The Real Reason Why 2D Animation Isn’t “Viable”

Ernest & Celestine
Ernest & Celestine

The ‘death’ of 2D/traditional animation has been making the rounds ever since Tron appeared 30 years ago. Traditionalists were reluctant to work on it then because they felt it was the dark horse in the form of a computer coming to take their jobs. Of course that wasn’t really the case, and even with all the technology we have today, artists are still employed in vast numbers to make static artifacts move on a screen. On a more contemporary note, is the rumour that such old-school animation isn’t “viable” anymore in an era where CGI rules over all. That’s not true, and in this post, we’ll explore exactly why that is.

What it Means to Be ‘Viable’

When we say a particular technique isn’t ‘viable’, what do we really mean? Right now it seems like we want it to mean that it is too old, out of touch and likely to fail at the box office. The Princess and the Frog is widely scapegoated for being the straw that broke the camels back so to speak and any attempt at a follow up is as good as flogging a dead horse.

But enough of the animal metaphors. Viability means, as far as large, Hollywood-based, subsidiaries-of-conglomerates are concerned means making money, and a lot of it.

Traditional animation is labour-intensive, time consuming and (at least for large films) completely moribund in terms of style thanks to the stranglehold that Disney has had for many decades. To say that audiences have been overly attuned to their house style is to admit that every imitator  coming behind them knew as much too.

Why 2D Only Appears to Be Nonviable

Large studios, whether you want them to or not, will always, always seek out the least risky option. It’s why we had the rash of musicals in the 90s and it’s why we see nothing but CGI now.

CGI sells stuff, and in huge amounts. It matters not whether the style is ubiquitous or headed for a collapse. It only matters that as of right this very minute (June 2013), a CGI film that is halfway-competent will make money.

Traditional animation hasn’t produced a proven winner since, oh, 2007? Five years ago when The Simpsons movie came out? Has there been traditionally animated features in the meantime? Of course, but nothing on the scale that those of us of a certain age were accustomed to.

The lack of such a large scale, traditionally made success story does much to convince executives that the technique remains a risky bet.

The truth is very different of course. The last crop of bug-budget 2D/traditionally animated films that came from the Hollywood animation studios were, well, not that great. By the early 2000s the Disney renaisssance was done and duster, Warner Bros. shuttered their feature film division and Shrek was just around the corner for DWA.

The key takeaway is that recent history could have been quite different had the traditional films that were released been financially successful. Hindsight is always 20-20, but consider if there had been a Pixar flop prior to 2000 or even 2005. Would we have seen the sheer volume of CGI features we do today? Nope, we sure would not.

When It Will Rise Again

Traditional animation is currently what could be considered dormant in the US. It thrives overseas in Europe and Japan however, indicating that its popularity as a storytelling medium has not been affected at all.

When will we see a rise in traditional output? It is hard to predict, but suffice to say, we will see a decline in CGI features first. Secondly, and this should be obvious to anyone, traditional animation can have a ‘timeless’ look that CGI films have yet to be able to match. They date quickly and it’s amazing that studios have yet to realise that all the money they continue to make from traditional films will not be repeated with CGI features.

A conservative estimate for the sake of it: the latter half of this decade at the earliest.

28 thoughts on “The Real Reason Why 2D Animation Isn’t “Viable”

  1. To be honest, the only reason The Simpsons was a success was because of the pre-awareness of the original simpsons movie. Not saying it’s not a great film because it is but it’s box office was heavily supported by it’s pre-awareness to the TV series

    1. Indeed, and that’s a fact that I didn’t mention in the post.

      Not counting The Simpsons, the last 2D film before that was either Looney Tunes: Back in Action or Brother Bear (take your pick) from 2003.

  2. You’re speaking specifically of theatrical features, of course, as there’s no indication of drawing-based animation declining in any other venue (well, maybe commercials, but that’s always been cyclical).

    The disappearance of the drawing-based feature from the multiplex could simply be a harbinger of the fate of the $100 million movie. While there will always be glitzy block-busters, we’re seeing fewer and fewer and the kids’ films were the first to go.

