The fact that "The Pirates" was such a dark horse (though you can never underestimate the Aardman factor) makes what was already the most wide open animation race in years even more interesting. I still think the underperforming "Frankenweenie" is the favorite because of Burton's immense popularity and prestige, but now it puts such a fascinating spotlight on the diversity of stop-motion, which is enjoying a minor renaissance.
Yet both Pixar and Disney achieve brave new technical heights with "Brave" and "Wreck-It Ralph" (my wild card Oscar pick). From the sumptuous beauty of the Scottish highlands with its moss-covered forests and dense fog and constant changes in lighting to the curly red hair of Merida, Pixar is unmatched in creating a world that's stylized yet believable. Meanwhile, "Ralph" manages to embrace and transcend the Disney legacy by incorporating three distinct video game worlds that are 8-bit, photoreal, and candy-colored.
But, of course, it still comes down to storytelling and all five nominees offer compelling themes pertaining to personal responsibility ("Brave," "Frankenweenie," "Wreck-It Ralph," and "Pirates") and inclusion ("ParaNorman").
The animated short category, not surprisingly, is even more diverse, ranging from "Adam and Dog," an out of pocket, hand-drawn delight from 27-year-old Disney vis dev artist Minkyu Lee about the first dog in the garden of Eden and his relationship with Adam; "Fresh Guacamole," a satirical stop-motion ditty about the weirdest guacamole mixture imaginable from director PES; "Head over Heels," another stop-motion gem literally about an upside marriage directed by Timothy Reckart; "Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare," a hilarious hand-drawn "Simpsons" spinoff directed by David Silverman; and Disney's "Paperman," the favorite, directed by John Kahrs, about love at first sight in black and white, and an innovative hybrid of CG and 2D, which just might reinvigorate the hand-drawn legacy.
Meanwhile, VFX offered a minor surprise with "Snow White and the Huntsman" upending "The Dark Knight Rises" and joining "The Avengers," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Life of Pi," and "Prometheus." Apparently Rhythm & Hues' Miyazaki-inspired Stag and the Mill's fluid sim work on the Mirror Man helped get "Snow White" its nomination.
At the same time, Weta Digital equaled a feat by Industrial Light & Magic in '91 by having a hand in three of the nominees: "The Hobbit" (solo), "The Avengers" (with ILM), and "Prometheus" (with MPC). Weta delivered some Iron Man help in "The Avengers" during the mountain top fight with Thor along with some digital double work and other explosive mayhem as well. And Weta provided lots of alien animation in "Prometheus," especially with regard to the Engineer.
It's a testament to Weta's diverse approach to virtual production. "You look at it as, what can you shoot live, but anything we can't get we have to be prepared to shoot digitally," explains Joe Letteri, Weta's four-time Oscar winner. On "The Hobbit," they redid Gollum from the inside out and integrated the CG Trolls live on stage with the other actors using the simulcam technique developed on "Avatar." They also went further with Gandalf to achieve a more dynamic sense of forced perspective using a new slave motion control system.
But, again, as with animation, it'll come down to emotion and performance. Which means it's a race between Rhythm & Hues' impressive Richard Parker from "Life of Pi," Gollum 2.0, and ILM's incredible Hulk from "The Avengers." Given "Life of Pi's" new momentum, it's hard to argue with the Bengal tiger.