Animation as we know it today is a relatively young art. Despite the expressive and sequential cave paintings of prehistoric man that seem living and moving, actual moving animation has only been around since the 19th century. Ever since Peter Mark Roget stated his theory of the persistence of vision, animation has gone through many stages and changes in technique and technology. From the early film experiments of James Stewart Blackton and Emile Cohl through to the Disney era of quality and innovation in sound and color, the history of animation has run parallel to technical achievement. It was not as much a specific character or style that advanced animation into success but the creation of new techniques and practices such as the peg registration system and the use of celluloid sheets, or cels. Even Mickey Mouse’s success was as the first quality sound cartoon rather than the creation of an iconic character. But through a lot of the 20th century, animation stayed the same continuing to use cels and analogue cameras to produce films. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that new innovation would lead to digitization of animation. Animation quickly converted to digital production and has spawned new processes like the growing 3D animation field. Digital has also led to the blossoming of the 2D animation world into a more productive and cost efficient era. But as technology continues to advance and 3D animation takes control of the market, traditional animation must determine what place it holds in the industry.
Before its digitization, 2D animation had been produced using the same methods since the 1930’s. The typical method employed the use of cels. Frame by frame, animators would plot out the movement of characters and objects on sheets of animation paper called bond paper. They would then hand over the sheets to be traced, inked, and painted onto transparent cels. This allowed for a separately drawn background to show through when the cel was laid over it. The combination of the transparent cel on top of a background image would then be photographed onto a film camera, completing one frame of the animation. This process was very expensive and time consuming. Each drawing needed to be handled multiple times before finally being photographed for the film. Also, mass amounts of materials are required to produce even short subjects. One 30-minute episode of The Simpsons can produce up to 30,000 cels. In the case of the first feature length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it took 1,500,000 drawings and paintings and 166,352 cels & backgrounds to complete the 362,919 frames of the film. The budget for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, originally slated for $250,000, came to almost $1,500,000. The soaring costs to produce such animated films almost closed the animation super-studio Disney in the 1950’s, but a new technological innovation helped to cut costs and continue the studio’s legacy.
In 1961 Disney developed the process of Xerography, which would copy drawings directly from animation paper to the transparent cels using a special photocopier. This eliminated the need for inkers and painters and reduced the budget for their next film, 101 Dalmatians (1961) at $4,000,000, by more than half from the previous production, Sleep Beauty (1959) at $6,000,000. This precursor to the digital process would continue on into the 1980’s when the next groundbreaking innovation would begin to take over.
In 1963, Dr. Ivan Sutherland created a computer user interface called Sketchpad that allowed for images to be created as line drawing instructions. In the 1970’s, computer scientist Edwin Catmull, would be inspired by Sutherland’s work, leading him to develop key processes that would lead to 3D computer animated graphics. He would later become one to the founding members of Pixar. In 1974 he was recruited to work at the New York Institute of Technology to head off a computer research group. This team developed advances in 2D animation programming, and created new processes that could color scanned cels and automatically create in-betweened frames. In the 1980’s, Disney sought after this experimental technology and used it to create their milestone technology, CAPS (Computer Animation Production System). CAPS would eliminate the need for cels, since drawings could be directly scanned, digitally inked, and painted on computers. By working digitally, animators were able cut the high costs of using expensive cels and paint. The first feature to use this technology was The Little Mermaid (1989). While only parts of the film used it, every Disney feature from that point on would be completed with their CAPS program. Digital innovation had finally begun to make an impact on the Animation industry. But it would still take almost a decade before the rest of the industry would completely convert.
Prior to digital technology, cost cutting for smaller studios was key for their survival in a larger studio dominated market. Short subjects were the only feasible focus for smaller studios. This was because features required a large budget and television heeded production costs that were more than the return. But studios established certain methods that would become known as “limited animation” (not the same as UPA’s stylized “limited animation”) and allowed a budget small enough for television. One such process was animating on twos, which meant having a single drawing held for two frames of film. This reduced the number of drawings and cels needed, while not wounding the character movement. Animators would also reuse certain animation sequences and backgrounds, having to only animate a character movement once and re using it for following episodes (even Disney employed the recycling of animation in some of their films). Rather than animate certain movements, camera tricks and techniques were used to simulate movement of a character. Studios also played up the verbal humor and voice acting to counteract the visual stagnation of the animation. Merchandising was also a big help and brought in money from figurines, lunch boxes, and other trinkets that adorned the logo or portrait of their favorite cartoon characters. But, the final trick that studios used to help cut costs was outsourcing. In the 1960’s the Hannah-Barbera studio sorted through the steps of animation and separated the more creative and skilled work from the grunt and repetitive work. They would continue to work on the writing, layout and key animation at the studio, but shipped the rest of the work to a studio in Asia that would complete the work for significantly less money. These Asian studios would do the in-betweening, inking, and painting and then ship the finished product back to Hannah-Barbera. If an error was found in the completed production from the foreign studio, notes were taken of the glitch and it was sent back overseas to be reshot until the finished product was desirable. By outsourcing to foreign studios, merchandising and using limited animation, studios were able to lower the cost of production enough to dive into the television market.
