2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping? Part III: Goliath with a Slingshot

Though not as grave as the conflict in the Middle East, the struggle between art and commerce seems just as far away from any type of resolution. The independents resent the studios and the studio artists resent the studio suits. That may not be true in every case, but the general feeling has perhaps never been so obvious as it has been in the past year.

The studios have the resources to make entertaining animated films with great production values and the marketing power to get people into theaters. And that’s great for the animation industry. The cartoon feature is gaining legitimacy in leaps and bounds, especially with Finding Nemo turning out to be the biggest moneymaker of the summer. Disney/Pixar’s $334 million and growing catch helps to insure that more animated movies get made and released, which means more jobs, granted you know how to use a computer.

On the other hand, that $334 million also represents a widening rift between independent producers and the ability to get their product into theaters. They see the studios as juggernauts with a monopoly on the industry, even though they don’t have a monopoly on creativity.

One thing the phenomenal success of some 3D films has done is open the flood gates for production of more of the same. With Disney, DreamWorks, Sony, Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox all dedicated to cranking out as many as two computer animated films a year, we could very well see the kind of market saturation that causes a decline in overall box office. Even arthouse champion Miramax is getting into CG feature development with the LEGO BIONICLE series, which will eventually make the leap from video shelves to the big-screen. With such fierce competition, we are likely to see the money spread around a little more evenly and may also see the newness of 3D start to fade like a tee-shirt that’s seen one too many washings.

Asked what a possible glut could do to the industry, Shrek 2 co-director Kelly Asbury remarks, “I just hope Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks, Sony and all of us just make good movies. If the movies are good, even if they’re not box office hits, it elevates the prestige of the industry. I think that there’s a lot of quality in both Treasure Planet and Sinbad. I don’t think anyone looks at them and says, ‘Well, those things just sucked up and down.” The brave thing about those films is that nobody can say they didn’t break formula. They did do away with what’s almost becoming animation cliches. I hand it to them for that. My hat’s off to someone attempting that.”

Breaking formula didn’t exactly pay off for Disney and DreamWorks when the numbers came in for those films, which is probably making studios more hesitant to try new things. There will certainly be a lot of analysis of what Nemo is made of, and there will be attempts to capture the same magic. So in addition to a deluge of 3D movies, we may very well be seeing the same kind of movie over and over again. Aladino Debert, head of CG at EFX house Radium, suggests the same thing happened with Disney’s 2D features.

“Over the years, Disney has released a flood of movies,” says Debert. “They have like two [animated] movies a year and people kind of lose interest. I lost interest. I remember the late ’80s and into the ’90s when people were excited about The Lion King and all those movies but now they don’t really give a damn. However, if you bring one really well marketed 3D feature, a lot of people are going to see it whether they read it as a really good story or not.”

That may be the case now, but animator/director Don Bluth (Titan A.E., Anastasia, Dragon’s Lair) foresees the same fate awaiting 3D. He remarks, “Once it becomes common, you see it everywhere you go and everybody’s doing it, once again somebody is going to have to come up with something that is very unique, special and edgy. Then they’ll have the edge.”

When I contacted Sony Pictures Animation for comment, it was suggested that I speak with Jill Culton, who is co-directing the studio’s upcoming 3D comedy/adventure Open Season, inspired by the humor of In the Bleachers cartoonist Steve Moore. The film is part of a full slate of CG movies in various stages of development at Sony.

“What worries me is not necessarily the flooding of the market,” notes Culton. “From a filmmaker’s point of view, the thing that bothers us the most is the fear of pushing these things through a pipeline that we can’t keep up with. Stories need time to evolve and the process of animation is a very collaborative one. You can’t just buy a shooting script, block out your shots and go. It takes years of letting the story emerge out of boards and letting the characters develop. Since it is such a labor-intensive process, it takes no less that three years per movie. When that time is cut short and you force things to come out quickly, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else in the animation industry a service. If you correlate this to live-action, at one point people might have thought that hi-tech films like The Mummy or Star Wars were going to be the standard for all movies. But once the shine has worn off from the special effects films, we see a resurgence of small films like Whale Rider, Bend it Like Beckham and American Splendor that rise to the surface. I think that if the market floods with 3D films, we’ll see a resurgence of small, low-budget 2D films that are really artistically well done rise again and come to the theaters.”

