Joseph Gilland lays out a positive future for the animation industry in "The Animated Scene."
This summer I am going back to do an animation workshop in Europe, as well as getting to a couple of the world's greatest animation festivals. (Not least of which, I hope, will be the new Platform Festival in beautiful Portland, Oregon this year) I am as jazzed as ever to be a part of the animation community, and after so many years of doing this, I have had to stop and ask myself, "Why on earth do I still get such a kick out of this art form?" Lately my animation work professionally has been a back breaking, high stress, insane, schedule-driven descent into utter chaos, but I still come out of it grinning ear to ear, loving what I do for a living. Go figure.
Somehow this spring 2007 is just budding with potential and I am feeling somewhat more excited about animation in general than I have in a long time. I have watched many cycles come and go in this industry and I sense an exciting new one, emerging from the chaotic, over-stimulated, digital decade behind us. A lot has happened in the last few years. Those of us who have been around for a while who are still in the business after all the recent uprooting and change should finally get a bit of a rest as things settle down a little bit and the industry kind of collectively comes to its senses. A lot of good common sense went straight out the window in the last little while, as much of the animation industry stumbled quickly, and sometimes blindly, into a rapidly changing world of digital technology. Suddenly we were lured by a staggering plethora of tricks and toys and gadgets, hardware and software, all promising to make our lives easier and our jobs far more streamlined. An artist or studio that had gotten by using the same animation tools for 30 years, suddenly had to have a complete hardware and software upgrade every five minutes! From the first simple computers, we quickly graduated to some seriously powerful machines, we watched Silicon Graphics come and go, and we watched as hundreds, if not thousands of start up animation and visual effects companies spent fortunes on all the latest, greatest computer graphics technology, only to quickly go belly up due to lack or foresight, and in many cases, a lack of good old fashioned animation know-how.
What a cruel, cruel shock to find out that no matter how fancy the machines you have are, if you don't have a team of human beings who really know how to create great animation, well, you won't create great animation. All around the world, endless banks of shiny new computer machines ended up in fire sales, because people weren't putting the right information into them.
It was a strange day indeed, when, as part of the "creative leadership" of the Walt Disney Feature Animation crew, I was sitting in a beautiful boardroom, at a big meeting, witnessing the Burbank management unveiling their brilliant new 3D versions of the beloved Disney characters -- Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. Quietly we watched as 3D turnarounds of these characters revolved in front of us. There was a hush in the room.
All I could think of was how incredibly unappealing they looked. And that's probably what everyone was thinking. But nobody said a word... no one dared stand in the way of the "cutting edge" technology that was going to herald us into a "new world order" of animation. I, for one, was deeply saddened by the frivolity of it all. To think that a new "technique" was being considered as more important than a feeling, or a story, or a drawing.
But today, I think, the honeymoon is over. The outer limits have been prodded, the axe has fallen and the shit has hit the fan, I hope, enough times now, to finally get our attention. The 2D, 2.5D and 3D dimensions have all been milked to the bone. The industry has gone through an intense period of digital growing pains and I am seeing a lot of people in the business begin to come to a new realization. A new dawn, so to speak.
And it's all about good old "filmmaking," pure and simple. Finally, the folks who became obsessively focused on the technique and the tools and not the content, are realizing that to be successful, animated films, whether they be feature films, games or television series, need to be made using good old craft! A craft that was mastered many decades ago and then slowly took a beating while a whole new generation of the animation business lost its way in a digital bandwagon craze.
About three years ago, I attended a post mortem meeting of a very big, very successful gaming company, one of the foremost leaders in the gaming field. As they broke down the pipeline process they had followed when creating one of their biggest, most successful titles, it became abundantly clear that they had completely left out many of the most important elements needed to create a filmic animation project, only to scramble later on in the project to fill the gaping holes. Art direction, for instance, had not really been addressed until they were halfway through the project. Storyboarding, in a cinematic fashion, had not even been considered. Animation direction, special effects and cinematic direction had been without any leadership whatsoever. Their team had been thrown together based on their technical game building knowledge and creative "filmmakers" with real experience had been entirely left out of the equation!
And now there is the news that Disney, in its infinite wisdom, is considering making 2D films again. Well, that is, Disney under the direction of someone who actually has intuition and maybe even some vision. Clearly, the knee-jerk reaction to change over 100% to making 3D films wasn't the brightest move after all! Now that the genre has been milked to death via an endless barrage of critter flicks with hideous character designs and cookie cutter storylines, finally the industry might be ready to consider that throwing out the baby with the bath water is what they did when they sold 2D up the river.
But we have made it through alive and intact. And slowly but surely the animation industry is remembering that "soul" is more important than technique. That filmmaking is filmmaking, no matter what technique you use. The folks, who were once "the experts" on how to make good films, are still the experts, whether they know how to use a computer or not. Witness the directing prowess of Brad Bird, not exactly a "computer guy," just a fantastic director with passion, a soul and a vision.
The words of Roy Disney, when he lamented the selling of Disney's soul, ring true today, as the collective consciousness of the animation industry wakes up from its bad dream, its temporary insanity of digital madness.
We can slow down a little bit and take stock of the films that we have seen in the last five years. From Howl's Moving Castle to Chicken Little to Flushed Away and even The Triplets of Belleville. What moves us? What doesn't? How can we make great films, that don't have to rely on technology and multi million dollar voice actors?
And where is the gaming industry going? Are violence and sex really the greatest common denominators in that game? Can real storytelling and filmmaking make its way into the fold? If games and films are converging, who will be put at the helm? Businessmen and technologists? Or artists and visionaries with experience and integrity?
Well, let me get back to the positive spin that I started off with. For some reason, I think this is going to be a great year for animation. There is something in the air and it is good. I think that we are going to see a fresh approach that honors the masters of the craft. I believe that the technique will begin to be overshadowed by the content, as slowly we get over the digital honeymoon and into the long-term proposition of making animation a life-long commitment. And like a marriage, we are going to have to be honest with one another and collaborate and stick together, if we are going to make something worthwhile.
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.
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