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The Animated Scene: The New Age of Animation

In this month's column, Joseph Gilland watches hopefully as animation gears up for its next renaissance.

Joseph Gilland.

Joseph Gilland.

Well animation artists, writers, fans, (and executives, you guys and gals, listen up please!), here we go into the next animation renaissance.

With Disney actually making a new animated 2D feature, after the baffling and absurd decision to ditch their 2D studios completely back in that sad, sad, early-21st-century era of CGI obsession, we may see something really special develop in the animation industry in the next few years.

We have seen it happen before. In the late '80s, after a string of relatively dismal feature films, Disney pulled its head out of its rear and in 1991 released Beauty and the Beast, the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. With the hugely successful Aladdin being released a year later, and Jeffrey Katzenberg leaving Disney to form DreamWorks Animation just as The Lion King became the highest-grossing classically animated film in history, the animation renaissance of the early '90s was on.

Well, sort of. We did witness an incredible surge in feature animation production, and some memorable films were made in the following years. Problem was, this little "renaissance" was driven by corporate greed, not creative integrity or far-reaching creative vision. And so instead of upping the ante and making better and better films, both Disney and DreamWorks went with extremely aggressive production schedules, in an attempt to cash in, in the short term. Moderation, good taste, and the all-important timing of release dates were seemingly ignored. At the same time, several other feature animation studios were hastily thrown together, both in America and internationally, and before we all knew it, animation artists around the world were making unheard-of amounts of money, and the market became saturated with cookie-cutter formulaic feature films that just got worse and worse as the '90s progressed. We know the story all too well and, to a certain degree, the industry is still reeling from the effects of that massive, misled resurgence.

Fortunately for us, though, while Disney was creating the lukewarm and ultimately forgettable (although admittedly I sorta liked it) Pocahontas, a little studio called Pixar was creating the phenomenon that was Toy Story.

With the incredible box office success of that film, another mad corporate knee-jerk, jump-on-the-bandwagon reaction ensued, and soon every Tom, Dick and Harry in the animation industry was rushing to make the next big CGI feature. That created a kind of secondary animation renaissance, but, regrettably, it was based on the sadly mistaken idea that the CGI technique was all-important and of course, once again -- as earlier in the '90s -- good old shortsighted corporate greed.

While it did lead to a flurry of activity in the industry, and some decent films came out of it, it ultimately went the exact same way as the previous 2D renaissance. Too many films were made too quickly, formula ruled over originality and, regardless of the successes along the way, the market was once again saturated with half-baked remakes of the industry's last successful formula.

Toy Story spelled doomsday for the classical animation industry, or so the execs in the Mouse House seemed to think! © Disney and Pixar.

Toy Story spelled doomsday for the classical animation industry, or so the execs in the Mouse House seemed to think! © Disney and Pixar.

And how amusing was it to watch DreamWorks bang out the lackluster Antz in record time, in an effort to beat Disney's A Bug's Life to the punch? As an industry, we were tragically drawn into Mr. Katzenberg's pathetic little game of ego, resentment and retribution with his former employer -- and a few years later? Well, while the Shrek films continue to pull in incredible (sick) amounts of money at the box office thanks entirely to clever writing and highbrow poo-poo humor, and Pixar's offerings are still looking pretty strong, we have watched the market once again become saturated with mediocre content, and animation consumers and critics have grown sick and tired of the same old films, rehashed over and over.

Oh yes, it would be wise, of course, to mention Europe, where, around the same time that Disney's Mulan and DreamWorks' The Prince of Egypt were being released, an interesting and unique 2D film called Kirikou and the Sorceress was being released. What followed in Europe was very similar to what happened in America, and was sometimes referred to as the "Kirikou Effect." As Phillippe Moins wrote in his AWN column of December, 2003:

A " Kirikou Effect"?

What has really happened in Europe in recent years? In France there has been much talk of the "Kirikou Effect." Michel Ocelot, previously known for his short films, alongside his producer Didier Brunner, battled for years to get financing for an unusual story and a personal graphic style for the animated feature film Kirikou and the Sorceress. After many ups and downs, a long and complicated process, which meant the physical production being spread out over several geographical locations, the film was released in French cinemas in 1998. The film was an unexpected success in cinemas, compounded by its triumphant video release. Two million Europeans finally saw the film in cinemas and the film was also sold to many other countries in several continents.

With Mulan, The Prince of Egypt and Kirikou and the Sorceress (above), animation experienced a corporate-driven renaissance. Courtesy of Les Armateurs.

With Mulan, The Prince of Egypt and Kirikou and the Sorceress (above), animation experienced a corporate-driven renaissance. Courtesy of Les Armateurs.

The period immediately following saw a flood of feature film projects developed in France, hence the notion of the " Kirikou Effect." Although the film's strong sales have undoubtedly helped overcome skepticism and encouraged a range of different initiatives, the gestation period required for animated feature films suggests that in fact most of the films attributed to the Kirikou Effect were already in pre-production or even in production before Kirikou was released. Nonetheless, Corinne Jenart, from Cartoon (the European Association for animation film, part of the European Union's Media Program) stresses that Kirikou's success helped her organization to "sell" the industry on the idea for Cartoon Movie, an annual forum held near Berlin which has, year upon year, attracted an increasing number of producers and investors to look at projects seeking funding.

