2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping? Part II: 3D Studio Maxim

Most animation artists and fans will chew your ear off about how there’s plenty of room in the industry for both traditional and computer animation. It’s a glass half-full notion that helps us all feel better, but the studios aren’t interested in half a glass. They want that glass to be a 48oz. Big Gulp cup with a straw inserted so they can sip at it and make room for more. And why shouldn’t they? They’re in business. If you were selling aluminum siding and people were buying vinyl, what would you do?

I’m not saying 2D animation is comparable to aluminum siding. It’s actually more like Eddy Murphy. The comedic actor has had quite a few successful films throughout his career but lately his efforts have been more miss than hit. Yet even after Holy Man, Showtime, I Spy and The Adventures of Pluto Nash (biggest flop of the year), no studios have publicly declared “We’re not going to make any more Eddie Murphy Movies.” And why not? Because they know eventually one will be a hit. If only Disney had as much faith in 2D animation as it has in the Brooklyn-born actor starring in the upcoming Mouse House release The Haunted Mansion.

Disney, like DreamWorks, has ordered its traditional animators to put their pencils down. The studio has two more traditional features set for release, Brother Bear and Home on the Range. After that, it’s all CG as far as the eye can see.

“The studios don’t know what they’re doing. It’s very sad,” says independent animator and cult favorite Don Hertzfeldt (Billy’s Balloon, Rejected), who is currently touring the U.S. with Mike Judge and their traveling shorts program, The Animation Show. “I read the article about Disney shutting down its traditional house and it’s so depressing that they don’t understand the medium they’re on top of.” Hertzfeldt goes on to theorize, “Personally, I think it all comes down to the misunderstanding that animation is a genre, rather than just a film medium. As soon as you think of it as a genre, you think of all the stereotypes and clichés that have to come along with it. I remember when The Simpsons was huge, right when it exploded in its second year. All the suits said, ‘Wow! People like primetime cartoons again!’ without thinking that the characters, the writing and the humor had anything to do with it. So we got Capitol Critters, we got Fish Police – crappy primetime cartoons that had nothing to do with anything except they were animated. That’s all this is, they’re just chasing demographics. All of those 2D films would have bombed if they were 3D. It has nothing to do with it.”

Disney declined an interview for this piece but we’ve recently learned that there is one studio still taking a chance on 2D animation. Sources at Universal Pictures last week confirmed that its planned 3D/live-action Curious George project is now being developed as a 2D theatrical feature. It makes sense given that the iconic monkey and his world are so branded with the hand-drawn, storybook aesthetic. A computer-generated George would resemble the inquisitive primate we all know and love about as much as Warner Bros.’ CG Scooby Doo resembled the Great Dane that fed us comic Scooby snacks throughout childhood.

But while the choice to render George in 2D seems logical to most of us, is it a sound business decision given the current state of the market? A spokesperson for Universal says that after exploring the different possibilities, it was decided that 2D was best because George comes form a 2D background. Furthermore, the look of the characters are so engrained in pop culture that any attempt to re-invent the property would be more trouble than it’s worth. That source tells us that Universal is confident that 2D can tell the story just as well, if not better than 3D and isn’t worried that a traditional look might detract from box office potential. While Universal is developing a CG version of the classic Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are, with George, it is apparently putting all its eggs in the story basket and relying on that and the popularity of the franchise to draw audiences.

One studio that believes story may not be enough to drive a mega hit is DreamWorks. Recently, Jeffrey Katzenberg invited a select group of media to the DreamWorks campus for an unprecedented look at the next three years of the studio’s extensive production pipeline. In one sense, the openness of a studio to bring the press into its pre-production process was refreshing. However, since all of the product unveiled was conceived as 3D, it immediately opened Katzenberg to questions concerning the future of 2D under his tenure.

Quick to turn what might be conceived as a negative into a rather ornate positive, Katzenberg explained that his company’s ten-year goal has always been to create CG properties that embraced one of 2D’s greatest assets–the innate ability to turn something simi-real into something utterly fantastic through the graces of squash and stretch. “When we started on Shrek, the character models could not handle squash and stretch. They would break apart. That’s not true now,” explained Katzenberg. And, although much of the early footage from the studio’s next original venture Sharkslayer, was conceived in 2D (i.e. storyboards and character designs), the idea that it would ever be anything but a 3D film was, for Katzenberg, inconceivable.

