Should ‘Avatar’ Be Considered for Best Animated Oscar?

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Zoe Saldana in Avatar
Photo: 20th Century Fox

I’m not going to ask why Avatar isn’t on the Academy’s short list for Best Animated Oscar because the answer to that question is obvious… it wasn’t submitted. Perhaps that’s just the problem though. Why not? And don’t go jumping to a quick decision. Let me give you a little food for thought. I might be able to make a case that will have you considering it much more than you may think.

First off, let’s look at a few details to help the discussion along. Here are four of the 20 films that were submitted for consideration in the Best Animated Feature Film category:

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
  • Disney’s A Christmas Carol
  • Monsters vs. Aliens
  • Up

Keep those films in the back of your mind for a second while I ask (and try to answer) a few questions you may already be asking and preparing for the comments.

Next, how much of Avatar is CGI and how much is live-action? In reading an article at Gawker recounting a Hollywood Reporter article it says, “When completed, Cameron expects Avatar to be about 60% CG animation, based on characters created using a newly developed performance capture-based process, and 40% live action, with a lot of VFX in the imagery.” That works for me considering there’s most likely no real way to tell for sure.

Taking this into account, let’s follow that up with a peek at the first part of the Academy’s rules for what is and what isn’t an animated film, at least in Oscar’s eyes:

An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of at least 70 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.

Now the big question… Is Avatar animated? The first place I went in search for an answer to this question was the production notes for the film where it actually includes a separate section labeled IS IT ANIMATION? The section begins as such:

Ask the animators at WETA, and they’ll tell you that the avatars and Na’vi are animated. Ask Jim Cameron, and he’ll say the characters were performed by the actors. The truth is that both are right. It took great animation skill to ensure that the characters performed exactly as the actors did. But at the same time, no liberties were taken with those performances. They were not embellished or exaggerated. The animators sought to be utterly truthful to the actors’ work, doing no more and certainly no less than what Sam, Zoo or Sigourney had done in the Volume. Of course the animators added a little bit, with the movement of the tails and ears, which the actors could not do themselves. But even here, the goal was to stay consistent with the emotions created by the actors during the original capture. So when Neytiri’s tail lashes and her ears lower in fury, they are merely further expressing the anger created by Zoe Saldana in the moment of acting the scene.

One way of looking at the information above is to say instead of putting actors in rubber suits or makeup all James Cameron did was apply makeup and creature effects with CGI. Sort of like last year’s Best Makeup Oscar-winner, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

However, to the point of staying faithful to the actors performances similar techniques have been used in hand-drawn animation forever such as when the role of Snow White was acted out by Marge Champion as reference material for Disney animators for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Also, as you can see in the video to the right, Helene Stanley was used for Sleeping Beauty. Obviously this is not the exact same thing as performance capture, but with this conversation it seems we’re getting into varying shades of gray and it will ultimately come down to your interpretation of the facts.

Take all of this into consideration and what do you come up with? Is Avatar animated and if so, is it animated enough to be considered in the Best Animated Oscar category? What about the films I mentioned at the opening? The ones included on the short list for consideration.

To the question of how much of Avatar is CG and how much is live-action the answer was 60% CG and 40% live-action. Adding to this and having seen the film, I would put good money down saying there isn’t a single frame of that film that doesn’t include CG animation, let alone a scene that has more live-action elements than it does CGI. Compare this to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel in which the only animation is six of the film’s characters and based on that alone I think Avatar is already more of an animated film.

I already touched up on it a little bit, but how about performance capture? Like Avatar, Disney’s A Christmas Carol is a performance capture feature with characters portrayed inside CG environments and it is considered animation. Doesn’t this mean Avatar should be considered animation as well?

Look at the clip from Avatar to the right, to my knowledge there isn’t a single element of that image that isn’t CGI, it’s simply performance capture, animated creatures and CG environments.

Finally, the one thing the four contending films listed above have in common is they all employ CGI, just like Avatar and many, many other films we could open this discussion to. I bring this up because it has pretty much been agreed upon around the Internet Avatar will be taking home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, which creates an interesting conundrum. Why is the CG in Avatar considered visual effects while the CG employed for a Pixar or DreamWorks film simply considered animation? If Avatar is up for Oscar’s Best Visual Effects award shouldn’t Up and Monsters vs. Aliens be as well? The fact they aren’t, but A Christmas Carol is, interests me.

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Perhaps the real question is When is CGI no longer considered visual effects and when is it considered animation? The line has to be drawn somewhere because it seems extremely grey at the moment.

What are your thoughts on the matter? And if you think Avatar is animation what about something like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which sported Davy Jones and his beard of tentacles and the giant Kraken?

Based on the films included on Oscar’s short list I would say Avatar undoubtedly belongs. All the creatures in Avatar are animated as are the lead characters with the most screen time. The environment is nearly 100% animated and instead of make-up effects they make use of CG animated costumes. You’d be hard-pressed to convince me Avatar is absolutely not an animated film, but I am open and interested in hearing your opinions… Let loose below.

Avatar “Making a Scene” Featurette