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.