Animation has been through some major changes during the past 10 years, and some of them blindsided artists. The signs were there, but resistance to change, fear of the machine, and the concept of denial prevented many artists from seeing what was on the horizon.
As in many other fields, the computer has made what is known as a disruptive impact on our art form. Think of the car and the horse, the cellular phone and the pay phone, computer-generated animation and traditional 2D animation. The introduction of the computer has changed an art form that had been, until recently, a pen-and-paper medium. Every animated feature film from the early 1900s to the late 1980s was a traditionally hand-drawn or stop-motion animated film. The tools used to make those films did not significantly change in almost 80 years.
The art of classical film animation has been ever-evolving since its early days. Artists and the studios have strived to raise the bar visually through storytelling since the first crude attempts at putting moving images on the screen. We are talking about classical animation and its evolution into computer-generated feature films—think Steamboat Willie and its progression to The Incredibles.
It is important for an animator to recognize trends in filmmaking, storytelling, and technology in order to increase his or her chances of continued employment. Trends and history reveal how evolution of an art form occurs. Paying close attention to the trends and growth of any field helps predict the future of that industry. Three major shifts are responsible for the progression from pencil to mouse in feature animation: aesthetic, audience, and storytelling.
Changes in Aesthetic Appeal
The first shift in animation was fueled by the increased popularity of visual effects movies in the 1990s. Visual effects-driven movies brought audiences to their feet with higher levels of entertainment and reality than ever before. Movies such as Independence Day, Twister, Titanic, and Men in Black were bringing hundreds of thousands of people into theaters to see these new visual effects. Remember, we are not talking about story yet, but rather sheer aesthetic appeal.
This change in the audience’s taste was just one of the contributors to traditional animation’s demise. The audience began to view CG features as visually richer and more exciting based solely on the aesthetic they portrayed. Video games and music videos also had a hand in shaping this new interest in CG eye candy, especially among young viewers. The richness of 3D and its ability to move the camera around in this new world made traditional animation suddenly seem, quite literally, flat.
Broadening the Audience
The second factor involved broadening the audience for feature animation. Before visual effects movies became popular, there was a great divide between content for a kid’s movie and that for mainstream movies. In the 1990s, both parents and kids went to see movies such as Titanic, Men in Black, and Jurassic Park. Here was content that appealed to audience members both young and old alike.
What made these effects-driven films more appealing was the computer’s ability to create photorealistic creatures and effects that wowed audiences because of their unprecedented believability. In addition, these effects were seamlessly integrated into the films, heightening the experience.
The third shift in the animation evolution resulted from what many see as traditional animation’s changing approach in terms of story. The box-office returns in traditional features began to suffer in direct proportion to the rising popularity of visual effects-driven movies. In turn, traditional studios tried to broaden their audience through more adult story themes, such as those in Pocahontas, The Prince of Egypt, and The Quest for Camelot. Instead of writing stories that would appeal to the kid in all of us, the new screenwriters created stories for adults and hoped kids would like them, too.
In addition, traditional features felt that in order to be a success, they had to follow The Lion King formula and be epic in scope. Every studio tried to follow The Lion King mold and make large-scale, epic musicals. Studios were chasing both visual effects dollars…and The Lion King box-office profits. As animation became a profitable business, stories were overworked by the myriad "creative executives" in their efforts to create a blockbuster. In turn, the traditional movies made after The Lion King found a smaller audience. Suddenly it seemed that every animated film had to have a giant herd of animals racing down a slope.
With improvements in animation came demands for richer backgrounds, more complex camera moves, and an ever-increasing level of believability. This increasing need for more impressive visuals also pushed the budgets of these pictures higher and higher. Walt Disney paved the way for most animated features in the beginning by always striving to find new ways to push the technology and artistry in order to make a richer and more appealing animated film. With rising costs came the inevitable call to streamline production and establish more economical ways in which to get the message to the screen. The huge success of visual effects-based films played a big role in how traditional studios viewed what the audience wanted to see. Visual effects-driven movies had mass appeal for all ages.
As 2D animation went through a spell of weak stories and even weaker attempts at trying to get a piece of the VFX market, CG-animated movies continued with the old formula of making great stories for kids, with a wink at adults. Now the same kid who saw Men in Black looked at a film like Quest for Camelot in a completely different light, and didn’t like what he or she saw. Obviously, there will be failures in the CG realm as studios seek to generate profits at the expense of good old-fashioned storytelling. CG is not the silver bullet that will cover up a weak story line or make up for uninteresting characters. But it is a hot, new toy.
Roger Rabbit Pushes 2D and CG Forward
Moving through the 1980s, visual effects gained momentum with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the Star Wars trilogy. 2D animated movies fell into a slump until a crazy rabbit came into the picture. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the channel for 2D, CG, and visual effects to push the envelope in animation. By combining live action and 2D characters convincingly, Roger Rabbit busted that envelope wide open.
