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Posted at 9:35 AM ET, 03/ 1/2010

THE OSCARS RANT: Sure, 'Avatar' is art -- but is it animation?

By Michael Cavna

It's a distinction you will little find elsewhere -- but perhaps one that will soon force rule changes for the assorted Hollywood awardgasms.

With the Oscars less than a week away -- and with "Avatar" and "Up" both poised to nab statuettes -- it's intriguing to note that at the Visuals Effects Society honors over the weekend in Los Angeles, there were separate categories for "Animated Character in an Animated Feature Motion Picture" (won by Carl from Disney/Pixar's "Up") and "Animated Character in a Live-Action Feature Motion Picture" (Neytiri from "Avatar").

"Avatar" (six VES awards) and "Up" (three awards) won most everything in sight at the event, in fact -- partly because they didn't have to compete against each other. That's because VES understands the wisdom of mostly separating their respective categories. (The Oscars Academy, for the record, did not nominate "Avatar" for animation.)

The only VES category that pitted animation against CGI in a "non-animated" film was Models and Miniatures in a Feature Motion Picture -- in which Henry Selick's brilliant creations from "Coraline" were lumped in competition with "Avatar," "Terminator Salvation" and "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." ("Avatar" won.)

Talk about apples and oranges. Pitting "Coraline's" handcrafted miniatures against the CGI wizardry of Pandora is more like comparing apples and cumquats. (Green-screened cumquats, at that.)

Most everywhere else, though, the good folks at VES had the wisdom to award separate statuettes for animated feature films and non-animated films. ("Up" also won for Animation in an Animated Feature Motion Picture. "Avatar's" awards included Visual Effects in a Visual Effects Driven Feature Motion Picture.)

These awards come against the backdrop (and what an eye-catching one it is, fittingly) of much chatter about the growing role of "performance-capture" filmmaking. Aside from whether "Avatar" is "animation," there's also the entire raging debate about whether "performance-capture," er, performances -- which combine human actors and CGI animation -- are even acting. (So-called "Avatar acting" was snubbed entirely by the Oscars.)

Of performance-capture, Steven Spielberg tells the Los Angeles Times: "I like to think of it as digital makeup, not augmented animation. It's basically the actual performance of the actual actor, and what you're simply experiencing is makeup." Spielberg is using Cameron's "Avatar" technology for his new movie "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn."

Or, as "Avatar" producer Jon Landau said last year to Comic Riffs: "You see the actors' performances come to you."

Thanks partly to "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland" (opening this week), the lines between CGI "effects" and animation continue to blur. And some feature soon, the lines will be so blended that a "human-based" CGI film will crash the gates of animation. The irony, of course, being that some animators continue to strive for true human realism in their effects.

Until then, we're happy to laud "Avatar" for its "visual effects." Its "CGI-created effects." Its "digital makeup." But on this count, we're in Cameron's camp:

Just don't call it animation.

If you have an opinion, feel free to fire away.


THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: 'Avatar' Producer Jon Landau Talks Blue Skin & White-Hot Hopes

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THE 'RIFFS INTERVIEW: "Up" director Bob Peterson talks comics, computers -- and voicing Doug.

By Michael Cavna  | March 1, 2010; 9:35 AM ET
Categories:  The Animation, The Holly Word  | Tags:  Academy Awards, Avatar, Disney/Pixar's Up, James Cameron, Jon Landau, Visual Effect Society honors  
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Not that Avatar wasn't an impressive display of technology, but I'm still wondering on the fuss.

The addition of 3D is something James Cameron has been doing for years, and he used WETA technology for the rendering...which is Peter Jackson's studio.

It's not live animation, and unlike Peter Jackson who acknowledged - and even hired - his visual debt to Alan Lee, Cameron doesn't seem to acknowledge that many of his locales look an awful lot like Roger Dean illustrations. (Kind of like Lucas never publicly admitted he ripped off most of the iconic images from the first Dinotopia book for the first prequel Star Wars movie.)

Usually I like a good, mindless James Cameron film, but I'm not loving this one at all. The man definitely needs an editor these days.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | March 2, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

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