Animation in the Video Game Generation: Tradition vs. Technology
Is 2D animation dead?
Former Disney animator Raul Aguirre Jr. appears to think so, given his plans for a mock memorial service for hand drawn animation at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. It’s a question that continues to be a bone of contention among animation enthusiasts, journalists and industry professionals across a plethora of articles and message boards; since industry giant Disney apparently turned its back on the 2D feature film after 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the hand drawn style has all but disappeared from mainstream cinema. With competitors Dreamworks and Fox having left traditional animation behind in favour of the three dimensional CG style afforded by technological advances almost a decade earlier, the definitive producers of feature length cartoons have finally ceded and joined their sister company Pixar in the realms of CG animation.
So why the apparent decline in hand drawn animation? Cost is certainly a factor; it used to be the case that 2D animation was considerably cheaper to produce than its 3D counterpart due to the differences in the production process. Whilst 3D animation was dependent on expensive computer packages, 2D animation could be produced comparitively cheaply with the traditional cel based method. Before the advent of digital animation, characters were hand painted onto transparent sheets of celluloid (cels) which were overlain atop an opaque background. The cels were held in place with the registration holes, holes along the top or bottom of the sheet that correspond to the peg bar on the lightbox, and flattened with a sheet of glass to ensure alignment whilst the frame was photographed.
In 1990, Disney implemented a new system called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), developed in co-operation with Pixar. This new system replaced the costly process of painting on cels, enabling animators to scan line drawings into a computer and colour them digitally before compositing them over a similarly scanned background. In recent years, further technological developments have made it possible to create animated films single handedly with nothing but a computer, a graphics tablet, and a couple of pieces of affordable software; the ink-and-paint process has become fully digitised whilst maintaining a semblance of the traditional method.
The digitisation of 2D animation came only a few short years before Pixar’s first feature film, the massively successful Toy Story of 1995. Beginning with George Lucas’ recruitment of Ed Catmull to Lucasfilm’s Computer Division in 1979, the technology and visual style that Pixar has become known for was swift to develop. Steve Jobs bought the Computer Division from Lucas in 1986 to create the independent company known as Pixar; shortly after, John Lasseter’s Luxo Jr. was completed and nominated for an Oscar. The next few years saw the creation of a number of successful shorts, award nominations, and advances in the animation technology.
There can be no doubt that these technological advances have, if nothing else, allowed for a greater complexity in animation; digitisation of the 2D style has led to possibilities with lighting and camera movement that were previously much more difficult if not impossible. Likewise, 3D packages such as Maya allow for incredibly complex character and set designs, lighting, rendering and camera movements. Models can be intuitively animated with rigs, a sort of manipulatable skeleton, and programmed with movement cycles.
With the difference in production costs having become considerably less dramatic, an animator’s choice in style would appear to have more to do with his intended audience than his budget. Whilst CG has been the prevalent style at the box office in recent years, this is most likely due to the success and popularity of the films of Pixar and their competitors, as well as the popularity of games and gadgets with the present generation. Whereas once the landscape of animation was dominated by the likes of Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., and Disney, all of whom produced hand drawn 2D programmes, today’s children are surrounded by games consoles, video games, and franchises.
Video games and TV shows with a related line of toys are not a new idea; the Pokemon franchise, for example, covers a number of video games, toy lines, themed clothing, and a plethora of other collectibles. Whilst Pokemon still appears to be going strong, another current example might be Activision’s Skylanders, a video game which features the gimmick of importing a series of figurines into the game with a ‘Portal of Power’ , a platform which reads the character model and places it in the game. The concept is not unlike that of Tecmo’s 1997 Monster Rancher which allowed players to scan new monsters from any readable CD they happened to have to hand. What Activision have done, however, is maximise their profits by selling the figurines and the game separately.
And profits, indeed, are what would appear to be the deciding factor in the choosing of an animation style. CG does does well at the box office in no small part because its computer generated visuals bear a resemblance to those of the video games its target audience enjoy. This is turn leads to the production, and presumably reasonable success of, spin-off video games and toys; Brave, for instance, saw a number of small games developed for its release, including a themed version of the popular Temple Run game. Likewise, themed versions of Angry Birds include Rio and Star Wars.
Of course, a unity of style is not a new idea either. Such children’s programmes as Thomas the Tank Engine and Noddy’s Toyland Adventures were animated in stop-motion, giving the impression that the toys themselves had come to life. Both series have been updated in recent years and are now animated in CG, no doubt for the reasons outlined above. Other classic characters have received similar treatment, such as Bugs and Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner in The Looney Tunes Show, a sitcom style reboot of Looney Tunes.
2D cartoons are by no means gone, however; Cartoon Network still show such favourites as Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Dexter’s Laboratory after 9PM, suggesting that these shows are targeted at an audience who watched them as children. Similarly, such shows as Adventure Time and Regular Show would appear to be targeted largely at an audience in their twenties and beyond. Regular Show, certainly, is rife with references to the 80’s, classic video games and pop culture. Shows such as The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy also remain stalwart favourites with a teenage and adult audience, and of course anime works such as those of Studio Ghibli remain popular with Western audiences.
It would be remiss, then, to claim in honesty that 2D animation is dead. The traditional methods of hand drawn animation, indeed, may be said to be so given the implementation of digital painting and compositing, but the style itself maintains as strong a presence as ever, having simply evolved. The apparent prevalence of the CG style in the present climate is due, it would seem, to its popularity and potential for financial gain. The differences in production cost and difficulty are no longer so great as they were, and so it seems likely that the 2D style will strengthen its presence again somewhere down the line when nostalgia breeds a vogue.
What do you think? Leave a comment.