Oscars Game Theory: Awarding Vocal & Motion Capture Performances

Ready for a thought experiment? Let’s award 25 years of a category that doesn’t exist, but should.

This piece started with a text on Wednesday from Chase Branch: “You have the power to create a new Oscar category. What do you make?” I had my answer locked and loaded, and he agreed. We’ve long advocated for a way to recognize incredible performances like Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, Amy Poehler in Inside Out, or Andy Serkis in anything. And as both the animation and effects industries continue to explode, it won’t be long before the Academy catches up: an award for Vocal or Motion Capture Performance.

We split up to do our own research, and after comparing notes, we can now present to you an alternate history of this fake award. And yes, we are aware that Best Animated Feature wasn’t added as a category until 2002’s ceremony, but we think our winners would still line up.


1992: After Robin Williams’ tour de force as Aladdin’s Genie, which sparked unheeded cries to include him in that year’s Best Supporting Actor category, the Academy takes the unprecedented step of adding a new award for Vocal Performance. This goes hand in hand with a major sea change for the animation industry (specifically Disney, which more or less has the monopoly), as films start turning to bigger and bigger Hollywood stars instead of their stable of reliable voice actors. Williams is just the beginning. But with options so limited, the category will (for now) be culled to three nominees.

1993: The Nightmare Before Christmas presents the first dilemma for the fledgling category: honor Chris Sarandon, the speaking voice for Jack Skellington, or composer Danny Elfman, who provided the singing? Without any real competition (My Neighbor Totoro is in Japanese; Homeward Bound is…well, Homeward Bound), the first Vocal Performance award goes to Elfman, his first — and to date, only — Oscar.

1994: There’s never any doubt it’s between James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons of The Lion King, and though the latter may give the more expressive performance, voters can’t resist giving the award to the voice of Darth Vader. Not the last time Star Wars nostalgia will take over in this category.

1995: Toy Story takes the world by storm, and the warm, anchoring presence of Tom Hanks as Woody is certainly part of that. But Hanks had just won for Philadelphia and is about to win for Forrest Gump, so the Academy (with an assist from Disney’s marketing arm, eager for ABC to run ads for its now Oscar-winning sitcom star) goes for his co-star, Tim Allen. It’s a decision that will seem more surprising in hindsight, and won’t be rectified for a while.

1996: And then we hit a lull, because no one is all that excited about The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a minute it seems like Susan Sarandon (James and the Giant Peach) might be the first woman to win the award, but Disney’s pull is still too strong, so it’s Tom Hulce as Quasimodo. Moving along.

1997: Hercules might be one of lesser-regarded “modern” Disney flicks, but everyone generally agrees that James Woods kills it (heh) as the sardonic, hot-headed Hades. His only competition is co-star Danny DeVito and Meg Ryan from Fox’s Anastasia, but the result is the same as before. Can a Disney film be beaten?

1998: Now things start to get really interesting. The presumptive frontrunner is Eddie Murphy in Disney’s Mulan, but the studio’s now perceived to be on a downswing, and Murphy’s personal brand of comedy is a bridge too far for the much older Academy. Challenging him is Woody Allen, essentially playing himself in Antz, but in the end, the voters break for that other Dreamworks release, the Bible epic The Prince of Egypt. Ralph Fiennes, who’s actually quite good as Rameses, scores the upset. From now on, anything can happen, and Murphy’s voters won’t forget.

1999: Toy Story 2 probably should have taken all three nominations, but it only gets two: Hanks, and Joan Cusack. Joining them is — in a surprise — Frank Oz, for puppeteering a few scenes of Yoda in the widely-maligned Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Hanks soon drops out of the publicity tour to focus on Saving Private Ryan (for which he will also lose), leaving the Academy with the chance to honor either the best voice performance of the year, or Yoda. They choose Yoda. It’s controversial, but not unpredictable.

2000: In retrospect the award clearly should have gone to Eartha Kitt — or heck, even Patrick Warburton, both hysterical in The Emperor’s New Groove, but this is the year of Chicken Run, and of the Mel Gibson that the Academy has not yet rejected. (Reminder: in real life, it’s after this year that they create the Animated Feature category, but in this alternate timeline let’s presume that it’s been here all along or nothing else will make sense. Sorry.)

2001: The biggest showdown in the category’s history pits Billy Crystal of Monsters, Inc. vs. Eddie Murphy of Shrek. And even though the third slot goes to Murphy’s co-star Mike Myers over John Goodman, everyone assumes that Pixar’s dominance will continue. But as the Feature award goes Dreamworks’ way, the voters ironically haven’t forgotten Mulan, and Eddie Murphy wins his first Oscar. I hurl my television through a window in disgust, as Mike Wazowski is (still!) my favorite Pixar character.

2002: Game Change: Andy Serkis strikes like lightning from a clear sky, and the industry — and this category — is changed forever. After very nearly getting nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Serkis and Gollum take this one in a landslide, and the Academy makes major changes for next year. They retitle the category to “Vocal or Motion Capture Performance” (though few truly understand the technology, or are sure how to credit the actual animators), and — coupled with the burgeoning computer animation market, expand the nominees from three to five.

