Richard Linklater’s “Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood” revisits the 1969 moon landing through the memories of a boy who imagines traveling there himself. It premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in March and surfaced on Netflix the next month after a qualifying run. To depict the nostalgic journey at the center of the movie, Linklater utilized a complex blend of 2D animation styles and employed nearly 200 animators in Austin and Amsterdam over nearly two years.
However, in early July, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ animation committee rejected the Netflix-produced project for Oscar consideration in the category of Best Animated Feature Film.
In a letter from the committee explaining the decision, which was shared with IndieWire, the committee wrote 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.
While the animation teams used live-action footage for reference, none of it appears in the movie. Linklater and Netflix requested an appeal to the Academy’s decision on September 12 and haven’t heard back with a confirmed date to make their case, despite numerous followups. The Academy declined to comment, but matters of eligibility are expected to be assessed by the branch executive committee at some point this fall.
In the meantime, the filmmaker and his animation director Tommy Pallotta are speaking out about what they perceive as an ingrained bias against the rotoscope technology, which was applied to less than 20 percent of the movie. Animators used the 2D computer program TV Paint to trace the live-action footage of the actors, but filled in every other detail, including the surrounding environments, lighting, colors and other movements. Watch a behind-the-scenes look at the animation technique below.
“The only rotoscope in the film is the outline of the characters,” said Pallotta in a Zoom conversation from his office in Los Angeles. “That’s it. Everything else is animated.” Pallotta also produced the movie and oversaw the animation production flow; he said he was despondent about the Academy’s decision.
“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,” he 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.”
Speaking by phone from New Orleans, where he’s currently shooting his next feature, Linklater said that the disqualification of “Apollo 10 ½” had broader ramifications for the industry. “This decision cuts off the creative flow for a certain kind of animated movie,” he said. “Will anyone greenlight something like this if it can’t get nominated?”
He also echoed complaints from others in the animation community in recent years that the industry favors family-friendly commercial movies over others aimed at adults. “The [animation] industry is clustered around kids’ entertainment,” Linklater said. “I get this feeling that they’re basically like, ‘Indie weirdos, go home.’”
In a letter to the Academy reviewed by IndieWire, Linklater explained how the frame-by-frame redrawing of live-action reference in “Apollo 10 ½” mirrored the animation pipeline of two recent animation features accepted by the Academy as submissions, last year’s “The Spine of Night” and 2017’s “Loving Vincent,” which received an Oscar nomination. “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,” Linklater wrote. “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.”
He also took issue with the implication that an animation technique employed by the medium for decades could impact eligibility over others. “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.
The animated feature guidelines have been revised several times, with specific reference to motion-capture technology added in the aftermath of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” However, the challenges for rotoscope predate that development.
Linklater’s other previous animated outings, “A Scanner Darkly” (2006) and “Waking Life” (2001) were made during a period of evolution for the recognition of animation during awards season. The Academy launched the Best Animated Feature category for the 2002 ceremony, the year that Linklater’s fully rotoscoped “Waking Life” sought consideration. The eventual nominees were “Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Shrek,” which won. “The message was clear,” Linklater said. “Kids only.”
He noted that the next year, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” won the category as it expanded from three to five slots. “That loosened up for one weird slot,” he said. “But clearly, this is one category that’s run by corporations.”
“Apollo 10 ½” was made by animators from Austin’s Minnow Mountain and the Amsterdam-based Submarine, which handled the rotoscope. Produced for under $20 million, the movie stands apart from the muscular technological resources of other animated contenders this year such as Pixar’s “Turning Red,” which has a reported budget of $175 million, or last year’s Disney-produced winner “Encanto,” which made for $120 million-$150 million. “At the end of the day, rotoscope animation is much more handmade than most CG films,” Linklater said. “Live action as reference is just one element of it.”
Meanwhile, “Apollo 10 ½” isn’t the only recent animated feature that has a direct relationship to live action footage, as A24’s “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” uses stop-motion animation in live-action environments. It was not yet clear if it would qualify this year.
The Academy’s official rules for animated feature contenders require that “movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique.” Motion capture and real-time puppetry are disqualified “by themselves,” and “animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.” By comparison, Emmys contenders are required to have 65 percent animation.
