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What is Animation?

Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group responsible for the eponymous Academy Awards) decided that the technique of motion capture will no longer be considered to be “animation”. So, what does this mean for any animated Oscar hopefuls? According to AMPAS, the new definition for “animation” is something that consists of at least 75% of animation made by a “frame-to-frame technique”. (Coincidentally, they’ve also broadened the time limits for animated films, allowing more films to reach the necessary criteria to qualify.) 

It’s understandable that the Academy would want to put these type of rules in place. Motion-capture consists of real actors getting their performances converted into an animated CGI form. In a way, it could be considered “cheating” and unfair to features that animate from scratch. It’s almost like taking a script, having Microsoft Sam read it, and then submit that reading into a competition with real actors. Almost.

What the Academy doesn’t seem to take into consideration is that mo-cap is not some magic machine that converts live-action performances into a completed film automatically. Behind every mo-cap movie is a team of animators working frame-by-frame to take those performances and turn them into actual animated features. To say that these people are not animators seems insulting and a bit elitist.

Who is the Academy to dictate to artists what their work is and is not? And if mo-cap isn’t allowed, then what about rotoscoping? Rotoscoping consists of tracing live-action images into drawings and is pretty much just a lo-fi, two-dimensional version of motion capture. Also, what about programs like Macromedia Flash that allow you to tween drawings from location to location, without actually drawing each frame? Surely those aren’t “true animation”, too?

The line between animation and live-action has become very blurred in this modern day and age. The days where the majority of animation was drawn traditionally without shortcuts and easily distinguishable from real actors is long gone. The advent of the digital age has allowed animation and its processes to branch off into newer, different forms. Animation has become much more widespread in Hollywood under the guise of “special effects”. Chances are that your average summer popcorn flick will contain more CG special effects than real people these days.

As with a lot of technological advances these days, their biggest flaw comes with users attached. Technology has become so advanced that the advancements are moving faster than our society can comprehend them and wedge them into our everyday rules. Just like how cybercrime isn’t punished as much as it should be due to the modern-day criminal justice system being fixated on physical crimes, modern animation isn’t recognized as much as it should be due to Hollywood’s fixation on a certain perception of the medium that is becoming increasingly outdated. As an example, one aforementioned popcorn flick was James Cameron’s Avatar. The movie used state-of-the-art technology to create an alien world that was more virtual than physical. Despite featuring live-action actors, the majority of these “people” were altered so heavily by mo-cap and CG that the film probably could have run for Best Animated Feature if it wanted to. James Cameron didn’t like the idea of his movie being a “cartoon” and staunchly proclaimed the opposite.

The perception of animation needs to change if it is ever to be seen as live-action’s equal. Maybe the act of classifying something as “animation” period is something that needs to change. By creating awards like “Best Animated Feature”, cartoons are walled off into their own ghetto, separated from the “real” movies. Maybe we should all be springing for movies to be judged on the same stage, regardless of medium. Pixar’s Up was given a Best Picture nomination, and that’s a start.

So, what is animation? Animation in its most broad and basic terms is any moving image that isn’t real, any moving image that isn’t physically happening during production. Pandora is animation. Bugs Bunny is animation. Wallace and Gromit are animation. Buzz Lightyear is animation. Animation is not what animation was fifty or even twenty years ago. Animation today is a diverse, serious medium that needs to be treated as just that: a medium. Animation is not a genre, and it is not some sort of uniform style of art and production. Animated films are indeed real movies.

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