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Toon Tuesday: Making Magic in the Digital Age

Toon Tuesday: Making Magic in the Digital Age

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Is it just me or has animated cartoon film making finally evolved into something else? With motion pictures like "Rango" and "The Adventures of Tintin" finding a home in the Academy Awards animated film category I can't help but wonder how these movies are all that different from their live action counterparts.

In years past I remember audiences going to animated movies because they were NOT live-action and they weren't real. There was something fanciful and delightful watching moving drawings come to life on the big screen. Now, it would appear animation is moving more toward increased realism with each passing day. Anything the film maker can imagined is capable of being reproduced in the computer. It would appear the sky is the limit and in my opinion that's exactly the problem.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

Those of you who remember the beginning days of digital film making probably recall the early attempts at shading and rendering and how difficult it was to create texture and hair in the computer. It's hard to believe how far we've moved since those days when images in the computer looked primitive and clunky. Digital technology has taken a quantum leap and we're still in the beginning stages of this amazing technology. While creating storyboards for Pixar's "Toy Story 2" back in 1997, we watched with amazement as digital capability double while we were in the process of making the movie. Early rendered scenes had to be trashed and redone because the technology had moved so quickly while the film was in production. This is all a good thing, I guess. Although sometimes it feels like having a high-tech tiger by the tail. As the beast runs at full tilt you hold on for dear life lest it turns and eats you alive.

Today, I listen as animated film makers extoll the virtues of their new medium and all the movie making power at their disposal. They can now fold live-action techniques into their animated film making which includes dynamic camera movement and hand held camera techniques. They can light a cartoon much the same way the old Hollywood masters lit live-action movie classics. Animated cartoon characters will no longer be limited by drawing and caricature and can now deliver a performance worthy of Sir Laurence Olivier. Subtlety and nuance will now replace broad acting and cartoons will finally become even more life-like.

I don't know about you, but I came into this zany business called animation precisely because cartoon making was not live-action film-making. I loved animation exactly because it was about caricature and broad performances and the animator brought characters to life using only a pencil and paper. While I appreciate the enormous range of expression digital technology has given us, I can't help but wonder if now the "tail" is finally wagging the dog?

We're not even sure what animation is today -- or who should get the credit.
Welcome to the world of Mo-Cap.

While it's true in the old days, a creator named Walt Disney pushed for more "realism" in his animated motion pictures. The Old Maestro wanted more life-like performances from his animators because he knew his characters had to be believable. This was necessary for Walt's stories to work. However, Disney's artists were limited by what they could create on paper. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become incredibly creative and they continually came up with amazing solutions to problems because they had to. They were limited by the technology of the day. Yet, that very limitation enabled them to become enormously creative.

I'm not knocking the amazing technical achievements we've made over the last two decades in the cartoon business. I'm just concerned we've focused on the wrong things. Technology can free us from tasks that are tedious and redundant. Images such as props, vehicles and effects are child's play for the computer. Although, I think I'd still give a nod to analog special effects. I'll take master animator Joshua Meador's pixie dust over that sparkly computer crap any day. The Disney Masters created classics, and they were limited to five levels of animation. The number of levels today is virtually unlimited, but that won't guarantee any classics, I'm afraid.

I honestly don't expect hand drawn traditional animation to make any kind of meaningful comeback in the near future. I'm not being negative - just simply accepting reality. The "3D genie is out of the bottle" and it's not going back anytime soon. Digital movie makers can now deliver a feature length animated film in months. The same hand drawn footage would more than likely take years. Once you compare the cost, there's no contest. And in big time Hollywood filmmaking, the dollar rules. Finally, I'd like to appeal to our young animation film makers to use the new technology and not the other way around. Ultimately, the electronic box on your desk will not solve your movie making problems. It will be your own creativity and ingenuity that will create the magic.

Today's digital animators often find their film-making time compressed into months rather
than years. It's great for business but not so great for them.

Did you enjoy today's Toon Tuesday column? Well, if you'd like to learn more about the many amazing & amusing adventures that this Disney Legend has had over the course of the 40+ years that he's worked in the animation industry, then you definitely want to check out some of the books which Mr. Norman has written.

Floyd's most recent effort - "Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age" - is available for purchase through blurb.com. While Mr. Norman's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" - is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo. And if you still haven't had your fill of Floyd, feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • True that.

