The year that was 2014 was a great one in many ways for animation in all forms, and yet for all the successes, there were still a few concerns. Here’s some personal thoughts on the year that was, and a few more on the year ahead.
If anything, this past year confirmed that we are right in the middle of a new golden age in animation. Not only was there a plentiful supply of our favourite artform, it was, for the most part, top-notch too. Features, TV, web, and shorts, all had banner years thanks to a good mix of creatively innovative and popular content.
The crop of features released this year illustrated the growing pains within the industry. One the one hand, there were plenty of big-budget features from the usual powerhouses, and on the other hand, more than a few exemplary films that showcased the creative range of animated films.
At the top level, the year could be defined in a single phrase: animated comedy. Far and away the favourite genre of the large studios, its success with audiences has brought in large revenues, but has also stymied animation into a corner in the minds of most consumers. Although this has always been a problem to one extent or another, it is compounded by the vast increase in the number of films being produced and released. They all fight for the same audience who either get worn out, or get spent out before the end of the year.
DreamWorks already ran into more than a few hiccups with its 2014 releases despite a great performance from How to Train Your Dragon 2 in international markets. While their American market wobbles are not indicative of the market overall, they should at least indicate that mere market presence is not enough, a better than average product is now a must if a profit is to be made.
The Lego Movie is a prime example of how a great product from a new entrant can make a big impact. Similarly Laika continued a consistent run of moderately successful features, and ReelFX became a serious player thanks to Jorge Gutierrez’s Book of Life.
On the flip side, 2014 was a great year for smaller and independent films. Despite falling box office revenues, the greater accessibility of these films to audiences either through online releases, or the efforts of distributors like GKIDS, they managed to prove that animated features can occupy as many genres as live-action, and compete head to head with them on entertainment value.
Finally, 2014 saw the [American] release of a film that became what I consider the best ever made. I didn’t post a review, but The Tales of Princess Kaguya is a film that illustrates perfectly why animation is such a great technique for storytelling. Visually, every scene is a masterpiece on its own; story-wise, it is slow, methodical and builds continuously. From a character perspective, we bear witness to a cast whose main protagonist is a female who outshines even Takahata’s colleague Hayao Miayazaki in terms of sheer power, presence, and intelligence. The film sets a new high water mark for animated features.
Televised animation is most notable for the fact that it is, by definition, disappearing. The traditional TV platform is slowly melding with the web, but at least in 2014, it continues to define a subset of animation being produced.
Pre-school animation has remained a strong sector of the market, and perhaps the one that commands the most attention. As creators, producers, and networks alike have had to figure out how to cater to an audience that is fully native to the digital age. Content alone is no longer enough; either is a string of licensing partners. Nowadays, the focus is on so-called ‘360 properties’. Concepts must encompass a show, an interactive app, and merchandise. Tentatively, these pre-school properties are highlighting how their audience may consume content as they age, and it would appear that animation as a stand-alone endeavour will cease to be a profitable reality.
Outside of pre-school, there were new releases from the usual suspects and a few returning faces too. All in all, current output is quite indicative of how veteran star performers such as Adventure Time have initiated a lot of investment in the market sector. Disney had a very strong year building upon hits like Gravity Falls, newcomer The 7D, and Wander over Yonder. Cartoon Network likewise continues to follow the trial blazed by Finn and Jake.
Of important note was the reboot of Sailor Moon. On its own, this is not worthy of discussion, but what certainly is, was how it is being distributed. A worldwide, simultaneous release is exceedingly rare, but this is how Sailor Moon Crystal is being done. This no doubt helps with the piracy issue, and, as I discussed here, the regular release of episodes keeps fans engaged continuously.
Boomerang is also getting a relaunch, but the decision to use a traditional model prompts a lot of questions regarding library content and how to keep it relevant and popular with contemporary audiences.
The one sour note seems to be Nickelodeon and their handling of Legend of Korra. I don’t know the full or true story, but suffice to say, someone at the network dropped the ball. It also highlights the fallacy of continuing to rely on ratings numbers and advertising rates as a measure of revenue generation.
Lastly, Netflix tried their hand at animated programming, and while I found Bojack Horesman underwhelming overall, and too much of a safe bet creatively, plenty seem to like it. Whether we will someone truly take a risk with televised animation in 2015 is still up for debate, but Netflix certainly were not that company this time around.
The web, well, continued to evolve as a storytelling and commercial platform. This year saw the release of two series that were successfully backed through Kickstarter campaigns. Both Cyanide and Happiness, and Bee & Puppycat released their first episodes in the last quarter with good results. It is still too early to determine their impact, but personally, C&H went straight for laughs and five episodes in, seems sure to get them. B&P on the other hand, has become a cautionary tale of what can happen when the final product is different from the initial one. More than a few backers have made it known that the show has deviated significantly from the pilot, and is in effect, not the same show they believed they were getting when they donated. I did not back it (I did back C&H), but do agree that the changes to the characterisations of Bee and Puppycat have resulted in a far less coherent show.
Overall, web animation is still a young medium with plenty of independents merrily making and releasing their efforts online, and established players happy to use YouTube as a promotion and marketing tool. YouTube itself looks set to continue to grow but the rapid influx of money and talent from television into the online sphere could produce undesirable results if revenues fail to hold up.
Personally, web animation needs revenue sources other than advertising. The holy grail of all the money problems associated with content on the internet will eventually produce problems of its own and any creator that doesn’t have additional sources, will find themselves in trouble.
Japanese animated singing star Hatsune Miku appeared on David Letterman. Pixar lost a lot of its shine when it was revealed to be in cahoots with other silicon valley firms to stifle employee salaries. Frozen continues to dominate everything.
Shorts also had a great year overall, but of special note was Glen Keane’s sponsored film for Motorola, Duet. Whether it spells the start of a new lease of life for traditional animation is still uncertain, but it is certainly a promising start.
Finally, we said goodbye to New York animator and animation-blogger supreme, Michael Sporn, whose now dormant Splog continues to remind us of a place in the animation world that remains a gaping hole almost one year on.
Looking Ahead to 2015
A new year always holds a lot of promise but this coming one is particularly so on a personal level. The blog itself here will continue, but I am moving from merely being an industry commentator to being an industry player.
Starting in the new year, I will begin production on a series of animated shorts whose purpose is to push the limits of animation in a number of different ways. They will be an experiment of sorts into various genres, production methods, and essentially serve as a testing ground for much larger endeavours.
If you have an idea, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Otherwise, watch this space.