Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Issue 37
Stories
Elsa's Spheres
by Marina J. Lostetter
Underwater Restorations, Part 1
by Jeffrey A Ballard
Into the Desolation
by Catherine Wells
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Missing pieces
by Chris Bellamy

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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
    by Chris Bellamy

Missing pieces

In light of the 2013 Oscar nominations, it's time for the Academy to reconsider what and how it honors the year's achievements

It should come as no great surprise that this year's Academy Award nominations, like every year, came up wanting. And I don't mean that it overlooked this movie or that performance, overrated this or underrated that. Push personal preferences aside; I'm not here to talk about snubs.

What I mean is, the Oscars continue to have trouble acknowledging what cinema is right now, or what it has become. This may not be new news to anyone, but it seems every year, with the revelation of each slate of nominees around this time of year, the chasm seems more and more pronounced. As the medium has become less inherently photographic and more digital and computer-animated, the Oscars have remained stuck in place, designating categories the same way they have for years and continuing to resist the inclusion of any additions that might better reflect the state of the movies.

If the Academy is supposed to be any kind of barometer, it should actually keep up with what movies are doing these days, and what things are worth honoring. For an industry whose business model is now largely built on computer animation in its various forms, it's odd that its largest year-end celebration of itself still doesn't know how to recognize or classify its own creations.

To be clear: It's not the Academy's job to summarize the popular taste, or scramble to recognize every filmmaking trend at any given time. No award show can do that. But we're beyond the point where it should have to limit performances to four distinct (and limiting) categories, or photography to one category; and we're beyond the point where "live-action" and "animated" are cut-and-dried designations.

In recent years, the debate has centered around what to do with the increasingly prominent use of performance-capture, and - more than a decade after Gollum's first appearance on screen - the answer so far has been to do nothing. And so the unprecedented work of Andy Serkis - whose mo-cap performances have not only singlehandedly carried his scenes in King Kong, The Lord of the Rings and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but transformed people's actual ideas about acting - never gets a second thought come this time of year. Not to mention, among a few other examples and countless more to come in the near future, Zoë Saldana in Avatar*.

* Brad Pitt's Oscar-nominated role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the closest we've come to breaking this taboo, as the first hour or so of his performance was created with performance-capture - and it was some of the most creative work Pitt has ever done. But ultimately he got nominated in spite of that, not because of it. The Academy loved matinee idol Brad, and middle-aged-makeup Brad, and even digitally youthened Brad. But a fully mo-cap nomination remains out of bounds.

There were no groundbreaking performance-capture achievements this year, but nonetheless a separate debate generated around a non-traditional performance - this time Scarlett Johansson's extraordinary voice-only role as an advanced operating system in Spike Jonze's great Her. Johansson received near-universal acclaim for the performance - which is as playful, sexy, curious, enthusiastic and sad as nearly any other from 2013 - including awards and nominations from the likes of the Austin Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society, Utah Film Critics Association and Chicago Film Critics Association (among others). It's arguably the best and most emotionally expressive work of her career, the character feeling so authentically human that everything Joaquin Phoenix's character feels for her comes across as fully plausible.

And so the debate began - as it did in 1992 for Robin Williams in Aladdin, and again for Ellen DeGeneres in 2003 for Finding Nemo - about whether or not to put such voice performances on the same level as live performance. With motion-capture, I was always completely in favor; with voice roles, I've been, for better or worse, on the fence.

But at this point, a better solution makes almost too much sense. Why not create a separate category to encompass non-traditional performances like Johansson's? It would include all motion-capture roles, as well as any voice performance - in an animated film or otherwise. Hell, you could even throw in voiceover narration if there were ever a worthy candidate, or if the Academy really wanted an excuse to give Morgan Freeman a second Oscar.

Effects-driven spectacles and animated films are such a big and important part of the current filmmaking climate that there would be more than enough candidates to choose from. And as the years move forward and filmmakers continue to blur the line between physical and digital, the number is sure to increase.