The Academy’s disqualification of “Apollo 10 ½” seems to hinge on the requirement that “a narrative animated film must have a significant number of the major characters animated.” The Academy also requires that any animation style that “could be mistaken for live action” must be submitted with supplemental materials supporting the argument that the movie is animated and not live action.
Linklater said they did that. “A lot of it is their own irrational prejudices and paranoia about rotoscoping,” he said. Pallotta felt that the pair’s history with rotoscope figured into the decision as well. “In a way, we feel like we’re being penalized for being good at it, and being proud about it,” he said.
“The Spine of Night” directors Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt wrote their own letter to the Academy in support of Linklater’s movie. “Hand-drawn rotoscope animation is, indeed, frame-by-frame animation, using the same principles that have been used in traditional animation since the beginning,” they wrote, singling out Windsor McCay’s 1921 animated film “The Centaur” as one example. “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.”
In addition to “Loving Vincent,” which created animation with video stills as reference, many animated short films that use rotoscope have been recognized by the Academy. These include everything from the 2009 Oscar-winning animated short film “Logorama” to the 1979 short film “Tom Waits for No One,” which won an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement before the Best Animated Feature category existed. Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” meanwhile, used roto tracings for various cartoon characters in 1937. “There’s a bedrock of hypocrisy underlying this whole thing,” Linklater said.
As for the perceived bias that the Academy gives preferential treatment to more conventional family-friend animated films, Linklater isn’t the first to speak out. In an open letter to the industry after last year’s Academy Awards broadcast, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller lambasted the program for introducing the Best Animated Feature category as a domain exclusively aimed at children.
“Animated films make up some of our most formative movie experiences as kids,” said upcoming live-action “Little Mermaid” actress Halle Bailey, reading a teleprompter. Naomi Scott, who played Princess Jasmine in the live-action “Aladdin” added: “So many kids watch these movies over and over … I think some parents out there know exactly what we’re talking about.” 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.
Linklater said that while “Apollo 10 ½” is family friendly, its complex approach to memory and the unique circumstances of the late-’60s space race opened it up to older viewers. “It’s not just for kids. Our audience was across the board,” he said, noting that his experience studying child memories with “Boyhood” inspired the new project. “It’s as personal a film as any I’ve made.”
In a few weeks, “Apollo 10 ½” distributor Netflix will premiere “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” at the London Film Festival ahead of its release, and the stop-motion reinterpretation of the classic fairy tale reportedly has a darker, more adult-oriented feel than the animated Disney interpretation. “Animation is not a fucking genre,” del Toro said at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival over the summer. “Animation is film.”
With “Apollo 10 ½,” Linklater crafted an immersive look at what it means to contemplate childhood from the distance of adulthood. Jack Black narrates the movie as the grown-up version of the child protagonist, explaining the broader historical context of the moment — in the midst of the Vietnam War — even as the young boy experiences only a sense of awe around the moon landing. “Live action would have been a blunt instrument for this film,” the director said. “It’s closer to the imaginative realm of the brain.”
Pallotta said he was less invested in the prospects of getting the movie nominated than simply recognized for contention. “This is threatening to my career,” he said. “For future projects, if it’s vague and up to the whim of a few people we don’t know, how can I ever talk to a studio or investors and say, ‘Hey, this is an animated,’ then have to go back after the fact and say ‘Actually, it’s not’? All I want is clarity.”
Linklater took issue with the opaque nature of the committee. “I would really question its existence,” he said. “Every branch has their guidelines, but they’re technical. … To look at this and say it’s not an animated film just fails 100 percent any reasonable perception. There’s no other alternative.”
Above all, Linklater believes that the committee’s ability to make aesthetic distinctions about the animated form beyond the specifics of its official rules is a systematic problem. “Here’s what’s fucked up — the notion that there is one way that is more pure than another,” he said. “Technology and creativity should be able to run wild. The process has far outstripped their thinking so they end up super conservative with a frustratingly simple view of it that’s anti-art. The category that should be most inclusive of expression is instead the most status quo.”
A few hours later, he texted a final thought: “I’m against anything that has the effect of suppressing art and free expression.”
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.