Feature FilmIdeas/Commentary

Year of the Fish: An Animated Feature?

Year of the Fish

As the line between live-action and animation blurs, there are more and more controversies about what qualifies as animation. Is A Scanner Darkly animation? Is Beowulf animation? It’s all up for debate. Here’s an easy one though. Is Year of the Fish animation? Most definitely not.

Year of the Fish is an indie film that opens next week in New York and San Francisco. I’m perplexed why the filmmakers are billing the film as an “animated feature film” when there is nothing remotely resembling animation in the trailer (watch it here). Movement that is created in real-time and then digitally-enhanced does not fit the definition of animation, which is generally acknowledged to be movement created frame-by-frame through the manipulation of static images. The confusion with films like A Scanner Darkly and Beowulf stems from the fact that there is possibly enough frame-by-frame enhancement and distortion of the recorded live-action footage to constitute animation.

Year of the Fish, on the other hand, appears to have had minimal work done on it by animation artists. Here’s the description of the “animation process” from the film’s website:

Using Synthetik Studio Artist….Kaplan and his small group of part-time assistants were able to work quickly and efficiently, doing with 3 people what would normally employ 40 full-time animators. A single miniDV live-action frame was upconverted to a high-definition painted frame, and that one frame was interpolated into a technique for converting an entire shot. After rendering these shots, Kaplan and his team were able to go back and refine the images frame by frame, add particle effects, and hand-paint details. This entire animation process was achieved on four Macintosh G5 computers and two Wacom tablets, and took only 6 months.

The process described–which is setting a stylistic filter on one frame per scene and rendering out the rest of the scene with that filter setting–is not animation. The filmmaker does say he went back for frame-by-frame manipulation, but it’s evident from the trailer that they were enhancing the filter effects frame-by-frame, not creating or enhancing movement frame-by-frame. The number of digital crew (3) and amount of time it took to do the “animation” (6 months) also makes clear that this is more a case of digital processing than animation.

In recent years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has qualified films like Waking Life and Beowulf for Oscar consideration in the animated feature category. It’s a slippery slope that has now opened the doors wide open for experimental live-action films like Year of the Fish to claim that they are animated.

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