance? Or when I’m cleaning it and enhancing the performance? I love both animating as well as acting and at the end of the day I use the capture as a tool, the same way I use the computer when animating. I used to create 2D animation …and for me that’s still the medium that truly inspires me.

  • Cyle

    Look, lots of things can fit the broad definition of animation. If to animate is “to give life to” most art can be considered animation, but clearly when most people say animation they really mean frame by frame performances/effects. Animators work on motion capture films, but that doesn’t necessarily make the motion capture process itself animation by the common definition, nor does it make any movie that uses the technique an animated film.

    People use animation to enhance live action films all the time (some have more frame by frame manipulation than motion capture films), but that shouldn’t be enough to change the film category entirely. To me, Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t an animated or a live action film. It’s both. You wouldn’t call a live actor with a mechanically operate prosthetic a puppet, would you? One component doesn’t cancel out the other, but if the ratio is particularly uneven we tend to categorize accordingly. If the original motion capture data is only used as reference for the final product, it’s animation, but if the actor’s performance is preserved, the animator is more like a technician whose job is fixing the broken parts of the performance and is only partially responsible for the performance. Can films that use motion capture be animated films? Yes, but motion capture itself is not animation just because the data is manipulated by animators somewhere in the process.

    The real problem is that we even categorize films by the processes used to make them. I think the categories should only apply to the technical awards. Then it would be obvious to see why the distinction between motion capture and frame by frame animation is necessary. I also think there should be a composite character performance award at the Oscars for characters brought to life by multiple people regardless of what techniques were used. All voice actors, animators, and physical performers behind the character would share the award.

    • Chris Webb

      I agree. I’ve never liked the idea of a separate category for Best Animated Film. The Academy should get rid of it and let the 100% Animated films like Rango or Cars 2 compete with all the other films, mo-capped, shot live on film or whatever.

  • Gray64

    You know what? I agree with you, Amid, 100%.
    (Cue Gabriel’s Horn sounding the Crack of Doom and announcing the End of the World).
    Thus far, the only really effective mo-cap I’ve seen was mo-cap as a special effect in the service of a live-action film. This is not to say that, someday, someone won’t make a mo-cap film that knocks my socks off. I just haven’t seen it yet. Who knows? TinTin might be great. There’s no reason that animation can’t encompass mo-cap as one of the many techniques in it’s arsenal.

  • droosan

    Pure performance capture is more closely related to puppetry than to keyframed animation.

    But — as several here have already noted — very few productions utilize performance capture in ‘pure’ form; it is nearly always blended with hand-keyed techniques in order to smooth it out, re-time it, etc.

    So, it’s a ‘hybrid’ form of animation, at the very least.

    But I’m one of those who considers puppetry of all sorts to be animation, too.

  • NC

    All I can say is if the Academy really wants “Mars Needs Moms” that bad Let Them HAVE IT!!!

  • I don’t know, I’d consider it a hyrid rather than a pure animated film. I doubt Who Framed Roger Rabbit would count as an animated film either.

  • panda

    If anything i feel that the fine animation crew at Weta totally deserve their moment in the light after such massive efforts on Avatar and anything before. As an animator who’ve worked with mocapped crap, i can totally appreciate the work they did for those movies. And it seems Spielberg understands this process well enough to want to categorize his movie as an animated film.

  • Slash Halen

    I can’t bring myself to disagree with anything you said amid. However, I also can’t help but feel you made this point:

    “Mo-cap IS in fact animation.”

    “Steven Spielberg’s Tintin IS in fact a mo-cap film.”

    “Therefore Tintin deserves a Best Animated Picture nomination. Period. No questions asked.”

    I know this isn’t the point you were trying to make but that’s just how my brain read the first paragraph. It also didn’t help that your second paragraph had this:

    “However ugly and unappealing a Robert Zemeckis film or the upcoming Tintin might be, they are still animation in my book, as is Happy Feet and even James Cameron’s Avatar.”

    So… they automatically deserve whats arguably the highest honor Hollywood can give to a film, a nomination?

    What ever happened to judging films for being films? Don’t you think we are getting a little to distracted with what qualifies as this or that? Can’t we just let a movie be a movie and call it a day?

  • Clement

    Motion capture is not animation, just because it requires animators doesn’t mean it is animation. Motion capture is like making a mold : when you make a mold you need a sculptor to refine the bad parts. It’s hard work but it doesn’t turn the piece into a sculpture.

    Animation’s fun is about deformations, transformations, speed and movements you can’t see in real life. When you reproduce real life, even if it’s not automatic it makes animation incredibly boring.

