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Death of 2D: Rush to Judgment

Dr. Toon ruminates about whether declaring that the final nail has been driven into the coffin of 2D animation is a bit of a rush to judgment.


Has 3D Nemo killed and buried the likes of 2D Long John Silver and Sinbad? Finding Nemo: © Disney Enterprises Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All rights reserved; Treasure Planet: © Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved; Sinbad: Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Above the streets, passersby shout, duck and cover as animation desks are heaved out the windows; splintering crashes resound down the streets and alleyways of Hollywood, Burbank and Sherman Oaks. Legions of grim-faced 2D animators (or the dozen or so still employed) snap their pencils in two and forswear ink-and-paint forevermore; forward they rally to the 3D computer stations of the animation nation to begin delving into wireframes and pixels, ever so high on CGI. In the U.S. corporate boardrooms the Harrumphs! are sounded, layoffs are planned and plans are laid out: Thou shalt produce traditional 2D features no more!

Last rites have been given, the body is growing cold and the grave awaits. Minister Nemo presides over the desiccated corpses of Sinbad and Long John Silver. Oh, sepulchral sight! Let such lamentations ring out as only the funereal box office figures can summon 2D is dead, dead at last, they say!

My hyperbolic statements are not very far from the facts. DreamWorks and Disney have pretty much forsworn traditional animation for the foreseeable future. 2D animators are being laid off in bunches and those fearing a future that includes serving French fries are retraining at the speed of LightWave. The biggest question on the collective lips of the trade is not whether 2D animation has a future, but whether it shall survive at all. The question on my lips is Where did that idea come from?

One of the more flammable ideas being tossed on to the pyre of 2D animation is that 2D is somehow in direct, foredoomed competition with 3D, as if the 1930 Chicago Bears were slugging it out with the current version of the St. Louis Rams. One recent example of this is a tabulation published by the Philadelphia Inquirer on July 20. The posting, which compares the biggest box office takes among animated films in the past 10 years, counts traditional animation defeated by a 7-3 margin. The heading reads: Traditional vs. CGI: 10 Years of Animation. My problem is with the use of the combative versus in making this comparison. Although this may seem like a matter of semantics, the message is clear: The two have met on the silverscreens of battle and a clear winner has emerged. Animation Magazine went even further, presenting 2-and-3D characters as opponents in a boxing match. Why must this be so, and if the only arbiter is that of box office take, must 2D animation be doomed?

Another bizarre idea is the notion that 2D animation is a dying branch on the evolutionary tree, an antiquated form of the species relegated to fossil status in the wake of a more highly evolved life form called Computeris Generaticus Imagii. It is easy to subscribe to such a view when one considers that both traditional animation and 3D animation are both children of cinematic technology. It is the nature of one technology to supersede another; no one could viably argue, for example, that the Sopwith Camel is superior to the F-16 as a weapon of aerial combat.

However, animation is more than its science alone it is also an art, and art can exist in a multiplicity of mediums. If the argument is accepted that 2D animation is obsolete, then so is stop-motion animation, clay animation, cutout and collage animation, and every other sort of animation that ever existed. Again, why should this be? Did 2D animation kill clay, stop-motion or plasticine animation? Would anyone care to contend that The Nightmare Before Christmas or Chicken Run were simply big, bloody wastes of time and resources?

Yet another piece of delusional thinking posits that the public will no longer go to see movies made in 2D animation. Well, isnt this a great piece of foresight? When the studios are infallible in their predictions we might accept this line of reasoning. We might accept it when major bombs are no longer produced, when a heavily-hyped blockbuster no longer falls to 30% of its opening take by the second week of release, and when the studios begin to accurately monitor the pulse of the moviegoing public. Then the corporate line that says audiences are disdainful of 2D might hold more ink and paint. The decision to abandon traditional animation exclusively for CGI seems to be a decision made primarily from the top, born in one great convulsion of follow-the-leader studio politics and desperate readings of spin and hype.

To predict that there will never again be another great feature done in traditional animation is foolhardy; of course it can happen if allowed. One might also do well to remember that styles and tastes are cyclical in nature. If 3D were to rule uncontested for 10 to 15 years, I would almost bet that some studio releases A stunning fantasy made in the full richness of classic animation! As a jaded public swarms to enjoy this retro treat, the media will probably be gushing with praise and articles about lost arts and traditional artistry... that is, if there are any 2D animators left by then.

It may be closer to the truth to say that both forms of animation are evolving internally on parallel tracks. There is no doubt that 3D animation has made gargantuan strides in the past few years, especially in depicting textures and realistic human simulacrums; this evolution benefits us all in terms of aesthetics and entertainment. 2D animation continues to evolve as well, because every new perspective and fresh animator who works with it brings something new to the table. There are also multicultural influences in 2D animation that were not present as late as the 1980s; a good example is the stylistic crossover in American animation due to the influx of anime over the past two decades.

Why 2D and 3D animation cannot exist in the same marketplace is, at bottom, a ridiculous question. I have maintained in past columns, and continue to maintain, that if a film is well written, produced with care, is artistically consistent and speaks to its audience with some degree of sophistication, that film will succeed no matter what the medium may be.

I will be happy to tell you the exact date when traditional animation will die. It will die on the day that human beings no longer wish to pick up a pencil and convert their observations, fantasies and imaginations into exquisite drawings that strike a universal chord in the deep collective unconscious of humankind. It will die on the day that we cease to be amazed by drawings that move about in similitude to life itself, laughing, crying, loving and hating in ways so recognizable to us that we cannot help but be moved by them.

It will die when we cease to appreciate art and the process of art: an act that ineluctably binds creator to creation through the touch of instrument to paper. From the days of ochre smeared on the walls of primordial caves to the abstractions of modern art this act has captivated us and so it always will.

The current debate over 2Ds demise, which has been raging endlessly in every major animation publication since Nemo hatched out of his egg, is sensationalist and ultimately needless. When the future of animation is decided by moguls, studio heads and bean counters of every stripe we do not really have a debate. Only the artisans should have the right to decide if 2D shall never be used again, and to date, it does not seem as if that is going to happen anytime soon.

At the 2003 Pitch Party sponsored by Animation Magazine, aspiring creators presented their hot ideas to a number of expert panelists; a sample of each pitch was published in the August 2003 issue. To this writers eye it seemed that about 80 of the ideas presented looked to be in traditionally drawn format, and less than 20 of them seemed to be CGI. Werent these ideas pitched by the hot new generation of animators currently being trained to wireframe their way to fame and fortune? Why so many pitches in decrepit 2D?

3D animation holds sway for now, however, and for as long as it does I propose a task for all the light benders and shade modelers of the world. Suppose CGI is used to slay the nastiest and most odious dragon in the animated world: live-action animated features. These misbegotten progeny of misguided moguls have stained the memory of too many beloved characters and series already. LAAFs, as Ive been calling them for some time, can finally be eliminated! Instead of making films using inappropriate actors and actresses to portray animated characters, or sticking them alongside CGI creations, why not just go the whole hog (sorry, Porky) and do homage to cartoon stars in nothing but CGI?

For the wizards of 3D there is no character that cant be recreated from Gertie to Tennessee Tuxedo; what do we need live actors for? Imagine a Flintstones movie, for example, in which the original model sheets are the template and not John Goodman; with backgrounds that come to life in 3D animation and not colored Styrofoam; where the beloved characters of yore look exactly like themselves only richer, better and more alive than theyve ever looked on TV. If, as demonstrated a few seasons ago, The Simpsons can be created in CGI then why not give them a feature film in that format?