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The Animated Scene: Where is Animation Headed?

Joseph Gilland questions the demise of 2D/3D debate and wonders where animation is headed for the next generation of artists, in this months The Animated Scene.

Joseph Gilland

In my last years working for Walt Disney Feature Animation in Florida, I had the honor to work on some of the most beautifully animated films ever made. Perhaps the stories were getting a little stale and the Disney Broadway musical formula was running its course, but there was no denying that the quality of the hand-drawn character and effects animation was as good as it gets. As a special effects supervisor, I had the pleasure of receiving scene after scene of absolutely gorgeous character animation. Removing the rubber bands from stacks of drawings and flipping through them, I was holding animation history in my hands. Exquisite scenes animated by the likes of Andreas Deja, Glenn Keanne, Nik Ranieri, Ruben Aquino and Ken Duncan would flow through my hands, to be handed out to the special effects department to have the touch of our effects animation magic added to them. It just seemed like a helluva good job at the time, but it is awfully easy to romanticize that era, and wonder, where the hell is it all going today? I mean, this was real artwork. Moving pictures drawn with soft pencils on high-quality bond paper. These drawings still sit somewhere, archived, labeled and organized (one would hope). Its real; you can touch it; it still breathes somehow. Only a tragic fire could destroy it in its physical form, and time will ravage it little, as Disney started using acid free particle boards to hold these drawings together as we moved into the 21st century.

Today, the incredible (no pun intended) animation we are seeing on the big screen, exists only as a sequence of zeroes and ones on some kind of digital storage device, a disc, a drive, an electronic memory of some kind. Where is it? What is it? Can it be touched? Felt? Shown in a museum or sold at a Comic-Con? What if someone accidentally hits the delete button? That is really how tenuous this information is. It exists only in a virtual electronic place, completely reliant of electricity, hardware and software, and thus it can only be accessed and viewed with the right hardware and software and a reliable energy source. Will we be able to get a look at the inner workings of some of the best animation created with Maya 7, when we are using Maya version 16.5 10 years from now? Will the 3D works of art being created currently, be brought to life only through the DVDs, or the mpeg and .mov files that we collect these days?

My questions may seem naïve to some. Of course there are countless ways of looking at this work and wonderful museum displays can be created from the zeroes and ones at our finger tips, as Pixars wonderful gallery shows have proven. But I think it is a question that many of us are quietly asking ourselves, as we try to manage our collections of thousands upon thousands of digital family photos, in files and on websites, on discs and in memory sticks. Who among us doesnt somewhere have a box or a huge old-fashioned trunk, filled with hard copy family photos or stacks upon stacks of photo albums? Family treasures, real, tangible, cracked and faded maybe, and with negatives usually in questionable condition, but all the same, authentic pieces of memory we can actually hold in our hands.

What about this fine art of animation of ours? Will we ever again see big productions created primarily on paper? Or is it truly becoming a memory, a thing of the past?

OK, OK, I am losing your interest already. It has been brought to my attention again and again, that the debate over 2D vs. 3D, or hand-drawn vs. digital, is really getting old. It is no longer an issue and its just not interesting anymore. We have hashed it over in every conceivable way, emotions have run high and everyones had their say. And everybody knows that the technique is not as important as the quality of storytelling. Dont they? At least that seems to be the general consensus around the animation studio coffee machine in the past decade or so. But if thats really so, then why are the majority of the studios in North America relying almost 100% on 3D and digital 2D techniques to make their films? I mean, good old-fashioned animation tables with their discs and florescent lights are really hard to come by in the average studio, and if you do use one, it tends to draw a crowd of the younger employees in the studio, who are amazed to see such an archaic device still in existence, never mind in actual use! In the studio where I am currently working in Vancouver, British Columbia, entire productions, even the 2D projects, are being produced entirely without paper, even in the design stages, with the fantastic newer Wacom drawing tablets being used at every possible stage.

I started out on the current production of Fox 4Kids Chaotic, using an old-fashioned animation table and disc and really honest to goodness paper to animate some of the more complex effects in the show, and then I would either scan the drawings or in some cases even tape and trace them onto my Cintiq tablet. These effects are then being translated into Flash, as easily re-usable Flash symbols, which can easily be copied and pasted into any number of scenes quickly and efficiently. As my proficiency with the tablet increased however, even I began to rely almost 100% on my tablet, even for animating rather difficult special effects, and the animation table is now beginning to gather dust. I miss it though and there is a lot I cant do, using primarily digital tools. But I am making do, in the interests of time management. The schedule on a modern day television show does not really permit doing several mutations of a given special effects animation before settling on what works best. So the first version is often the only version anyone will ever see.

