Theyre unbelievable tools, but theyre really no different than a pencil and a piece of paper. —Pixar chief John Lasseter
The release of “Toy Story” in 1995 forever changed the face of animation.
As the first fully computer-animated feature-length film, Pixar’s modern classic about toys jockeying for the affections of a child introduced a world of possibilities to animators and audiences alike.
Technologically speaking, the industry has progressed by leaps and bounds during the nearly 20 years since “Toy Story” first hit theaters. If you need proof, just take a gander at Merida’s flowing red locks in trailers for “Brave,” Pixar’s latest cinematic offering, which comes out next week. The photorealistic hair alone is practically worth the price of admission.
But aside from the ability to produce jaw-droppingly detailed graphics, how is the animation industry really doing these days? Have the technological innovations helped or hurt, and what do some of the current trends say about the future of animated movies?
Thanks to the relative cheapness of computer animation (versus the labor-intensive hand-drawn variety), “Toy Story’s” success quickly spawned a small army of CG imitators in the late ’90s. Most of them, though, weren’t very good.
As “Toy Story” director and Pixar chief John Lasseter was quick to note during a lecture given last month titled “The Development of the Digital Animator,” the technologies involved in computer animation are just tools for the storyteller.
“They’re unbelievable tools,” he said, “but they’re really no different than a pencil and a piece of paper.”
It’s really only been in the past couple of years with movies such as “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) and Disney’s own “Tangled” (2011) that other studios have begun to compete with Pixar in terms of storytelling, not just graphics.
To give an idea of how big the advent of CGI has been for the industry, since “Toy Story” premiered 17 years ago, fully computer-animated movies have generated something on the order of $20 billion.
Of course, the popularity of the more technologically advanced medium has come at a cost. Over the past two decades, traditional 2-D animation — what Walt Disney founded his company on way back in 1923 — has become a dying art in spite of the vocal support of people like Lasseter himself. Even while the success of each new Pixar film over the years has seemingly put another nail in the coffin of hand-drawn animation, Lasseter and others at Disney and Pixar have tried to revive the format.
Unfortunately, recent attempts haven’t quite captured the magic of Disney’s golden age. Both “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Winnie the Pooh” (2011) underperformed at the box office, and for the time being, at least, the future of 2-D animated features at Disney is up in the air. Instead, the studio is focusing on more Pixar-ish fare like the upcoming computer-animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” (set for release this November).
It isn’t all grey skies for fans of hand-drawn animation, though. Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio behind such gems as “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and the recently released “The Secret World of Arrietty,” continues to produce movies on par with any studio in the world while remaining committed to the dwindling art form.
As Ghibli’s co-founder and figurehead Hayao Miyazaki remarked in a 2011 interview with CNN, “We are an extinct species maybe. (But hand drawing) is the only thing I’m interested in and therefore people who are not interested in working by hand should choose another place of work.”
In the past few years, computer animation has also evolved to produce motion capture technology, or “mocap,” where actors’ movements are recorded and used to animate computer models (a la “Avatar”). In the world of animation, mocap has been at the center of a small controversy about what exactly defines an animated movie. After the motion-captured “Happy Feet” took home the Oscar in 2006 (beating out “Cars”), an embittered Pixar responded by including a “Quality Insurance Guarantee” in the credits of “Ratatouille” (2007) that reads, “100% Genuine Animation! No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film.”
Paralleling the growth of computer-animated films after “Toy Story,” however, mocap has seen rapid progress in the past few years. Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011), in particular, was good enough that it almost succeeded in wiping away memories of the creepy, inexpressive characters from earlier mocap films like “The Polar Express” (2007).
Perhaps one simple barometer for the overall state of animation is the number of animated films being released each year.
Just the fact that there are enough movies to have a Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards (a category only created in 2001) suggests how much the industry has grown.
Along with the number of animated films reaching American audiences, variety is also on the rise. Two decades ago, Disney’s domination of mainstream animated features went almost uncontested. Now, though, rival studios Fox and DreamWorks also have lucrative franchises (“Ice Age,” “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda,” for example), providing just enough competition to keep Disney and Pixar on their toes.
Although it is often tempting to lament the state of the film industry in general, if current trends continue, one can easily imagine another golden age of animation just around the corner, spurred on by technological advancements and creative new forms of storytelling.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff is currently studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.