    Let me also add that cries of the technique’s demise are codes for: “children’s animation reminiscent of films from the 50s.” Apart from a few Bluth/Richard Rich duds in the 80s this is a narrative genre which had been moribund from -essentially -1961 through 1989. The 90s “revival” was, aesthetically, an animated corpse.

    1. Yes, it’s features I’m concerned about, and indeed, what we saw during the 1990s didn’t move things on in any significant manner and regrettably, none of the competition did either. Consequently when Disney ran out of steam, there was nobody doing anything different that could have picked up the slack.

      1. I also see a piece by Spielberg has been making the rounds which echoes the “death of the blockbuster” sentiment. I haven’t read his bit, but I do wonder if he shoulders his substantial share of the blame (as the guys who put the “s” in Dreamworks SKG amongst other things).

  3. Agreed. But with the hope that at least animators will stop to call handrawn animation “2d” .

    1. Yes, I know there is a difference, but the vast majority of theatrical CGI animation that we have seen has been 3-D and until that changes, it make sense to use 2D as a differentiator.

  4. Your “points” are a wrong.

    First, you said – “Large studios, whether you want them to or not, will always, always seek out the least risky option. It’s why we had the rash of musicals in the 90s and it’s why we see nothing but CGI now.” That is completely wrong. Studios don’t do anything risky. If they did, then we wouldn’t be having the conversation now. Studios only do what’s safe. They want to make sure that they make their money back. And make as much money as possible. Why do you think there are so many sequels? Sequels are almost always a guaranteed money maker.

    Second, you said – “Traditional animation is labour-intensive, time consuming and (at least for large films)”. What, you don’t think CG animation isn’t as labour-intensive, time consuming? As a matter of fact. CG films are EVEN MORE labour-intensive and time consuming. Just look at the credits of a Traditional Animated film and compare it to a CG film. The CG film has a lot more departments, a lot more people working, a lot more use of expensive technology. A traditional animated film doesn’t need someone to fix a character rig when it breaks… because it doesn’t have one. All of this can make a CG film be more expensive and take longer to make than Traditional Animation.

    Third, you said – “completely moribund in terms of style thanks to the stranglehold that Disney has had for many decades”. What you are forgetting is that Disney at one point was the only American animation studio. And they had their style. The other studios that came after wanted to cash in to the same success that Disney was getting. And what’s the best way to do that? Copy Disney. You put the blame on “moribund in terms of style” on the wrong company. Don’t think that’s true? Ask yourself if the newest animated movie has a Pixar style?

    Fourth, you said – “CGI sells stuff, and in huge amounts. It matters not whether the style is ubiquitous or headed for a collapse”. That’s my biggest problem with your post. You think that CG sells and Traditional Animation does not. It’s not the medium that sells. It’s two things; the story and the marketing that sells. Whether it’s CG or Traditional, doesn’t matter. If the studio will invest in a powerful marketing campaign to push the the film to the audience. Then more people will know about it and more people would have the interest to go see it. If the marketing isn’t done well, then the movie goes unnoticed. That’s what happened to most Traditional Animated films. The Princess and the Frog was overshadowed by Pixar’s Up, Blue Sky’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, and Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. (By the way of those four films mentioned, the only one that still sells in at least merchandise is The Princess and the Frog. Don’t believe me go to Target, Walmart, or any store and see what film has the most merchandise) And more importantly, the story is what matters. If the story doesn’t work, then nothing does. And unfortunately, the most recent Traditional Animated films suffered from poor stories.