Roger Rabbit was a rarity for traditionally animated films in the 1980s because it was an original animated film that appealed to both children and adults, and was a mainstream hit in the US. Animators didn’t know it yet, but the rabbit was helping to open the door for future character-driven movies, from Casper to The Lord of the Rings franchise. These movies combine animated characters with live action in what is now one of the staples of Hollywood blockbusters.
After the release and success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1990s exploded with a stream of hugely successful animated films. This new period for traditional animation brought the movies The Little Mermaid (which made $84 million domestically), Beauty and the Beast ($145 million domestically), Aladdin ($217 million domestically), and The Lion King ($328 million domestically). Studio executives got whiplash watching these numbers climb.
Visual effects-driven films also continued to generate more revenue at the box office and create more realistic-looking animation. However, traditional animation still held the upper hand when it came to caricaturing reality at this time. So, what has transpired to create the current environment in which 3D reigns supreme and traditional features have all but vanished? And, will traditional animation make a comeback?
Rise of the Digital Artist
We talk about the history of the medium to encourage artists to pay attention and be aware of the trends and shifts in their chosen field of work. This evolution from 2D to CG did not happen overnight, but many 2D and CG artists (not to mention studios) were unprepared for the changes that were coming.
Reluctant at first to pick up the new tools, many masters of hand-drawn animation were understandably wary of giving up a craft that took years, if not decades, at which to become proficient.
At the same time, many CG artists were expected to raise the bar as far as the quality of their animation was concerned. Many of these artists were not even trained in animation. The term "digital artist" was almost non-existent as recently as 20 years ago. The phenomenal growth of the CG industry, due in part to the massive increases in technology and the rapid influx of computer-based talent, contrasts markedly to the snail’s pace of growth in 2D from the days of Steamboat Willie (1928) to The Lion King (1994); this quick growth caught many off guard.
In the late 1990s, CG tools became easier for non-programmers to use. The years encompassing the last decade of the 20th century are particularly meaningful because they represent the largest single change in the art of animation since its earliest days. Never before has a technology made a more radical impact on the way we animate. More selective hiring criteria for digital artists began in these years at visual effects and CG studios. The industry had come full circle. The foundation of classical animation, created by the past masters including Disney’s Nine Old Men, was beginning to have an impact on computer-generated animation. Digital artists in the 1990s had to have a good knowledge of the traditional principles of animation as well as an understanding of the computer tools.
The introduction of more 2D animators in CG continued to push the boundaries of what computer animation was capable of and what animators demanded of the tools. Animation artists began to force programmers to develop tools that would enable them to realize their visions. Everything moved to a higher level because traditional animation stars began to enter CG. By now, the public and the industry had much higher expectations. Understanding the basics and the fundamentals of the profession is now equally as important as mastery of a specific software.
By 2001, the 2D boom was in the past, and the success of Shrek was central to changing the face of animation. Shrek, Toy Story, and other CG films proved that educating oneself equally in the arts and in the computer sciences was the key to staying employed in the 1990s. This new perspective was devastating to many computer animators. CG animators who had spent years honing their skills on the computer and felt they were approaching their own version of The Lion King boom suddenly had doors shut in their face. Traditional animators were being hired in place of those who had been animating on a computer for years.
Many animators whom we have spoken with say they would never want to go back to traditional hand-drawn cartoons after discovering the advantages of CG; just think of the power of the Undo button alone. There are a few, however, for which the computer holds little appeal. Unwilling or unable to make the transition, they have decided to stay with the art form that has provided them with a great deal of artistic satisfaction for many years. We truly hope there is room for both mediums, and use Spirited Away as a great example. It should be encouraging, in light of the overwhelming popularity of CG, that a traditionally animated film with a fantastic story can win the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in the new millennium.
In 2003, Disney made the decision to abandon the hand-drawn traditional approach for the new, popular CG medium. Today, in light of the Disney/Pixar merger, rumors have begun to surface of the reformation of a 2D unit at the House of Mouse.
Looking at the interesting turn of events in animation, many questions come to mind. What makes for a smooth transition? What has helped those who have made the jump? How much of the 2D art form is applicable to the digital realm? What have we gained and lost in the rise of CG? What is the impact of more 2D animators entering the CG industry? Without drawing as a craft threshold, is there room for a new set of animation heroes in CG with a signature style like, say, Ward Kimball’s (of Disney’s Nine Old Men fame)? This is a relatively new art in the broader sense of the word, and we are all learning as we go.
Angie Jones and Jamie Oliff came to computer-generated animation from very different backgrounds. Oliff is a classically trained animator who had to make a major career shift after investing 25 years in the medium of traditional animation. Jones is an animator trained in fine art and computers who, after 12 years in the industry, wondered if it would be necessary to start over and learn traditional animation to survive shifts in the industry. In the end, both found a way to coexist and learn from each other in a medium that is ever-changing. And that is how their Thinking Animation book came to be. Thinking Animation (www.thinkinganimation.com) provides a connection between 2D and CG, so we can learn from our past and build upon our future.