As the good old-fashioned animation table with its discs and florescent lights go the way of turntables and typewriters, where is this new generation of animation artists headed? Courtesy of Joseph Gilland.

While I sit working away on my eerily glowing, 21 high-tech digital drawing monitor though, I am experiencing an interesting phenomenon.

I sit close enough to the studios kitchen and eating area, to over hear a lot of the conversations going on during lunch hour, a time when I usually dig out a sandwich and continue working away without pause. And what I am hearing is that the debate over the future of our industry and the hubbub over 2D and 3D, is anything but over. And its not the old farts like me who worked for two decades in the industry before the receptionist even got a computer, who are talking about it. It is the fresh young kids barely out of school who are speculating about Pixar possibly doing a 2D film. It is these young artists who are noticing that the box office success of 3D films lately, is beginning to wane with the saturation of the market and every Tom, Dick, and Harry studio under the sun racing to create another 3D embarrassment. It is todays youthful students of animation who, finding out that there is an old-school animator in their midst, ask me endless questions about what it was like to work on big 2D feature films. And they are hungry for a bit of that action. They are far more interested in what Sylvain Chomets next film is going to look like, than the storyline of DreamWorks next 3D debacle. And chances are, they spend a lot more time watching primarily 2D anime and television cartoons, than they do watching Chicken Little, Over the Hedge or The Wild. Of course the interest in good 3D animation is there, dont get me wrong. But I am amazed to see the enthusiasm, excitement and interest, which good old 2D animation still generates in this new generation of animation students. I continually receive emails from animators young and old, who are looking for resources to help them learn about hand-drawn effects animation as well, having read a small excerpt from my upcoming book on the topic. It amazes me sometimes, but its true. A lot of young animation people these days just arent getting the kick they are looking for from working on purely digital productions. There is a thirst for the old ways, a keen desire to hold something in their hands and feel it, and a passionate love for the drawings they see in books and at Comic-Cons and on my dusty old animation table.

So what is this new generation of animation artists going to do with the current animation landscape as they grow up and into it? If the so-called debate between 2D and 3D has really been put to rest, then how come I am getting so many questions about where it is all headed? I sense a groundlessness and restlessness in many of these young artists. Digital files, which are dragged and dropped and cut and pasted freely, dont have the enduring magical quality of a real scene folder, full of paper drawings. And because they are so darned easy to simply delete, they lack a sense of reality that we all seek when we crack opened a good book and flip through its pages.

I dont have any answers to these questions. I have no idea where it is going. But the questions are juicy and fertile. The digital age is thoroughly upon us, and its not going to reverse itself and go backwards; that much is for sure. We have new tools and we are going to use them to our advantage and/or to our detriment. Digital file management and tracking can be a nightmare at the best of times and we still rely heavily on hard-copy tracking sheets printed out for us to hold in our hands the answers to our production coordination woes. Notes jotted on a piece of paper are still the glue, which hold many a studio together. Is our dependency on 0s and 1s going to get the better of us? Will the written word on the page or the hand-drawn drawing go the way of the do-do bird finally?

But my real question here is what the young creative people in the industry are going to do with this back-to-the-future landscape set out before them? Their thirst for old-school knowledge is real and palpable. Their respect for the old school of animation is enormous, as is their desire to somehow take part in it, learn from it and put it to use in their present day culture. Kids growing up with Maya, Softimage, AfterEffects, Houdini and Flash are painfully aware of the quality of old-fashioned animation techniques that still taunt them when they pop an old Disney classic into the DVD player. With the exception of the very biggest and best animation studios on earth, the majority of digital animation they are seeing lacks life altogether. A really sad percentage of animated feature films and television shows coming out today dont really have the stuff that makes animation sing with life and the sooner we admit that, and address that, the better. Watching Final Fantasy Episode 22 is leaving us a little cold and although we may be mesmerized with what we can achieve with 3D animation, it is the vibration of life that the young students of animation today are seeking. I think they are going to insist upon it and hopefully they can raise the bar once again by studying and honoring our animation legacy and bringing it back to life with whatever tools they need to use to make it so. The animation table graveyards may one day actually be rattled and awoken. Who knows? What I know for sure is that the real magic of animation isnt dead by any stretch of the imagination. Just as many young musicians have put away their synthesizers and picked up acoustic instruments, the animation youth of today thirst for something they can put their hands on. Sitting in front of a computer screen for eight or 12 hours a day, well, have you tried it lately? Did you feel good at the end of the day? Does that important file that somehow mysteriously got deleted and messed up your whole day haunt you at night? Where is it? What is it? Where are we headed?

Read Part 2 of Where is Animation Headed?

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.