Happy Feet & Danish Poet Top Animated Oscar Honors

The Oscar animation winners offered a few surprises as the top animation awards went to HAPPY FEET for Best Animated Feature and the indie 2D short THE DANISH POET (NFB) by Torill Kove won for Best Animated Short tonight (Feb. 25, 2007) during the 79th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.

Echoing its earlier awards at the VES Awards, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MANS CHEST scored the big win for Best Visual Effects. Taking the stage to accept from ILM were John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall.

The ceremony, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, was televised live on ABC-TV. Unlike like last years broadcast, there was little in the way of animated bits, jokes or explorations of visual effects.

Cameron Diaz, voice of Princess Fiona from SHREK, presented the Animated Feature Film category.

It was a bit of a surprise that HAPPY FEET would beat out John Lasseters CARS, which had won the Annie, Golden Globe and PGA Awards. MONSTER HOUSE was also up for best feature. Animated characters from the three nominated flicks had been digitally placed in the seats during announcements, which included reactions by CARS and MONSTER HOUSE characters sharing their disappointment while HAPPPY FEET won and a surprised George Miller took the stage to accept. Australian-based vfx studio Animal Logic made HAPPY FEET as its first animated feature, rigged and animated using SOFTIMAGE | XSI.

Backstage, Miller, who won his first Oscar ever after three nominations for live-action films, said, "I never thought that I would be holding an Oscar for an animation. I honestly -- this is true -- I can say I didn't expect to win. Sitting next to John Lasseter, who I thought would win and has won Oscars before... I feel pretty good.

He said he would be going back to, "live-action actors for a while, but I'm hooked on animation, and it's going to be in whatever movies I get to make. So, I guess we will keep doing -- we will keep doing animation. This new digital age is so significant, I think we will keep -- we will keep working in it, and it's fantastic. I'm so lucky to be working in film at the time when it's available."

Miller talked about lessons learned doing animation with VFXWORLD. "I mean, having had some experience with the big movies," Miller said. "I did sort of understand a little bit what was happening, but I had no idea what kind of tsunami of learning I had when I got into animation. The basic principles of storytelling are very, very similar, but you can deconstruct everything. You can work a great deal on everything. I learned to be very painstaking. I'm worried when I get to a live-action set that I won't have a virtual camera or I can change a performance by asking an animator to just, you know, hold a blink an extra frame or two.

"I think there's also a convergence between animation and what we call basic, regular filmmaking. I think we are starting to see that in all the visual effects movies, and once we start to conquer the visual effects, it will be just normal for every kind of movie you get into. When you look at something like Gollum from LORD OF THE RINGS, he was essentially animated performance captured. That's in most of the movies now. It's an interesting new age we are working in. I'm very happy to be part of it."

AWN asked Miller if he'd ever do a film animating people, as well as animals, and if he would recommend to other live-action directors that they make a move into animation. He responded, "We didn't have the courage to do people in HAPPY FEET. As you know, the humans that appear at the end of the movie are live-action humans. I think that's -- that's in generations to come. There's something about the subtlety of the human being, which you really can't capture unless they stylize them in the way that it was done, say, in THE INCREDIBLES or so on. That's not to say that Disney didn't do great work in PINOCCHIO and all of those sorts of things.

"I think every single director, live-action director, now has to take into account animation," Miller continued. "I think, as I said, there's a convergence between them. And you talk to most of those big kinds of filmmakers, the Jim Camerons, and the Spielbergs and the Jacksons and whatever. They are doing that. They are all into it because it's part of our language now; it's part of our repertoire. We have all got to learn it and it's a great way to play. And everyone is so young, it's such a great opportunity, everyone is so young. The average age on this film was 26. And I'm an old fart, and working with them was fantastic."

The hardest contest to call in the animation biz was the Animated Shorts category with THE DANISH POET (NFB) up against LIFTED (Buena Vista/Pixar) by Gary Rydstrom, THE LITTLE MATCHGIRL (Buena Vista/Disney) by Roger Allers and Don Hahn, MAESTRO (Szimplafilm/Kedd Prod.) by Géza M Toth and NO TIME FOR NUTS (20th Century Fox/Blue Sky) by Chris Renaud and Mike Thurmeier.

