2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping? Part IV: Tuning In to 3D

One great thing about covering the animation industry is I can sit down in front of the TV with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, turn on Saturday morning cartoons and call it “research.” If you’ve also been there recently, you’ve probably observed that most animation on TV is still done in 2D. With the exception of a few notable shows like Nelvana’s Rollie Pollie Ollie and Mainframe’s Spider-Man on MTV, which is cel-shaded, you won’t find much CG on the small screen. But that’s about to change.

Taking a cue from the movie industry, more and more TV producers are conceiving and producing animated series as 3D properties. Among those set to debut soon are Comet Ent.’s Tinguaro, The Sun Lizards; Nelvana’s Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Kids and the Mike Young Prods. and Entara Ltd. co-production Jakers!: The Adventures of Piggley Winks. But it’s not only kids TV that’s getting a CG injection. Primetime animation, dominated by the likes of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, South Park and various 2D Adult Swim offerings, is about to get some competition from another dimension. DreamWorks, for one, is in production on Father of the Pride, a 3D comedy series that goes behind the scenes with a family of lions working in Siegfried and Roy’s Las Vegas magic act. The show is scheduled to join NBC’s fall 2004 lineup.

I asked Ann Daly, head of feature animation at DreamWorks, if she thought 3D will eventually take over the tube as well. “I think it’s visually interesting, it’ll be a novelty,” she says. “There are certain things you can do in CG that are very difficult or expensive to do in 2D. But I don’t think that as an artistic style, 2D completely disappears just because 3D is on TV. That said, I think that what we’re creating is going to be an extraordinary look at something that has clearly never been done before and I think it could set a new bar for what production values are on TV.”

Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Lab and the upcoming Star Wars interstitial toon series Clone Wars, says “Bring it on.”

“We know that 2D animation is having a really hard time outside of the television world,” Tartakovsky remarks. “It’s so frustrating to read all these articles saying that 2D is dead. A lot of my friends are grounded in 2D, especially in television. Of course, if everyone else jumps on the 3D bandwagon, it’s great for us because we do our show in 2D and it makes us stand out more! I still believe in people’s love for good drawing and animation.”

Scott Wills, art director on Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars takes an even stronger stance, declaring, “To me, animation is 2D. 3D is simply special effects and that’s fine for live action. Animation is all about drawing. That’s one of the reasons I love animation. I really like hand-painted backgrounds. You don’t want the backgrounds to look that real or CG-driven. It just doesn’t look right.”

Mike Young Prods. partner Bill Schultz sees 3D exploding on TV within the next five to six years. He predicts, “You’re going to see more 3D on TV for two reasons. First, the success of 3D theatrical is going to obviously direct momentum toward television, direct-to-video, etc. The other thing is the speed of computers and the growing talent pool with familiarity with software and hardware is making it that much more produceable, even on a television budget and schedule.”

Asked about the difference between 2D and 3D television budgets, Shultz comments, “It’s a little like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ You can definitely do CG for less money than 2D, but you can also do 2D for less than CG. It just depends on what your goal is. A high quality 3D series is going to cost the same as a high quality 2D series.

Like Daly, Shultz admits that the decision to create Jakers! (premiering Sept. 14 on PBS) with computer animation did have something to do with the newness of the medium. “We went with 3D because we thought it would give us a point of difference in the marketplace,” he remarks. “In fact, we’re doing another [3D] series now called Pet Alien. The trick here is that we’re going to try and keep the look and feel of a good, old-fashioned TV cartoon with squash and stretch, camera work etc. So even within the 3D world, there are different looks and feels.”

One company with a vested interest in 2D’s survival is Toon Boom Technologies Inc., maker of 2D animation software packages USAnimation and Toon Boom Studio. Company president and CEO Joan Vogelesang feels the use of 2D and 3D on television will depend on the target market. “Young children, for example, love 2D. Then you have the teenage group that is into computer games and for the moment they may be more receptive to 3D. Saturday morning cartoons is a huge market and a lot of purchasing is driven by children. So we believe 2D is going to maintain its presence in that market.”

Toon Boom chief technology officer Francisco Del Cueto believes what we’ll see is not necessarily a choosing between two mediums, but rather more options for combining both in the same productions. “3D really helps on 2D productions for things like props and backgrounds. What you want to do as a producer is reduce your cost of production and if you can use some of the techniques together to arrive at an appropriate look at an affordable cost, you can obtain a return on your investment.”

Chris Bailey, who directed and co-exec. produced the first season of Disney’s Kim Possible for TV and is currently the animation supervisor on the live-action/CG Garfield movie, believes 3D offers certain artistic advantages as well as novelty appeal for TV animation. “Part of the problem of doing adventure shows on television in 2D is when you have a big action set piece, it just falls apart because people don’t have the time to lay out and animate that type of action directly,” he says. “The drawing all falls apart and the perspective gets wonky. But clearly with Spider-Man, [Nelvana] put a great deal of their energy into making sure he looks good and because it’s CG, you have the integrity of his form throughout the shot.

Another way the move to 3D in feature films is affecting TV animation is the decreasing likelihood of having a 2D series make the leap to the big screen, as Rugrats was so successful in doing. A few years ago, Kim Possible would have been a prime candidate. It has great characters, fun storylines and witty writing – all the things that everyone I’ve talked to says make up a successful movie. Bailey comments, “I think if it became a movie it would be live-action or 3D because the people with their hands on the purse strings don’t think 2D sells.”

Charles Zembillas, president of the Animation Academy in Burbank, Calif. and founder of the online animator forum Animation Nation (www.animationnation.com), looks at the popularity of shows like Pokémon, Yu Gi Oh! and Beyblade and sees hope for the future of 2D animation, both on TV and in the theaters. “Kids today who like drawing animated stuff, I’d say easily 75-85% percent of them, are influenced and inspired by anime,” he suggests. “I think that when we see these people later designing and producing things, we’re gong to see an American form of anime emerge.”

Tomorrow we’ll focus on the artists and explore what the growing popularity of 3D product means to them both artistically and financially. All that and more as we continue with 2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping?