The End of an Era …Yet Again


Last month’s announcement that the Walt Disney Company would no longer pursue traditional feature animation brought some mixed responses among toon heads. For many it was the final death knell for hand-drawn animation. For others, though, the announcement was déjà vu all over again. Like the Western movie, traditional feature animation has been given up for dead any number of times, only to prove to be harder to finish off than Dracula.

Back in 2002, right when the encroachment of digital animation started to resemble Sherman’s March, I spoke with DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg about the future of 2-D toning. Citing the studio’s most recent release, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which featured traditional animation with digital elements, Katzenberg implied that rumors of the death of 2-D toning were being greatly exaggerated. He went on to explain that Spirit contained a hybrid mix of 3-D and traditional animation, sometimes in the same shot:

“When Spirit runs up onto the bluff at the top of the hill, half of the character animation in that scene was done by computer, and there’s a point in time when there’s literally a seamless transition, you cannot see it with the eye, in which [animator] James Baxter comes in and takes over from the CG character and starts animating it by hand. Why? Because when you come into that epic character-revealing moment, you need the extraordinary acting, and no computer can do what James Baxter does.”

James Baxter

James Baxter

That was 2002. Six years later, the British-born Baxter was still holding on to his reputation as one of the world’s best traditional animators, and heading up his own studio, James Baxter Animation. But in spite of his reputation, he was in danger of becoming a specialty subcontractor. “I was starting to think we were specializing in doing openings to other peoples films,” Baxter told me in 2008, having just completed the 2-D opening for Kung-Fu Panda. He went on:

“We’d just done 14 minutes or so on Enchanted, and Kung-Fu Panda was only two minutes, so it was much more manageable for us to do. We did a lot of digital manipulation, so it was not fully animated. We came up with this hybrid version where we would not animate that much, just do the broad movements, and then we would go in and basically start manipulating the drawings to create extra bits of movement, so the whole thing has a very fluid look, but is done with a lot fewer drawings than your normal Disney-style feature animation.”

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

But even as we spoke, Baxter was planning to close the doors of his 2-D studio and go back work for DreamWorks, where the new philosophy seemed to be: Well, danged if a computer can’t do what James Baxter does after all! Was that the death knell? Not quite. Baxter went on to put his 2-D animation skills to work on last year’s Annie-winning, Oscar-nominated toon short Adam and Dog.

So is this really the end of an era? Well, let’s leave Dracula’s coffin unlocked for another year and see.

  • JP

    Fortunately Disney isn’t the only studio to do hand drawn animation. It would be a shame for one of the premier studios to put the nail in its own coffin, but with its diversification in other corporate areas it’s probably looking more at the bottom line than the importance of retaining the craft that built the company.

    With the massive success of animated series like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra, anything from Studio Ghibli, and so on, it seems pretty clear that hand drawn isn’t going away.

  • AnimationFan#1

    I must say I’m very disappointed that Disney is making their movies in 3-D and not 2-D anymore! I believe that their movies are done better in 2-D than 3-D! I was really pleased with Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011) and I thought that they were gonna bring back 2-D again but sadly they’re not! I think they should bring back 2-D and leave 3-D to PIXAR and DREAMWORKS SKG! 2-D really is Disney’s Animation! PLEASE DISNEY! PLEASE BRING BACK 2-D ANIMATION! Walt would be very disappointed if he knew that his company wasn’t making 2-D Animated Films!

  • Tony White

    I’ve said for years that we have to stop looking to Hollywood to save traditional 2D animation. Its here in the trenches that 2D will survive in the USA, not in the big studios. Remember that 2D is not dead around the rest of the world, just in the USA… thanks to Michael Eisner giving the industry jitters back in 2002! Bottom line: If 2D-ers want 2D to survive you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself! I am personally about to embark on my own (almost solo – fellow 2D maestros have agreed to help when they can) 2D movie – the first I’ve ever attempted in my career incidentally. I’ve done pretty much everything else in animation during my life but never made a movie that inspired me to want to do so. However, to do it I’m just going to do it in my own free time and fund it on every last cent I have, taking as long as it takes. But it will be done – and done with love, passion and ‘from the heart’ – with artistic integrity protected at all costs! Others have gone (and are going) before me of course and I have absolutely no expectation of you seeing my film in the cinemas over here, as the US distributors just don’t want to know. That doesn’t mean there aren’t great 2D films being made (and making money) all the time around the world in 2D – just that we won’t see them unless they get indie circuit distribution or are screened in festivals. (And let’s all thank the likes of GKids for enabling that in the States!) 2D will never be dead as long as inspired artists like to draw and see their drawings move. Hollywood simply lost the plot years ago and wouldn’t know what a good 2D movie was if it jumped up and punched them in the face. 2D is dead – long may 2D rule! ~ ‘Disgruntled’, Seattle. :(

    • DarylT

      Actually its dead in the UK too. And quite a lot of Europe. And most Japanese animation is outsourced now.