Pencils to Pixels – The End of Hand-Drawn Animation?

I have been a fan of animation for as long as I can remember.  My friends growing up would always refer to me as the “Disney” kid, and that’s mainly because I was an unashamed fanboy at an early age.  I made an effort to soak up as much as I could from the Disney company’s output during my formative years, and now I am an expert in all things Disney.  Nowadays, I’ve moved beyond just animation and have come to love films of all kinds.  I still do share a special fondness for Disney animation all these years later, however.  To me, it was my gateway drug into the world of cinema.  Unfortunately, as I’ve gotten older, the state of animation has moved away from the stories and the styles that I grew up.  Today, computers have replaced the artist’s sketch pad and hand drawn animation is almost non-existent.  What troubles me most is that Disney, the studio that set the standard for quality animation, has also been forced to catch up with the current trends and they’ve gone on and replaced 2D with 3D.  As a student of film, I understand that the market dictates what goes into production and right now hand-drawn animation is not as commercially viable as computer animation, and it makes me concerned that that style is now truly gone.
As far as the history goes, animation has been as big a part a of cinema as anything else.  In the early days, cartoons were mainly experimental in nature, and were usually thrown in-between feature films at the local cinemas as time-fillers.  But in the 30’s, pioneering filmmakers like Walt Disney proved that animation wasn’t just entertainment, it was art as well.  With films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, Disney animation proved to be just as popular a draw as a John Wayne western or a James Cagney gangster pic.  Other studios also added to the mix, with Warner Bros. hilarious Looney Tunes series and UPA’s experimental use of limited animation.  In the 60’s and 70’s, animation started to fall back into relying on a niche audience, mainly dismissed as kid stuff.  Disney still made features, but they were few and far between, and usually done with limited budgets.  This led to the departure of many artists who felt that animation was not being taken seriously enough, like famed independent animation producer Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH).  In the late 80’s Disney considered ending all animated productions, after their film The Black Cauldron (1985) lost a lot of money at the box office, but new talent and management decided on a wait and see policy and that led to the production and release of The Little Mermaid (1989).
The years following the release of The Little Mermaid are what is commonly known as the Disney Renaissance, and this occurred just at the right time for a fan like me.  Mermaid arrived when Disney was starting to release their catalog of films on home video, and I had already seen a bunch of them already at this point.  I had developed a sense of what a Disney film was and what it can be, and The Little Mermaid showed me that the Disney style was not only still around, but thriving.  In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited every new Disney feature; from Beauty and the Beast (1991) to Aladdin (1992) to The Lion King (1994), each a bigger success than the one before it.  These films were my childhood and to this day, I am still an avid fan, as I am collecting each of these films on blu-ray.  This success also spawned a great revival of animation throughout Hollywood.  There were numerous attempts by other studios to make feature animation at the same level as Disney and they range from brilliant (The Iron Giant) to admirable (The Prince of Egypt), to mediocre (Rock a Doodle) to un-watchable (Quest for Camelot).
Unfortunately, The Lion King was such a colossal hit, that it ultimately set the bar too high to match.  Even Disney struggled to follow that success, as the budgets got higher and the returns got lower.  By the time I was in high school, hand-drawn animation had once again started to recede into the background.  At this same time, we began to see the rise of Pixar and the success they achieved with the new advances in computer animation.  The turn-of-the-millennium brought about a big sea-change in not just what animated films were being made, but a change in the perception of what an animated film was.  Today, children are growing up believing that an animated film should look more like Shrek and less like Sleeping Beauty.  Which makes me worried that the end truly has come for hand-drawn animation; to where not even a mermaid princess can save it now.
There are other people out there, like me, who still hold hand-drawn animation close to their hearts.  In 2009, after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, there was a noble attempt to bring back the traditional hand-drawn animated musical with The Princess and the Frog.  Unfortunately, the film under-performed and the revival turned out to be only a momentary reprieve.  Princess is a good film, and it did okay business; just not Pixar-sized business.  Audiences did say they were nostalgic for the Disney films of the past, but recreating that same kind of success is something that you can’t manufacture.  The Little Mermaid was the right film at the right time, and the success that followed was built upon the goodwill that the film delivered.  Princess had too much riding on its shoulders and that caused the film to suffer in the story department.
One thing that hand-drawn animation needs is a genuine and honest surprise.  One of the last big hits Disney had at the box office was Lilo and Stitch (2002), a film that many of the studio brass brushed off initially until it found a big audience.  It showed that animation doesn’t need to be a fairy tale to be considered a Disney classic.  Really, if you look at all the Disney films overall, there are only 7 or 8 fairy tales among them.  Also, the reason why Pixar’s films are so successful is not because of the quality of the computer animation (though it does help), but because they put so much emphasis on getting the story right.  That’s something that you find lacking in most animated features.
Overall, the reason why I prefer hand-drawn animation, even over the best Pixar films, is because of the human touch.  When you watch traditional animation, you are seeing something that was drawn out by actual people.  Not that computer animation is easy; and I know a lot of computer animators who put a lot of work into what they do.  But, when you watch a CG-animated film, you are watching something that was put through a computerized intermediate before it’s put on film.  Some of it looks nice, but I find most of it artificial in movement and texture.  With traditional animation, everything is exaggerated and less bound to reality, which helps to makes the drawings look more interesting.  There is subtlety in character movement that you just can’t get in computer animation.  Would the Genie from Aladdin have been better if he was animated in a computer?  There is a clear fundamental difference between these styles, and neither should replace the other.  Unfortunately, computer animation has claimed victory in the feature department.
Hand-drawn animation has however survived in unlikely places, such as television.  There are only a hand-full of fully computer animated shows out there, as many of them are still 2D.  The Simpsons and Family Guy are still animated by hand, as are many shows on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.  Even shows entirely animated in the computer, like South Park or the Flash-animated Archer, create a hand-made look in their presentation.  Also, hand-drawn animation is still going strong overseas, with the success of Anime.  Asian artists seem to have found that perfect medium of embracing the mechanics of computer effects, without abandoning the hand-drawn style altogether.  Hayao Miyazaki’s films in particular represent what modern Disney films could be with the tools that are available today.
 
But, as things stand, animation now belongs to the digital world.  I hope to someday see another revival of hand-drawn animation, but that seems less likely as the concept of an animated film changes over time.  Seeing this sea change has made me feel more like an adult than anything, as I find my childhood ideals transforming into nostalgia.  I am grateful that Disney still treats their film canon with a great amount of reverence, and my hope is that future generations are able to accept the animated classics of the past as something equal to the films of the present.  It may be a drought right now, but good art always manages to stay timeless.
  

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