If you paid attention to the movies that were released throughout this past summer, it should be no surprise that you would find no less that two or three animated films on the list. However, what you may notice is how, while there has been an abundance of computer-generated, 3D animated features, there was only one hand drawn, 2D animated film released theatrically, after a year-and-a-half hiatus since Disney released The Princess and the Frog back in 2009.
While Disney has been trying to repeat the success of the Disney Renaissance, many fans of Western 2D animation can’t help but feel saddened that the art form now sails in unstable waters. Despite widespread critical acclaim, Disney’s Winnie the Pooh only managed to recoup the $30 million budget that was used to produce it, while Pixar’s Cars 2 made over $500 million at the box office.
With a pattern such as this, it begs the question that most 2D animation fans dread asking. “Is 2D dead?” Before we explore this question, let’s take a look back at animation and its impact on Hollywood.
Both the art form of animation and the art form of film function using the same principle. A sequence of images is displayed at a high speed in order to create the illusion of movement, the cause of this illusion being the phenomenon known as persistence of vision. Simply put, our brain fills in the gaps that are created in the short expanse of time in which one image is being replaced with another. This phenomenon also occurs when we blink.
In the early paintings found on cave walls, tombs, and vases, it can be found that they attempted to mimic movement using techniques that would be the precursor to the art form known as comics. Soon, people stumbled upon the idea of persistence of vision devices ranging from complex, such as the zoetrope, to simple, such as a flipbook.
Although these devices produced the illusion of motion, animation didn’t really begin to develop further until the invention of the motion picture camera. Many people experimented with the use of the camera for numerous purposes, eventually leading to the invention of both hand-drawn and stop motion animation.
While Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature length, cel-animated feature, the first feature length animation was actually an Argentinean film called El Apóstol which debuted in 1917. The film was made using cutout animation, similar to what you would see on the Comedy Central series South Park. While there are no remaining copies of the film, the earliest surviving animated feature, The Adventures of Prince Achmed used similar techniques, albeit using techniques more akin to shadow puppetry.
From the 1930’s onward, the two major animation titans were Disney and Warner Bros., the former profiting from the success of their mascot turned cultural icon, Mickey Mouse, and the latter profiting the Looney Tunes franchise. However, what tipped the scales in favor of the Walt Disney Company was the transition to feature-length films, something that Warner Bros. couldn’t do as successfully. This cemented the company’s title as the go-to place for quality animated features, a title that carried on since the end of World War II.
The Disney Renaissance
Now let’s jump ahead a couple of decades to the period that most animation fans lovingly refer to as the Disney Renaissance. This is a period in which some of the company’s most well known animated films were released beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989.
However, what really brought about this period wasn’t an animated film, nor was it a live action one, but a sophisticated hybrid of the two. On June 22, 1988, Touchstone Pictures released Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a murder mystery set in a world where cartoon characters directly interact with living, breathing humans on a regular basis. While Disney funded the film and lent their classic characters, what set this film apart was how the producer of the film, Steven Spielberg, successfully convinced seven other animation companies to “lend” their characters to in the film, marking the only time in which both Disney and Looney Tunes characters shared the screen at the same time.
In addition to revitalizing a stagnate industry, it also set a higher level of quality. Animation techniques were improved; more time, effort, and money were put into projects, resulting in many of these films becoming household names and even garnering Academy Award nominations. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only 2D animated film ever nominated for the award.
There were also more companies that sought to take away Disney’s reputation as the best animation studio, the most notable rival being former Disney animator Don Bluth. While many companies sought to simply cash in on the Disney formulas, Bluth sought to reclaim the “charm” that he believed Disney had lost. Many describe Bluth’s style as a darker yet more energetic take on the animated feature.
From Paints to Pixels
While Disney was thriving on the success of their animated features, computing technology was still in its infancy, so the idea of computer animation was relatively unheard of. The earliest examples of computer generated imagery can be found in the 1973 science fiction film Westworld, a film about a highly realistic Western-themed amusement park. The film used digital image processing to simulate an android’s point of view.
However, one of largest milestones came about in 1982 with the release of Tron. This was the first film that made extensive use of computer animation and hybridized it with traditional animation and live-action sequences. The following the film had gained would eventually lead to the recently released sequel, Tron: Legacy. One of those people inspired by the film would later be the man who would set a computer hardware company on a path to greatness.
In a bid to improve sales of the Pixar Image Computer, John Lasseter would create short demonstration animations to showcase the device’s capabilities. He later premiered his creations at the largest convention for the computer graphics industry, SIGGRAPH.
Due to the popularity of the animations and the decline of the hardware, Pixar transitioned from a software company to an animation studio that would produce animations for commercials and television programs such as Sesame Street. All of this would lead up to one of Pixar’s most beloved films, Toy Story.
Ever since the success of Toy Story, Pixar would become Disney’s go-to company for computer animated features for several years before the company would be completely bought out in 2007.
Much like how companies sought to topple Disney, so too did companies try to topple Pixar. One company that acted as a rival to the two at the same time was Dreamworks SKG, founded by Steven Spielberg, Carl Geffen, and former Disney employee Jeffrey Katzenberg. In addition to producing live-action films, the animation branch of the company often produced both 2D and 3D animated films to purposefully coincide with Disney releases. The pattern was soon broken upon the success of the Shrek franchise, which started out as an open parody of Disney, although the story was initially adapted from a children’s book by William Steig.
Since the release of Shrek, Dreamworks Animation has almost exclusively produced computer animated films, with occasional hybridization with 2D animation, as was seen in Kung Fu Panda 2.
At the time of this writing, we are at a point in which Hollywood has divided between preserving technologies of the old and embracing the newer technologies being developed. This is seen not only in animation, but in the film industry as well. For example, more and more feature length films are being produced using digital cameras while many filmmakers also continue to shoot using 35mm film. More and more films are also making use of 3D technologies, while many people, filmmakers and movie-goers alike, see 3D as a temporary gimmick. We must be sure to remember that this was what people said in the past when sound was first introduced into film.
Next week, we will be taking a look at the current state of the animation industry and the film industry as a whole. We will also examine how the advent of new technologies and techniques will define the future of animation, as well as briefly touching upon the status of the animated film outside of the United States.