2D Animation: Dead, Dying or Just Napping?

A 5-part, in-depth look at the state of 2D animation

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” ‘Mark Twain

Following the state of 2D feature animation is like watching a wounded seal struggling to fend off a Great White shark on the Discovery Channel. You’re naturally inclined to root for the underdog, but there’s no denying that its chances are bleak. It’s survival of the fittest and right now 3D is at the top of the food chain. And by food chain, I mean the line that forms at the concession stand as young and old flock to see movies like Shrek, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo.

I’m not some neo-ludite who thinks that technology is ruining the art. I enjoy seeing good 3D movies like the aforementioned titles. In fact, my true passion lies in stop-motion animation, which is more 3D than CG. But does everything have to be 3D? Is there really no room for a style of animation that was once the stuff of lion kings and brought to life such enduring characters as Snow White, Bambi and Jafar?

Dead is a strong word, which makes for titillating headlines. Personally, I think there is a lot of exaggeration going on. Media vultures would rather report on a death than a serious illness from which the subject may very well recover. Likewise, I think the movie studios are exaggerating the importance of computer technology in the success of certain films. And even if 3D does currently have more box office appeal, I’m inclined to believe that there is a novelty effect that will surely ware off in the coming years, especially considering the glut of computer animated movies coming down the pipeline. Then I’m reminded of all the naysayers who myopically declared that sound movies and color TV were just fads.

The way people talk, 3D is to animation what color and sound were to the film industry itself. Again, I would quote Twain on that point. But what do I know? I’m just some guy who watches cartoons and plays video games for a living. That’s why I set out to talk to as many people as I could, people working in all aspects of the industry, from studio heads to directors to guns for hire working in both 2D and 3D. What they had to say just might surprise you.

Story is King.

Isn’t it? I mean, it’s gotta be, right?

In a recent interview in Time magazine, Disney CEO Michael Eisner is quoted as saying. “What’s dead is bad storytelling. Technology doesn’t make the movie; the story makes the movie.” That sounds like a cop-out to me. I mean, does story really get people into theaters? Did all those people line up to see Terminator 3 because it has a better story than Whale Rider?

I thought DreamWorks’ Sinbad: Legend The Seven Seas had a good story and was one of the best action/adventure films I’d seen all year. I know that’s not saying a lot, but the point is that story isn’t given a chance if the advertising doesn’t entice people to buy a ticket. And what was it about the advertising for films like Sinbad, Treasure Planet and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron that moviegoers did not respond to? Was it all the fine story elements that came across in 15-second trailers or something about the visuals that screamed “rental!” Could the presence of 2D animation really be keeping people from plunking down their hard-earned cash? The studios seem to think so. And they have good reason.

In this age when everyone from the studio head to the head waiter at Denny’s can recite box office numbers, it’s no secret that computer animated movies are among the highest grossing films of the past decade. Most recently, we saw the typically testosterone-fueled summer season dominated by adorable little 3D fish. Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo went on to become the highest grossing animated feature of all time. Sure, soaring ticket prices play a role there, as did Pixar’s untarnished track record. But would the numbers have been the same if Nemo had been hatched on a lightbox instead of a 3D box? Shrek 2 co-director Kelly Asbury seems to think so.

“I believe that CG is a wonderful medium. It’s a new paintbrush, a new way to work, a new canvass. But it’s not an end-all. Story is the end-all,” says Asbury. “There have been CG films go out there and not succeed because their stories were not good. We have a couple of 2D films that don’t do well and people forget that last summer we had a 2D film do quite well – Lilo & Stitch. And Tarzan was not that many years ago. I believe that if Tarzan were released today, it would be a massive hit.”

Former Disney animator and Titan A.E. director Don Bluth disagrees. “It seems like nowadays, the whole industry is dictated by the marketability of a project and most of anything out there that’s been making box office is CG,” he observes. “Until there is a distributor that will say ‘I would love to distribute a 2D film,’ no one’s going to make one. The audience has an insatiable appetite to see something new and something they can really get into and feel like it’s real.”

Echoing that statement is Aladino Debert, head of CG at effects house Radium. “As far as feature animation, I don’t think 2D has much of a future to be quite honest,” he says. “Based on the string of failures we’ve had in the last few years, people are just not interested so much in 2D animation these days. The studios are making no money with them. Doing features in 3D ads extra pizzazz, so to speak. People are more interested because they’re in fashion theses days. Right now there are so many 3D features in production. What’s going to happen, after the novelty effect wears off a little, is it’s going to come down again to storytelling.”

When it comes to good storytelling combined with great visuals, Pixar seems to have the market cornered. Tony Mills, a Fire artist for Minneapolis-based Hi-Wire, asserts, “I think that anything Pixar has done is an exception to the rule. Honestly, they’ve done nothing but very carefully craft those projects. They’ve set such a high standard that they really stand out from the crowd. Other companies have made other all-animated features but I think a lot of them rode the coattails of Toy Story‘s success. That film was very groundbreaking and set the benchmark for appreciation of CG as a full-length feature form of entertainment.”

Asbury points out that while good storytelling is a starting point, there are other factors that contribute to the success or failure of a film, like the timing of a movie’s release and what it’s released against.

“I can’t explain why a movie is not a hit any more that I can explain why a movie is a hit,” Asbury notes. “There are plenty of movies that have great character and great stories that aren’t box office bonanzas. That’s true in live-action. I think that because there are so few animated films being made, they’re in some kind of spotlight, under a microscope. Some of my favorite movies were not box office hits when they were in theaters. People forget that It’s a Wonderful Life was buried for years because nobody saw it. What’s not a hit now may be a classic years from now. I think one of the great tragedies happening in terms of popular filmmaking across the board, live-action and animation, is the emphasis put on box office.”

As a media outlet that reports on box office, we can’t say that our hands are clean on this issue. But unlike the general media, we cover all aspects of the industry, not just who raked it in and who got raked under. When every news outlet only pricks up its ears to the animation industry when receipts come in, it’s no wonder studio heads get nervous and make rash decisions concerning their animated output.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the studios and focus on the decision makers with the power to make or break 2D. What do the studio execs have to say? What do the independent producers have to say about them? All that and more as we continue our look at 2D: Dead, Dying or Just Napping?