When the Academy opened up voting for animated features to the membership at large and implementing preferential balloting, the balance of power shifted from indies to the big studios the first time in four years. This resulted in the final five nods for Pixar frontrunner “Coco,” GKids’ politically powerful “The Breadwinner,” the hand-painted “Loving Vincent,” and two surprising mainstream studio entries: “The Boss Baby” from DreamWorks and Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand.”
Indeed, one could argue that without the new rule changes and a Disney release last year, there likely would’ve been four indies joining “Coco.” Still, there were several positive takeaways: All five movies captured the zeitgeist in one way or another, and this marked the first time that two female directors were nominated in the same year: Nora Twomey for “The Breadwinner” and Dorota Kobiela for “Loving Vincent.” They joined previous nominees Marjane Satrap (“Persepolis”), Jennifer Yuh Nelson (“Kung Fu Panda 2”), and Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”). Not only that, but the innovative “Loving Vincent” boasted a female crew of more than 60%.
Read more about these nominees, ranked in order of their likelihood to win:
At a time when we needed bridges instead of walls, “Coco” offered the best possible unifying message, with its beautiful, musical, and heartfelt ode to family and Día de los Muertos. In fact, it was embraced worldwide to the tune of $714.5 million and swept all the major awards, so it was always the Oscar favorite. “Coco” and Pixar production designer, Harley Jessup, even made history this year as the Art Director’s Guild inaugural animation honoree.
But, in addition to its resonating story of ancestry, “Coco” (directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina) offered the inventive Land of the Dead from Jessup and lighting cinematographer Danielle Feinberg. The vertically-stacked metropolis, almost like a tree of life, contained a series towers with multilayered houses that grew organically throughout the centuries, and powered by 7 million lights (with clustered street lamps illuminated by clever computer coding). Plus, there was the brilliant animation of trickster skeleton Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). He was patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, a broken character physically and psychologically, but humanized with large, emotive eyes, moving and stretching to simulate eyebrows.
Irish director Twomey (Cartoon Saloon) delivered a powerful animated movie that yielded GKids’ 10th Oscar nomination since 2009. The drama tackled a serious story of political oppression with sensitivity and hope, based on the popular YA novel by Deborah Ellis. A strong-willed 11-year-old Afghan girl poses as a boy to help her family survive under threat from the Taliban after her father is imprisoned as a dissident.
A co-production of Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, Ireland, Aircraft Pictures in Toronto, and Melusine Productions in Luxembourg, “The Breadwinner” was aided early on by the invaluable contributions of Afghan expert and executive producer Angelina Jolie. Unlike Cartoon Saloon’s previous two Oscar nominees about Irish mythologies (“Song of the Sea” and “The Secret of Kells”), it contained a naturalism that became more intense as the story progressed, centered on a stirring rite of passage for his heroic protagonist.
“Loving Vincent,” the first oil-painted animated feature by hand (now available on Blu-ray/DVD and iTunes), was a passion project for Kobiela, who collaborated with co-director Hugh Welchman. She was inspired by the life and art of Vincent van Gogh, and wanted to tell a speculative murder mystery totally through his paintings. Thus, they created a uniquely immersive animated experience, which became a surprise indie hit, with $20 million worldwide.
After a live-action shoot with the actors (including Saoirse Ronan and Aidan Turner) in full costume for four weeks and six months of editing and prep, came two years of oil painting on canvas, using 77 originals as reference plus others that were re-imagined. The same artists hand-animated 65,000 frames of oil paintings, mimicking van Gogh’s bold colors and expressive brush strokes.
“The Boss Baby”
For DreamWorks director Tom McGrath (the “Madagascar” franchise), “The Boss Baby” provided a personal story about sibling rivalry and corporate displacement, with Alec Baldwin voicing a Trump-like corporate bully. McGrath found this very relatable. At the same time, however, it was an opportunity to create a separate 2D graphic design for several fantasy sequences revolving around a 7-year-old’s imagination.
The director and his team had fun getting more abstract and paying homage to their heroes: Maurice Noble, Mary Blair, Ward Kimball, and Chuck Jones. The retro-looking fantasies were strung together early on as mini-movie chain of events, with encounters in a jungle, in outer space, and inside a shark, all fed through the same character pipeline.
A passion project for director Carlos Saldanha (“Rio”), “Ferdinand” offered a sensitive portrayal of identity and inclusion, not to mention a bull in a china shop. Inspired by the 1936 children’s book (“The Story of Ferdinand”) and the 1938 Oscar-winning Disney short (“Ferdinand the Bull”), the movie addressed being true to your identity with a bull that’s a gentle, agile animal of peace and not violence.
Photo Credit: Blue Sky Studios
The Blue Sky feature also posed a formative technical challenge. Despite having mastered fur simulation Saldanha wasn’t happy with the results for Ferdinand. He looked at “The Black Stallion” and was swayed by the metallic sheen. As a result, the studio developed a new texture mapping software for Ferdinand (and the other bulls). This helped make the protagonist even more endearing.