    • The Gee

      Part of the problem is that it is quite likely those who are mo-cap’s most ardent, vocal proponents aren’t really interested in making animated cartoons.

      I’ll give Spielberg (and Jackson, too?) the benefit of the doubt that they realize they are adapting a cartoon from one medium and making an animated cartoon. The thing is, like some in animation, they may not really be into making a cartoon as much as making an animated feature.

      That may seem absurd on the face of it. I know “Happy Feet” had some mo-cap but was largely, mainly not mo-cap, and, the movie probably has a cartoon like sensibility to it (haven’t seen it but I remember info about it).

      The thing is with mo-cap, and with the animation that goes with it, the live action directors seem to envision and to attempt stuff would be avoided or perhaps not done by animation directors. There’s nothing wrong with that but it does sometimes backpedal on the fundamentals that animation has been built upon. Instead of perfecting squash and stretch or instead of letting the animation deliver a lot of personality, they’ll go for huge crowd scenes or explosions and other “epic” effects. The stuff they couldn’t easily film.

      But, I am going on clips and pieces I’ve seen over the years. I might be wrong that they go for the big budget fantastic which they couldn’t film, like Zemekis loving the camera possibilities CG animation affords.

      Let me put it this way, it seems like to some live action directors, mo-cap might be look at as some Star Trek evolution of green screen.

      Anyway, it sometimes seems like making an animated cartoon is the last thing that comes through. But, I’ll be happy to be wrong.

  • Why not just open up the ‘best animated feature’ category to anyone who wants to enter their film in it, but add a category for ‘best animation in a feature film’? Then the votes could consider the relative merits of the techniques each year, even as the technology changes.

  • If putting some kind of label around what is and what isn’t animation is so confining, will Cartoon Brew now be covering puppetry and makeup and costume effects? If the fact that a costume is digital rather than analog is the dividing line between being animated and live action, if you shoot the Muppet Movie on a RED, have you got animation? Do you the consider the word or even just the concept of “animation” to be antiquated or on the way out? I think of The Incredibles: “If everybody’s special, then no one is.” Well, If everything is animation, then nothing is.

  • Peter H

    1) Forget dictionary definitions – they are not relevent. A lively performance by an actor could be described as “animated”. This is about a very specific use of the word animation to define a motion picture technique. (The term “motion picture” of course now includes any image/time recording and playback technique, photographic or electronic.)

    2) The line depends where you sit – with the practitioners or the audience. Animators say “if the filmmaker decided how the images should be positioned for each frame it is animation, if not it is not.” Viewers say “if it looks like animation it is animation.”
    Personally I’m with the animators.

    3) Rotoscoping v. Mocap. An animator with a rotoscoped scene is at liberty (ideally) to use as much or as little of the information available as he/she wishes. They are most likely to create extreme poses based on 1, 2 or 3 consecutive frames but pushed further. They do this by creating a completely new image, which will become the basis of the animation. The more creative decisions they put into these images the richer will be the outcome. At best they are creating, at worst they are translating. (The best animators will note any interesting accents or angles, then shelve the roto and create the scene from scratch!)
    In Mocap – if I understand it correctly, and I may not! – the pre-designed character is initially placed in frame sequence automatically according to the information derived from the live performer. Then the scene is given to the animator to correct or improve. This means that even the job of translation has been removed. The animator is there as a technician, and if Mocap is the prime technique used for the film it is not animation but Special Effects.

    So personally, Amid, I think you a trying to be too inclusive.

    But perhaps we ought to be asking: should animation be a catagory on its own any more – or should there be a wider category of “films made using a special technique”?

  • Peter H

    and Amid – isn’t any event that is presented over a period of time “Performance Art”?

  • motion capture is to animation what mcdonalds is to food… technically they exist in the same universe. If a motion capture piece wins any prizes it would either smell of insider back slappery or perhaps it would surprise everyone by actually being worth the accolade.

    tin tin looks like a right bag of whelks mind you, but what do I know? I still enjoy films with story lines

  • I believe that Mark Mayerson has hit upon the crux of the matter.

    Furthermore, To me, it is a question of abstraction. 

    An analogy: If you were to place the painting of an old master on one end of a spectrum and a photograph of the same subject as the master painted on the other end of the spectrum, you fundamentally have a difference at the abstraction level.  It is really a question of how much reality is abstracted via the creative process.

