Off to the Oscars We Go: The History of Animated Features & the Academy Awards
When it premiered back in 1928, Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie was a near-overnight success. As the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to make it to theaters, the short film is responsible for launching the empire that would make Disney a household name. In the years that followed, Disney and his studio produced more Mickey pictures as well as a series of shorts that didn’t feature a single recurring character, the Silly Symphonies. Disney’s shorts started as black-and-white cartoons with sound effects and voices synchronized perfectly to the images. By 1932, the studios added color to their pictures; an incredible, realistic sense of depth (thanks to a snazzy device called the multiplane camera); and original songs and music.
At the fifth annual Academy Awards, Best Animated Short Film became a category. Disney’s first all-color short, Flowers and Trees (1932), nabbed the Oscar, kicking off an eight-year winning streak for The Walt Disney Studios. But this was also the Great Depression era: If folks had money to spend on entertainment, they were going to see double features, and maybe, just maybe, catch a short film before those feature-length ones. Part wise business decision, part creative exercise, Disney devoted much of the Studios’ time and resources toward the production of Hollywood’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Disney Princesses Make Oscar Magic
Ahead of its release, Snow White was derided by the press, which called the film "Disney’s folly" because it marked such a huge financial risk for the Studios. After all, would audiences connect with animated characters in the same way they did with live-action actors? Would anyone, even kids, want to sit through an hour-and-a-half-long cartoon?
Computer Animation Helps Push Feature Films to New Heights
Beauty and the Beast marked the second film (after 1990’s markedly less successful The Rescuers Down Under) to use the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) — hardware and software developed by Pixar Animation Studios that allowed for a wider range of colors as well as soft shading and colored line effects, which had been cast aside when Disney abandoned hand inking (a.k.a. applying ink and paint to animation cels with brushes). CAPS also allowed animators to simulate those depth-creating effects first made possible by the multiplane camera, and allowed animators to combine hand-drawn art and computer-generated imagery more easily — as seen in Beauty and the Beast’s famous ballroom dance scene (section above, right).
Into the Animation-verse
The year after Shrek’s historic win, the Japanese animated coming-of-age/fantasy film Spirited Away, directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, overtook Titanic’s box office record in Japan and became the most successful film in Japanese history, grossing $365 million worldwide. Often touted as one of the greatest animated films ever made, Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, making it the first (and only) hand-drawn and non-English language film to win in that category.