    I personally feel that the reason there are more CG films than Traditional Animation is because the lack of talent and the colleges that only teach CG animation. Before, the majority of animators were artists. They went to art school, not to an animation school. They knew how to draw, paint, sculpt, and create art. They learned animation from other animators while working in the animation studio. They knew the fundamentals of ART. John Lasseter said it himself, that all animators should know the fundamentals of art. Today, most animation students don’t bother learning the necessary principles to creating art. Thus, they become button pushers. There’s not enough people who can do Traditional Animation anymore, because it’s not being taught. Animators who want to animate traditionally, have to teach themselves, watch Youtube videos, and read books. But there are no colleges for that anymore. There are a few that will teach a class or two, but not one that will have it as a degree. And that’s perfectly fine for the colleges. Colleges are nothing more than a business, they use the technology and computer animation aspect to attract new students. They don’t care about the industry or what is the viable form of animation. They care that they fill seats in their class rooms, sell books and supplies, and charge an insane amount of tuition that the students will be paying back for a very long time. And speaking of business, the major studios love button pushers… they’re easy to replace. Do you think that a computer animator has the pull and power of a traditional animator…. computer animators are a dime a dozen. A traditional animator is hard to come by. They can demand from their employers. So the studio prefers the control over the computer animators. This is what it’s like:

    Computer Animator: Excuse me boss, I’ve been working 14 hour work days, I haven’t seen much of my family, and I’m struggling to pay my bills. Could I have a small raise so I can buy milk for my kids?”

    Studios exec: “What? you do like your working conditions generic computer animator? Then you’re fired, get the newest graduate in here. And pay him practically nothing!”

    Also, you’ll never find a book or DVD honoring the great CG animators… no one cares about them. All the best selling books, DVD and other materials on animation are only about traditional animators. So Traditional Animation does sell after all.

    Traditional Animation IS viable today as it has always been. For people to say it’s not, is like saying that painting on canvas with oil paint isn’t viable anymore because we now have Photoshop. Or sculpting with marble isn’t viable because we have Z-Brush and 3D printers. Those things are just mediums and forms of expression. Chuck Jones in an interview once said that the difference between the animation business in his time to now (when he was alive) is that the studio executives trusted the animators to do what they knew best. And that was animation. They believed in the animators and didn’t make decisions for the animators. That’s what’s missing today… trust. The execs are making decisions where they shouldn’t. Is Traditional Animation viable? YES! It doesn’t matter what you use, it’s the content you put into it and how you sell it.

    1. Hi JohnV,

      You make a great argument, and if you’ll indulge me, I’ll provide my response:

      1.) You’ll notice that I did indeed say the “least risky” option, something you agree with.

      2.) That’s a fair point, but traditional animation does suffer from limitations. One animator is absolutely limited to how much animation they can produce in a given amount of time. It is this limit that makes it intensive from a labour standpoint: the most beautiful traditional animated film takes as long as a mediocre one. CGI on the other hand is relatively variable; quality is also dependent on labour input, but technology means that you have more control over the quality of the output. Ipso facto, a significant portion of labour in a CGI film are involved in making it look good, not necessarily making things move.

      Consider South Park. Initially it was done with traditional methods but these were dropped in favour of CGI not so much for its cost (even though it was cheaper) but for the vast benefits in time it resulted in.

      3.) AFAIK (and I may be wrong) Disney has never been the sole American animation studio. There have always been competitors but it was the absolute domination of Disney that has made its style so prevalent in features.

      You’re absolutely right to blame the competition though. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it also means that you are measured against the leader and in most cases, will come up short. Warners arguably attempted something different with The Iron Giant, but they bungled it big time and traditional animation is all the worse for it.

      4.) It isn’t so much that that is what I think, it is what is currently true. Unfortunately, businesses and business-minded people care little for the quality of the content as long as it sells stuff. There have been plenty of CGI duds, but the style continues to sell. In the case of traditional animation, it was a sad case of too many duds in a row combined with the ascent of CGI to commercially successful status that did it in for the time being.

      Traditional animation is just as viable now as it ever was, but returning to point one, which studio will take that risk that they can produce a successful feature?

      Complex risk management strategies are at play within the parent corporations of studios and right now, despite our inability to study them, they clearly favour CGI. The pendulum will eventually swing backwards, but please understand that I love traditional animation and dearly await the time when it returns to mainstream cinema.