    Sure, there is some creative process in photography, but certainly not to the same degree as the master’s painting. There are fundamentally many more creative decisions to make in painting (digital or traditional). The same, I believe, can be said of mocap and animation. Just as someone can slavishly paint an uber photorealistic image, when I ‘animate’ an ultra realistic movement in a character for a game, I do not consider myself to be actually animating. Instead I am focusing on my craftsmanship, the ability to imitate reality. The painter who slavishly ‘paints’ a portrait, to me, is not a painter per se, but acting rather like a camera. Similarily, the mocap technician who tweaks the data is acting like a motion camera. That is not to minimize or belittle her technical ability, but to me that is not what defines a painter or an animator.

    To actually animate, for me, means to abstract something from reality and to impart that essence or abstraction from reality into a work to produce something that has life, but is, in some sense, greater than reality (due to its focus or emphasis). That is not to say that the end result has to be totally abstract either… 

    Does the ‘animation’ enhance reality instead of slavishly (or conveniently) copy reality? Then to me it is animation. I suppose, for me, it is a distinction between art and craftsmanship. 

    Where does the artistry come into play in a mocapped scene? In the actor, the editor, sound designer, directors, etc. Even in a live action production, they are the ones making abstractions and emphasizing reality to give it more punch, life and vitality. But all that artistry is often achieved via technicians, the camera and boom operators, the gaffers, etc. To me, mocap falls into the technician realm, to the craftsman. 

    So it all depends on whether you look at the act of animation as an artistic or technical endeavor. With this view of animation and motion capture, what do we make of the Academy’s decision regarding the inclusion or exclusion of mocapped films. Speaking of only the animation or motion capture, and all the rest being equal, one could make the argument that a purely keyframed animated feature film is more artistic than a motion captured film. In that regard It would appear that in this go-round, the academy is focusing on the artistic merits of a film instead of the technical merits.

    • Cyle

      “Sure, there is some creative process in photography, but certainly not to the same degree as the master’s painting. There are fundamentally many more creative decisions to make in painting (digital or traditional).”

      I understand the point you were trying to make about abstraction, but I seriously disagree with that statement. People have a tendency to rank the arts, but that doesn’t make any sense to me. The idea that a painter is more creative because they have more control over what ends up on the page is silly to me. You could argue that it’s actually more creative when you have less control. That wouldn’t be correct either though. Neither is harder than the other or better in some way. They’re just different. Just like performing with your body on camera isn’t any less creative than animating drawings. It’s just different.

  • Mike Fallows

    There was a time when watercolor was not recognized as painting and a time when sound was thought to ruin the film viewing experience. Choice of brushes, surface and paint could be viewed as technical choices. There are many ways of creating animation as we have seen over the years and mocap is just another tool in the arsenal.

    • I agree that choice of color, paint medium, brushes, and surface are all technical choices, that was exactly my point. There is something else, which we call artistry which is a filtration of reality, an abstraction, if you will, a decision making process that surpasses and is seperate from any technical aspect of the creative process. This artistry, I believe, is more present in actual animation, but not in mocap itself. I never argued that there are not many ways to animate, just that mocap, in the sense above is not in and of itself artistic, it’s just a technical tool. The actor, in this case, is creating the artistic performance.

  • Skeptical

    One huge problem with this commentary is that it, too, is filled with ridiculously misinformed statements, like the glib equation of ‘rotoscoping’ with the use of live-action reference. Rotoscoping was invented by Max Fleischer as a technique to literally trace a live action performance onto animation cels. People like Bakshi and Bluth later skipped the machine part of rotoscoping by taking the frames of reference film and blowing them up as photostats, then pegging those photostats and requiring the animators to literally trace them. This is fundamentally different from an animator looking at live-action reference. Rotoscoping, in hand drawn animation, refers to LITERALLY TRACING AN ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE.

    In modern use, rotoscoping refers to manually creating mattes for an element on a live-action plate, so it may be composited over another background. It does not refer to an animation technique.

    Motion capture is frankly akin to the original rotoscoping or the Bluth/Bakshi tracing technique, especially when the ‘animator’ either lacks the time, skill, or authority to modify or manipulate the perform into something new. The entire point of either mocap or hand-drawn tracing/rotoscoping is to make a live actor’s performance appear to be animation. Both are attempts to eliminate the animator from the process, since animators are slow, expensive, and often inconsistent, and replace them with technicians. Of course, in practice both techniques require great skill and time to produce adequate approximations of animation, so that most high-end producers have stuck with actual key-framed animation.

    What’s ironic is that Amid and others are defending mo-cap at a time when the viewing public has mostly voted with their ticket buying to ignore it, and at a time when the results of animators being allowed to animate has lead to staggeringly well-animated films like Tangled, How to Train Your Dragon, Rio, Toy Story 3, and many others. The Academy is correct, even if it means we have to get into silly misinformed debates, and even if it means some live-action big shots who don’t fundamentally understand animation get their feathers ruffled.

