At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
by Chris Bellamy
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
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
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
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 Wind Rises
(Just missing the cut: Elysium, Star Trek Into Darkness, This is the End)