May 18, 2016

State of the 2D Animation Industry

I was interviewed recently in regards to the lack of presence of 2D animation in movies today. Below is the questionnaire, and after doing a bit of research I discovered a few interesting things about the recent history of 2D animation used in films. I was able to make a rough timeline and pin-point when traditional animation perished in feature films within North America. Hope you all enjoy it.

1.     Do you think 2D animation will make a comeback to the big screen and should it?

I do believe 2D animation will make a comeback someday, but only partially or briefly. I think it deserves a comeback, but it will probably be in ways audiences won’t expect, because I see 2D animation being more integrated into 3D, and 3D animated films adopting 2D animation techniques or adding classical 2D animation elements to their stories.

Observe this teaser for a film currently in production by Sergio Pablo’s Animation Studio:
Each individual frame is digitally painted to make it seem like it’s a 3D rendered image, it’s ironic that 2D animation has the possibility of being reborn if only it “looks” more like 3D. Of course vehicles and some background elements are entirely 3D but are painted to makes them all match themselves in the same style and look.

Even more ironic is how much fully 3D animated films are using more and more 2D animation techniques in their filmmaking. The LEGO Movie, Hotel Transylvania, and Peanuts just to name a few. In Peanuts they would use very flat designs and avoided the usual textures you normally see in 3D films like 2011’s Rango.

In The LEGO Movie, you saw techniques like “smearing” which is a trick seen in 2D animation that mimics motion-blur by stretching out parts of the character’s body as they move fast across the screen. Not to mention the fact that the film was rendered most of the time at 12 frames-per-second instead of the usual 24 frames-per-second which purposefully makes animation move less smoothly, a bit more “choppy” -- more like traditional stop motion films (similar to Coraline, ParaNorman, or Wallace & Gromit films).

In Hotel Transylvania, they developed new tools in their 3D animation software to allow animators to squash and stretch characters more dramatically. Every year, new 3D/CGI animated films push the technology to make fur and visual effects look more realistic, but they also push the techniques in the acting and animation movement themselves to emulate old classical 2D animation as well.

Specifically 2D animated feature films have only died in North America. In Europe and Asia they are as strong as ever. In the last 10 years, we’ve had films like Persepolis (France), Chico & Rita (Spain), The Illusionist (France), Wrinkles (Spain), The Congress (Israel), Asterix and the Vikings (Denmark/France), Nocturna (France/Spain), Secret of Kells (France/Ireland), Waltz and Bashir (France/Germany/Israel), Triplets of Belleville (France), Les Lascars (France), Titeuf (France), Tante Tilda (France), Song of the Sea (Belgium/Denmark/France/Ireland) and Ernest & Celestine (France)… and these are only some of the very high quality 2D animated films made in Europe, not counting nearly 10x more was produced in Japan in the past decade as well.

2D animation is alive and well, unfortunately, thanks to DreamWorks and Disney and some pour marketing strategies on their parts, they were able to bring down and bury the industry for 2D Animation. In March 2000, DreamWorks released Road to El Dorado, with a budget of $95 million, it only made $76 million in ticket sales. Then in 2002 they released Spirit, at a budget of $80 million it made back $126 million. The following year, Sinbad came out, with a budget of $60 million, and only $81 million in ticket sales. As the budgets were getting lower, the quality was getting worse, and the profits were barely there, and with only mediocre storylines and forgettable characters, they were destined to fail. What sealed the fate of 2D animation was the year before, they came out with Shrek in 2001, with a small budget of $60 million, they made back $484 million.

From a business perspective, it makes no financial sense to keep the 2D feature film department going with so little profit. What they did do, was purposefully market the 2D and 3D films very differently from each other, the top executives wanted to make the 3D films more successful, so they placed a lot more money and merchandise into the 3D animated films, actively generating bigger hype. Bigger budgets dedicated to promoting the film also helped to convince more people to go see the films. In the end, the poor profit margins the 2D animated films had made was the final excuse DreamWorks needed to close up shop in their 2D animation departments.

