Comedian George Carlin voices the VW bus named Fillmore and you'll find him in the 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 the hippie van. However, if you look closely at the rear of the vehicle you'll find a most unlikely message. It’s a sticker 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 animation" 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 full tilt producing hit after hit. It seemed no one in town could compete with the Disney powerhouse, 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 intended medium. For all intents and purposes this was another traditionally animated film. No different than any of the other movies in production. It wasn't until a few weeks later that I discovered I had been viewing reels of Pixar Animation Studios’ 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 the team at Pixar especially since the digital film I was working on at the mouse mega-studio had a story that was at best, lackluster. One child I spoke with described the movie as, "Land Before Time Without the Fun." Lucky for me, producer Ralph Guggenheim invited me up to Richmond and a position on the story crew of "Toy Story2." While working in the Bay Area, 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. While attending story meetings we began to hear snide remarks about our partners up north As expected, the nasty swipes came not from the animation artists who were usually supportive. They were from the Disney executives who were beginning to reveal a slight tinge of jealousy. Over time, an atmosphere of competition rather than cooperation was fostered by management. much of this led by the Disney CEO, himself. It would appear, recrimination was preferable to self-examination. Walt Disney Feature Animation was suddenly on the defensive concerning their creative product. Why were the movies being 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 by the Disney creative trust, could it? The Disney executives suddenly had an epiphany. The medium was to blame! Computer generated movies was the answer to all of the studios’ failings. Hand drawn, traditional animation had outlived its usefulness. It was time to take a bold move forward and digital technology was the savior.
Don't get this artist wrong, because I’ve no beef with technology. I can boast of being one of the first artists to bring my own personal computer into the work place while most Disney executives remained clueless about the new technology. As more and more studio artists embrace digital tools for artistic development, few remember I was storyboarding digitally 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. In took a while, but Disney finally found sucess with their release of “Tangled,” and the rest is history. However, a CGI movie can no more guarantee box office success than a traditional film. The beautiful rendering of Blue Sky’s "Robots" did not attract an audience anymore than the beautiful traditional art in DreamWorks’ “Spirit." Is our hippie bus, Fillmore correct in his posturing? Does 2D animation really need saving? Some say, animation has simply evolved to the next level. I call that, bunk! 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 remarkable tool added to the artist's palette. It’s a powerful tool, no doubt. However, the filmmaker gets no free pass because of the digital medium. I can guarantee they’ll work just as hard bringing their story to the screen. Should you think their production will be far lower in cost…don’t even get me started on that. After Disney dismantled their traditional animated film unit and hundreds of artists were sent packing, 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 were 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? I think it was because lovers of traditional animation felt only John Lasseter and Pixar could save the medium. 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 traditional hand drawn animation is over.
However, as we examine things today, the rumors of 2D's death may have been greatly exaggerated. Disney and Pixar have finally become one. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull are now at the helm of Walt Disney Animation Studios. And, though it may seem like a Disney fairy tale come true, I can still walk down the hallway of Animation and see guys drawing on paper. Finally, what about that stack of punched animation paper sitting on the loading dock? What about that 2D animated film many had been hoping for? Andreas Deja and Glen Keane still maintain a relationship with the mouse house. It makes you wonder how many more of Disney's brain trust might find their way home should art, rather than technology drive the film making process. Wouldn't it be strange if that hand drawn traditionally animated film wound up on the production schedule? Wouldn't it be cool if the force truly awakened one day?