With 19 films submitted for the animated feature Oscar, John Hazelton explores how this year’s crop points to the way animated features might evolve.

With their often engaging narratives, sometimes dazzling imagery and frequently impressive box-office takes, animated features have always represented a happy marriage of art, technology and commerce.

Those elements are evident in this year’s animated feature offerings, 19 of which from around the globe have been submitted for the animated feature Academy Award (see below).

But also discernible in this year’s animated feature crop are signs of how the sub-genre might evolve as it approaches ― by some counts ― the start of its second century.

While 2013 may not have been a vintage year for US animation, it has been a crowded and lucrative one. Of the 10 US films (all of which are 3D computer animations) submitted for the Oscar, two have made it into the genre’s post-1980 top 10 of worldwide performers ― the $921.5m-grossing Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University with $743m.

That level of competition is no bad thing, suggests Monsters University director Dan Scanlon. “It is good for us as a studio to have so many people making films,” says Scanlon, who made his animated feature directing debut on the Monsters, Inc prequel from Disney-owned Pixar, whose films have won seven of the last 10 Oscars in the category. “It makes us work harder and push ourselves to do better.”

Part of the challenge on Monsters University was to make use of the latest animation technology ― it was the first Pixar project, for example, to use the global illumination lighting process ― while maintaining continuity with the 2001 original.

“We ended up deciding to really push the technology in creating the look of the movie,” says Scanlon, “and then in the design of our characters we kept to the deceptively simplistic look of the first film.”

Disney’s Frozen, another of this year’s notable US entries, used new technological tricks to tell an old story couched in the classic form ― last used by the studio on 2010’s Tangled ― of the animated musical.

Based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen ― whose work also inspired Disney’s The Little MermaidFrozen follows what co-director Chris Buck describes as the studio’s aim of telling “a story that is timely but also timeless”. The film’s relatable characters and cleverly worded songs, says Buck, “kept it fresh and fun”.

The new technological tricks included two software tools, dubbed Matterhorn and Snow Batcher, especially designed to create the varied textures of snow, a substance that in the project’s initial tests, says Buck, “looked like styrofoam. It just didn’t look right.

“The technology just gets better and better,” Buck continues. “So we always push artists to create something that’s not necessarily realistic ― which you can do in CG ― but that’s believable.”

Employing subtlety

The Croods, DreamWorks Animation’s first feature about a human family ― albeit a Stone Age one ― made use of both new and old techniques, from pyroclastic flow simulation to matte painting.

“There’s a hundred years of technology in almost every single shot,” says director Chris Sanders. But the creative challenge on the film was to animate a natural world that could act as the villain of the story, a threat against which the human family could unite. “We had to make this world fanciful and whimsical but believable enough to keep things grounded,” says Sanders’ co-director Kirk DeMicco. 

That piece of ‘casting’, suggests Sanders, and the tale it helped tell, is an example of how animated features are slowly changing. “As time goes on, we’re able to tell more subtle stories,” the director notes.

An openness to more refined animated stories certainly seems to be reflected in Epic, the first feature with human characters from Ice Age studio Blue Sky.

Directed by Blue Sky co-founder Chris Wedge and based on his first feature script, this adventure is set in a fantastical forest populated by tiny warriors. It represents a deliberate departure from the animation norm, a departure not so much in technological terms ― though the project did develop new animation rigs to create its more realistic human characters ― as in tone. 

“I came at this wanting to exercise the potential of what I know we can do with animation,” says Wedge, citing partially animated childhood favourites such as King Kong and Jason And The Argonauts. “I wanted to make an action-adventure movie and I wanted to set it in a place that you could only get to with animation.”

While the US animation field may be crowded, Wedge says: “I would like to see more variety, and making Epic was a risk and an effort to put something with a different but not unfamiliar tone on the screen.”

Variety of tone ― and of animation techniques ― is often easier to find among animated features produced outside the US and the nine international films submitted for this year’s Oscar are evidence of that diversity.

Most notable among the international submissions is The Wind Rises, from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, whose 2001 fantasy Spirited Away was the last non-US film to win the animated feature Oscar.

The hand-drawn Studio Ghibli film, which Miyazaki has said will be his last feature, was a box-office smash in Japan but may be stymied in the US ― where it is being released by Disney ― because it is based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer whose designs were used in Second World War Japanese fighter planes. In Japan, says Fran Krause, a faculty member in the character animation department at the renowned California Institute of the Arts, “There are a lot of people who treat Miyazaki like a cultural hero, so he can be very risky with the films he makes.”

This year’s other Oscar submissions from the traditionally strong Japanese animation industry are A Letter To Momo, from director Hiroyuki Okiura, and TV series spin-off Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie ― Rebellion.

Europe is represented by hand drawn-French film Ernest & Celestine, winner of the Cesar for best animated film and of the grand prize at New York International Children’s Film Festival, and O Apostolo, the stop-motion horror tale from Spain that won the audience award at this year’s Annency International Animation Festival.

And from Latin America, a region with a growing reputation for animation, comes Brazilian hand-drawn historical drama Rio 2096: A Story Of Love And Fury, winner of the best feature Cristal at Annency (Argentinian hit Foosball is missing from this year’s list but could still be submitted next year).

Perhaps the most commercially significant of this year’s international submissions are Khumba, from South Africa’s Triggerfish Animation ― which also produced last year’s Zambezia ― and The Legend Of Sarila, from French Canada’s CarpeDiem. Both are 3D CG features with big ― by international standards ― budgets representing the ambitions of some international producers to emulate the outputs and global reach of Hollywood’s major animation studios.

Achieving those ambitions might take some time and significant increases in international animation budgets, which still tend to be a fraction of those at the disposal of US animators. But some animation industry executives suggest the international sector is already gaining ground.

“Internationally, it’s been a really strong year,” says Dave Jesteadt, head of distribution at Gkids, US distributor of Ernest & Celestine and A Letter To Momo. “We’re starting to see increasing amounts of diversity and a higher level of quality, especially in the CG sector.”

Best Animated feature - Oscar submissions

The 19 features submitted for consideration in the animated feature film category for the 86th Academy Awards (in alphabetical order):

  • Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
  • The Croods
  • Despicable Me 2
  • Epic
  • Ernest & Celestine
  • The Fake
  • Free Birds
  • Frozen
  • Khumba
  • The Legend Of Sarila
  • A Letter To Momo
  • Monsters University
  • O Apostolo
  • Planes
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie ― Rebellion
  • Rio 2096: A Story Of Love And Fury
  • The Smurfs 2
  • Turbo
  • The Wind Rises

After screening the submissions, the Academy’s animated feature film award screening committee will vote to nominate between two and five films for the Oscar, depending on how many submissions meet the theatrical release requirements.