Photo: Walt Disney

Photo: Walt Disney

This is a controversial topic, one that provokes strong reactions from many different people. Will a big studio such as Disney, DreamWorks, or Warner Brothers ever release hand drawn animated films to stand beside their CGI counterparts? Will hand drawn animation make a comeback? Is it truly dead? Some rather sad news regarding Studio Ghibli and Disney Animation Studios would make it seem as if the answer to the last question is yes.

The possible final film from Studio Ghibli When Marnie Was There was recently released in America and one of the studio’s co-founders Hayao Miyazaki has retired. Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki said that the studio will be downsizing and taking a break, possibly to figure out what new direction to take the company or to shut down for good.[1] Nothing is set in stone as of yet but the news nevertheless saddens me greatly, so much so that I spent over twenty minutes expressing my immense distress when I first found out.

In 2013, Disney CEO Bob Iger released a statement about the future of hand drawn animated features from the Disney Company. There are no 2-D hand drawn animated films in production and there are no future plans to make any more.[2] With the studio that pioneered the traditional hand drawn film no longer making them, what does this mean for the future of the medium?

The Push of Computer Animation

Photo: DreamWorks

Photo: DreamWorks

In 1995 Pixar’s Toy Story was released. It was not only the first feature film of the studio but it was also the film that proved making an animated film entirely with computers is possible. Not too long after that, DreamWorks released Shrek, which surpassed the studio’s previous films in terms of box office success as before they had released Antz, Chicken Run and four traditional hand drawn animated films.[3] The success of Shrek thus led the company to produce a sequel Shrek 2, stay with creating computer animated films and become a formidable competitor for Disney. Meanwhile, other animation studios began to appear with their own computer animated films such as Blue Sky Studios with their film Ice Age in 2002.

The last 2-D animated film Disney released was Winnie the Pooh back in 2011. Afterwards, it was followed by computer animated films (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen & Big Hero 6) and a statement saying there are no plans for a new hand drawn animated film. When The Princess and the Frog was released in 2009 the future of 2-D animation seemed promising as the film was met with good box office numbers and critical praise. However, another animated film (Pixar’s Up) was also released that same year with even better box office numbers and critical praise. Now this is not to say one technique is better than the other. That is simply not true. We get good hand drawn animated films just as much as we get good computer animated films and vice versa. The technique is not what makes a film superior but rather the story, characters and themes that make the film relatable to the audience. How that film is put together is secondary. The problem comes when the people in charge of a film compare and contrast what is popular at the time to what works. This is nothing new in the film making industry as it happens almost all the time.

For Disney, after The Lion King was released the films from their animation studio that followed (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Lilo and Stitch) never measured up to The Lion King’s financial and critical success.[4] Another contributing factor to this was Pixar as they were making a new film each year and each film proved to be a bigger success than the previous one. At this time, Pixar had not experienced failure in the box office or with critics. The year Disney released Home on the Range, Pixar released The Incredibles which is often regarded as one of the best superhero films in recent memory. For many studios and people in charge of those studios, the success of Pixar films was not because they are good stories with relatable characters, good tone and mood, but because they are computer animated.

The executives of Disney also succumbed to this mentality as after Home on the Range, they switched to computer animation with animators who did not have much training with the technology. The artists at Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky were accustomed to the technology and thus were able to create much better looking animated films. When John Lasseter became the head of animation at Disney following the Pixar purchase, it is not surprising that animators from Pixar were brought in to help the Disney artists, which is detailed in Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull the president of Pixar and Disney Animation.

2-D Animation Aesthetic Bleeds Into CGI Animation

Photo: Reel FX Creative Studios

Photo: Reel FX Creative Studios

Over time computer animators began, and still do, incorporate cartoony elements that harken back to traditional cartoons and animation. This is especially evident in the character designs in films like Book of Life and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. With the latter film and DreamWorks Madagascar films, the animators made use of the classic animation technique of ‘squash and stretch’ with exaggerated facial features and body movements for comedic affect.

Tangled has a very 2-D animated aesthetic. The film makers wanted to make it feel more like a traditional animated movie, going so far as to have had 2-D animation legend Glen Keane direct the movie before he dropped down to supervising animator. His work shows with the character designs and motions that are more common in the world of traditional animation. In addition, the backgrounds in Tangled are animated and designed in a more painterly style commonly found in traditional animation rather than a photo realistic style.

