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.”
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.”
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.