2003: It would have been easy for Andy Serkis to repeat if not for Pixar’s triumphant Finding Nemo, buoyed by a delightfully scatterbrained performance from Ellen DeGeneres. She’s aided, though, by internal debate about whether it’s “unfair” for DeGeneres and others, who are only using their voices, to share the category with full-body performers like Serkis. Bigger still is the rising call for a woman to finally win the male-dominated award. For now, at least, both problems have solved themselves. Collateral damage? Ruining Return of the King’s historic sweep.

2004: Another loss for Tom Hanks, and another blow for motion capture, as Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express sinks deeply into the Uncanny Valley. Filling the void is once again Pixar and The Incredibles, with voters seizing the chance to hand Samuel L. Jackson his first career Oscar, despite only having a few scenes as Frozone. But they’re funny, as is Jackson’s acceptance speech where he’s clearly not sure how seriously to even take the award.

2005: It’s another upset! Andy Serkis’ work in King Kong is undeniably great, but with voters largely cool on the film, the votes get split up amongst a varied field: Helena Bonham Carter from Corpse Bride, Liam Neeson as Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Alan Rickman as Marvin in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Peter Sallis from Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Somehow, Liam Neeson wins. We’re still not sure how.

2006: Don’t count out motion capture yet, however: this year the award deservedly goes to Bill Nighy for his work in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The critics’ choice is Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth, but as both of his characters are in prosthetics and one doesn’t even speak, voters get easily confused. Nevertheless, everyone agrees that “at least it wasn’t Larry the Cable Guy.”

2007: The pendulum swings back to Pixar this year as Ratatouille picks up multiple nominations, going up against Jerry Seinfeld for The Bee Movie and Ray Winstone for Beowulf. And the moment the Academy realizes they can finally give an Oscar to Peter O’Toole, it’s over. You guys! We just gave an Oscar to Peter O’Toole! This was all worth it!

2008: Chaos reigns again as Ben Burtt almost gets a nomination for WALL-E — before the Academy rules that since he merely created the robot’s sounds, but didn’t actually voice them, he’s ineligible. That leaves a vacuum for Dreamworks and Kung-fu Panda, with an exuberant Jack Black edging out Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie. (Steve Carell of Horton Hears a Who never had a chance.) Academy Award-winner Jack Black. That’s a thing now.

2009: Zoe Saldana’s physical performance has this award from the jump, no matter how people actually felt about Avatar Even over the mighty Up, which scores nominations for Ed Asner and Bob Peterson, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, for George Clooney and Meryl Streep. Pundits are still arguing about this one, but Peterson (Dug!) would have been my pick.

2010: At long last Woody takes the stage, and Tom Hanks gets the award that has eluded him for 15 years. It’s an easy choice for the Academy to reward the Best Picture-nominated Toy Story 3, also nominating Ned Beatty as Lotso. Hanks beats out Tangled’s Mandy Moore and Donna Murphy, and Despicable Me’s Steve Carell.

2011: Andy Serkis is back, and with a vengeance. His work in Rise of the Planet of the Apes pushes motion-capture technology forward another leap, and there’s nothing Johnny Depp (Rango) or  Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots) can do about it. Somehow, it’s only his second win.

2012: But back-to-back victories continue to elude Andy Serkis, as voters are reluctant to reward him again for playing Gollum (especially in a Hobbit film that never gained traction). Instead it’s another vote split amongst another 4-1 male slate, with the winner among John C. Reilly (Wreck-It Ralph), Kelly MacDonald (Brave), and Hugh Grant (The Pirates!) being…Seth MacFarlane. Yep, it’s true. I wouldn’t lie about fake history. The same year the Ted creator hosts the ceremony and sings a song about boobs, he walks away with an Oscar of his own. It’s a victory that will lead to some voter soul-searching. How could this happen?

2013: The temporary solution, thanks to the films under consideration, is to swing hard toward the women. So it’s Scarlett Johansson, whom the film Her doesn’t work without, beating out the Frozen tandem of Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell. Also-ran status goes to Benedict Cumberbatch, glorious in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but it’s just not his year.

2014: This stacked slate includes Apes veterans Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, The LEGO Movie’s Chris Pratt, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Bradley Cooper. Surprisingly, it’s Toby Kebbell, whose performance as antagonist Koba was hailed for its surprising pathos, beating out his co-star. Some see any year that Serkis loses as a mistake, but this time there’s no harm in spreading the wealth.

2015: It could have easily been all five emotions from Pixar’s Inside Out, but they’ll settle for three: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, and Lewis Black. The other two slots go to Anomalisa’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, and — to some jeering — Sharlto Copley’s Chappie. It doesn’t matter, however. Amy Poehler is so beloved by the industry, and so delightful as Joy, that her victory is never in doubt. Later in the year she’ll finally get her first Emmy, too.

2016: Bringing us up to the present day, it’s an all-Disney slate: From Moana, Auli’i Cravalho & Dwayne Johnson; from Animated Feature frontrunner Zootopia, Ginnifer Goodwin; from The BFG, Mark Rylance; from Rogue One, Alan Tudyk. The debate about the merits of their respective disciplines have simmered, as history has borne out that the mo-cap performers aren’t given a built-in advantage here. The past several years have seen the Academy finally treat the category with the respect it deserves, and the winners take it seriously. Sunday night, it’s America’s Sweetheart, Dwayne Johnson, mounting the stage. In his speech he posthumously thanks Robin Williams, who inspired him with his animated vocal comedy (and limited singing) 25 years ago.

 

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