Photo: Disney

Photo: Disney

This is a hot button topic mostly due to personal taste. For many artists and animators who grew up with Disney, traditional 2-D animation was the style that was cemented in the aesthetic. Even the Disney Renaissance films have their roots in their predecessors such as Snow White, Bambi, Robin Hood and The Great Mouse Detective. Disney’s change from 2-D animation to fully computer animation was gradual but to me it seems like they are abandoning the style that has been theirs for 70 plus years.

Why I Love 2-D Animation

Photo: Disney

Photo: Disney

My love and respect for 2-D animation stems from my love and respect for visual art. Watching someone draw, paint, or even watching lines come to life has a visceral effect on me. One of my favorite scenes in the romantic comedy As Good As It Gets (SPOILER WARNING! SKIP TO THE LAST SENTENCE OF THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE AND DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED) is when the artist Simon draws Carol while she is waiting for the bathtub to fill. Here is an artist who never thought he would draw again after his accident and being robbed. He is depressed and feels hopeless and useless. However, as he sees Carol’s bare back with her hair up and sitting on the edge of the tub, for the first time in months he is struck with inspiration and he draws again. He draws so much, in fact, that he rips off his cast so that he may move his hands easier. Seeing Simon’s passion for his art come through his pencil and charcoal strokes after he had experienced such hardships and watching the both of them become genuine friends was an emotionally rewarding experience. That entire scene tapped into a place of affection for me. So to me, it is a personal defeat that we are not seeing more 2-D animated films from major studios.

The Future of Hand Drawn Animation

Photo: Disney

Photo: Disney

With all this in mind, is the hand-drawn animated feature a dead art form? Perhaps, at least in regards to Disney animation, the answer is yes. However, I would argue that traditional animation is not completely gone as it continues to thrive other ways. 2-D animated features continue to be released in Europe and still seem to do well there. In addition to films like Song of the Sea and Ernest & Célestine, French animator and director Sylvain Chomet produced films such as The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist.

Photo: James Lopez & hullabaloo-movie.com

Photo: James Lopez & hullabaloo-movie.com

There is also an interesting crowdfunded project called Hullaballoo which has a rally cry of saving 2-D animation. It was created by veteran Disney animator James Lopez along with other former Disney animators. It is a steampunk adventure about a brilliant young scientist named Veronica Daring and her adventures as her vigilante alter ego named Hullaballoo. I think it is an interesting project to check out. The project raised over 4 times the requested budget in a month so it will be interesting to see where that goes.

Moreover, 2-D animation seems to be making a comeback on the smaller screen. Television networks such as Cartoon Network and Disney Channel have been making real efforts in improving the quality of their animated television programs. Shows on Disney Channel like Gravity Falls, Wander Over Yonder, and Star Vs. The Forces of Evil and shows on Cartoon Network like Adventure Time, Regular Show and Steven Universe illustrate strides in creativity; story and characters audiences can connect with. For some shows, specifically Adventure Time, the popularity has earned a theatrically released film.[5]

Whether major films studios will produce a 2-D animated feature is still up for debate. However, I like to remain hopeful. All this is not to say American studios are not doing good work but it is all CGI animation, not there is anything wrong with it or there is no beauty to be found there because there is. However, I will never accept the idea that it is the only kind of animation that is worth creating. The only real competition the CGI studios are getting is from stop-motion (Paranorman, Coraline, The Boxtrolls, Wallace and Gromit) and they are wonderful. However it is not 2-D animation, a form of animation that has its own special kind of magic. If I want to enjoy 2-D animation beyond TV then I must turn to Japan or Europe. It just makes me sad and I wish we could be doing the same thing they are doing here. Because after seeing Song of the Sea and Ernest & Célestine……I am seriously freaking JEALOUS.


 

Sources

[1] Read more at http://kotaku.com/studio-ghibli-is-not-dead-yet-1615520289

[2] Read more at http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/mar/07/disney-hand-drawn-animation

[3] Read the full list at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?view=main&id=dwanimation.htm&sort=gross&order=DESC&p=.htm

[4] Read more at http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Walt_Disney_Animation_Studios

[5] Read more at http://www.cartoonbrew.com/feature-film/adventure-time-feature-film-pen-ward-109681.html

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