Yes, the animation industry is in a bit of a rut.
First off, let’s cover the basics. Animation is typically divided into three categories in film: traditional/cel-animation, computer assisted animation, and stop-motion animation.
Traditional animation is like those old Disney movies you remember. Snow White, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, The Beauty and the Beat, etc. These were hand-drawn, every frame had to be hand-made by a team of artists one by one.
Computer assisted animation is typically thought of as 3d animation, although 2d flash also counts (but I’m not counting traditional animation fixed in Photoshop or Post-Processing). Here, animators don’t have to draw every single frame. Instead, animators draw keyframes as they normally would, but instead of a in-between artist finishing up frames for smoother animation, the computer automatically fills in the gaps at an ultra smooth clip. Animators can also use tools to fiddle with 3d models, and spend more time adding details and improving visuals. Therefore, it’s actually the easiest and cheapest of the three animation styles, despite the amount of knowledge and experience needed to use the computer software correctly.
Stop-motion animation (I include claymation with this) is a mix of the above without actually having anything to do with them. Artists make models or other objects physically in front of them, and use a camera to make each frame, slightly adjusting the model by hand in between each frame. It’s hands-on, but the artist doesn’t have to recreate an entire frame from scratch, instead using everything from the previous frame within seconds. It’s also the most restricting, given that models have to be sculpted by hand in a way that they can stand and be moved into various poses.
All of these are fantastic mediums, and I consider animation as one of the finest art forms in the world. But animation purists have noticed something in the last decade: traditional animation isn’t used as much as it used to be.
“… But animation purists have noticed something in the last decade: traditional animation isn’t used as much as it used to be…”
It started with Pixar growing as each of it’s films got more and more press. Than DreamWorks came in and made a little film called Shrek : an average film to me, but it made a huge amount of money, enough to spawn a few sequels. By then, every animation studio sold off their traditional equipment in favor of using computer animation only, and Hollywood would see a huge excess of these films.
As for Walt Disney Animation Studios? They technically own Pixar now, but could always use extra money from their own studio. And their hand-drawn films weren’t making as much money as they used to. So they’ve switched over as well. They claim to not have given up on the old style entirely, being the only American studio to say so, but their last traditional film was released in 2011, and no other such film appears to be in production until 2018 at the earliest. In their heyday, they had a cel-animated film at least every two years, which has been largely replaced by their new computer films.
First off, of course Disney’s cel-animated films weren’t making as much money as they used to. They were getting bad. Really bad. Home on the Range was one of their worst, and almost single-handedly sunk the medium when better films by Pixar during that time happened to be computer-animated. The Princess and the Frog was a great return to form and made money for it, but their most recent film, 2011’s Winnie the Pooh, barely made any, largely due to it opening the same week as the eighth and final Harry Potter movie.
Basically, people pay to see good films regardless of the visual style, and bad movies almost never make money. And whoever decided to release another Winnie the Pooh movie during the release of the most anticipated movie event of it’s generation should either be fired, or given a raise by execs that wanted the medium dead (one does not simply release a Winnie the Pooh movie the same weekend as a Harry Potter film). It’s a shame no one saw it too, it was actually really good.
For anyone who still has any respect for Disney, name five Disney movies off the top of your head. Chances are, they are all traditionally-animated films from over a decade ago. As good as all their films are, their films have become far too easy to forget. And for those who remember them, there are several animated films from Warner Bros and DreamWorks, among others, that have yet to ever see a bluray release for the dedicated fan.
Don’t get me wrong, I like all types of animation. But I like what’s different, and by nature, I like stuff I grew up with. I’m an artist, I like things that stand out. I like things that are hand-made. And that we see a handful of computer animated films every year but might only get one traditionally animated film a decade makes me sick.
Sure, computer animation can be done in different ways, and has been attempted to mimic other styles, but I can tell the difference. If the artist didn’t make every single inch and color of the screen entirely by hand, as they saw fit and capable of doing, then it’s just not the same. Computer animation can look great, but I don’t care about great. It’s like comparing a Sears blanket over the quilt your mother made you: sure, the store-bought one is better, but that hand-made one has love and warmth that can’t be made any other way.
“… It’s like comparing a Sears blanket over the quilt your mother made you… that hand-made one has love and warmth that can’t be made any other way…”
And of stop-motion animation? Oh, it’s booming. I grew up thinking it was a tedious animation process and we’d be lucky to see one in theatres every five years. And yet, 2012 saw “Paranorman”, “Pirates: Band of Misfits” and “Frankenweenie”, all stop-motion films released worldwide in the same year. I never thought I’d see the day that we were getting more stop-motion films than cel-animated, and it only increases my concern.
I’m not alone either. If you look for them, you’ll find several other articles like this about the animation crisis. Look in the comments section of a Disney animated movie trailer, you’ll see a bunch of internet trolls telling Disney to get back to normal. Of course, 99% of people couldn’t care less, and 95% of people couldn’t tell the difference between a Disney film and a Dreamworks film in the first place, but a small and growing band of dedicated people exist, and we want something that isn’t being made. Since the film’s success is largely based on it being actually good or marketable, the style of animation doesn’t matter much to studios, but 3d just happens to be where they think the hype is right now.
Despite these trends, traditional-animation isn’t dead outside of North America. Across Europe, films are made that are helping fill the void. Films in smaller countries you couldn’t imagine are starting to get more Oscar buzz, and thanks to distributers like GKIDS, we have a slight chance of actually getting to watch these in our homes. And Japan, a country of tradition and anime, still uses traditional styles in modern works, despite using computer animation more and more. Combined, fans can get dozens of dvd’s and blurays each year of hand-drawn animation, with incredible stories and characters. It alo means we’re ignoring American films more, and with international films easily found online, that’s a general trend that will rise in the next decade, both in animation and live-action features.
So what’s to be done? I believe these different styles of animation won’t truely die off, but they may fall into niche obscurity if we continue like this. The best we can do is to have the few fans that exist continue to support the medium they love, until one day some talented visionary makes a film that just happens to be drawn by hand, that has enough character and heart to capture everyone’s attention. Bascially, we need a Shrek of traditional animation… or, if I have any say in it, we need something much, much better. A Kickstarter, perhaps? Or a new use for this style of animation that most people never considered…
Imagine a world where painters made the greatest paintings ever seen. Then one day, sculpture was invented, and became so popular that all the artists starting scultping instead of painting. But where sculpture had dimension and shape, painting had color and vision. People who still loved paintings could only stare at old collections, wishing for new additions to be made. Art-lovers would cry to see such a world… and so, we weep, waiting for this world to disappear.