With this year's arrival of The Princess and the Frog, Martin Goodman assesses the current CG landscape to ascertain the significance of Disney's highly anticipated 2D return.
The movies have been subject to as much advancement over the years as any other form of media. The first static efforts in the late 1890s gave way to ever-sophisticated changes in techniques such as cuts, fades, zooms and POV shots, devices that we now take for granted. There is a popular myth concerning the famed silent film The Great Train Robbery (1903); audiences allegedly fled the theaters in fear, believing that they were seeing an actual robbery and trains coming directly towards them. While this is untrue, there was a scene at the end of the film in which a nasty desperado fires a pistol directly into the camera. This always seemed to get at least a few patrons ducking cinematic bullets in their seats. After that, filmmakers vied to wow their audiences through the use of spectacular fx and fancy camerawork.
Animation first appeared in the late 1890s and amazed audiences with moving pictures that were drawn by hand. People saw popular comic strips come to life, as well as some original characters that made an indelible impact on the culture itself. Seminal animator Winsor McCay averred that audiences, upon seeing his short How a Mosquito Operates (1912) believed that McCay was manipulating puppets with wires. Although this is highly doubtful, moviegoers were eventually treated to genuine magic such as synchronized sound in 1928 and full Technicolor by 1933, raising the stakes for future artisans.
To be sure, there have been misfires. 3-D movies (aside from a few early experiments) existed at least since 1922, but it was not until the early 1950s that the technique made its way into American theaters in wide release. Observers in the local movie houses reported patrons shying away from objects "thrust" at them, ducking "flying" projectiles and attempting to grab or get their hands behind objects that seemed to float in the air before them. While 3D was a nifty perceptual trick, it did little or nothing to advance the actual art of filmmaking; it was a novelty rather than a progression in cinematic language and representation. In fact, 3D stilted films by purposely setting up shots that emphasized technique over narrative and acting performance.
Computer-generated imagery was a true advancement. By all accounts, CGI first appeared in a mainstream film in 1973 when raster effects were used in the film Westworld. Early wireframe techniques soon followed, but most of the general public was not overtly aware of CGI until the 1982 Disney film Tron. Roughly 15 minutes of full computer animation was featured, and everyone who attended the film realized at some level that a revolution was underway. It was merely a matter of time, training and technological advancement until CGI became a major component in world cinema. Technicians, software engineers, film studios and even some visionary critics secretly wondered how soon a film might be composed of nothing but computer-generated images.
We now know the answer to that question. A mere two years after Tron, computer-generated animation had advanced to the point where short, crude CGI features were possible. Thirteen years after Tron, the first completely computer-generated animated feature film appeared in theaters. It has been nearly 14 years since Pixar's Toy Story broke the boundaries and demonstrated the full potential of CGI. Today it is indeed possible, using techniques in motion-capture and advanced rendering, to generate characters so lifelike that audiences can accept them as flesh and blood.
This did not immediately kill 2D animation; the medium hung on in American feature animation through the first years of the new century. As I have noted in past columns, no form of animation has ever entirely died out, from the earliest days of stop-motion and plasticine to the ink-and paint of "classic" theatrical animation. Even the ridiculous technique known as Synchro-vox was a combination of animation and live action, a medium that still survives among the animation community. However, 2D was becoming ever-relegated to independents. In the realm of television animation, Flash was becoming the weapon of choice, and digital palettes replaced jars of ink, perhaps forever. 2D feature animation struggled to an end at Disney in the early 2000s, and nearly every major animation studio buried the medium at roughly the same time.
In October 2003, I wrote a commentary for AWN cautioning the readership not to write off 2D animation too quickly. When I stated that another great American feature could be made entirely in 2D if allowed, it soon seemed to be wishful thinking. Even a cursory examination of major animation releases since I typed those words speaks louder than Bolt's superbark: Since 10/03 CGI features outnumber 2D features (most of which had only limited release) 46-11. In the meantime, CGI has grown so sophisticated that audiences can now discern between levels of CGI quality and animator proficiency.
For example, 2005 audiences who saw Chicken Little and Hoodwinked premiere within a month of each other (November and December, respectively) could easily discern vast differences in the qualitative styles of computer animation. The Disney film was by far more sophisticated in terms of CGI technique, undoubtedly due to the wide disparity in budget between the films and the fact that Disney had advanced software, hardware and training facilities. Recently, the animated film Delgo met a disastrous fate in theaters. Although there may have been many factors that led to this, one of them was that the film had basically been completed years before; its CGI, which may have been state-of-the-art at the time, paled before that of DreamWorks's Kung Fu Panda, among other films. Animation audiences are by now connoisseurs of well-done CGI, and nothing but the finest and most up-to-date will do.
That, of course, did not happen overnight. The same 10-year old child that was delighted and amazed by Toy Story in 1995 is now closing in on 24. With few exceptions, he or she has virtually been raised on CGI animated features, including the spectacular vfx in non-animated flicks. 2D has not been the main representative of the animated medium, not in the way it was for older audiences raised on Disney films. In other words, computer animation has now become synonymous with animated feature films; anything outside of it is now a rarity, an anomaly counter to how animation is supposed to look in theaters today. Where, then, does this leave 2D in 2009, at least as far as major releases are concerned? Can it still compete in the feature film market with CGI? It might have been fun to watch Nina Paley's incredible Sita Sings the Blues tear into American theaters, but, alas, complicated music copyright issues shall deprive animation lovers of the release of this unique and dazzling film.
There is at least one more significant test case coming up this year: Disney animation is going to buck the computer-generated tide with its first 2D production since the 2004 film Home on the Range. There is much riding on the coming Christmas release of The Princess and the Frog, not the least of which is to see whether 2D animation still has appeal to a generation that knows it mostly from DVD. Disney has considerable ammunition on its side. For starters, the film will feature the studio's first animated African-American "star," a young native of New Orleans named Tiana. Considering the cultural zeitgeist following the last Presidential election, the timing of this film could not be better. It also deserves mention that Tiana is the titular princess of the opus, and there are few more powerful draws than a Disney Princess. A kingdom full of girls sporting tiaras and dressed in Pantone Pink is practically assured. The box office will likely be monumental, but in this case profits will not be the entire story.
In an age where CG is competing against itself, we will soon learn if 2D can still trump the field. This is not, by any means, 2D's do-or-die last stand in theatrical market; its resurrection has been brewing in John Lasseter's mind for quite some time. If The Princess and the Frog is successful, 2D will be very much alive at Disney, and other studios may take the cue as well. Certainly, the question of whether The Princess and the Frog can tell a compelling story is paramount in the audience's consideration. The film must also be gauged on the quality of its animation. Based on the available trailer, it looks very much like Disney circa 1995, a very profitable time for the studio (This, perhaps, highlights the only advantage 2D still has over its CG kin: A 2D film can look like it was made in 1995 and still have considerable appeal. A CG- animated film had better well look like it was made in 2009 or audiences -- and critics -- will surely take notice).
Should The Princess and the Frog succeed in these vital areas, 2D animation could make a comeback. It may be tricked out with computer-generated vfx and colored digitally, but The Princess and the Frog could be the one that keeps things hopping until the next great 2D feature film comes along.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.