So we saw in the '90s, throughout the Western animation industry, an incredible resurgence of animated films -- 2D, 3D, or 2.5D, the fact is that a vast amount of resources was poured into the industry. The ultimate result? Well, due to a woeful lack of foresight and creative vision, we ended up with a public tired of the endless string of sequels and the industry's extreme reliance on marketing research and formulae. The incredible resurgence and renaissance of the '90s went sour and died before our very eyes.

And so, here we are, poised to enter another phase of animation's evolution.

Thank God that the new folks in charge of Walt Disney Animation, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, were quick to realize what so many of us working at Disney during the demise of their 2D studios knew all along. Classical animation is what Disney does best and what the public really wants to see as well! And all the sequels of previous Disney classics were a big, bad, ugly mistake, regardless of how much money they may have generated in the short term. In the long term, the poorly produced Disney sequels served only to water down and hurt Disney's reputation as a studio that produces nothing but the very best in animated entertainment. The executives formerly in charge of Walt Disney Animation may have thought they were very clever about producing their string of direct-to-DVD sequel feature films, making piles of cash for their ravenous shareholders, but, ultimately, by focusing on what they could squeeze out of their product rather than what they could put into it, they brought on the tragic demise of what was the most talented studio of classical animation artists ever assembled.

Disney's upcoming The Princess and the Frog may very well kick-start a revival of classic animation. © Disney.

Disney's upcoming The Princess and the Frog may very well kick-start a revival of classic animation. © Disney.

With Ron Musker and Ron Clements directing, and Peter Del Vecho and John Lasseter producing, and a hungry crew of classical animators just dying to ply their craft once again, it is highly likely that the Disney Studios are going to produce a gem of a film with The Princess and The Frog.

So what happens if this film is released to rave reviews and incredible box-office success? As proved by history again and again, the smell of money will travel quickly, the animation predators will smell blood, and suddenly every Tom, Dick and Harry in the animation business will be scrambling to make the next blockbuster 2D animated feature. At least that is a very distinct possibility. And I think it is the hope of a great many animation artists, young and relatively new to the business, who would give their eyeteeth for a chance to actually animate by hand, in the classical manner in which the vast majority of them were trained, before switching over to 3D animation.

This is something that still never ceases to amaze me. In the past ten or so years, working closely with hundreds of young animators who end up working either in 3D or with Flash, it is absolutely incredible to hear how, virtually without exception, they long to put pencil to paper, or, at very least, stylus to Cintiq.

Throughout the animation business worldwide, I meet young animators who have adapted to digital animation techniques not so much by choice, as out of necessity. The career possibilities for classical animators vanished almost overnight, and a lot of young artists feel like they missed the boat, and not all of them are too pleased with spending 12 hours a day chained to a computer monitor. Of course there are many who embrace the technology and come to love it for what it is, an incredible toolset capable of creating absolutely anything.

Will these young animators get their chance? I, for one, certainly hope so! But here is an even more important hope that I have, and the key to what could very well mark the beginning of a real new animation renaissance.

We all know that 2D and 3D techniques have been crossing paths constantly now for quite some time. 3D films are filled with 2D elements, and 2D films are filled with 3D elements. Our abilities as artists to create life with our bare hands, coupled with the incredible technology that has freed us from the severe limitations of hard art, puts us in a position to create animated films staggering in the depth of their visual language. Films that look and feel more alive, more exciting, and more absorbing than anything we have ever seen in the past. As vast armies of technically proficient artists with a solid background in classical animation are set free to be creative with their ideas and their digital tools, we should be seeing a true renaissance in the animation industry.

If Walt had been advised by a large boardroom filled with lawyers and accountants, we never would have seen Fantasia (above). © Disney Enterprises Inc.

If Walt had been advised by a large boardroom filled with lawyers and accountants, we never would have seen Fantasia (above). © Disney Enterprises Inc.

It is there, at the animation festivals worldwide, every year. Films that meld various 2D and 3D media into a seamless new creative look. Experimental flashes of brilliance that should be challenging the big studios to think outside their visual boxes, and bring the public something really juicy to look at and devour!

Let us keep in mind always that Walt Disney's vision may have left him in debt up to his ears by the time he was put to rest in the deep freeze, but it did not stop him from pushing the envelope of what was possible at that time. Had Walt been advised by a large boardroom filled with lawyers and accountants, we never would have seen Fantasia, or Snow White, or Pinocchio. Walt took risks. And that pioneering spirit led to where we are today, and gave us all this incredible legacy on which to build the art of animation.

So have you animation executives learned anything yet? Were you paying attention when the last great renaissance was brought to its knees by your shortsighted, ill-advised business plans based on fear and greed? Have you developed a healthy respect for the true nature of innovation and creative risk-taking? Are you willing to push the envelope, thus paving the way for a healthy, growing, abundant animation entertainment industry? Are you willing to let true visionaries take control of the fate of the animation industry, rather than imposing your sadly formulated, lowest-common-denominator, fear-based marketing research from hell and "business plans" on everything that we do in the animation industry?

If the young visionary animation artists of today, with their deep respect for and love of classical animation and their formidable digital skills, can be freed of the corporate shackles that have crippled our industry, the world is in for a treat. A real animation renaissance could blossom from this confusing mess that saw old-school craft pitted against the new technologies for far too many years. But we have to take a leap of faith. We have to take risks like Walt did back in the '20s and '30s. We have to be brave and make films that challenge our ideas about entertainment. The public is hungry for it, the artists are ready to provide it, and the craft and technology have come just far enough to break out of the cocoon, and morph into an utterly magical new age for animated films.

Bring on the next animation renaissance!

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.