Today, many studios outsource their animation to foreign production houses. The beloved animated sitcom The Simpsons has two separate studios in Korea that it outsources the animation to. One is the Korean studio Akom and is responsible for also completing animation on Tansformers: The Movie, Tiny Toons Adventures, and The Animaniacs. The other Simpson’s studio is Rough Draft Korea and has worked closely with the sister Rough Draft studio in California to complete Futurama animation. Rough Draft Korea has also completed animation for other animated series such as The Power Puff Girls, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Dexter’s Laboratory. These studios are outfitted with state-of- the-art equipment to complete many types of animation, ranging from 2D to 3D to Motion Capture. Many of these foreign studios were equipped to do traditional cel production, and did, until digital ink and paint swept through the industry in the mid 90’s. It was once feared that outsourcing animation to these offshore production houses would lead to the downfall of the business, but in today’s market, studios are booming and cannot avoid going overseas. Former Nickelodeon animation executive Mary Harrington advises studios that what they should do is prepare really good preproduction material for the foreign studios to stay on model and produce desirable results.
Throughout this exciting period of 2D development, 3D animation emerged and began to progressively grab the spotlight. In 1995, Pixar broke new ground with the first feature length 3D computer animated film, Toy Story. Dreamworks SKG also jumped the 3D bandwagon with their first computer animated film, Antz. Numerous 3D animated films would be released from 1995 to 2003. In that year, the financial success of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, grossing $324,900,00, would top that of most profitable 2D animation ever, The Lion King. Both Disney and Dreamworks SKG had had box office flops on their recent 2D animated films, Treasure Planet and Sinbad, while most 3D animated films like Finding Nemo were topping the charts. This led Dreamworks SKG to decide to work exclusively on 3D animation and Disney planned to venture more into 3D. In 2004 Disney released Home on the Range, and it was slated as a failure costing the studio $110,000,000 and only grossing $103,951,461. It would be the Disney’s final 2D animated feature; the original animation pioneer company decided to close down its traditional animation department and begin to produce only 3D features. Following this trend in 2006 Disney would put up $7 billion to purchase their long time 3D animation partner, Pixar. Everywhere animators realized the outlook for 2D animation at the time was not good.
As Disney ended its rich 2D history, many animators desperately sought to adapt to the foreseen market change and attempted to convert their knowledge of 2D to 3D. There was a blessing for traditional animation as Pixar founder John Lasseter was placed at the head of Disney Animation and was devoted to reinstating the studio’s 2D heritage. But many still believed that computers were the animation tools of the future and that the animation lightbox would become as obsolete as the typewriter. Carl Rosendahl, president of Pacific Data Images, had a more postive evaluation that 3D is to 2D as Photography was to painting. People still paint today, but the invention of photography released painters from creating realistic imagery and allowed them to experiment and venture into non-representational art. A similar view point comes from stop motion animator Henry Selick as he assess the purpose of stop motion animation placed against the 3D market: “What are the strengths of stop-motion? What should we try to hold on to? There are a lot of strengths: it's touched by the hand of the artist -- you can feel that. You can sense that life force, but it's imperfect. It can't be done perfectly -- that's what CG can do. And I'm trying to get people to embrace that: if it pops, if cloth shifts a little, if the hair is buzzing. It's like this electricity of life”. Animators are definitely taking hold of the strength of 2d animation and are lifting it to new platforms with a revolutionary software program that have changed the industry.
The anti-aliased imaging program Flash is the latest in the development of 2D techniques and technology. Jonathan Gay who had previously created other graphic editors in the early 90’s first developed the program. He started his own company and released a program that was made to make drawing on the computer better than drawing on paper. It was called SmartSketch, and caught the attention of animators during a presentation of the software. In 1996 and with the help of co-coder Robert Tatsumi, Gay redeveloped the software and released it as FutureSplash Animator. Developments in Internet browsing at the time also gave Gay and Tatsumi a way to have users of FutureSplash Animator distribute their graphics over the Internet. Success of the program fell upon the program’s use of anti-aliased graphics which produced file sizes that were small and required little bandwidth. Macromedia would quickly purchase the software and mold it into the famously known Flash animation program.
The Flash animation market is booming since small studios are able to afford the software. The amount of staff, time, and space needed to produce a Flash animated film is greatly reduced compared to big studio productions, allowing one person to do the work of many. Flash is the hip new grandson of Disney’s CAPS, leading the world into a networking revolution. It is possible that the future of the 2D medium lies within the generation taking Flash to heart. As animators adjust to the new boundaries set by the coming of 3D animation, they are now able to experiment and venture outside the traditional ideas that have been carried by the Disney style of animation. One of Flash’s downfalls as well as an asset is that it is super flat, which forces the audience to recognize what they are watching and indentify more with the objects and shapes, rather than being immersed into a character and forgetting what they looked like (suspension of disbelief).
In the past 20 years, 2D animation has accelerated from its stagnant system developed in the 1930’s. With new tools such as Flash and other digital ink and paint systems, as wells as the cost efficiency associated with outsourcing, it is easier than ever to animate in 2D. The novelty of 3D animation has already begun to wane and new 2D and stop motion films are being anticipated. While Disney has broken itself off from its heritage and is only recently trying to reconnect, smaller studios and independents will have the opportunity to flourish and show that 2D animation has much more left to offer.