Now let’s look at the gradual fall from Disney’s point of view. They held out longer, Disney invented the industry and became the massive empire they are today because of the hard work and innovation made in it’s first 30 years from 1930 to 1960, it all laid the ground work for the films of the 80s and 90s to be possible, and then, in the new century, new producers and directors took to the stage:
Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
Atlantis (2001)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Treasure Planet (2002)
Brother Bear (2003)
Home on the Range (2004)

None of these films made as much money as Beauty & The Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and Lion King (1994). But the budget for each of these films got bigger and bigger, coming out at a faster pace. The only one that stood out with a strong box office was Lilo & Stitch, but the money made on most of these got lower and lower, especially starting with Treasure Planet. At the same time they were diving into the realm of 3D/CGI, and even though it started off poorly, they very slowly began to make a bit more money with each release:
Chicken Little (2005)
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Bolt (2008)

To Disney’s credit they made a couple last attempts in hopes 2D would make a comeback and catch on with a new generation of movie-goers:
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Winnie the Pooh (2011)

With these two films, even though they were very different in style, and were top quality by any standards, they still failed to find an audience, and they’re big budgets were not justified by the small profits they made in return. THIS marked a final chapter for the end the 2D animation industry in North America. Notably in 2003, Brother Bear and Sinbad came out the same year, you could mark this as the end of 2D animation. With a last ditch effort and brief revival in 2009.

Two Years after Bolt came out, Tangled (2010) was released, at a budget of $260 million, it brought in a worldwide gross of $591 million. This kept reaffirming Disney that 3D was far more expensive but could potentially be much more profitable.

The question of “should” 2D make a comeback is different depending on who you ask. Does it deserve another chance? I believe so. Brad Bird (director of Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles) says that he wants to write and direct on a new 2D animated film someday. I’d say we’ll see more mixtures of 2D and 3D, like the French film Mune (2014). To expect a full blown new 2D feature animated film (made entirely in North America) might not happen for a long time, and the more time that passes the less likely it will happen, unfortunately it all comes down to finding the finances to fund the film plus supply and demand. if producers and studios don't believe a 2D film will make as much money as a CG version, then they'll stay away from it.

One could easily say that today we've entered a second (or maybe third?) golden age in television animation. There's more work and more available jobs, and diversity now than there's EVER been in the industry. It's an absolutely fantastic and fun time to be an animator, filled with lots of opportunities.

2.     In a world where most movies are either live action/CGI or 3D/CGI, why do you think we still get some stop motion animated films but not any 2D animated films?

Stopmotion animated films are essentially 3D films also, simply not CGI, they are actual hand-made sets and puppet models being photographed frame by frame. Essentially they are not quite as smooth in movement and soft in appearance, but they are three-dimensional in every way. I believe the appeal lies in the stories and art direction for those films. Aardman and Laika are the two studios that lead the way for stopmotion. Laika tends to be more dark and gritty, Aardman tends to be more playful and charming, both created films that are never huge commercial successes, but they always make their money back on their production which helps to fund their next film, and every two years they release a new film using this system.

We're still seeing stop motion films thanks to individuals like Tim Burton and Henry Selick who bring a high level of artistry, appeal, and originality to the stories, the worlds, and the characters. Now with studios like Laika and Aardman, they've found a production model that keep costs low, while keeping the whole process efficient and high quality.

This model of filmmaking is common in old Hollywood practices; these two animation studios have built their entire businesses on it. It’s very creative and artistic in their approach; The characters, stories and environments continue to have such a big difference in visual style over the hand-drawn 2D animation look. Audiences enjoy seeing that very different look once in a while, otherwise the only thing in theatres would be 3DCG for animated films.

The appeal is there for stop motion simply because they are more rare than 2D films ever were, and audiences can tell that these are hand-made puppets and sets, and it brings a certain subconscious sense of authenticity, realism, and appreciation for the craft along with it.

3.     Do you think 2D animation is a dying art? Why or why not?

In my opinion, no. According to many, yes, it may have died off in some ways; specifically feature film animation back in 2003. But every where else in the world it is slowly and still steadily growing in presence on the big screen. 2D animation has had major strides in quality, variety-in-style & exploring a wide range of content, and more so than ever in the field of television all over North America it has expanded and grown in many ways. In fact it’s never been so busy in 2D animation for television right now than ever before.

Adventure Time, Teen Titans Go, Gravity Falls, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Rick & Morty, BoJack Horseman, Wander Over Yonder, The Amazing World of Gumball, Clarence, and Star vs The Forces of Evil, just to name a select few… They all push new grounds in either character development, or story, or animation, or art direction, or humor. Lately there’s just as much feature-quality work and artistry in television animation than there ever was in feature film over the last 12 years worldwide.

4.     Do you think our advancement in technology has made 2D animation easier or harder?

Definitely easier; now ALL 2D animation is digital, and in many ways, computer generated. Over 75% of 2D animated television series are made entirely in the computer. Backgrounds are painted on tablets using paint software, and character animation is made in software like Flash or Toonboom. Sometimes puppet-style movement, sometimes hand-draw frame by frame, either way, they’re all drawn and created directly into the computer in some way. Digital files of the backgrounds and character and FX animation are all rendered off for each scene for each episode and then merged with sound effects and music to be shipped out digitally for broadcast.

YouTube, Frederator and Newgrounds were online sites that helped to pave the way to have amateur and professional animators create 2D animated short episodes that were home-made digitally.

Series like Korra, Spongebob, Simpsons, Gravity Falls, Regular Show, Adventure Time, Venture Brothers, Ultimate Spiderman, Futurama and Steven Universe are still scripted, voiced, and designed in the U.S., shipped to Korea or India or Philippines to be animated with paper & pencil, and than scanned into computers and digitally colored for the final picture. Most American shows are animated in Canada or Europe nowadays because it’s all designed and drawn and animated in animation software, these are essentially 2D/CGI shows, often made to look like the old school hand-drawn style of Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, and Ren & Stimpy (from 20 years ago), or Looney Tunes, and Merry Melodies (from the 1930s to 1960s). I might be over-generalizing here, there’s a broad range of style in those 5 shows mentioned; the visual look (squash / stretch and exaggerations) can be quite different, but the ‘technique’ used; hand-drawn paper+pencil animation is all the same.

Often these new 2D/CGI shows of the past 15 years have grown more common in production because they are cheaper to make, and many used to look like cheap digital paper cutouts sliding around on-screen. Still today, it’s hard to believe that The Cat in the Hat is made with the same software as Star vs The Forces of Evil and Wander Over Yonder, but there lies a different level of artistry, both in the designs and in the style of movement. As always, with a good budget and picking the proper artists for the show can dramatically improve the look of any series.

5.     Because 2D animation is no longer used by the movie industry, do you think other industries like Advertisements and TV shows will do the same?

TV commercials are 3D/CGI about 80% of the time and 2D about 20% of the time. However, full television series are still about 90% 2D and the other 10% are made in 3D. Television animation industry is by far still thriving while using the 2D animation production model. 3D animation is definitely growing, and hit shows like the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series pushes that technology in directions that make it more feasible and appealing to other producers and broadcasters, despite its higher budget.

6.     What are the chances of 2D animation being used again for special effects? Like in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” or “Who framed Roger Rabbit”.

Nightmare Before Christmas was stop motion, and Aardman came out with a film just last year called Shaun the Sheep, and arriving this summer is Kubo and The Two Strings, made by Laika. These films don't use clay and plasticine like they did in the old days, it's all very elaborate sculpts, rigs, armatures and 3D printed materials, but the sets and puppets are real and fabricated as miniatures for all the characters, props and environments. More and more we see some CG elements, computer visual effects, and post-production compositing added to these films, but they are still primarily hand-manipulated models shot with a digital camera, at 12 to 24 photographs per second to achieve the movement seen in the final animation.

Films like Who framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam probably won’t happen ever again, the old Disney film Pete’s Dragon (1977) did the same technique (2D animation merged with live action actors and sets), and they are rebooting that film, set to be released this year, and the Dragon is now 3D/CGI. The pressure to make the animated characters "look real" is far too great.

7.     Is it possible to make a living off of 2D animation?

A few thousand people in Canada alone are doing so right now.
Annual salaries can range from $30,000 per year for a junior animator, to $70,000 for a supervisor or directing animator and $100,000+ for a producer or show runner.

8.     Are there any studio companies that still make 2D movies?

Not quite as many as there used to be, Studio Ghibli, SPA Studios, Rough Draft, Studio 4C, and Madhouse are around just to name a few. There’s still far more 2D feature film animation studios in the world than there are Stop-motion feature film studios.

3D/CGI animated films have gotten so wrapped up in the technology that now there’s no question in what technique to use, now ALL animated films are now chosen to be made in 3D/CGI  traditional/2D (in North America). Everywhere else in the world it comes down to budget constraints and the visual style and art direction of the film, so most of the time it’s still done in 2D. Europe and Asia have smaller budgets, since 2D animated films are less expensive to make and you more of a variety in visual styles to choose from, often they opt to go the 2D route.

3D/CGI films costs more to make, but now (statistically) the money you can make back on 3D/CGI films can be far greater. If promoted well, 3D/CGI films can appeal to mass market and a wide audience. So producing a 3D/CGI film is a bigger investment money-wise, but you can potentially make a much bigger profit on the film. Arriving to the decision to make a feature film in 2D animation now is more of a stylistic choice and a cost-effective choice. The “look” of a traditionally animated 2D film is the style the filmmakers are going for, 20 years ago and before 1995 (Toy Story) - there was no choice or debate in the matter, you made your animated film traditionally; it was paper & pencil style 2D animation all the way (2D 95% of the time, Stop-motion 5% of the time).

9.     What is your take on the status of 2D animation in other countries?

Only in North America has 2D animation for feature film died. Everywhere else it is thriving. The budgets are generally much lower than big blockbuster Hollywood 3D/CGI animated films, and they are far more difficult to finance and they tend to have more difficulty finding artists that still do very high quality 2D animation… However they are still getting made, more and more every year in Europe, Japan, and even in South America in recent years.

10. Are there any online apps that can be used to practice 2D animation?

There isn’t too many great ones out there, Animation StudioAnimation Desk, and Animation Creator for iPad are pretty good. There’s lots more nice Stop-motion apps available than 2D drawing ones.

Probably the best app to learn about 2D animation is the Richard William’s Animator's Survival Kit app.

There's soooo many online courses and colleges that offer very good programs to train you in both 2D and 3D animation, and there's LOTS of free material and reference online now as well if you are self-motivated and want to be self-taught. In this industry it doesn't matter at all which college you're from, your demo reel is ALL that matters, and right now is an incredible time to make a career in animation. 


Best Multimedia (Dilsukhnagar Arena) said...

Intresting article...Animation and multimedia college

Rodney Baker said...

Enjoyed the read. Thanks!

There are a few minor misspellings that crept into the article. I think there also may be a typo near the end where 2D in Europe is discussed. In "Everywhere else it is striving.", it appears the author may have meant to say 'thriving'? Dunno. Keep on keepin' on! :)

Rodney Baker said...

The question was asked about 'apps' to practice 2D animation. While not an app in the strict sense of the word, recently OpenToonz was released as open source and has been used by many 2D studios to include Studio Ghibli. It is first and foremost designed to process traditional hand drawn animation but has tools for digital animation too. Works with Mac and PC (mostly stable with PC) with some effort to port to Linux ongoing.

Ron said...

Good point, thanks Rodney!

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