The roundabout tales of animation

As Disney scales back its hand-drawn operations, Anne Konopelski asks if the future really looks CGI-only

Last week, The Walt Disney Co announced that it is to close its Orlando, Florida animation studio. Though the company hastily framed the move as one part of broader cost-cutting efforts, analysts suggested it reflected Disney’s growing disenchantment with hand-drawn animation.

Certainly, since the 1994 success of The Lion King, Disney has watched many of its hand-drawn offerings flounder in comparison to its computer-generated films, which have repeatedly brought in record hauls. Last year’s 2D Brother Bear, for instance, has so far grossed $84m (£47m). The computer-generated Finding Nemo, also released in 2003, has meanwhile earned a whopping $530m (£293m) worldwide.

For a corporate behemoth like Disney – where the animals may talk, but the shareholders talk louder – the decision to scale back hand-drawn animation must have been a no-brainer. But what does the picture look like for other designers and animators, particularly in Britain? Are they also feeling financial and commercial pressures to exchange traditional toon production for CGI?

It would appear so. According to English & Pockett executive creative director Rob Machin the group, behind a recent series of blended, 2D- and 3D-animated public service announcements for Nickelodeon (DW 14 August 2003) and a 3D Warner Village relaunch commercial (18 December DW 2003), often looks to the ‘more flexible’ medium of computer-generated animation for ‘speed and cost’ reasons. ‘People want things done very, very quickly, and CGI allows that to happen,’ he says.

Machin emphasises that English & Pockett still uses ‘all forms of animation’ and regularly employs illustrators to create the characters and styles that will later be interpreted in 3D form. However, he adds that pure, stop-frame animation ‘takes an enormous amount of time and planning’, which makes it impractical for many of the consultancy’s projects.

Digit creative director Daljit Singh, who last year created the Flash-animated cartoon Billoo and the Magictastic Tuk Tuk (DW 2 October 2003), now being translated into 3D from hand-drawn animation, agrees that cost drives many designers and animators to use CGI.

‘Just as much effort goes into CG animation, but studios in Europe can produce it far cheaper and quicker [than they can hand-drawn animation],’ he explains.

But Singh also believes that commercial demands are playing a role in the shift. The television, film and computer game industries have all been seduced by the computer-generated style, he says, and are putting pressure on the designers and animators they work with to recreate ‘that particular look and feel’.

‘A lot of it has to do with fashion, and computers now have a massive influence,’ Singh says.

But what of the UK’s traditional animation studios? Are they experiencing similar pressures? And if so, how are they responding?

Cosgrove Hall Films senior producer and director Jon Doyle, who has worked on the studio’s much-loved Dangermouse and Count Duckula series, says that he has noticed what he describes as ‘the trend away from the look of 2D animation’.

However, he says the studio is ‘not really worried, because we don’t feel it impacts on us totally’. For one thing, he says Cosgrove Hall does not carry big crews like Disney and so does not feel obligated to lay off animators whenever fashions change. Moreover, Doyle says the studio has never ‘put all its eggs into one basket’ in terms of animation.

In addition to its traditional animation and stop-motion puppet studios, Cosgrove Hall also supports a dedicated CGI wing. This is responsible for the studio’s mixed-media Scream of the Shalka (DW 13 December 2003) and the upcoming film short Blue Dog, which Doyle calls a ‘CG show born out of the 2D way of thinking’. It has also contributed elements to many of Cosgrove Hall’s recent 2D productions.

But the studio’s main armour against a Disney-style predicament seems to be its determination to view the current passion for 3D as a trend. ‘We have to take a broader view and see it as a style – and there’s room for all sorts of styles,’ says Doyle.

That is a view that Bolex Brothers producer Andy Leighton can support. The studio, which made its name with the combination live-action/ stop-motion animated The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, has just finished work on the computer-generated The Magic Roundabout film. It is now developing an animated version of Gilbert Shelton’s underground comic, Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

‘Some things need a human touch,’ Leighton says, pointing to Aardman Animations’ work and to Tim Burton’s upcoming stop-motion animated film The Corpse Bride. ‘Traditional animation is very much alive. But there’s room for everyone,’ he adds firmly.

21st century mouse

Domestic and worldwide receipts for Disney’s most recent animated films

Title Year Domestic gross Worldwide gross
Finding Nemo 2003 $339m (£188m) $530m (£293m)
Brother Bear 2003 $84m (£47m) $106m (£59m)
Treasure Planet 2002 $38m (£21m) $66m (£37m)
Lilo & Stitch 2002 $146m (£80m) $202m (£112m)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire 2001 $84m (£47m) $121m (£67m)
Monsters Inc 2001 $255m (£141m) $524m (£290m)

Source: Variety.com

Latest articles