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Paper Trail

Paper Trail

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Comedian George Carlin voices the VW bus named Fillmore, and you'll find him in the new Pixar Animation Studios film, "Cars."

Copyright Disney / Pixar

Like most hippie buses of the era, the vehicle is festooned with stickers of every sort. Every imaginable slogan supporting causes ranging from the environment to peace is plastered on this hippie van.

Copyright Disney / Pixar 

However, if you look closely at the rear of the vehicle in this Pixar film, you'll find a most unlikely sticker near the back bumper, which reads, "Save 2D Animation." (Editor's note: See the white bumper sticker in the lower right hand corner of the photo below.)

Copyright Disney / Pixar

As might be expected, the Pixar filmmakers have always included inside jokes tucked away in their movies. Everything from book titles, street signs and names of restaurants has been fair game. It's a long-standing tradition of course. Even the early Disney cartoons featured caricatures of the animators, and on occasion even the names of studio employees were to be heard on the soundtrack. However, the bumper sticker on Fillmore is a joke of a more serious nature. Sure, it's appropriate for the Hippie van to be a cheerleader of "Old School," but the humor in this case goes a little deeper. Does Fillmore have a legitimate cause? Does 2D animation really need saving?

Let's go back a few years and see how this whole thing began. The year was 1994, and I sat in an editorial bay at the Walt Disney studio watching the story reels of a new film in development. I was up to date on all the productions being done in house so this particular film had to be the work of an outside contractor. At the time, Disney animation was going gangbusters producing hit after hit. It seemed no one in town could compete with the mouse house's creative team. Yet, here was a movie being done outside of the company that was in my opinion, every bit as good as anything the mouse was doing. Dare I say, perhaps better than some of Disney's recent offerings? The rough story sketches gave no clue to the production's medium. For all intents and purposes, this was another traditionally animated film. It wasn't until months later that I discovered I had been viewing reels of Pixar's first digitally animated feature film, "Toy Story."

You're all well aware of the rest of the story. "Toy Story" was released in the fall of 1995 and went on to become a box office smash. Impressed by what I had seen, I couldn't wait to work with these guys, especially since the digital film I was working on at the mouse house had a story that was at best, lackluster. One child I talked to described the film as, "Land Before Time Without the Fun." Lucky for me, producer Ralph Guggenheim invited me up to Point Richmond and gave me a position on the story crew of "Toy Story2." While working up north, I occasionally saw members of the Disney team visiting the Pixar facility in Richmond. It was clear both companies had come together to form a friendly and profitable partnership. What could possibly go wrong?

It wasn't long before cracks in the friendship began to appear. We began to hear snide remarks about our partners up north in story meetings. As you might expect, these nasty swipes came not from the animation artists, but from the Disney executives. As the years went by, an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation was fostered by management, much of this led by the head mouse, himself. The way they saw things, recrimination was preferable to self-examination. Disney Feature Animation was suddenly on the defensive. Why were the movies developed and produced by Pixar Animation Studios eclipsing the Disney films? It couldn't possibly be the creative leadership, or the weak stories being brought to the screen. The Disney executives suddenly had an epiphany. It was the medium, of course. Computer generated images was the answer to all of the failings. Traditional animation had outlived its usefulness. It was time to move forward, and digital technology was the savior.

Don't get me wrong. I love CGI, and was one of the first artists to bring my own personal computer into the mouse house when few Disney executives seemed to "get" the new technology. As more and more story artists use digital tools for boarding today, few probably remember I was doing this nearly a decade earlier. Secondly, I regard CGI as an effective story telling medium. This has already been demonstrated by offerings from such studios as Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. Last year, Disney joined the crowd with their release of "Chicken Little." However, CGI can no more guarantee box office success than a traditional film. The beautiful rendering of last years' "Robots" did not attract an audience anymore than the beautiful traditional art in DreamWorks’ "Spirit."

So, is our hippie bus, Fillmore correct? Does 2D animation really need saving? For those who say, animation has simply evolved to the next level, I say bunk!Because, if an artist is given a paintbrush that doesn't mean he or she will never pick up a pencil again. Further, no one stopped painting because the camera was invented. Computer generated imagery is simply another creative tool added to the artist's palette, and a powerful tool it is. However, the filmmaker gets no free pass because of the medium. They'll work just as hard bringing their story to the screen as in a traditional animated film. Think their movie will cost less than a hand drawn film? Don't even get me started on that one.

