What makes an animated movie Oscar-quality? Unfortunately, the answer is troublesome.
After its premiere at SXSW Film Festival in March and landing on Netflix a month later after a qualifying run, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a gorgeous animated feature that looks back at childhood through a long lens.
The animated film is a blend of history and a kid’s fantasy with an untraditional aesthetic of almost real that isn’t often seen in animated films.
In early July, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ animation committee rejected the project for Oscar consideration in the category of Best Animated Feature Film. Linklater believes that this decision was based on an “ingrained bias” against rotoscope animation and adult animated features.
Why Was the Film Rejected?
Apollo 10 ½ takes us back to the 1969 moon landing through the memories of a boy who imagines traveling there himself. To depict the nostalgic journey, Linklater utilized a complex blend of 2D animation styles created by nearly 200 animators in Austin, Texas, and Amsterdam for nearly two years.
Using rotoscoped animation, the visual style of the film resembles Linklater’s other animated projects, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). The animation closely mimics Linklater’s realistic style of filmmaking, giving him the ability to direct actors on a stage before giving the animators live-action footage as a reference for the film.
In a letter shared with IndieWire, the committee explained its decision to reject the film, writing that the Academy “does not feel that the techniques meet the definition of animation in the category rules” due to the “extensive use” of live-action footage.
The rules for the category state that animated films have to have a running time of more than 40 minutes, a significant number of the major characters animated, and at least 75% of the film’s running time include animation.
While the animation teams used live-action footage for reference for the rotoscope technology, none of that live-action footage appears in the film. Rotoscope animation feels much more handmade in a time when most animated features are CG. It provides a realistic feel that is not often seen in animated features.
The Academy requires that any animation style that “could be mistaken for live-action” submit material supporting the argument that the movie is animated and not live-action.
“The only rotoscope in the film is the outline of the characters,” the film’s animation director Tommy Pallotta told IndieWire. “That’s it. Everything else is animated.”
Linklater explained how the frame-by-frame redrawing of the live-action reference in Apollo 10 ½ mirrored the similar techniques used by two animated submissions, last year’s The Spine of Night and 2017’s Loving Vincent.
Animators used the 2D computer program TV Paint to trace the live-action footage of the actors, then filled in every detail from the surrounding environments, lighting, colors, and other movements. Check out the process behind the animation here.
Is Animation Only for Children?
This isn’t Linklater’s first encounter with the Academy’s problems with adult animated features and rotoscope technology.
The Academy launched the Best Animated Feature category in 2002, the same year Linklater’s fully rotoscope feature, Waking Life, sought consideration. Unfortunately, the Academy rejected his project, nominating instead Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc., and Shrek.
“The message was clear,” Linklater said. “Kids only.”
The perceived bias that the Academy gives to conventional family-friendly animated films has been an ongoing battle for many animators. The Mitchells vs. the Machines producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller wrote an open letter to the industry, criticizing last year's programs for introducing the Best Animated Feature category as a domain exclusively aimed at children.
In their open letter, Lord and Miller called for the Academy to have a “respected filmmaker” announce the category. “Surely no one set out to diminish animated films, but it’s high time we elevate them,” they wrote.
Guillermo del Toro, who has created a stop-motion interpretation of Pinocchio as a darker fairy tale rather than one aimed towards children, has also spoken out against animation being a medium exclusively made for children, saying at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival over the summer, “Animation is not a fucking genre. Animation is film.”
Trying to Escape the "Kafkaesque Nightmare"
Linklater believes that the Academy’s decision to disqualify Apollo 10 ½ had greater consequences in the industry. The animation industry is cluttered with kids’ entertainment, making an adult animated movie harder to make already. The disqualification of Apollo 10 ½ has made it even harder.
“This decision cuts off the creative flow for a certain kind of animated movie,” Linklater said. “Will anyone greenlight something like this if it can’t get nominated?”
Linklater and Pallotta also took issue with the implications that there is a type of hierarchy of animation techniques that are deemed “acceptable,” which could impact a film’s eligibility.
“We entirely reject the outdated and discriminatory notion that, in an industry dominated by the technical advancements in big budget CGI 3D films, some traditional animation techniques are less pure or authentic even after they meet the technical requirements for consideration,” Linklater wrote in a letter to the Academy.
“I feel like if I’ve been caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare where someone is saying something isn’t real and I know it’s real,” Pallotta said. “I’ve been producing rotoscope animation for 25 years, and I’m done with people telling me it’s not animation. It’s just such an insult.”
In support of Linklater’s movie, The Spine of Night directors Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt wrote their own letter to the Academy.
In their letter, they wrote:
Hand-drawn rotoscope animation is, indeed, frame-by-frame animation, using the same principles used in traditional animation that have been used since the beginning… Hand-drawn animation derived from live-action footage has always been part of animation’s cinematic history, and that of animated films and animation technology recognized by the Academy, since the early days of both
Filmmaking, despite the medium, should be allowed to run wild to resemble the creative vision of the filmmakers. When committees make specific distinctions about what is considered animation, they are establishing rules in the industry about what should and should not be made.
Don’t be afraid to create a film that speaks to your creative vision. Filmmaking is art, and art should not neatly fit into a box. When art is told to look or act a certain way, we are limiting that freedom of expression for an award and recognition from Hollywood.
It’s a little silly at this point for the Academy to decide what should be made.
Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Read Linklater’s full letter to the Academy below.
Dear Members of the SFFA Committee and Branch Governors,
I’m writing to appeal the decision by the Academy of ineligibility in the feature animation category of our film “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood.”
In response to the conclusion that the Academy “does not feel that the techniques meet the definition of animation in the category rules” because of the “extensive use” of live-action footage, we’d all argue that this is counter to previously established precedents set by the Academy with two specific films in recent history, “Spine of Night” and “Loving Vincent.”
These two films have employed nearly identical animation pipelines that, like Apollo 10 ½, feature a frame-by-frame redrawing from live-action reference, NOT motion capture, with hundreds of animators working over 20 months (during Covid lockdown) applying their artistry by hand. The difference between Apollo 10 ½ and these qualifying films is stylistic. This naturalistic style is not a technical choice but rather an artistic choice in the crucial area of how I want the film to look and feel. It is accomplished by the hard work of animators drawing character motion and performances frame by frame, not a side effect of some hidden software or automatic process.
Although not mentioned in the category rules— caricature, exaggeration, and creative design were used as arguments against consideration: “the character performances in this film not appearing to be caricatured exaggerated or creatively designed in a significant way that differs from the original footage.” This is a subjective judgment of an aesthetic choice, and an area the committee should steer clear of when determining eligibility. This unwritten qualification makes it impossible to predict in advance if a film will qualify and is not applied equally to the two previously eligible films.
We entirely reject the outdated and discriminatory notion that, in an industry dominated by the technical advancements in big budget CGI 3D films, some traditional animation techniques are less pure or authentic even after they meet the technical requirements for consideration.
We now ask for an opportunity to present this case to the SFFA Branch Committee via a video conference to answer any specific process questions concerning this appeal, explain our process, and defend our artistic choices. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood should rightfully be considered in the category of animated features by the Academy. Please let us know if this can be scheduled in the weeks to come when the committee next meets.
Also, speaking as an Academy member of almost 30 years and nominated in 4 other categories over the years, I’m pretty sure there’s no other branch that offers such a time-consuming (now in our 6th month) and fraught (defending your art) process to determine eligibility. No one should have to go through this.