    • @skeptical

      I don’t think it’s just about live-action. To me it’s a general point of making sure people understand the work that goes into a project.

      This is subjective, but the issue for me is that keyframed, non-automated work is being dismissed due to the studio’s insistence of labeling the animation within the movie as “motion-capture”. If the advertisement says motion-capture (or emotion capture), then it must be so and every second of the movie came out of an automated process. This is rarely the case. I’m not defending mocap, I’m defending the fact that a lot of the animation in a so called mocap movie is keyframed. Again, I can only speak for myself, but the majority of my mocap shots ended up being keyframed by deleting the data and starting from scratch by hand (and I know I’m not the only one).

      And I don’t think it’s just live-action people who are defensive. I remember the “hand-made animation” seal at the end of Ratatouille, which seemed like a response to the Happy Feet Oscar win. I understand why you want to let people know how much hard work went into a project. But mocap does not mean the computer does everything.

      And the viewing public voting with their ticket is not an argument for me. Transformers 2 made A LOT of money, yet it is probably one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

      The public is staying away from mocap movies because of the clashing style between animation, character design and environment. That creeps people out! It’s not the mocap technique by itself.

  • Oliver

    Spielberg being lectured by anybody involved with ‘Space Jam’ is like the makers of ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash’ telling Stanley Kubrick about science fiction.

  • Ruramuq

    Animation is not a frame by frame process.
    A technical definition is meant for the process not for the purpose..
    This is not like 2D to 3D transition, where tech changes but animation is still animation.
    [ ignore technology ]

    Animation= soul, anima, animus
    latin: animatio = “give life to”, the act of giving life to..

    “You can’t animate what is already animated”,
    for example a living person.
    “you can’t bring life to something that is already alive”

    It’s very difficult to relate mocap with animation, because we are basically seeing a projection and interpretation of the ‘same’ “motion|animation|life”.

    – mocap falls more in the area of Visual Effects, and actor’s performance.(people just don’t want to feel excluded from the animation context)

    Mixing concepts leads to confusion .. the opposite is always good.


  • panda

    I see too many people here perched on their high horses of artistry it’s churning my stomach. People working in this industry do know that there’s a world of difference between being a true artist and a commercial artist right? Being an animator does not grant one the sole ownership of the shot/sequence. All crew work towards meeting the director’s unified creative direction and we all pretty much operate within the boundaries set by powers beyond our controls. And we all earn our pay checks making the best out of whatever is handed to us. That includes having to work with mocapped datas for animators. Having mocapped data is one thing but to make any of it look good/appealing for the camera over the whole length of the shot/sequence/a whole freaking movie is another thing altogether. And directors’ change of heart and technology shortcomings are plenty in this field. Remember, it’s harder to make a good drawing out of a bad sketch than to start drawing on a blank piece of paper. Western movie makers have always been obsessed with re-creating reality – everything from textures, effects, explosions, lightings, water, you name it. So should it really be a surprise to you that they’d want the same treatment for movement/motion too one day? And is it really too much to ask to have realistic movement-textures out of realistically proportioned humanoid blue aliens and stylized but still realistically proportioned characters from Tin Tin’s universe, all lit and immersed in close to real environments? I don’t hear anyone bitching about texture artists retouching photos or matte painters using photos as bases so why the selective love for using mocaps as bases for animation? Mind you, to pull off a convincing performance for shots out of mocaps require shitload of judgment and very good understanding of animation artistry – which by the way is fully based off reality. Actors spent years of their lives practicing and refining their range of emotions and to replicate those in digital puppets really isn’t easy. Every mocap will look better after passing through a capable animator’s hands and as a matter of fact there are way too many examples of mocap work being put up on screen already but yet if you can’t even judge for yourself why some look better than others… I really don’t know what more to say… It’s really condescending for one to completely dismiss artists working with motion capture as technicians(not that there’s anything wrong with technical people) but this coming from dinosaurs with little understanding of how much judgment, artistry and creative overhauls that can go into finessing the performance to make anything screen worthy is just criminal. At least try to understand the process before dismissing anything this blatantly. Jeeze while we’re at it why not we scrap the “best cinematography” from the list of Oscars awards since all that DP bloke is doing is reproducing light and capturing reality. Not much artistry there, is it? And how about all those multi millionaire actors who do nothing but read lines written for them by writers with notes on what their emotions should be while delivering those lines? Should they still deserve recognition? How about screen play writers working off existing material? Costume designers who seems to be merely mixing and matching existing cloths for the movie? If creation is the only pillar of artistry to some people then boy you guys should be lining up to buy my 5 year old’s paintings! She sure do produce quite a lot of original content every day! End of rant.