After Disney dismantled their traditional animated film units and hundreds of artists were sent packing, rumors persisted that someday Pixar would make a 2D animated film. In one case, people followed a "paper trail" to Northern California where stacks of punched animation paper were spotted on the Pixar shipping dock. No matter how many times Pixar denied they had a 2D film in development the rumors persisted. And why wouldn't this rumor go away, you might ask? I think it was because lovers of traditional animation felt only John Lasseter and Pixar could save 2D.Unlikely as it may seem, could the studio that ushered in the age of digital be the ultimate savior of traditional? Skeptics might say the "paper trail" leads nowhere and fans of traditional animation might as well pack it in because the age of 2D animation is over.

However, as we examine things today, the rumors of 2D's death may have been greatly exaggerated. Disney and Pixar have finally become one, with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull ruling at the helm of Feature Animation. And, though it may seem like a Disney fairy tale come true, I can walk down the hallway of Feature Animation and see guys like John Musker, Ron Clements and Eric Goldberg back at work.

Finally, what about that stack of punched animation paper sitting on the loading dock at Pixar Animation Studios? What about that 2D animated film many had been hoping for? Musker, Clements and Goldberg have already returned. It makes you wonder how many more of Disney's brain trust might find their way back to the mouse house where art, rather than technology would drive the film making process. Wouldn't it be strange if that traditionally animated film should one day wind up on the production schedule? The production schedule of -- would you believe, the Walt Disney Studio?

Did you enjoy Floyd's rather upbeat column today? Well, you can continue the good times by picking up on the three collections of Mr. Norman's writings & cartoons that are currently on the market. These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to the Afrokids.com website.

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  • I could be wrong, but isn't Disney's new Susan Sarandon musical, "Enchanted" going to have segments with traditional 2D animaion? I mean sure it's not a full feature film - but at least it's a big budget movie that will feature SOME 2D. I really think that this CGI only thing will pass and Disney will end up making both CGI and traditionally animated films again. "Enchanted" might be their way of branching out/backwards to hand drawn animation. Hooray.
  • To quote two familiar-looking bystanders in "The Incredibles",  there's no school like the Old School...  :)

    Just off the subject, Jim, with the new Cars-is-neat push we've been getting, are we ever going to get an article comparing in detail the plot's eerie parallels to certain early-90's Michael J. Fox comedies?:
    I may have to rent it again--It's getting starting to get spooky.

    (Oh, and smokey?--Please:  In the name of HUMANITY, will you forget about the "Enchanted will rescue the industry!" thing in every single solitary post?
    It's just going to be a piddling little spring-vacation chik-flik "Princess Diaries" video-fodder, and if this's trying to be that cutesy nagging-Jim thing gag again, that went out with Star Tours...Wake up and smell the Blockbuster rentals.)
  • I've mentioned Enchanted twice. And for that matter, I'll mention it as many times as I please. If you don't like it, don't read my comments - besides, this is not a forum or a message board, it's simply feedback on the articles. Let's leave it at that. I plan on continuing posting what I find relevant to the article. Enchanted was relevant.
  • DerekJ:

    You can say that the plot parallels a lot of movies, including a certain Wesley Snipes/Patrick Swayze/John Leguizamo movie with a very different kind of drag racing:


    This isn't the first time a Pixar flick has shared plot with a dozen previous films.   A Bug's Life had roots in Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven, Three Amigos, and etc., after all.
  • On a side note, is there any significance to Fillmore's plate number, 51237? It's the zip code for an area in the northwest area of Iowa. Is that it? Or is it something else?
  • This is Carlin's birth date - May 12, 1937.
  • Smokey, you mention "Enchanted" as much as you want. I hereby give you permission. ;) The more I hear about this project, the more excited I get. From what I hear this movie could bring back 2D big time. Much as I love good CGI, I think the novelty has definitely worn off - and not just for me. Look at the domestic boxoffice take for "Ice Age 2" - not bad, but not at all what was expected. And when I rented "Lilo and Stitch" the other day and took a second look at it  - man the film is freaking beautiful. I enjoyed it immensely, and part of it was because it was rendered in impeccable, lush, expertly crafted 2-D animation. I'm positive the public is hungry for 2D again. And "Enchanted" just might hit the spot. I'm hopeful anyway...
  • Is it just me, or does it look like is says "Save 3D" instead of "Save 2D"
  • PingBack from http://www.lifeofmedia.com/filmindustry/paper-trail/
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