Two of the best animated films of the year certainly fall into that category. Problem is, they’re foreign productions and will not be widely released in North America. French director/producer Sylvain Chomet’s Les Triplettes De Belleville and Japanese director Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress are sparkling examples of what can happen when 2D animation and fantastic storytelling come together. Both are fresh, daring, original and beautiful. And they’ll be nowhere near your local megaplex. Even though Triplettes has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and Actress by DreamWorks’ new Go Fish division, they will each only get limited art house releases.

Animation Magazine Online spoke to the directors of both films and found that they have some pretty strong opinions regarding the American studio system when it comes to animation.

Chomet comments, “Disney and its clone, DreamWorks, for me have become sterile and unimaginative by firing out a host of boring sequels and regurgitated legends like Treasure Planet and Sinbad. They’ve lost the idea to make magic. Now instead they make products based on an old recipe. It’s like eating the same soup everyday – there are no surprises left. Unfortunately, the talented artists who are working in these studios don’t have a word to say on the creative side of filmmaking. Instead, the artistic decisions are made by bureaucrats who seem to think that a decent film can be thought of in terms of toys in a Happy Meal. This army of arrogant producers have broken one of the best 2D studios in the world, the one who brought the magic of animation to the screen. Having now thrown that particular toy in the garbage, they’ll now pick up another one and play around with that until that breaks too! Unfortunately, I see a pattern of poor and misguided decision making. There is nothing to convince me that switching to 3D is a good idea.”

Anyone who has seen Triplettes knows what an injustice it would be if the film were not nominated for the Academy Award. Asked what he thought about the prospect of winning, Chomet replies, “We have absolutely no chance against Nemo, just as [my] The Old Lady and the Pigeons had no chance against [Pixar's] Gerry’s Game. I’m not saying these are not good films, in fact I’m a big fan of John Lasseter’s work. But how in the U.S. can an independent filmmaker stand against a corporation? It’s a bit like the story of David and Goliath, but this time it’s Goliath who has the slingshot.”

Our publisher, Rita Street, recently met with Satoshi Kon regarding Animation Magazine‘s October cover story on Millennium Actress. When DreamWorks acquired his film for U.S. distribution, he had a chance to visit the campus and was surprised by what he saw.

“I was shocked to see how DreamWorks works,” Kon admits. “I had a chance to observe that this year, and the scale itself is amazing. I asked them how they make their storyboards, and they said they have five or six people in a team. And I thought ‘Wow! That’s the reason why there is no consistency.’” He goes on to assert, “In making an animated movie, it’s the director who is the grand artist and, yes everyone does wotk together with the director but you cannot use democracy. There must be strong will by one person who can make a decision.”

While Kon concedes that “There must be some good merits to creating movies the DreamWorks way,” he says, “When I actually observed the way they make [them], I felt they couldn’t make good movies because every artist stayed in his or her own individual room and had to work there. For me, each artist works in his or her own space, but I am a hallway to connect each of them.”

Regarding the possibility of 3D taking hold of Japan’s animation industry as well, Kon points out the differences between attitudes in the U.S. and his homeland. “In the U.S., 3D is a very reasonable and practical way of expressing light and shadows, but in Japan we still have a strong living tradition of Ukiyo-e [the ancient art of wood block printing with a content focus on everyday life]. This 2D world has huge gray areas which makes it very charming. Although we have discussed the future of our Japanese animation world, we aren’t worried at all because we are in a different world from American animation. In the future, we will probably look into making 3D shorts, but we will still focus on 2D.”

One of my favorite animated films from last year is the very quirky, poignant and obscure hand-drawn feature Eden from Polish filmmaker Andrzej Czeczot. The artist, whose illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker, isn’t so optimistic that 2D will hold it’s ground in Europe.

“3D animation will definitely win in Europe,” Czeczot predicts. “But it will take some time. It will take more of a technological revolution in the TV and computer industries. It means gigantic money. However, classical animation will stay around as long as sensitive people still exist.”

Though a big fan of pencil and paper, Czeczot notes that he is not against any new techniques used in animation. For him, the real problem lies somewhere else. “It’s not about how we will make animated films, but for what and for whom we’re trying to cook the perfect animated vision. Does it have to be a deductive tale for little idiots and happily accepted by adults? Films like Spirited Away and Pokémon? In my opinion, animation should also be an oasis of poetry and a more refined sense of humor. Animated films can also tell much deeper, but not boring, stories. I dream about artistic animated films made by artists, not only by money makers. Early Disney animated movies are much closer to this vision than contemporary films.”

Join us tomorrow as we look at how 3D is moving into the TV realm, one of the last bastions of 2D animation. Will the pixel pushers take over there as well? How will that affect the 3D movie business? We’ll hear from both sides of the fence as we continue with 2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping?