Paper Trail

Comedian George Carlin voices the VW bus named Fillmore, and you'll find him in Pixar Animation Studios film,"Cars." Like most hippie buses of the era, the vehicle is festooned with stickers of every sort. Every imaginable slogan supporting causes ranging from the environment to peace is plastered on this hippie van. However, if you look closely at the rear of the vehicle in this Pixar film, you'll find a most unlikely sticker near the back bumper, which reads, "Save 2D Animation."

As might be expected, the Pixar filmmakers have always included inside jokes tucked away in their movies. Everything from book titles, street signs and names of restaurants has been fair game. It's a long-standing tradition of course. Even the early Disney cartoons featured caricatures of the animators, and on occasion even the names of studio employees were to be heard on the soundtrack. However, the bumper sticker on Fillmore is a joke of a more serious nature. Sure, it's appropriate for the Hippie van to be a cheerleader of "Old School," but the humor in this case goes a little deeper. Does Fillmore have a legitimate cause? Does 2D animation really need saving?

Let's go back a few years and see how this whole thing began. The year was 1994, and I sat in an editorial bay at the Walt Disney studio watching the story reels of a new film in development. I was up to date on all the productions being done in house so this particular film had to be the work of an outside contractor. At the time, Disney animation was going gangbusters producing hit after hit. It seemed no one in town could compete with the mouse house's creative team. Yet, here was a movie being done outside of the company that was in my opinion, every bit as good as anything the mouse was doing. Dare I say, perhaps better than some of Disney's recent offerings? The rough story sketches gave no clue to the production's medium. For all intents and purposes, this was another traditionally animated film. It wasn't until months later that I discovered I had been viewing reels of Pixar's first digitally animated feature film, "Toy Story."

You're all well aware of the rest of the story. "Toy Story" was released in the fall of 1995 and went on to become a box office smash. Impressed by what I had seen, I couldn't wait to work with these guys, especially since the digital film I was working on at the mouse house had a story that was at best, lackluster. One child I talked to described the film as, "Land Before Time Without the Fun." Lucky for me, producer Ralph Guggenheim invited me up to Point Richmond and gave me a position on the story crew of "Toy Story2." While working up north, I occasionally saw members of the Disney team visiting the Pixar facility in Richmond. It was clear both companies had come together to form a friendly and profitable partnership. What could possibly go wrong?

It wasn't long before cracks in the friendship began to appear. We began to hear snide remarks about our partners up north in story meetings. As you might expect, these nasty swipes came not from the animation artists, but from the Disney executives. As the years went by, an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation was fostered by management, much of this led by the head mouse, himself. The way they saw things, recrimination was preferable to self-examination. Disney Feature Animation was suddenly on the defensive. Why were the movies developed and produced by Pixar Animation Studios eclipsing the Disney films? It couldn't possibly be the creative leadership or the weak stories being brought to the screen. The Disney executives suddenly had an epiphany. It was the medium, of course. Computer generated images was the answer to all of the failings. Traditional animation had outlived its usefulness. It was time to move forward, and digital technology was the savior.  

Don't get me wrong. I love CGI, and was one of the first artists to bring my own personal computer into the mouse house when few Disney executives seemed to "get" the new technology. As more and more story artists use digital tools for boarding today, few probably remember I was doing this nearly a decade earlier. Secondly, I regard CGI as an effective story telling medium. This has already been demonstrated by offerings from such studios as Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. Eventually, Disney joined the crowd with their release of "Chicken Little." However, CGI can no more guarantee box office success than a traditional film. 

So, is our hippie bus, Fillmore correct? Does 2D animation really need saving? For those who say, animation has simply evolved to the next level, I say hogwash!  Because, if an artist is given a paintbrush that doesn't mean he or she will never pick up a pencil again. Further, no artist stopped painting because the camera was invented. Computer generated imagery is simply another creative tool added to the artist's palette - and a powerful tool it is. However, the filmmaker gets no free pass because of the medium. They'll work just as hard bringing their story to the screen as in a traditional animated film. Think their movie will cost less than a hand drawn film? Don't even get me started on that one.

After Disney dismantled their traditional animated film unit talented artists were sent packing. Yet, rumors persisted that someday Pixar would make a 2D animated film. In one case, people followed a "paper trail" to Northern California where stacks of punched animation paper was spotted on the Pixar shipping dock. No matter how many times Pixar denied they had a 2D film in development the rumors persisted. And why wouldn't this rumor go away, you might ask? I think it was because lovers of traditional animation felt only John Lasseter and Pixar could save 2D.  Unlikely as that may seem, could the studio that ushered in the age of digital be the ultimate savior of traditional? Skeptics might say the "paper trail" leads nowhere and fans of traditional animation might as well pack it in because the age of 2D animation is over.

You can choose the names you might want to call me. Everything from "Luddite" to "old timer stuck in the past."  And, you may indeed be correct because I confess that today's films simply do not resonate with me. That's not because they're not good films. They are, and most are truly impressive. However, I was drawn to this magical medium because of moving drawings. I'll say it again. Moving drawings. Here was a medium that brought characters to life, and all that was needed was a pencil, paper and the skill of the artist. Technology - what there was of it back then - served the medium not the other way around.

I'm sure the "puppet show" is not going away anytime soon and it's been my contention we probably won't see another major hand drawn movie for at least a decade. I fear it's going to take that long for people to realize what we threw away. Perhaps Disney, Pixar or a dynamic, innovative new studio will lead the way. I predict that ultimately hand drawn animated motion pictures will return to the big screen because true art can never die.


Walt, Ub Ward & Fred.JPG