Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Mouse Shoots Its Foot

Last month, Disney closed down its DisneyToon Studios Australia operation. This was the last facility that was producing the traditional, hand-drawn animation that Disney was famous for, from Steamboat Willie all the way up to Home On The Range.

Sure, there'll still be hand-drawn TV projects with the Disney name, but they'll be contracted out to smaller studios, most likely Korea and Japan. For better or for worse, Disney has decided to throw its lot into full-blown CGI graphics for future animation projects.

John Canemaker, animation historian, reflects on this decision for the Wall Street Journal:

For nearly eight decades, the line was king at Disney. It could express anything. From the minds and hands of many artists sprang marvels of imagination: In addition to Mickey Mouse, there were three resourceful little pigs who inspired a Depression-era nation; balletic hippos, crocodiles and mushrooms; a prince slaying a fire-breathing dragon; a puppet wishing to become a real boy; and a rambunctious duck with a short fuse ...

What would Walt have made of all this? Considering the fact that the then-new technology of movie soundtracks put his studio on the map, and that he constantly sought out and exploited innovations such as three-color Technicolor, the Multiplane Camera, stereophonic sound, television, Audio-Animatronics and lasers, I feel sure he would have embraced CGI animation ... but somehow I doubt he would have thrown the baby out with the bath water by abandoning hand-drawn animation. Walt was known to spend years trying to find the best way to deploy the talents of certain of his artists, and perhaps he would have found new ways to use the unique qualities of the hand-made moving image--its inherent warmth; the happy accidents of the human touch; the immediate intuitive link between brain, hand and drawing instrument; the special flexibility and style that is so different from the dimensionality, essential coolness and realistic imagery of CGI ...

As Disney's great admirer Steven Spielberg recently said, "If storytelling becomes a byproduct of the digital revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted."

If I might add one thing: I graduated from Algonquin College's animation program in 2003, the year before they began teaching CGI courses. I've had to teach myself to use programs like Macromedia Flash and ToonBoom, which use the computer to animate but allow hand-drawn input via the graphics tablet. And at some point I'm going to get around to learning 3-D applications like Maya.

I'll concede that CGI has come a long way since the days of Tron. But they wouldn't have if the hand-drawn crowd hadn't gotten in first. It's a truism that an animator should first learn to do hand-drawn animation before progressing to the computer. It gives him or her a better appreciation of animation principles like timing, design, and incidental actions--things that are hard to learn while learning the computer at the same time.

So naturally, I think it's a mistake to put all Disney's eggs in the pretty little basket that is CGI (for every Toy Story, there's a Polar Express or a Final Fantasy). CGI would never have allowed creations like Rugrats, or Ren & Stimpy, or Spongebob Squarepants -- characters who qualities relied on the personal quirks of their creators, as expressed by their hand-drawn styles. Bugs Bunny could never have come out of the computer; nor could Homer Simpson. (I reserve judgement on the South Park gang.)

Will hand-drawn animation return to Disney? Well, I certainly don't think the hand-drawn art will die completely. People still make films in black-and-white, for asthestic purposes. People still draw comics and cartoons, and still appreciate the art of the moving line. And since movie executives change jobs all the time, I have to believe that somewhere down the road an exec will show up who'll look at all the Disney classics ... and wonder if their in-house talent could rise to those levels, in that medium. And actually spend money to try it.

It's the nice thing about Hollywood: sooner or later, things always come back. Even characters drawn by hand.