The Oscar Effect
Karen Moltenbrey
February 27, 2017

The Oscar Effect

It had been a favorite during awards season this year. It won an Annie Award for Best Animated Feature Film. It also won a Golden Globe. On Sunday night,  Zootopi a’s winning streak continued, taking home an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The film from Disney Animation beat out another Disney contender,  Moana , as well as three others for this year’s achievement.  

The expectation was high that this year’s Academy Awards would be filled with political commentary, particularly in light of the current climate. While most of the political remarks came from host Jimmy Kimmel, there were some presenters and some winners who managed a few words within their allotted timeframe. So, perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Zootopia won the hearts of voters as well as theater-goers by becoming one of the year’s highest grossing films. The movie tackles important social issues in an attempt to teach tolerance, but does so with a message that is understandable to children and wrapped within a visually stunning animation package that delights viewers.

Zootopia features a vast anthropomorphic character-filled metropolis where animals walk, talk, act, and think like humans in this heartwarming caper. To this end, there are diverse environments and animals that are furred and dressed in clothing – complexity times two. And many – in all, there are more than 60 species of animals, with many, many subspecies – are crammed into crowded city scenes. New grooming and fur tools were needed as well as new lighting techniques and more to create just the right amount of “cuddliness” for the characters. Similarly, the landscapes are filled with buildings, foliage, and vegetation.

It is truly a feast for the heart and the eyes.

Piper: Best Animated Short

In the Best Animated Short Film category, Pixar’s delightful “Piper” won top honors. As is typical at Pixar, its animated short films are used as proving grounds for technology that finds its way into the studio’s latest animated feature films. “Piper,” in fact, served as a test bed for some of the tools and techniques used in Finding Dory – of course, wrapped up within a wonderful story. In this case, it was a story of a young sandpiper that must overcome its initial fear of the water as it tries to eat. 

“Piper” pushed the limits of rendering, giving the birds a realistic look, especially when it came to the feathers, generating the right look when they became wet or dry. A lot of the advancements were accomplished with the new features in Pixar’s RenderMan 21, before it was released.  

The Jungle Book: Best VFX

The teams at Disney were on a roll at Oscars this year, as the group from The Jungle Book won Best Visual Effects for the work on this adaptation of the popular animated feature from 1967, this time under the direction of Jon Favreau. This re-imagining captures the magic of that animated feature using today’s technology, where filmmakers crafted a complex CG world for a human boy raised by wolves in India. 

This hybrid CG/live-action film utilized cutting-edge virtual production techniques to bring a realistic cast of computer-generated characters (the only exception being the human Mowgli) to life. The panther Bagheera, the orangutan-like King Louie and his minions, the bear Baloo, the tiger Shere Khan, the snake Kaa, and more. The lead characters as well as the background “actors” bring the tale from the realm of fantasy to reality, thanks to a wide range of technology and creativity by artists at MPC and Weta Digital. 

The characters were integrated into beautiful, hyper-realistic environments, all of which are CG, including a lazy river on which Mowgli and Baloo float, a dense jungle, a wolf den, King Louie’s temple, and more. Far more. MPC created the film’s 58 different CG sets and 224 subsets. Perhaps most impressive is the way the CG characters (and one live actor) interact with their digital surroundings. The way each blade of grass moves as Shere Khan walks through it. The way the water interacts with Baloo’s fur. The list goes on.

While obvious visual effects from competing live-action movies like Rogue One and Deepwater Horizon have received a good deal of attention, what many would consider an animated film – like The Jungle Book and contender Kubo – are rife with amazing VFX technology. Somehow the VFX take on a different look and meaning within an animated film. And this time, the Academy voters certainly took notice.