by Courtney Tuchman

I love all things animated, which wouldn’t come across as a surprise if you knew me. American cartoons. Animated movies. Japanese anime. I live for it all, and I’ve never been one to discriminate against animation style. As long as the animation is appropriate for the type of story it needs to tell, I don’t have a problem. But apparently, I might be a lone ranger in this camp. Imagine the total body shock I had when someone told me that he refused to watch cartoons of any kind because they are normally executed in 2D animation. And to that person, 2D animation is primitive.

 

My immediate thought was rather simple: “Since when, dimwit?!” But then I thought about it, and I wondered if this guy might have a point. Just look at the box office numbers for the final 2D animated Disney princess movie, compared to the 3D animated Disney princess movie that followed. The Princess and the Frog wasn’t even a bad movie, but the flashier, high-tech Tangled blew the frogs out of the water.

So what’s the deal? If 3D animation and CGI can almost perfectly reflect real life, is 2D animation even necessary? Does it have a future? Or are we about to watch history abandon one of its earliest animation techniques?

I would argue that 2D animation has a vital place and will be around for the next generation and on to see. It might not come back in its former glory with full-length feature movies, but it will more likely be integrated with Computer Graphics animation. In fact, this 2D combined with 3D revolution has already begun.

Let’s take a look at a perhaps lesser known piece that highlights the importance of 2D animation. What better form to analyze than the reigning champions of 2D animation than anime? Shirobako (2014) is an anime about how anime is made (think Singin’ in the Rain…but without the singing). While it’s a great show to watch, the series offers some insightful commentary on how 2D and 3D animation can be integrated.

 
 

When Ryosuke Endo, a 2D animator is told his keyframes will not be needed anymore because his production is switching to 3D, he is understandably upset. He almost goes so far as to quit working for his studio all together because he is so offended, but also because he is afraid he will eventually lose his job anyways in a world of 3D demand.

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At a loss of what to do, Ryosuke goes out to eat with a respected animator and colleague, Saburou Kitano, who is famous for his work in 2D animation. Ryosuke expects sympathy from Saburou, but Saburou reveals he has been teaching himself how to work with 3D. Ryosuke becomes defensive, saying that there should not be any overlap in the mediums. Saburou disagrees. He asks Ryosuke to imagine a way for the two techniques to become more integrated, and that even if a tablet replaces a pencil one day, there will still be a necessity for an artistic eye, and therefore, a 2D animator.

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So in this example, even though the 2D animator ends up returning to his studio and opening his mind to 3D, the importance of 2D is not lost in the message. Animation techniques are an ever-changing process. If there are new ways to innovate them, using 2D animation is the perfect step in the right direction. A program called Meander works to unite the processes.

The award-winning, 2012 short film Paperman, is one of the best 2D interpolation examples. In the film, a man attempts to get the attention of a pretty girl he briefly meets during his morning work commute against a gorgeously urban backdrop. Before starting the short, director John Kahrs had experience in both 2D and 3D animation, and he wanted to figure out how to combine the two since he felt like audiences might still have a place for 2D in their hearts. Thus, Khars came across Meander, the hybrid software that combines vector/raster-based drawing and animation.

 
 

It wasn’t easy to do, that’s for sure. The list of steps that needed to be taken is quite extensive: CG animation, motion fields, silhouette ribbons, etc. The technical mumbo-jumbo is complicated, but what’s important to remember is that there is hand-drawn animation here. First, the CG is rendered normally. Afterwards, the lines are drawn onto the key frames, which are then stuck onto the 3D models like glue through the Meander software. The final product is stunning, and it even won the Academy Award for best short film.

Meander did have some short-comings in 2012, though. While Paperman‘s black-and-white color scheme is nostalgically fitting, it also presents itself as a technical limitation. In its early stages, Meander couldn’t handle color. Among other production issues, color is something that the software struggles to perfect, which would make it difficult to pursue a feature-length film.

Feast (2014), another Disney short, uses the same tool as Paperman. The film stars Winston the dog, who ultimately decides to sacrifice the comfort of food for the reunion of his owner’s girlfriend. Like its technical predecessor, Feast also won the Academy Award for best short film.

 
 

The colors we see here work fine. In fact, they simply are vibrant. By all means, Meander is a wonderfully powerful tool. If the colors can be manipulated to work within a six minute short film, I have hope that one day this technique could be applied to a 90 minute film. Sadly, that remains to be seen.

In much more recent history, one of the directors of Moana (2016), a Polynesian Disney princess flick, revealed that he’d considered using Meander for the film, but the technology was not ready yet. Understandably, directors, John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little MermaidAladdinThe Princess and the Frog) would want to try working with 2D animation, considering that Moana is their first venture into CG animation. Even though they could not achieve that effect, it is wonderful to know that this integration of techniques has been kept in mind at Disney.

Nonetheless, Musker and Clements did incorporate 2D to some capacity. All of Maui’s tattoos are made and rendered in the style of traditional 2D animation, which has not hit the silver screen since the 2011 Winnie the Pooh movie.

 
 

So there you have it. 2D animation is what painting is to photography, and what guitars are to EDM. While there are newer and shinier versions of these technologies, they still strike chords with audiences everywhere. 2D animation isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. For that, I’m glad.

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