Are animated films unfairly shortchanged for Best Production Design?

When one thinks of the Best Production Design Oscar – previously known as Best Art Direction – the first thoughts that come to mind are of elaborate physical sets in live-action films: the Globe Theater in “Shakespeare in Love,” the fearsome lair of the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the recreated ship’s interiors in “Titanic,” all previous winners in the category.

But what about animated films? Their production design has never been honored, unless you count the live-action/animation hybrid “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988.

With the increasing sophistication of CGI, the line has blurred between real and virtual sets. The last four Art Direction winners were “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Hugo,” films so effects-driven — of the four, only “Alice” lost the Visual Effects race — that to call them strictly live-action films would be a stretch.

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This year, a number of animated films showcase significant production design. “ParaNorman,” “Frankenweenie,” and “The Pirates: Band of Misfits” are stop-motion films and thus use physical sets, much like Wes Anderson‘s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which was not recognized at the Oscars but won the Production Design award from the National Society of Film Critics in 2009.

Several computer animated films create three-dimensional virtual settings, including Pixar’s adventure film “Brave” and DreamWorks’s upcoming “Rise of the Guardians,” which features deep 3D environments that re-imagine familiar holiday settings like Santa’s workshop at the North Pole.

Production Design is not the only aspect of animated films ignored by the Oscars. To date, three have been nominated for Best Picture – “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “Up” (2009), and “Toy Story 3” (2010) – but none has ever been nominated for Best Director.

No voice actors have been nominated either, despite occasional precursor nominations: Ellen DeGeneres was nodded by the Chicago Film Critics Association for “Finding Nemo” in 2003, and Eddie Murphy earned a BAFTA bid for “Shrek” in 2001. Robin Williams won a special Golden Globe for his voice performance in “Aladdin” in 1992.

Performance-capture technology has blurred the lines between on-screen and voice-over work. Andy Serkis was digitally captured to animate the characters Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” but the Academy didn’t nominate him despite widespread acclaim for both performances.

Animated films are frequently nominated for other achievements, including writing, sound, score, and song, but those are off-screen elements easier to directly compare to their live-action competitors. When it comes to visual crafts like production design, animated films need not apply.

Is that exclusion fair? Would it be reasonable to judge the production design of “Frankenweenie” and “Rise of the Guardians” against “Les Miserables” and “Anna Karenina,” our current frontrunners in the race? Or should animated production designers perhaps be honored in a separate category, as there were once separate categories for color and black-and-white cinematography and art direction.

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