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Oscar nominees share behind-the-scenes stories at AMPAS' Best Animated Feature Symposium

Oscar nominees share behind-the-scenes stories at AMPAS' Best Animated Feature Symposium

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For me, personally, I have never been a fan of Oscar Night. The ceremony with its emphasis on wardrobe and hairstyles. Who’s dating who. And long musical numbers performed by A-list singers who often had nothing to do with the nominated film. I mean, Oscar night is primarily focused on one aspect of filmmaking, namely the culture of celebrity, which I find detracts from other areas of artistry and technical achievement. So this is why I was excited when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that, starting this year, they would hold a craft symposium featuring the directors of all three animated films nominated for an Academy Award.

Photo by Todd James Pierce

In truth, animation has enjoyed an unusual history inside the academy. For the first 70 years of the Oscars, the Academy acknowledged feature animation primarily through two award categories: special awards for technical achievement and best song. In part, this problem was perpetuated by the scarcity of feature animation.There were some years in which no American studio released a feature-length animated film.

But in the 1990s, feature animation saw a renaissance. In part, this was due to "Toy Story," which proved that audiences would engage a story presented with computer graphics. And in part, this was due to "The Lion King," which showed that there was serious money to be made in animation. "The Lion King" hauled in just over $300 million domestically and over $450 million internationally. All this from a movie that cost less than $50 million to produce.

Elton John and Sir Tim Rice with the Academy Awards
that they won for working on Disney's "The Lion King"
Copyright AMPAS. All Rights Reserved

In 2001, the Academy established an award for Best Animated Feature—an award that would only be given in years when studios released at least 8 feature-length animated films. "Shrek" was the category’s first winner.

This past year there were 14 feature-length animated films submitted for consideration, with three nominees: "Bolt," "Kung Fu Panda" and "WALL-E." (If feature-length production expands to the point where there are at least 16 animated features in a year, the list of nominees will then expand to five.) For years, the Academy has hosted craft symposiums for films nominated in other categories, such as Best Foreign Language Film. But last night the Academy hosted the inaugural craft symposium for films nominated for Best Animated Feature.

The Samuel Goldwyn Theater, complete with its very own
promote-this-year's-Academy-Awards banner

Photo by Todd James Pierce

The event was held in Beverly Hills, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Like most every animation panel I’ve ever attended, the honorees were pointedly casual, with many dressed in jeans and t-shirts. John Stevenson, co-director of "Kung Fu Panda," simply wore a nylon jacket over a Hawaiian shirt. In fact the only person dressed in a suit was the show’s host, animator and animation historian, Tom Sito.

With this, the symposium relaxed into a casual discussion, Sito introduced clips and the directors dished stories about how each film was produced.

Andrew Stanton with the Oscar he won for "Finding Nemo" 
Copyright AMPAS. All Rights Reserved

Andrew Stanton, director of "WALL-E," was by far the most confident and served up the best stories. But then, he was an old hat at this, having been previously nominated for three Academy Awards and having won one. At times he dipped back in to tales of his early days in animation, when he was first offered a job at Pixar. “I had never been up to San Francisco,” he began.“There was not the Internet. There was not cell phones. There was not access to what things looked like. I thought Pixar in 1990 was what it is now. On a naive whim, because I was trying to get out of LA to save my marriage, when John [Lasseter] offered me the job, I said, ‘sure.’ I packed up the truck and left.When I got there, it was one room with one phone, that if it rang it could be for any of us. And three computers that twelve of us had to timeshare.”

John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, the team from "Kung Fu Panda," explained the difficulty of placing Kung Fu into a CG film. They wanted audiences to engage the beauty and achievement of the martial arts, but to accomplish this, they discovered that they would need to downplay the broad physical humor that appears in many DreamWorks Animation films. “We realized pretty quickly that we couldn’t go for a very squashy-stretchy, Chuck Jones-animation style,” Stevenson explained.“That had actually worked very well with 'Madagascar.' But if we did that, when characters weren’t doing martial arts, you would’ve had no way of knowing that when they were doing Kung Fu they were doing something extraordinary.”As production progressed, and as the two directors reviewed completed footage, they made the decision to redo many early scenes, to make the actions of Po (the panda) less bouncy.

Byron Howard (L) and Chris Williams at "Bolt" 's world premiere
Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Chris Williams and Byron Howard reviewed the technical processes of character design for Bolt.“We used XGen,” Howard said, “the program that grows hair and grass, to grow Bolt’s hair follicles. Bolt has some phenomenal amount of hair on him.Something like 200,000 hairs.[The figure] has control hairs that are meticulously groomed by amazing artists in their own right.”

Andrew Stanton explained that Pixar hired the cinematographer Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen brothers, as a consultant on "WALL-E." Deakins’ job was to help the Pixar team incorporate techniques of live action cinematography into a CG production in hopes of creating an animated film that had the feel of an art house production. “I didn’t want this to look like any other CG movie,” Stanton revealed. “We’re so intimate with this medium.We look at it every day—every day for the last frigging twenty year ... This felt like it was finally a story that would justify why I wanted things to go out of focus, the way things normally do when you use a narrow lens. Why the darks really go into darks. Why whites go over exposed. I just wanted all of that.I wanted control of that.”

Copyright 2008 DreamWorks Animation / Pixar / Disney. All Rights Reserved

The evening closed with a Q&A. Afterward, the directors and members of the production teams lingered in the theater talking to one another. Unlike the Oscars awards show, this evening’s presentation embraced an atmosphere of cooperation, with all of the participants appearing far more interested in the development of the animation industry as a whole than the advancement of any one film.

The Oscars will be broadcast this Sunday. I’m not sure yet if I’ll watch it. Usually I’m annoyed by the program—especially the red carpet festivities. But I am interested in learning the winner of the Best Animated Feature category. Presently "WALL-E" has collected most of the major awards for animated features, including the Los Angeles Film Critics award for Best Picture and the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Animated Picture. It will be interesting to see if the Oscars follow suit.

And just so you know, the Academy plans to make the animated film symposium an annual event.  Though many seats are reserved for members of the animation industry, the event is open to the public.

Copyright 2009 ABC. All Rights Reserved 

Did you enjoy today's article? If so, then head on over to ToddJamesPierce.com to check out some of this author's other articles.

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