On stage, shorts animator Kove said, I want to thank the Academy for this wonderful award, it's such an honor and also for continuing to support this animated short category. That really means a lot to us. She continued the theme when talking to reporters backstage. When asked if shorts were an endangered species at one point, she replied, Well, I don't actually think that any animated shorts are an endangered species, I think they're doing really, really well at the moment, but I think what the Oscars do and what the Academy is doing for animators is they're bringing the animated short form out to I mean, I hate to call it the mainstream, because that sounds maybe a bit condescending, that isn't what I mean. I think the animated short community, it's a wonderful eclectic, inclusive community, but it is a little bit insular and I think to have the Academy recognize this film form every year by having a category included in the awards.

I mean, all the films are now available and iTunes some -- and I don't know about the other films -- but mine has been shown all across the states and all across Canada in movie theaters, which is unheard of these days so I think it's tremendously important. And, like I said, I think what the Academy is doing for us is really important and we're really grateful for it.

She told AWN spending the past week touring studios with the other shorts nominees had been really inspiring. As far as the medium is concerned and length of film, I'm still quite attached to the short film format, she said. It is liberating to be able to do what I do and I just really want to do it again, I'm completely hooked on it, it's wonderful.

And I like to draw, you know, so I'll probably keep doing that for a while longer, responding to if she might experiment in other styles of animation.

During their onstage acceptance for VFX, Knoll said, You know the naysayers said that four blind kids from the Bronx couldn't make it in visual effects, but here we are. First, I got to thank Jerry Bruckheimer for entrusting us with this great, big project. Thanks to Gore Verbinski, your vast imagination, your humor, your tireless work ethic and that's why we're up here. Thank you.

Backstage, Knoll told VFXWORLD, Probably the thing we're working on right now is just making our life difficult and miserable. It's a lot of very tough computer-generated water. It was hard. It was hard for the POSEIDON guys, it was hard for SUPERMAN, it's hard for us too, and we're doing some work that's very demanding in that area.

Gibson added, Also, just the amount of work in the film is pretty staggering. We're pretty close to 2,000 shots, which isreally about as many shots as were in the first two films combined with a dramatically shortened schedule.

Sound editing went to Alan Robert Murray for LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Warner Bros.), winner in that category the night before at the Golden Reel Awards.

Winner for Original Screenplay, Michael Arndt, who penned LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, is now at work on a script for TOY STORY 3 at Pixar. Backstage he talked to VFXWORLD about how that came about and how he felt about working in animation? Amdt recounted, "I started meeting with Pixar in the summer of 2005 when LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was being filmed, and they had read the script, really liked it, but they didn't even really know if it [TOY STORY 3] was being made. But, they liked it enough that they flew me up, and I had a couple interviews. And they hired me to work on another project, so I was at the studio. After the merger took place between Disney and Pixar, they decided they were going to ramp up TOY STORY 3, and I sort of got sidelined into that job.

"It's been an incredibly great experience for me to work at Pixar, he continued. "When I was starting out, I just wrote alone, you know, in my apartment, and it gets to be sort of boring and depressing, you know, to just be in your apartment all day long. Pixar is an incredibly great, creative place, collaborative, and, also, they're all such incredibly smart guys. I really decided that one of the great pleasures in life is being in a room full of really smart people, and I've had the good fortune to do that at Pixar for a year-and-a-half now.

Sound Mixing was awarded to Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer and Willie Burton for DREAMGIRLS (DreamWorks & Paramount).

PANS LABYRINTH garnered three wins for cinematography, art direction and makeup.

DEPARTED won for Best Picture and Martin Scorsese was recognized his direction on DEPARTED.

For a full list of winners & nominees, visit www.oscars.com.

For a travelogue with the animated short nominees the past week leading up to the Oscars, visit http://oscartour.animationblogspot.com.

And check out the Oscar Showcase the 2007 AWN Oscar Showcase, which includes clips from all the animated films and short.