      1. Ok my turn! 🙂

        1. I misread “least” I thought it said “latest”. That all makes sense.

        2. I disagree on your reply. “technology means that you have more control over the quality of the output. Ipso facto, a significant portion of labour in a CGI film are involved in making it look good, not necessarily making things move.” What control over quality are you referring to? Are you talking about final renders? The amount of detail? I’m not sure what you mean. Because the quality in Traditional Animation is fantastic! Quality in animation is based on it’s content and style. So quality isn’t the a measurable outcome. Because what’s beautiful for you is not for someone else. Also, just because the technology facilitates the “quality”, doesn’t mean it makes things easier. Depending on the complexity of the scene, renders for one frame can go anywhere from 5 to 20 hours. Finding Nemo took 4 days to render one frame, because of the amount “quality”. Not to mention how long it takes to do the re-renders. What does it matter that it only looks good. It needs to “move” great as well. Actually, that might be even more important. The CG look can look terrible. And no matter how well a CG film may look, if the animation is awful, then everything is bad. Why do you think there’s such a huge push for the “Traditional Animation Look”? You know, like Paper Man…

        Also, animation is an art. It shouldn’t be rushed. People in the past knew this. Walt Disney knew this. He didn’t care how long it took, as long it was great. This is another reason why the executives in charge are at fault for why “Traditional Animation isn’t viable” anymore. They care about the speed and not quality.

        3. You may be right. Disney wasn’t the only one out there. But they were the biggest and brightest. About Iron Giant (one of my favorites and if you ask anyone who has seen it, they love it too. As a matter of fact, when you show it to someone you get this response; That was great! When did this come out? I never heard of it!) The failure of that film had to with one thing. Marketing. The film was horrendously marketed in the worst possible way imagined.

        4. You are completely correct when you said – “Unfortunately, businesses and business-minded people care little for the quality of the content as long as it sells stuff”. That doesn’t mean CG films sell more than Traditional. Actually it’s that exact opposite. Go to any of the Disney parks, look around the shops, tell me what medium is being sold more, CG or Traditional? I will guarantee you that Traditional Animated movies and characters out sell CG film by far! As I mentioned before, go to Walmart, Target and other stores and you’ll see.

        What will sell is the marketing not the medium. If any of the major studios put the amount marketing into a Traditional Animated film as they do with CG. Then we would not be having this conversation.

        In you last reply – “The pendulum will eventually swing backwards, but please understand that I love traditional animation and dearly await the time when it returns to mainstream cinema.”

        I hope you are right.

        1. Yes, I think I was using quality and complexity interchangeably when I shouldn’t have. It was the latter that I was getting at.

          I also agree on the CGI merch sales. The difference is only going to get larger in the years to come.

          1. Yeah, CG does allow for the complexity to be easier and more detailed. But using both mediums gives such a great result. I know that Disney’s Treasure Planet and Atlantis (Two movies that I like) didn’t do well financially, But the visuals were beautiful. I believe with a great marketing campaign something like that will do very well. But I feel that the decline of Traditional Animation is due to these reasons. The Executives and the colleges. Both are solely business minded. Both only care about how much money they make. Both don’t care about the art form. Both are pushing for CG more than Traditional Animation.. why? Because, Executives can replace a CG animator whenever they want. It’s harder to get rid of talented Traditional Animators. Colleges can sell the technology to the potential students and their parents. They fool the hopeful animators with the all the coolest software and latest computers. The students just become button pushers, not artists.

  5. It’s a sign of the times having witnessed the decline in interest in traditional. Technology was supposed to make it easier and cheaper to do animation. But as you well know any given CG feature can cost .5B. People are not wanting to have their time wasted with things that don’t seem up to date or unable to keep their child’s attention while they multi-task or allow them to be on another adult level than their children. Most of the good things that were to come to pass concerning CG did not actually happen. The thing that did happen was more money was spent and made selling commercially mesmerising images to children, and like the devices we use to reach each other daily, they serve to obscure emotional dialogue. Dialogue, that in traditional animation tended to transmit unpatronisingly towards kids and adults the same way in the same moments, Not to say that Disney and other now CG studios did not have the right to try this experiment, they were losing money on 2D. But they provided the monopoly over animation in the US which killed the art form. an art form that as they saw it(without Walt’s OG leadership) was meant more for children than adults. Rather than include adults into the idea that CG could entertain ecually, they decided that adults would be interested by default of the new technology’s visual capacity. This decision was made at a time when thousands of of OVa s were flooding the underground anime clubs. They dropped the ball on realising or at least supporting what still to this day should have been a popular, smooth transition into a wider audience and acceptance of animated content. all we have from them now is a popular creator named Myasaki who now seeks to retire after being championed by Disney co. as the “hit” Japanese director. I say too little to late on that measure. So much more could have been done if not in the name of world peace, at least in the interest of seeing some good films. Get ready for those live action anime remakes…

