How Do We Judge the Best?
What the Annies did was two-fold. First, taking a lesson from some of the other creative professional academies, they changed voting eligibility so that only professionals who contributed materially to the work could vote. Second, they implemented an Electoral College-style system where they have a group of noted individuals, with extensive credits, that looks at the top contenders and finalizes the vote. As Gladstone noted, “What that does is not allow any studio to control the vote. This random selection of judges represents all the studios and is weighted absolutely fairly through the industry. There are individuals, studio people and representatives of each of the nomination committees, who all determine the actual winners.”
What I Look For in a Great Film
So, what makes a film great? What makes it worthy of award? What do industry professionals look for when they judge a film?
David Silverman, who directed The Simpsons Movie, scores of Simpsons TV episodes as well as this year’s Best Animated Short nominee Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare,” described what he looks for in a great film. “A lot of things come to mind. Being surprised, I guess, is a big one. I want to have a feeling about the characters. I want to feel. I want a story that not only has great characters but ones that I care about. In a non-narrative film they’re going to do something visual that I hadn’t expected. That would mean some sort of surprising thing. I think good non-narrative films have a sense of story to them. There is a rhythm to them that’s sort of the story. The best non-narrative films are done by people who are still storytellers. They don’t tell [stories] in the traditional sense but they tell in terms of art and rhythm.”
Travis Knight, Laika CEO, Producer and Lead Animator on the Oscar-nominated animated feature ParaNorman, summed up how he judges a film. “There are a number of aspects to look at. There’s the craft aspect. Lens choices, camera choices, acting choices. Is the world unified or is it just strapped together? There are a lot of elements that come into play when you’re evaluating the ‘quality’ of something like that. Ultimately though, a film is a story. Just like any storytelling experience, it needs to have an emotional component. If you’re not feeling anything, then it’s not working. If you walked out of a film feeling like you consumed empty calories, like it’s a little pop culture concession, then it didn’t work. Any story is supposed to connect with you emotionally. Art is supposed to allow us to look beyond our own experiences. It’s for those aspects of our shared humanity that we haven’t thought of or that we get in touch with. If a film can do that, it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking. It deserves recognition.”
Travis went on about how rare and ultimately powerful a great film can be. “It’s incredibly difficult to do any film, even a bad film. It requires a lot of work and a lot of people pour a lot of their hearts into it. But to craft something that can connect with an audience emotionally is extraordinarily difficult. If you can do that in a beautiful and evocative way visually, it’s very rare. You don’t see it very often. To have an experience like that in the theatre, those are things that you live for. That’s the reason I’m in this business. When I saw movies like that as a kid, it just changed the way I looked at the world. Those are things that still live with me to this day.”
Mike Gabriel, Art Director on Wreck-It Ralph, also talked about the emotional aspects of a film. “A great film shows us old truths in new ways. A great animated film requires we show that truth through powerful visual invention. The more you buy in emotionally that the cartoon characters on screen are real and in real peril, the greater the animated film.”
With regards to judging a film’s visual effects, Weta Digital’s Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri talked about how a great film pulls you in. As he explained, “Are you seeing something that can't possibly be real, but your brain is telling you that it is? Do you want to keep seeing more of it? I think this applies in any category, not just Visual Effects, and a great example of that is Lincoln. From the first frames, the illusion is so convincing that I felt that I was watching Abraham Lincoln and not Daniel Day-Lewis. If you break it down, you realize that it is not just the performance that stays with you. All of the elements surrounding that - costume, makeup, cinematography, production design, directing - have to come together in those moments to draw you into the film.”
Fellow Weta artist, Animation Supervisor David Clayton, echoed Joe’s sentiments. “Does the work go beyond good execution and creativity, and make you engage with the story playing out on the screen? Do you forget that you're watching visual effects?"
Aardman Animation’s Oscar-winning Co-Founder, Producer and Director Peter Lord described how honesty is of paramount importance to him in how he judges a film. “I want to be moved by a film. The thing I’m always looking out for in that respect is very personal of course. The word I always think about and often use in such conversations is ‘honesty.’ Do I believe that the filmmaker is being honest with me? We all know it’s not easy, but is possible, to play on your audience’s emotions for effect. That’s what we do as storytellers. We manipulate it in our choice of shots, our choice of music and everything that happens. So I try to judge, ‘Is that real? Do I believe the filmmaker believes that? Or, are they just going through the motions?’ Of course, that judgment is completely subjective. I don’t expect anyone else to share it on any given film. But that’s a very important thing for me. What I hate is being manipulated”
On the subject of Oscar judging, Peter was quite adamant in his assessments. “An Oscar is a huge award. It is of massive importance. That accolade should be given with a great deal of wisdom. I’ve judged other competitions in animation. Short films in particular work in lots of different ways. When you see a program of animated films, sometimes a very short thing comes up and you laugh with delight. They’ve caught a moment, they’ve landed a joke, they’ve charmed the audience. Maybe you’ve just finished seeing something 20 minutes long, rambling and incoherent and now you see something which is tiny and perfect and probably funny. You laugh with delight at seeing it. But I don’t think you should give an Oscar to a film like that. I’m not referring to anything in competition this year. Delight is a great thing in filmmaking. There’s not enough of that in filmmaking. But surely something more substantial, like an idea I’ve never seen before, combined with technique which is in some sense a virtuoso, that’s a reasonable thing to look out for. The film you give it to doesn’t have to be 20 minutes long. It doesn’t have to be big in that sense. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But it needs to be exceptional. I don’t mean pomposity. I don’t mean heaviness. It must have substance.”