  • Another sad by-product of the loss of hand-drawn, 'unrealistic' animation: Kids are less and less likely to try and draw their favorite characters.

    A few hours after seeing Rango with my young nephews (we all loved it), I pulled out some paper and pens and asked them if they wanted to 'help me' draw their favorite characters from the film. "They're too hard," one responded. The other one agreed.

    We ended up drawing goofy, ill-proportioned, wholly 'unrealistic' versions of Jake from Adventure Time for the one millionth time instead.

  • Absolutely agree.  These movies like The Adventures of Tin Tin and Mars Needs Moms look very strage to me.  I love the computer animation in movies like Monsters Inc and Meet the Robinsons, because they take unreal worlds and make them look amazing.

  • I think that the article unfairly derides computer animation as a lesser art form (though the author, Floyd Norman, sure has forgotten more about animation than I'll ever know!).  Look at Pixar's Brave, they started development for this film back in 2008, went to Scotland, came up with new software to create the characters, and the story sounds great too.  I know I'm not going to be sitting in the theatre watching Brave and wondering . . . gee I wish Disney/Pixar did a hand-drawn sequel to Robin Hood instead.  Just slaving over an animated feature using hand-drawn techniques doesn't make a film a bonafide hit and instant classic.  

    There are plenty of hand-drawn movies I could be happy with never seeing, like 'Oliver and Company' and 'American Tale'  Of course, there are plenty of hand-drawn films that I enjoy repeated viewings, such as Lilo & Stitch, Emperor's New Groove, and so on.  Its not the technology that makes or break a movie, but if the story is good and if the film comes off as original, fresh and looks creative.

    Look at this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, 'The Artist', a black and white almost entirely silent film.  

    Disney has brought back from extinction the feel of hand-drawn films with Tangled, and the better (IMHO) Princess and the Frog which is hands over better in terms of story when compared to other Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty.  While there might not be many more silent film Oscar winners, there will be more hand-drawn animated films from the Mouse House.  Interestingly, this is because John Lassetter realizes that both forms, or rather styles, of animation can exist side-by-side.  Some stories work well with the hand-drawn animation treatment, like Pooh features, obviously people enjoy the nostalgic look.  Others like Wall-E need CGI to create the world the robots live in.  Look at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Walt Disney made this film as a live action feature film with, at the time, ground breaking special effects.  If you had suggested that he do it animated he probably would have passed because you wouldn't get the same 'realism' of live action.  Older Disney classics relied heavily, almost too heavily, on a careful mix of drama and comedy as the background images and the characters visual impact didn't provide an emotional punch.  Yeah, Bambi looked good, but the punch and tension was the hunter killing Bambi's mother.   With CG you can hook the audience from just the sheer beauty of a scene, giving you some room to develop the story without the need to string along the audience's attention with overly dramatic plots.  

    Yes, Pixar uses (exploits) drama quite effectively, such as in the opening sequence of UP, but I like to think of Cars as the example of how CG can free up the animator to develop a compelling story in which the scenery and jokes are as important as the drama.  

    Also, there are now a plethora of CG animate films out there, it seems like more come out each year.  This is a good thing, as opposed to be getting just one animated film every year or so, like Disney used to do, now there more to choose from, meaning more competition, and more choice.  Pixar is working on some really interesting concepts, Sci-Fi related like the one about Dinosaurs having survived after the meteor misses earth and the one about feelings living inside a boy's mind, that really need to be done in CG for animation to cross over from fantasy/princess films to more sci-fi action adventure story threads.

  • It's a shame you hardly ever see any traditional animation in theaters anymore. Winnie the Pooh is the last I can remember.

  • Splendidly articulated and greatly respected, Mr Norman. Keep the fire burning, Floyd.

  • A Great post...

    There was something about your 'tail wagging the dog' argument, though, that resonated and it took me a moment to realize what it was.

    CGI has forever altered animation, and not always for the better.  That's exactly how I feel about Fast Pass which has and forever will corrupt and complicate the simple act of paying a casual visit to Disneyland.

  • I just saw Ghibli's Arrietty in theaters this afternoon. Afterwards, I felt like banging my head on the wall, knowing that this is what Western audiences are missing. No photo real explosions, no sickening camera pans or slo-mos or distracting strands of hair/fur. Just plain old animation. Is that too much to ask for???

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