Mainstream studios consider digital animation the wave of the future. With the recent success of Disney’s “Frozen” these ideas appear well founded. After all, the public clearly adores digital films. The movies are cheaper to produce and require less time and smaller crews. Traditional animators should put down their pencils and start learning Maya or many of the other effective software packages.
So, what's the real reason behind the digital revolution? It’s not about art, in case you’re wondering. Still not sure where I'm going with this? If you're old enough to remember the early days of animation or, should you happen to be an animation geek who knows the history of our amazing medium you'll remember the black and white photographs of young artists seated at rows of drawing boards working away on animated films. These were the nineteen thirties and forties, the pioneer days of our fantastic medium. The studios could have been Disney, Harmon–Ising, Warners or Lantz. You'll notice one thing they all had in common. Rows of young artists toiling away at their boards. For the most part, these animators were anonymous. Sure, you might have heard the name of the studio boss. If you cared enough you might even have known the name of the director. The animators were anonymous and remained so.
I'm old enough to remember going to the movies in the early fifties and hearing the applause from audiences when a Bugs Bunny cartoon burst on screen. People were becoming more sophisticated about animation and practically anyone you talked to could tell you an actor named Mel Blanc provided the voice of Bugs Bunny. In time, other names were known. Directors such as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were known by the general public. Unless you were a kid in art school with the hopes of a cartooning career, no one knew the name of a single Warner Bros. animator. Today, the public knows just a little bit more about animation. They may have heard about Disney's "Nine Old Men," or that Richard Williams directed the animation in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," but that's as far as it goes. Mention Pixar, they'll say John Lasseter. Talk about "Ice Age" and Blue Sky, they might have heard the name Chris Wedge, but I doubt it. Try and name one animator from “How to Train Your Dragon" Better yet, try and name one from "Frozen." Again, animators are anonymous.
When Disney Feature Animation under the leadership of Jeffrey Katzenberg started churning out hit after hit in the early nineties our art form was enjoying incredible fame and success. Talented animators were highly valued and sought after. For the first time in animation's history top animators were represented by agents, lawyers and commanded a salary commiserate with their talents. It was the age of the animator as super star. A six figure income was becoming almost standard in the industry. A gifted few could even ask for a million. People began to know the names of Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg. The "Making of books" put a face on the artists and people became aware of Tom and Tony Bancroft and others. Studios needed good animators and the animators knew it. Something had to be done. Animators had become valuable and from the studios’ point of view this was intolerable.
Back in 1994, I had the opportunity to watch a story reel of a new animated film. I had no idea what I was watching yet I was impressed by the story telling. I simply assumed this was a traditionally animated film in the Disney Studio pipe line but I was wrong. The movie was Pixar's "Toy Story." Up to this point I had only known Pixar as a software company. Now, they had become a movie company and used their cutting edge technology to produce a successful film. Studio bosses are dense. They failed to see why this movie worked. We didn't love Buzz and Woody because they were digital. We loved them because they were real. Yet, the success of Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and others, launched a digital revolution. Soon, every major player in Hollywood had to have their own digital studio. Not surprisingly, the word went out across movie land proclaiming traditional animation dead.
Do producers really believe every digital film will be a hit? Of course not. Even they know there's no guarantee for a hit movie. Producers do watch the bottom line however, and that’s the point of this conversation. Remember those faceless, anonymous young animators toiling away at their drawing boards back in the thirties? Now, replace those drawing boards with computer work stations and you'll get the picture. Can you imagine Walt Disney replacing Milt Kahl in his prime? What about Frank Thomas or Freddy Moore? Today, rows of young digital animators sit toiling away at work stations. Should any one of these young digital hotshots get too big for their britches another tyro animator just out of art school will easily replace them. Learning how to pull the strings of the digital puppet will take a few months - not years. The public won't even know the difference because the animators are as faceless as the digital warriors in George Lucas' "Attack of the Clones."
Now you know why traditional animation has been proclaimed dead. Now you know why computer animation has become the default medium in cartoon making. Now you know why an animator's talent has been devalued by an industry that cares more about commerce than about art. A truly talented animator has to toil at least a decade before becoming a veteran. Make that two decades to become a master. When you consider what they do - what they add to the bottom line of a studio - most animators are underpaid. Yet, studios continually look for ways to cut costs. That means the talent - the artists - are the first to go.
Yet, the future is not totally bleak. Independent film makers continue to keep the medium of traditional hand drawn animation alive. Of course, their efforts often fail to garner the box office numbers of their 3D counterpart. It may take a while but the current digital fascination will wane. Much like George Pal's "Puppettoons" back in the forties, audiences will eventually grow weary of the artificial plastic puppet show. It appears there may good news after all and perhaps the death of of hand drawn animation has been greatly exaggerated. Hollywood is all about the latest fad. Only the good films will endure.