Courtesy of Walt Disney Studio

October 22, 2017

GOULDTHORPE | Why the Hate for 3D Animation?

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After I reviewed My Little Pony: The Movie a couple weeks ago, I did two things. First of all, I went to see the next available screening of It to set myself at balance. Second, I started to look around and see what other online critics had to say about the movie, a favorite pastime of mine. To my surprise, I found a number of comments saying things like, “Go see the movie! It’s the last chance to tell Hollywood that we want traditional, hand-drawn animation back!” Ignoring the fact that My Little Pony actually featured Flash animation software, it reminded me of a topic I’ve wanted to talk about for some time.

Thus I present the question: When did 3D animation become the enemy? Since when does CGI mean that an animated movie cannot be artistic?

First, I want to address the arguments that I hear. Many animation fans yearn for traditional animation, often saying that it’s more beautiful than 3D animation. To be sure, traditional animation has produced some spectacular films. Artists have had the time to test it out and work the medium in many different ways. Right there, though, is one of my first major points: traditional animation has had more time to develop than 3D animation. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will celebrate its eightieth birthday this December, while Toy Story will only be 22 this fall. For comparison, 22 years after Snow White we got Sleeping Beauty. Some of the Walt Disney studio’s greatest works, like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, were years away. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was still three decades out! Don Bluth hadn’t created The Secret of NIMH or The Land Before Time.

What’s my point with this comparison? It’s to say that we haven’t seen CGI’s Little Mermaid or Lion King. We haven’t yet seen a Don Bluth come out and challenge the medium to new heights. More powerful software and tools are being created all the time, and artists figure out how to use them with ever increasing skill. As a result, 3D animation improves with every passing year.

I also want to say that I detest the implied assertion that an animator is somehow less artistic when utilizing computer animation. I’d like to point out that 3D animation does have its own unique advantages. It’s true that hand-drawn animation lends itself more easily to abstraction and stylization. Characters that look good in 2D rarely keep that quality when they jump to 3D. However, 3D animation can create a much more dynamic movie. For example, it is far easier to fill the screen with living crowds with CGI, rather than by hand.  For example, coders assembled a new program for The Lion King to create the infamous wildebeest stampede! 3D animation also allows for smaller subtleties, like a soft tilt or shake of the head, that are very tricky to get right in hand-drawn animation.

3D animation also allows animators to move the “camera” around more freely, because the camera is actually a simulated point in space. In traditional animation, the “camera” is only within the mind of the artists. This ties into another advantage of 3D animation: a scene can be filmed from a different angle or otherwise changed much more easily. Computer animators can alter the simulation as needed. Meanwhile, hand-drawn animation must be entirely redone. It’s a much more expensive process that doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility.

Of course, one may argue that studios should simply plan ahead, and only animate scenes when they’re nailed down. That’s the main role of storyboarding after all: to sketch out what a scene will look like. It’s quick and cheap compared to the trouble of actual animation. But with 3D animation, the story can be altered even after the animation has begun. It allows for higher quality writing, since it has more time to develop and improve.

An excellent case study here is Zootopia. The movie takes place in a thriving metropolis, but the movie originally featured a far darker setting. It was a dystopia, where a full tenth of the population were obligated to wear shock collars. Yeah… imagine taking a kid to see that. It wouldn’t have been nearly as pleasant. But when they realized they wanted to change the story, they had already started the animation for it! Luckily, thanks to the flexibility of CGI, they could repurpose the models they had and salvage a stellar story. With this behind-the-scenes story in mind, and considering the urban environment and the brilliant expressiveness displayed in the characters… I’d go so far as to say that Zootopia could not have happened without computer animation.

All this said, I can still sympathize with the vocal proponents of hand-drawn animation. As much as 3D animation can do, traditional pen-and-ink still creates its own unique feel. CGI has not been able to match it yet. To those who still yearn for traditional animation, I’d point you to the realm of television. There’s a continuing uptick in quality storytelling there, and most cartoon series are in fact done by hand. Hand-drawn animation is still out there, it’s just moved into a different market. Will it come back to the big screen? It’s hard to say, but I’m willing to bet that sometime in the future we’ll see a return. In the meantime, I’m still excited to see where 3D technology will propel our stories in the future.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Animation Analysis will appear alternate Tuesdays this semester.