I've been doing a number of interviews for the Disney Company recently. These interviews are for the foreign press and the purpose is to help the media prepare for the launch of a Disney product. What that product happens to be is really not the point of this discussion. What is important is a question they happened to ask. What I found interesting is that every journalist, radio host or magazine editor asked me the same question. This was consistent, and I found that very interesting.
And, what was that question, you might ask? With the current trend in computer animated films, do you miss the old fashioned hand drawn animation at the Walt Disney Studios? I found it fascinating that this question came up in every discussion. Whether the journalist was from the UK, Europe or South America, the same question was always asked. It's true that digital animation has now become the defacto standard in animated film production. No hand drawn films are being produced with the notable exception of Japan's legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Of course, there's a ton of small animated offerings and impressive student films being made. However, that's certainly not the mainstream. The truth is, traditional animated motion pictures have been declared dead. When master animators such as Glen Keane and Andrea Deja walk out of the Disney Company with no one begging them to stay, you know the game is pretty much over.
That's why I was so surprised when this was a question asked repeatedly. I would naturally assume that only animation geeks like myself would even ask such a question. Apparently, it's on the minds of others as well. Anyway, I gave my answer as honestly as I could. I remain amazed at the level of work being done today using the remarkable tools of digital animation. I mean everything from the production design to the beautiful nuanced performances by the animators. The technology continues to leap forward and the films I worked on back in the nineties now seem like the olden days of digital production. Yet, in spite of all the technological leaps I've seen, this type of animation still strikes me as artificial and synthetic. Impressive, yes. However still synthetic when compared side by side with its “old school” cousin.
Some years ago, I attended a pitch for a new animated film at the Disney Studios. The artwork on the walls was all produced digitally and boy, it was impressive. The level of work was top notched and the images were jaw-dropping awesome. There was little doubt these artists had done extraordinary things using today's digital tools. Then, I turned to walk out of the large story room and something in the corner of the room caught my eye. It was an original background from one of the Disney classics. The medium was gouache and the background artist might have been John Hench, Claude Coates or Al Dempster. In any case, I'll never forget the impact the painting had on me and the sudden emotional resonance I felt. The digital stuff had impressed me, for sure. Yet, this hand painted gouache background, touched me.
That's it. That's the difference. It would appear the old fashioned hand drawn sketches and painted backgrounds have the unique ability to touch people whether they realize it or not. I think that's what we all miss about the loss of hand drawn traditional animation. Today, most live-action films might as well be animated. A fair number of scenes are the result of animation anyway. It would seem that live-action filmmakers have become cartoon makers as the lines between reality and special effects become increasingly blurred.
I've decided to wait it out. I don't have the resources to produced a hand drawn product and my days as a student filmmaker is something I've gladly left behind. No, I'm planning to wait until new management arrives to recognize what we've lost. Hopefully, a new leader will emerge to launch a Third Golden Age of Disney animation. Believe it or not, that day is coming. We'll just have to be patience.