  • Michelle

    “The reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences changed their rules is understandable: they’re scared.”

    …really? They’re “scared?” That’s the best you can do? Why do you just make this garbage up rather than do basic research? How about interviewing an Academy member and actually getting some real information?

    For 100 years, animation has been defined as working in stop frames. It’s the illusion of movement from where there was none. Even traditional rotoscope still remains a one-frame-at-a-time process.

    Mo-cap has nothing to do with any of this. I don’t care how many animators may or may not “tweak” the live action that’s captured and spat out by the computer. If it doesn’t begin in a frame by frame environment, it ain’t animation.

  • Sardonic Tuba

    Live actors cloaked in digital costumes isn’t animation. Not for me, anyway.

  • Portaxx

    Guys having their real-life movements translated to a computer = animation.

    Flash = not animation.

    Gotcha, cool, thanks.

  • A very good argument and well stated.

  • SPACE JAM? A producer of one of IMHO the worst turds of a mis-manifestation of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies franchise speaking his mind here? No offense, BTW.

  • Steve Ryder

    It is all animation. Live action, drawn, motion captured, stop motion are all hand crafted to some degree. To animate by definition means “To give life to”. Whether it’s from a director like Spielberg, a Tex Avery cartoon, or a child’s first drawing, they all have the same intent, which is to deliver an experience of which can captivate and move you or not.
    -Back to Future (Live action)
    -The Iron Giant (hand drawn and cg animated)
    -Avatar (live action, performance captured, hand keyed)
    -The Nightmare before Christmas (stop motion)
    All of these films have captivated viewers to varying degrees and they all use special effects (principals of animation included)to prove their believability. Sequential frames flashing in front of your eyes at 24 frames per second is a “special effect” regardless of what they are composed of.

    Here is a single image that I consider to be animated. It has life and proves it by captivating and moving me.

  • Mister Twister

    I don’t care if Steven Paul Leiva produced… THAT; here, he is right!

  • Javier

    I always thought Mocap was more of a special effect than anything else, really.

  • Juan Carlos Valdez

    Mocap is not animation. People also need to stop comparing rotoscoping to mocap. It may be similar but it’s not the same.

  • Fremgen

    Mocap and Rotoscope are exactly the same! Their goals and results are the same- take an actor’s movement and transform it into a character’s movement. Aside from technical advancement, Koko the clown and the Navi were created the same way.

    And I still say the greater point is this-

    Live action movie – the majority of frames were captured by a camera.
    Animated movie – the majority of frames were created by a human/computer

  • Mike Luzzi

    To throw my hat in the ring, I would say that rotoscoping is a human creating moving images by heavily referencing video frames. Mocap is a computer creating movements of on screen characters based on captured movements of an actor.

    I would say for something to qualify as “animation” the movement should be created by a human, and not a computer algorythm.

  • Pez

    Mo-Cap is a lie.

    it doesn’t work they way the audience thinks

  • Back in 1994, I was commissioned by Deutsch Grammophon to make what may have been the first classical music video and was certainly one of the earliest applications of motion capture. Ravel’s BOLERO http://colonymedia.co.uk/mariocavalli/work/bolero/ is totally motion capture and for the greater part is also entirely abstract. I would defy anyone to describe it is ‘not animation’ and it won plenty of animation awards at the time.

    As a director with a background in traditional 2D character animation (from my time at Richard Williams studio in the late 70s / early 80s) who has subsequently made films in live action, animation and a myriad hybrid techniques of my own devising, I come across this kind of ‘not really this or that’ argument with tedious regularity. It’s an unimaginative, luddite and essentially reactionary position that serves only to defend a narrow special interest.

    Ultimately, the argument is irrelevant. Who really cares about technique? We should be asking: is the film any good? Is it compelling? Is it beautiful? Is it funny? Does it illuminate some aspect of human experience? Does it show you something you’ve never seen before?

  • This comment is a little late, but I wanted to give my thoughts (for those who cared).

    I don’t consider mo-cap animation in a traditional sense. Mo-cap as animation is like saying a hyper-realistic painting is a photograph – it may look the same (or VERY similar), but it’s about the process, which is wildly different.

    And this is what the ACADEMY defines animation as. This isn’t a set rule for the entire industry.