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By Elizabeth Chou
The best animated movies are the ones that make Simon Otto, an animator on DreamWorks’ Flushed Away and Bee Movie, forget his craft and get him wrapped up in the unfolding stories.
“I know exactly how a movie is lit, how it’s modeled, but when I’m watching a good movie, I completely forget it all,” he says. “You completely believe it. You’re interested to know what happens.”
With all the technological advances in animation, story and character are still the only things that stick with moviegoers, says Antran Manoogian, president of ASIFA Hollywood, a chapter of the International Animated Film Association.
“Bottom line, when it comes down to it — whether it’s CG, traditional (cel animation), stop-motion, a film that is made in another country — it comes down to a great story and compelling characters,” Manoogian says.
Evaluating the quality of the story might seem like a highly subjective process, but Surf’s Up producer Lydia Bottegoni says that a good rule of thumb is to make sure all of a film’s different elements work together to express a central aesthetic and narrative.
“Look at consistency, rather than basing it on your personal likes or dislikes of a film’s style,” Bottegani says.
The story can sometimes get lost behind the technical wizardry available to animators these days. Voters shouldn’t let visual pyrotechnics influence their decisions, says Jerry Beck, an animation historian who runs the Cartoon Brew blog and Cartoon Research website.
One of the movies that Beck feels has a good chance at this year’s Academy Awards was animated in 2D. The French film Persepolis, with its flat, black-and-white palette, references its comic-book source material, an autobiography of cartoonist Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in post-revolution Iran. “Its techniques are completely old fashioned — almost backwards — hand-drawn, with a strong adult story,” he says.
“A filmmaking tool is what animation is. It’s telling stories using film,” Beck said. “What’s important in animated films are the emotions, how they touch you. Are they making any kind of an advance on what we’ve seen before?”
All of the animation prowess in the world may be completely useless if the story is lazy. Usually a film that offers nothing new in the way of story can be just as distracting as souped-up animation. “The hero gets lost, he is attacked by a bad guy, but in the end he prevails. It is very formulaic … when you watch these types of films, you feel manipulated a little bit,” Otto says.
Oscars are often given out to movies that bring something fresh to the table, Beck says. “The Academy likes to honor progression in the field,” he says. “They’re not just looking for the best films of the year, but a little extra that may have pushed the envelope a little in one direction or another.”
Chris Wedge, director of Ice Age and Robots, and co-founder of Blue Sky Studios, says when he looks for an exceptional animated film, he looks for how well it uses the medium. “First and foremost, filmmakers have to take advantage of the medium,” Wedge says. “Is there something in this story that can only be expressed in animation?”
Wedge points to Oskar Fischinger as an example of someone who made films that could only have existed in the animation medium. His abstract, graphic style — featured in the opening sequence of Fantasia — was an inspiration for a scene in this year’s Ratatouille, in which the main character, Remy, expresses his love for food in a scene with exploding colors and shapes, set to sound effects and music.
Wedge says short films are a great way to see animated films with distinctive points of view. “Shorts made by independent filmmakers are usually very singular efforts and very pure,” he says. “They can be more interesting, more peculiar, more perverse.”
What separates animation from live-action is that the screen shows only what the animator can create, Otto says. “It is important to remember that animation is created from nothing. It’s complete and absolute imagination that goes into every detail,” Otto says.
Working in a medium that requires an animator to create from scratch means that he or she uses the real world as a guide. “When you meet somebody who is really quirky, it’s fun to figure why they are the way they are,” says Sean Mullen, an animator who has worked on Open Season and Stuart Little.
Even live-action films can be an inspiration, Mullen says. “I love pretty much anything by the Coen brothers. They do really great character work,” he says. “I think I like their stuff because it’s kind of a caricature of real life in live action.”
The nature of the medium has both restricted and freed animators. For instance, human beings are harder to animate in 3D, so talking animal movies are more common. Mullen says that these pictures should be not be stereotyped and written off as a group. “Something I would love to see is for these [talking animal films] to be looked at as individual films. They’re … very different. [Each should be considered] on its own merits,” Mullen says.
On other side of the coin, animators have more freedom because they can create entire worlds from their imaginations. Animated movies can incorporate fantasy elements or tell stories that in live action would be restricted by physical or practical limitations.
Beck says there are a couple of strong frontrunners in Ratatouille and Persepolis. He recommends that voters look for something that resonates. “The movie should be something that was strong in every way — story, technique and emotion. It really needs to be something that should be looked at. Something that we would recommend, from this particular year. It’s for history, not for pop culture,” Beck says.

Written by Elizabeth Chou

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