  6. 2d animation blows, it needs to evolve to 3D a soon as possible! it’s the future of toons to be fully presented in 3D with artistic quality and not some lazy 3d art like some 3d animations. Also incorporate facial capture for actors to use for much better and smoother animations, instead of the crappy hand drawn inaccurate 2d expressions! and poorly animated motion, use full body motion capture. Also use 60 fps for all 3D animated cartoons, with very high resolution support up to 4k or maybe higher!.

    1. Why not just cut animation all together, hire actors because it’s cutting edge,

      All tech and no soul, that’s why you talent husks ruin fun things for future generations.

    2. I take it you’re under the age of 16 to think this crap. God no wonder this country’s declining in values.

  7. When reading this list, I had blamed CGI (though I do like All-CGI films and TV shows for turning 2D animation into a shell of its former self, and here are reasons why CGI nearly killed traditional animation, and nearly killed model/puppet/stop motion-series animation. And over in the western world, because the 2011 Winnie the Pooh film bombed at box office, 2D animation is mainly being used for television series, and being used for some films such as the most-recent animated film, The Land Before Time: Journey of The Brave.

  8. Ok, y’all. I’m chiming in. Interesting topic and thoughtful comments, but I got a beef with the terminology.

    We should be saying “2D animation,” not “traditional animation,” because it is the 2D, flat looking, style that most of y’all are referring to, disintinguished from 3D, illusion of depth in shape. The word “traditional” means, essentially, “in the past.” 3D animation may become “traditional” 20 or so years from now, but it will still be 3D. Further, “CGI” shouldn’t be equated with “3D.” As one person noted above, South Park is CGI (computer-generated imagery), yet it is 2D. There are many 2D animations and dedicated software out there (though not popular in films today, per the author’s point). So maybe let’s shift to “2D vs. 3D” rather than “traditional vs. CGI.”

    Insofar as some people refer to “traditional” as hand-drawn, as some users did, I don’t think that will ever come back in mainstream because its effect can essentially be created in much less time with computers. To be clear, by “hand-drawn” I mean each frame is drawn and colored by hand, in analog, versus computer 2D animation where only key frames are drawn by hand; the rest are filled in by the software, in digital. Going back to hand-drawn (in mainstream) is as unlikely as a return to using the abacus instead of a calculator.

    And as to why 3D is big today in theaters, I say it’s because it’s new (versus 2D) and visually stunning, which is why movie-goers want it, and why it’s making the studios money. To explain a market trend by saying it’s happening because it makes companies money is really explaining nothing. One needs to discuss one or more of the root causes of market trends: regulation (essentially not relevant in entertainment, but hugely relevant in some other industries), customers’ wants, and technology (what is possible). The last two are at play here. Customers have always wanted visually stunning stuff in animation, and the ever-improving 3D CGI technology is allowing more stunning work to be made and sold. Same reason why in the 60s-90s era, we still weren’t going to the movies to watch big flip books be flipped on stage (one of the earliest animation technologies). Or for that matter, we weren’t watching black and white after color existed. Hand drawn animation (on film) was the latest technology at one point. It is no longer.

    2D is a visual style, not a technology. It may in fact come back into popularity in film if the stunning quality of 3D looses steam or if 2D can somehow be made equally, or more, visually appealing as 3D. Let’s get to work, animators! P

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