Hand-drawn movie animation is in trouble.
Fans of the medium may have been cheered up by this past weekend’s box office reports but a seventeen-year-old Disney film doing better than expected in its 3D release does not mean drawn animation is experiencing a resurgence. (It may mean that Disney should be releasing more if its classic films into theaters for limited runs, but that’s a question for another time.) As far as Hollywood goes, Disney is starting to be the only studio interested in continuing to make hand-drawn animated films. There are still hand-drawn animated films being produced by independent and foreign filmmakers – some of them wonderful movies, but these films tend to get only limited releases in the US. As Hollywood continues to look down at drawn animation as a dying art form and television increasingly turns to Flash as a cheaper, faster, and less drawing intensive way to produce animation, there is a real danger that the craft of drawn animation could die out.
A big part of the problem is that hand-drawn animation is struggling to find an identity in a market dominated by computer animation. Disney – the only studio really wrestling with this question – has tried to return to what has worked in the past with The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh, but financial success has been elusive. But it’s not just the quest for subject matter that is giving hand-drawn animation problems; it’s the need to find its style. The argument that the goal of animation shouldn’t be to imitate real life is an old one, but since computer animation has come of age, it has become more relevant. Drawn animation simply cannot compete with computer animation when it comes to replicating the texture and dimensionality of real life. Nor should it try to, as the other side of the uncanny valley may well be a dead end for computer animation as well. (Again, a question for another time.) Hand-drawn animation needs to find visual styles that cannot be replicated in computer animation in order to wow audiences again.
Here are my ideas for visual styles that embrace the hand-drawn nature of drawn animation:
I Like It Rough
I love looking at pencil tests. Seeing animation in its rough form, the actual drawings made by the animators before they’re cleaned up into more refined line drawings that match up with drawings of the character in the rest of the film, is one of my favorite things about special edition DVDs. Animation that preserves that rougher, more energetic line quality is nothing new, not even for studio feature animation. As far back as the 1960s, Disney was using the then-new Xerox technology copy pencil drawings directly onto cels, resulting in films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians and Robin Hood that showcased a sketchier line. Modern computers can do an even better job of putting rough drawings on the screen, as seen in this image from Pocahontas. The Disney short John Henry, shown at the top of this page, was one of the most blatant attempts in studio animation to get the look of rough animation drawings into a final film. Paired with the right subject matter, an entire movie done in the style of rough pencil animation could be visually stunning.
A Visit to the Art Museum
Animation is already art, but that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit by borrowing from other art forms. This is not a new idea; Sleeping Beauty got much of its style from medieval tapestries and Tangled drew inspiration from the works of Fragonard. But the use of diverse styles from the fine arts is usually limited to shorts or individual scenes in a feature. How cool was it to see an Art Deco illustration brought to wonderfully fluid life in the “Almost There” sequence from The Princess and the Frog? To watch Al Hirschfeld drawings in motion in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of Fantasia 2000? To thrill to the mind-blowing fusion of expressionism and surrealism in UPA’s The Tell-Tale Heart? A full length movie done in these or other atyles inspired by works of art would be no less amazing.
This idea goes back to one of the major revolutions in animation design, when naturalism got kicked out the window and replaced with something audiences had never seen before. When UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing premiered, critics were wowed by the simple, unpretentious artwork that never sought to hide its hand-drawn nature. Characters’ skin tones blended into minimalistic backgrounds and blotches of color broke free of the surrounding linework. To see the idea of drawings that don’t pretend to be anything but drawings taken even further, look at Chuck Jones’ The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, where the only three characters are a blue line, a red dot, and a black squiggle. At a time when animation seems more obsessed with realism than ever, a movie that goes in the complete opposite direction could stun audiences into paying attention.
Those are my three ideas for making hand-drawn animation fresh and exciting again. Got your own? Post them in the comments.
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