The Academy could use it history of VFX award as something of a precedent for this. While special effects have been honored in one form or another at the Oscars since the '30s (with the photographic and sound effects originally merged into one category), the growing prominence of visual effects-based films eventually spurred a series of changes in how their technical accomplishments were rewarded. Often, a Special Achievement Award would be given out, as in the case of Superman and Total Recall. And while the early visual effects category had limited qualifiers and only a few nominees, the category is now filled with contenders every year. I'd argue the same will be the case with a Best Non-Traditional Performance category at the Oscars. Even this year, I can certainly think of five great voice and/or mo-cap performances. Can't you?

Other than those who feel these performances should remain in competition with live-action acting, I can't see any counterargument. Also, I present this fact without comment: The modern-day Oscars, in an era where musicals are rare and most movies rely on existing music and original scores, still include a Best Original Song category.

The current lack of recognition speaks to the strange inability of the Academy - in a business of technological innovation - to know what the role of technology should or even could be when it comes to its most high-profile event. On a note similar to what I mentioned earlier, consider the ongoing discussion about the (presumed) dividing line between live-action and animation, especially as it pertains to the images themselves. In recent years, a few CG-heavy films have taken home the Oscar for Best Cinematography - namely Mauro Fiore for Avatar and Claudio Miranda for Life of Pi, with Gravity's Emmanuel Lubezki fully expected to snag the same honor this year.

The great cinematographer Christopher Doyle* blasted the Life of Pi win last year, arguing that what Miranda and Ang Lee accomplished visually was not, strictly speaking, cinematography.

* On a side note, Doyle, having shot the likes of In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express, Paranoid Park, 2046 and Ondine, among others, without any Oscar recognition, is probably warranted in feeling some antipathy toward the Academy and its decision-making process.

Then, in late December, filmmaker Jamie Stuart penned a column arguing that the Academy should split the category in two - not unlike it once did for color and black-and-white photography - one for traditionally shot films and one for CGI-based movies. It's a great and sensible idea that will take years and years for the Academy to adopt, if it does so at all.

I realize that, even if that were put into place, there would still be some grey area. Plenty of so-called "traditionally" shot films still rely heavily on special effects, notably The Social Network or this year's The Wolf of Wall Street. We've seen this with the "animated film" category, whose inane technicalities qualified all of the Alvin and the Chipmunks films - which were almost entirely live-action except for the CGI chipmunks themselves - as "animated," while that wasn't the case for, say, Avatar or the Star Wars prequels.

Even so, the Academy learning to recognize the different things that are driving movies these days - and recognizing how limiting their current slate of categories is - would certainly be an improvement. Not only because we could honor the wide variety of CGI-based films in play these days, but animated films as well, which have long been overlooked for the sophistication of their composition, lighting and visual style (Rango, anyone? WALL-E?)

Not to mention Fantastic Mr. Fox or ParaNorman, which have stop-motion animation, and are thus created with actual photography. (Then again, that fact might muddy the waters even further. Forget I said anything.)

The Academy has too much of a well-documented history of blind spots - comedy, science-fiction, fantasy and horror being the most common casualties - to continue ignoring the ways in which modern cinema is evolving. It's past time to give performance-capture specialists, voice actors and all manner of computer animators their due.

And finally, to cap it off, here would be my 2013 nominees for Best Non-Traditional Performance and Best CGI-Based Cinematography:

BEST NON-TRADITIONAL PERFORMANCE

Nicolas Cage, The Croods

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Scarlett Johansson, Her

Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful

Idina Menzel, Frozen

(Just missing the cut: Kristen Bell, Frozen; Billy Crystal, Monsters University)

BEST CGI-BASED CINEMATOGRAPHY

The Croods

Frozen

Gravity

Pacific Rim

The Wind Rises

(Just missing the cut: Elysium, Star Trek Into Darkness, This is the End)

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