If it's crap ... We'll tell you
I've seen a lot of confusion and vitriol levied towards the recent list of Academy Award nominations, but two in particular strike a chord: "No Tintin for best animated film!?!?" and "No Andy Serkis nomination?!?!". As understandable as these two arguments are, they signify a much larger issue at hand: that of the Academy's struggling (some would say failing) attempts to categorize and classify new forms of media as they grow and expand. The problem with 'Adventures of Tintin' and 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' isn't one of quality, it's one of category. A problem that began with a single film: 2006's motion capture film 'Happy Feet'.
'Happy Feet' - for those of you who were fortunate enough to not see it - was a motion capture animated film about singing and dancing penguins made by Warner Bros. Pictures. It starred Elijah Wood as the voice of Mumble, a penguin who can't sing and must discover his own sense of self and his place in the world through the medium of dance. If that last sentence didn't put you off the film entirely, it's okay - the film (in my opinion) was rather unremarkable. What was remarkable were the events surrounding the category of Best Animated Picture that year during the 79th Annual Academy Awards. It had been a slow year for animated features, and the field of motion capture was relatively new so people really didn't know what to make of it. This resulted in two mo-cap films ('Happy Feet' and the Robert Zemeckis film 'Monster House') being nominated next to what was widely considered the first surprisingly weak submission from Pixar, the 3D-animated film 'Cars'.
'Happy Feet' ended up taking home the Oscar that year, but also walked away with a bonus gift: the fiery scorn of Pixar and a large majority of the animation industry. For weeks, arguments and debates raged about the decision and what "real animation" is or isn't. Proponents of the technology stood by their assertion that motion capture performances - while created by the actor on a stage - still have to be run through software and attached to 3D models. The characters and worlds still have to be sculpted and modeled and rigged, just like in regular 3D animation. Opponents decried the technology as a "quick fix", a cheap way to make 3D animated films without the art and nuance of hand animation. Pixar even began adding a disclaimer to the end of their credits that emphatically states:
"100% Genuine ANIMATION! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film."
People argued that motion-capture films simply aren't "animation" in the traditional sense because it doesn't involve an animator carefully and laboriously crafting a performance from scratch - it's just "copying the movements" from an actor using a new gimmick technology (I'm sure similar arguments were lobbed at Pixar when they first started making 3D films instead of drawing everything by hand, but apparently they are without a sense of irony). Eventually, the Academy relented and - due in large part to the negative press they received due to the decision - in future years, motion capture films were often overlooked or ignored by the Academy, who were content to just pretend they didn't exist rather than face another public outcry. That all changed in 2010 however, with another film that pushed the boundaries of classification - James Cameron's 'Avatar'.
Released in 2009, 'Avatar' combined live-action performances with motion-capture and visual effects and was the result of years of hard work and technological advancements to really push the limits of the medium. Stock standard story structure aside, the film boasted an impressive range of digital performances and was a reinvigorating entry in the genre, which had grown stale with dead-eyed, zombie-like characters.
The film kicked off a firestorm of controversy when it came time for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards and Cameron lobbied to have the digital performances included in the "Best Performance by an Actor" category. The Academy considered the proposal, but in the end they ruled that the motion-capture performances simply weren't the same thing as having a real actor, on a stage, in a costume, using their own skills to craft a performance. (note: this may also shed some light on why Andy Serkis was snubbed this year for his incredible work in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes')
When that tactic failed, Cameron argued that his film defied classical definition and that it was indeed a live-action film, and could not be classified as "animation" because the actor's emotions and facial inflections were being recorded with astonishing precision and it was that very capture technique that allowed a living actor's portrayal of a character to influence and craft a believable digital performance. Strike two - not only did the Academy stand by their decision, they also did a revamp of their rules and regulations concerning animated films to prohibit future films like 'Avatar' from possibly sneaking into the "Best Animated Film" category. The revised rules state clearly that motion capture "by itself is not an animation technique" and that "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," requiring that "movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique."
So there you have it - the reason why 'The Adventures of Tintin' appears to have been overlooked is because as a motion-capture film, it simply does not fall under the Academy's umbrella of what they consider to be "animation". Perhaps in future years, the Academy will see that their limited definition of animation is eliminating otherwise good films and will again revise their regulations to include them. Or perhaps they will expand the category to include all forms of animation, not just the traditional 2D, 3D, or stop-motion formats. Likewise, as motion capture technology becomes more common and the actor's performances become even more spectacular (I have a feeling that 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' has set the groundwork for that), the Academy may also be forced to reconsider their definition of what an "actor" is, and include those performances in with their traditional "Best Actor/Actress" categories.
Hopefully that sheds some light on this year's ceremony and why these decisions - even the ones we disagree with -were made.