A fellow member of a message board I post on recently posed the following question: “Which do you prefer seeing, 2D or 3D animation?” It made for some interesting discussion and forced me to think about why – even though I will watch and enjoy any well-crafted animation – I still have a preference for hand-draw. But at the same time, questions like this one trouble me. Intentionally or not, such questions feed into certain incorrect assumptions about animation.
You may have noticed that I don’t use the terms “2D” and “3D”when describing different styles of animation. The reason for this is pointed out in the thread on ToonZone (though not by me): these are very vague terms. Recently, the resurgence of wide release 3D (as in “you wear glasses so it looks like the images on the screen have depth and pop out at you”) makes the intended meaning of “2D” and “3D” less clear. I would never want to have to describe a screening of a Pixar film that required those special glasses to be viewed correctly as “a 3D 3D movie.” But even before that was an issue, these terms were problematic. “2D animation” is generally assumed to mean hand-drawn animation, while “3D animation” usually means computer animation. But Flash, cut-paper, oil on glass, and sand animation could just as easily be called “2D animation.” Clay and puppet animation could also qualify as “3D animation.”
The real problem is not that “2D” and “3D” cover all of these various styles of animation. It’s that they don’t and by excluding these other styles, the terms create the first fallacy of “either or”: that hand-drawn animation and computer animation are the only two kinds of animation out there, or at least, only two kinds that matter. Though no malice may be intended, to categorize animation as either 2D or 3D shoves all other styles of animation into a second-class “other” category. This view of animation is also extremely biased towards the past few decades of animation history. Though the impact of computer animation in the recent past has been strong, especially in the field of theatrical animation, the history if this style is still relatively short. Computer animation may make up a high percentage of animation produced in modern times, but when the whole history of animation is considered, it is highly likely that other styles are more common. Yet computer animation gets preferential treatment when the discussion is about 3D and 2D and everything but hand-drawn and computer animation gets left out.
A similar fallacy can be found in one of the other major debates of animation fandom: anime vs. cartoons. “Anime” is assumed to be all animation from Japan and sometimes a couple of other Asian countries, while “cartoons” refers to animation from either the U.S. or the entire Western world. These aren’t terrible terms and they don’t automatically suggest that there can’t be anything else the way “2D” and “3D” do. But when put into an “either or” framework, they are simultaneously too restrictive and too broad. Whichever definitions you use, the terms “cartoons” and “anime” leave animation from other parts of the world marginalized. Where does Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville – a co-production of companies in France, Belgium, Canada, and the United Kingdom – fit into the “cartoon or anime” model? How about the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir ? Or Persepolis, a French film with an Iranian writer and director? The term “cartoon” is either far too narrow or far too vague, forcing everything from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Wizards to The Simpsons to Watership Down into one category. (And even that’s assuming that only hand-drawn animation can be called “cartoons.”) The fact that so many animated TV shows in the U.S. are developed stateside but actually animated in Asia further confuses the definitions. Some fans also use “anime” to describe the style commonly associated with Japanese animation rather than the work’s country of origin. This leads to terms like “American anime,” which makes absolutely no sense if “anime” is defined as “animation from Japan.”
The second fallacy is one that the original question doesn’t touch on as much. As I said, I though it was an interesting question that led to some very well written answers. In this case, it just reminds me of similar questions I’ve seen that demonstrate the second “either or” fallacy. Where this question is phrased “What do you prefer?,” many similar questions I’ve seen ask “Which is better?” or “Which do you like?” The incorrect assumption here is that a person must like one and not the other or see one as superior to the other. This is a really dumb way to look at animation. It’s fine to have a personal preference. I happen to have a preference for hand-drawn animation. But this doesn’t mean I hate computer animation or puppet animation or clay animation or oil on glass animation or anything else. It certainly doesn’t mean I won’t watch other styles of animation and thoroughly enjoy the best examples of that style. It definitely doesn’t mean that I think Baby Looney Tunes is better than The Incredibles. But I’ve seen the argument made that one style is somehow inherently “better.” As computer animated movies were enjoying huge financial success while hand-drawn films – primarily Disney’s – started to struggle, a number of movie critics came to the conclusion that computer animation was not only superior, but also the next evolutionary step for animation. According to these critics, hand-drawn animation was now quaint and outdated and producing new films in this style made about as much sense as making silent films for a modern mainstream audience. What these critics failed to see was that computer animation was a new style with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, not a new breakthrough for the medium like sound where here had previously been none. Their insistence that hand-drawn animation was dead is the equivalent of an art critic proclaiming that painting is no longer necessary because sculpture has been discovered.
Anime and Western animation are often treated as even more mutually exclusive, even though the argument that you can only like one or the other makes very little sense. It isn’t so much comparing apples and oranges as it is comparing one enormous pile of various fruit to another enormous pile of various fruit. We’ve already talked a little about the diversity of Western animation and the same is true of anime. Do Akira, Ponyo, Naruto, and Pokemon really have more in common with each other than they do with any animation from any other part of the world? Does it make sense to assume that one person would enjoy all of them, and all other anime ever produced, but not any animation that isn’t from Japan? It would seem bizarre for a person to declare that he or she only like French paintings or will only read books by American authors. Yet some animation fans still feel the need to “choose sides” when it comes to anime and Western animation. Different cultural climates did cause the animation industries of the U.S. and Japan to develop very differently and I do think it can be interesting to compare and contrast the two. But declaring yourself a fan of one and not the other or trying to argue the across the board superiority of either country’s animation output is just silly.
Part of the reason that this kind of “either or” thinking bothers me so much is that I used to subscribe to it myself. I was once a strict Disney fangirl who firmly believed that Disney was where animation was at and nothing else mattered. Granted, I was pretty young and the likely source of this thinking was a period of time when Disney really was at the top of their game and most other theatrical animation was other studios trying to copy what Disney did or simply making films that weren’t very good. I usually attribute my disenchantment with non-Disney films to Rock-a-Doodle, which is still a bad movie. But as sound as my reasoning may have seemed at the time, I still refer to this time in my life as “my stupid age.” By being so narrow minded about what was quality animation and what wasn’t, I was in danger of missing out on a lot of really amazing films. Fortunately, I grew out of my fangirlishness and came to recognize that Disney was not the be all and end all of animation. More importantly, I realized that I could still like the Disney films I did like and also enjoys movies from other studios just as much, if not more. Today, I like to feel that I’m at the point where I will watch just about anything that is recommended to me by a trusted source. I still have my personal tastes and I’ll tend to stay away from a studio or creator whose work I’ve disliked in the past. But if you come to me and say, “Check this out, it’s amazing,” chances are I will.
Everyone has their own personal preferences and it can be fun to discuss them and examine why we feel the way we do. But to say that animation can only be this or that and nothing else, or that good animation can only be this and not that, is downright detrimental to the medium. On an individual level, it keeps adherents from experiencing everything that animation has to offer. On a broader scale, it can limit the general public’s perception of what animation is, further minimizing animation that doesn’t fit into these simple categories. The more voices with clout there are saying that animation is either 3D or 2D, cartoons or anime, the more people will come to believe that these are the boundaries that define animation. As fans of the medium, we should be seeking to experience everything that animation can be and to let the world know that the possibilities for animation are nearly endless, and certainly not limited to either one thing or the other.