2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping? Part V: The Artists

I have an old Smith Corona Junior manual typewriter on my desk, sitting just three feet from my sleek, translucent iMac (which is, at this point, almost as outdated). I bought the antiquated machine at a thrift store because I thought it looked cool. I even tried to run a sheet of paper through it and put a few sentences down, just for fun. I had to press the keys really hard to get the ink to show up on the paper, then manually push back the letter arms that got stuck in the upright position. The brief experience made me truly appreciate what my predecessors had to go through just to bang out a story.

As animators scramble to acquire the knowledge to translate their skills to the 3D world, the light box is in danger of going the way of my Smith Corona. The way things are going, it seems likely that one day somebody will walk into an office, see an unemployed light box sitting on the desk and say “Judas Priest! People actually used to animate on these things?”

It’s easy to compare the two machines on my desk and say that the computer is better because of its advanced technology, its ability to access the Internet and they way it underlines my sloppy spelling in red like my sixth grade teacher did. It’s also easy to forget that most of the greatest works of literature were composed with devices less intricate than my old typwriter.

Nevertheless, as I sit here at my iMac, cutting and pasting and correcting mistakes without the need of special tape or liquid, I think of how much easier technology has made writing. However, recent advances in computer science have turned the lives of many animators upside down. Some have been able to adapt and thrive while many others have found themselves out on the street.

One organization looking out for the interests of animation artists is the animation Guild. I spoke with Local 839 president Kevin Koch, who observes, “There are some positions, like animators, where I know a lot of people have been successfully transitioning. But unfortunately there are a lot of positions that really don’t have any analog in CG. I know some clean-up people who have been able to transition or are in the process of that. There is a somewhat similar position in CG called finaling, but it really takes a whole separate set of skills. Finaling is dealing with the geometric intersections and the crashing of parts in the computer. But to some extent, that’s so technical that it’s really like starting from scratch. If anything, I was thinking about people in, for instance, digital ink and paint. In checking some of those positions, unless they can transition into something like compositing, it’s a completely lost job category.”

Koch says his leap from 2D to 3D was fairly smooth because he had always approached animation in a technical and logical manner. But he notes, “I think people who draw really well and kind of draw their way through animation problems tend to have a harder time switching over. Until someone like that becomes so connected with the interface that they don have to think about the computer, they’re going to struggle.”

With so many CG movies in development and production, Koch says the job market is fairly strong for certain animators. “Right now, if you have production-ready skills, there’s a reasonable chance you can get a couple of job offers simultaneously,” he observes. “But it seems like there is less of a ‘we’ll hire and train you’ attitude. They want to see some evidence that you have a decent grasp of CG animation.”

As for fears that computer animation jobs will eventually go to India or China, Koch reminds us that while most TV animation went overseas, “The feature animation jobs never really did disappear.” He goes on to say, “The bar is already so high in feature CG animation that I don’t see how it could, in a significant way, go overseas the way [2D] TV work did.” He continues, “As far as CG for TV, there’s none of that being done in America that I know of. There’s some being done in Canada and I think more and more of that is going to continue to go off-shore.”

Koch is now working on Shrek 2 for DreamWorks, which has been very public about its commitment to training traditional animators in the new medium. Still, a good number of its 2D artists have hit the unemployment line. DreamWorks head of feature animation Ann Daly notes, “We let go of, not just animators, but all told it might have been 100 people because a CG crew involves about 100 fewer people than what it took to do a combination film. Most of the animators had a chance to participate and learn about CG roles on the next production but not everybody had a position because it’s just a smaller crew.”

Among those who were able to make the transition, Daly notes a difference in the way they animate compared to those trained only in 3D. She says, “I think often times, 2D people come from a deep art background. So what we’re seeing is that there’s a different level of artistry in their animation once they master 3D. Not to say that people who have been 3D animators are inferior, but the 2D animators are able to translate their art really effectively in a 3D medium in a way that, generally speaking, a lot of people didn’t think they’d be able to.”

Animator and director Don Bluth (Titan A.E., Anastasia) echoes Daly’s statement. Don Bluth Films most recently made its first venture into 3D with cinematics for the Namco video game I-Ninja. He says of 2D animators, “They understand the principles of animation better than anyone. When we were doing I-Ninja, there was one guy among all the animators, an older guy who had done 2D his whole life long. It’s the difference between night and day when you see what he animates compared to the other guys who have never really drawn with a pencil. His animation is very spicy, very alive.”

As the founder of Animation Nation (www.animationnation.com), Charles Zembillas has provided a forum for artists to share ideas and sound off on the state of the industry. As a reslut, he’s very attuned to the general climate at any given time. “It’s kind of like nature taking it’s course, people adapting in the face of inevitable change. Right now, people are confused and upset, so you’re getting a lot of negative sentiment but I think it’s something everybody’s going the be able to weather.”

Zembillas is also president of The Animation Academy in Burbank, Calif. Asked how the current market trends have influenced the way the school operates, he comments, “About three or four years ago, I started realizing that in-betweening is on its way out and it doesn’t make any sense for me to have in-betweening classes when students aren’t going to be able to get jobs.”

For young students dreaming of a career in 2D animation, Zembillas offers this advice: “Do it. Take a realistic look at the landscape. If you enjoy living like a gypsy, and more and more people are doing it; it’s great. If you like jumping on a train and seeing where it winds up, then animation could work out for you. If you’re looking for stability, those situations are there but a lot of it just depends on how good you are. I think anybody designing exclusively for 2D, especially if they’re young and just getting started, really should develop their rudimentary knowledge of a high-end digital program just to be safe.”

Thank you for following this multi-angled exploration of the state of and future of 2D animation. I hope you’ve found the journey as informaive as I have. Be sure and check Monday’s Editor’s Note for my personal findings, the results of our online poll and more parting shots from those industry professionals who participated in this process. Also, feel free to leave your own remarks below. We want to know what you have to say!

Parting Shots:

“My biggest fear for 2D animation is that it will become just a babbysitter, a medium to pop a video in for your children to shut up for a few hours. I hope we don’t see that happen because when I first started in the industry in 1980, animation was kind of there. It had a resurgence in the mid-eighties with Roger Rabbit and Little Mermaid, but before that, there was that period where it was just in the doldrums. We’ve had a really nice wave that we’ve ridden for a long time. We’re talking almost 20 years of a real successful period for 2D animation. Everything goes in and out of style. I love 2D. I grew up on it, we all did. We cut our teeth on it. We stand on the shoulders of these guys who created Pinocchio, Bambi, Snow White, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Cinderella.” – Kelly Asbury, co-director of DreamWorks’ Shrek 2

The question here is not necessarily about technique – it’s not about whether 2D or 3D or plasticine or puppets or paper cut outs are best. It’s about the way you use imagination and your abilities to tell a story. It’s also a great deal to do with sincerity – if the decision makers at Disney and Dreamworks are sincere in their goals, good luck to them. Do they want to make films and tell good stories or do they want to sell stuff? I reckon that’s the real debate here.” – Sylvain Chomet, director of Les Triplettes de Belleville

“I think the prospects for the future of the industry are very good and that 2D is going to adapt.” – Charles Zembellias, president of The Animation Academy, founder of Animation Nation.