To further explore the decisions being made at DreamWorks, I spoke with Ann Daly, head of feature animation.

“I think it’s always a mistake to make absolute proclamations about what will or will never be. The market changes. It’s pretty clear right now, based on what’s happened with this series of 2D action/adventure movies, that’s not what audiences are responding to,” Daly states. “I think most of my colleagues agree that it’s never one defining element that says ‘Oh, that movie was a failure because it was 2D’ or ‘That movie was a success because it was 3D.’ It’s a combination of the story, the characters and the way it looks. All of those things have to come together to create some kind of magic.”

Daly acknowledges that films like Disney’s Treasure Planet and DreamWorks’ own Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas were very different kinds of films than Shrek or Finding Nemo in that they went for thrills rather than giggles. “I do think it has to do with the unique combination of these action/adventure stories with 2D and the fact that there were other things competing in the market that felt more current, including CG comedies with very well-told stories. I think what we’ve seen is a series of those movies, one right after another, that just have not been able to deliver a return in the marketplace compared to what you can get with a different type of movie told in a different way.”

Sinbad is a movie that even a lot of animators passed on, most of them citing a marketing campaign that left them feeling repulsed or indifferent. Daly says that while there will always be things they would have done differently in hindsight, that film and Spirit before it were both given strong marketing pushes. She also denies that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the studio and its lackluster 2D releases. “I don’t think the result in the marketplace for those movies was due to bad marketing at all,” she asserts. “In fact, I will say in the case of Sinbad, the anticipation of what that opening weekend box office was going to be was much greater than it actually ended up being. So I guess the short answer is that I don’t think you can blame the marketing for the results of a movie in the marketplace.”

Daly claims that DreamWorks’ decision to focus exclusively on 3D is driven by a combination of the market, story considerations and the benefits of a CG production pipeline. “The way we created the production process for our 2D releases, they are a little bit more expensive than our CG films. They’re more labor intensive and have bigger crews. We’re blending tradition styles and CG animation and that takes a little more time and money. That said, that wasn’t the driving reason to flip over. It was watching the trend in the marketplace. Literally, these movies that we’re animating now [Sharkslayer, Madagascar, Over the Hedge, Shrek 2] seem to be stories that are best realized using a CG animation technique. We were developing them independently before they actually got their production and release slot and got all lined up. What’s happened is that we’re gong to have all these [3D] movies in a row now.”

DreamWorks has a 3D training program designed to help its remaining 2D animators transition to computer animation, and Daly notes, “Their success in this medium is a great result because it allows us to, should we chose, flip back and forth between 2D and 3D with the same talented artists. That said, I don’t foresee in the immediate future us going to a 2D movie. There’s just something about what’s happening in this environment right now with CG animation that adds an additional ‘cool’ factor. If a great movie with a great story and great characters is animated in a traditional way, I don’t think you end up with, by definition, a bomb. But I also think that if you have that and you can use a technique or a look that is really capturing the imagination of people, or you’re able to put something on a screen more cheaply, something that nobody’s ever seen before, why swim upstream? Why not go with the flow?”

So if Curious George or one of Disney’s upcoming 2D releases (Brother Bear, Home on the Range) proves to be a huge success, would that prompt DreamWorks to go with the flow and consider 2D again? “What it would persuade us to do is that if we have a movie that could go either way, we’d be less hesitant to take the jump and go to 2D. But I don’t know if it would encourage us to change our development in any way because we like the stories we’re developing right now. They all seem to be ideal CG movies.”

Be sure and check back tomorrow as we continue our look at the studios and hear from Sony Pictures Animation. We’ll also get international points of view from Les Triplettes De Belleville producer/director Sylvain Chomet, Eden producer/director Andrzej Czeczot and Millennium Actress director Satoshi Kon. You won’t want to miss this installment of 2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping?