As ballots go out, here's a breakdown on those potent pieces of paper (plus an updated AMPAS branch count)
The ballots are in the mail.
Ballots for the 84th Academy Awards were mailed to the 5,783 Academy members on Tuesday, the Academy announced. Those voters now have until Jan. 13 to decide upon their favorite films, performances and/or accomplishments of the year, and to get their choices back to PricewaterhouseCoopers in time for a week and a half of detailed and complex counting.
We've waded into the details of the count in the past, and made particular note of the new system in place to produce anywhere between five and 10 Best Picture nominees.
The basics about the Oscar ballots that were mailed on Tuesday: They're color-coded by category, and cover 15 of the 24 Academy Awards categories. (Nominations in the rest of the categories are decided by special committees or at specific AMPAS events.)
Best Picture ballots are white, with the other categories using generally muted colors.
While Best Picture ballots are tabulated using the new system, the other 14 categories use the straight preferential count, which uses a number of rounds to narrow the field down to the final five nominees.
On every ballot except the acting ballot, voters are asked to list the name of the film, not the name of the person who will actually be nominated. This will make things much easier for directors who want to vote for Michel Hazanavicius but will only need to write "The Artist."
The reminder list of eligible films that accompanies most of the ballots includes film titles only, not names of potential nominees.
Members of the Actors Branch, though, are required to list the name of the actor and the name of the film – and they're given complete leeway to decide if a performance belongs in the lead or supporting category (or even to put it in both if they're undecided).
If a performance actually gets enough votes to be nominated in both lead and supporting categories, it will receive the nomination in whichever category it drew the most support.
And given the way the system works, in only five categories does a film need more than 100 votes to be nominated for an Oscar. That's because nominations are made by the individual branches, not by the entire membership of the Academy.
The Actors Branch, with more than 1,172 active members, is by far the largest. If every eligible member were to vote, it would take 196 votes to secure a nomination in the four acting categories. (Voters are asked to rank their favorites one-through-five, but each ballot counts as a single vote for a single actor, usually the one ranked first.)
The next largest branches, the Producers Branch and the Executives Branch, with 450 and 442 members, respectively, only vote for Best Picture (as do Public Relations Branch members and Members at Large).
Directing, writing and sound categories require 62, 63 and 67 votes for a nomination, respectively; music requires 39 for an Original Score nomination, with the Original Song category using a different process.
It goes all the way down to cinematography and film editing, which require 35 and 38 votes, respectively and makeup and hairstyling, which requires only 21 votes.
That doesn't seem like many for an Oscar nomination – but remember, those are 21 top experts voting. It's the Academy's unofficial credo, when it comes to membership: quality, not quantity.
Here's the updated breakdown of Academy membership, branch-by-branch:
Art Directors: 367
Film Editors: 224
Makeup Artists and Hairstylists: 121
Public Relations: 368
Short Films and Feature Animation: 349
Visual Effects: 294
Total Voting members: 5,783
Total Active Members: 5, 935
Retired Members: 673
Total Members: 6,608
Of the 15 branches, 11 gained members during 2011. The Documentary Branch had the largest gain, increasing its numbers by nine; Short Films and Feature Animation went up by six, while Visual Effects increased by five.
Only three branches ended the year with fewer members than they had at the beginning of the year. The Actors Branch lost the most members, dropping by 11, while the Sound Branch dropped by six and the Music Branch by four.
Overall, Academy membership remained almost constant, with six more voting members this year than last.