Should a film made using the motion-capture technique qualify as an animated movie at the Oscars, or is it something else?
Does the answer to that last question change if Steven Spielberg is the guy making the movie?
Those are two of the questions facing the Academy at a time when the expanding use of performance capture has the potential to wreak havoc in the Best Animated Feature category.
And it's also confusing the acting category, where voters have to figure out if a performance can be awards-worthy even if the actor's face is never seen onscreen.
"I think there still needs to be a lot of education, because there's still a reasonable amount of fear," said actor Andy Serkis, who's delivered several of the most compelling performance-capture performances and who appears in two of the films in the thick of this year's discussion, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" and "The Adventures of Tintin."
The performance-capture process, in which a performer's movements and facial expressions are recorded and then translated by computer into the movements and expression of an onscreen character, has been used to great effect in the "Lord of the Rings" films, in "Avatar," and more recently in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
It has also given rise to a whole genre of films that skirt a middle ground between live-action and animation, from Robert Zemeckis's "The Polar Express" and "A Christmas Carol" to the Oscar-winning "Happy Feet."
The Short Films and Feature Animation Branch has been grappling for years with the question of whether films based in motion capture are truly animated. In 2010 the branch added specific language covering motion capture to its rules for qualifying for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
The rules point out that motion capture "by itself is not an animation technique" and stipulate that "a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time," requiring that "movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique."
Three films that could potentially qualify this year are affected by this rule: Simon Wells's March release "Mars Needs Moms," George Miller's upcoming "Happy Feet Two" and Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin."
The makers of all three films have been asked by the branch to supply explanations of their intent. The studios behind "Tintin" and "Happy Feet," meanwhile, are adamant that those films are animated and should be in contention for the award.
(Jon Bloom, a governor in the short films and feature animation branch, declined to comment any further on the process to TheWrap.)
The consensus among those who closely watch the animation category is that the branch will either rule that all three films qualify or that all three don't – and virtually everyone TheWrap spoke to is expecting them to qualify.
One reason: "Happy Feet Two" is the sequel to a 2006 film that won the Oscar for Animated Feature; to say that it isn't animated would be to cast retroactive doubt on a previous winner.
(Not that the the use of motion capture in "Happy Feet" wasn't noticed: Pixar's Oscar-winning "Ratatoulie" took a sly shot at Miller's movie in end credits that read, "100% Genuine Animation! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film.”)
"Tintin," meanwhile, comes from one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood — someone the committee could be disinclined to cross.
"Spielberg is going to say what he needs to say – and my question is, who on that committee is going to call him a liar if they don't believe him?" asked one animation insider.
The third motion-capture film, "Mars Needs Moms," is a tricker (but perhaps more inconsequential) case. Zemeckis, its producer, has made a string of films using the technology but in the past has sometimes resisted entering his films in the Animated Feature race.
"To call performance capture animation is a disservice to the great animators," Zemeckis said in 2007, before his motion-capture version of "Beowulf" was originally ruled ineligible by the Academy. But AMPAS later changed its mind about "Beowulf" (which wasn't nominated), and Zemeckis has allowed his films to be entered in the category.
Still, "Mars Needs Moms" was such a commercial and critical flop that it'll likely serve only to pad out the category, without any real chance of landing a nomination.
Padding out the category could prove to be crucial: if the three performance-capture films are deemed eligible, that appears to bring the number of competing films to 15. One more entrant is all that'd be needed to bump the number of nominees in the category from four to five.
On the acting side, the problem isn't eligility, it's that actors are typically disinclined to view performance capture as being worthy of nominationt. hat
"You don’t physically appear on screen as yourself, and I guess some actors would probably object to that," Serkis, who portrayed the ape Caesar in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (above), told TheWrap in August. "Because they feel that their greatest tool is their face, and that's that."
In fact, he added, performance-capture acting is "incredibly subtle and very pure" – and no more diluted by outside factors than any other kind of acting. "Every single actor's onscreen performance is enhanced to some degree by what you wear, by the makeup team that works on your face, by the shot size, by the way the director moves the camera around what you're doing. There is not a single actor's performance onscreen that is not enhanced by other things."
James Cameron made some of the same points two years ago when "Avatar" came out, insisting that the actor who played the alien Na'vi characters were not animated, and that the actors deserved full consideration for acting awards.
None were nominated – and, indeed, no actor in a performance-capture film has ever been nominated by the Academy.
"I'd like to think it could happen," said Serkis. "I'd like to think it could be understood as being no more than acting. I don't think there should be any kind of special category or anything. The visual effects side of it is the visual side of it, and the performance is acting.
"And if some directors want to enhance or slightly animate, that's moving into something else."
In other words, this is a world in which fine lines are everywhere: the lines between acting, enhancement and animation, between a motion-capture film and an animated one.
Good luck, Academy.