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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The past, present and future of animated films

The birth of the “moving photograph” in 1878 guaranteed that a younger sibling, the moving drawing, would follow. With “The Horse in Motion,” the art of the motion picture was born, allowing the photographer to capture the movement of reality by rapid bursts of frames, which blurred together at the pace of human perception. It is suitable that thirty years after an English photographer first captured reality in motion, a French painter and caricaturist would introduce fantasy in motion, indeed called “Fantasmagorie” and so began the cartoon

Anyone familiar with the psychology of artists knows that if there exists technology which can enhance the life of their creations, then nothing will restrain them from repurposing it for such means. Cel technology emerged in the early twentieth century: by layering over painted backdrops plastic sheets called cells, each containing scaled drawing outlines, the animator could sequence the incremental motion of characters and objects and thereby recreate from scratch the illusion of motion. Thus, the photographer employed the technology of photography and the painter of film to create art in their respective mediums of light and paint. The field of motion pictures is one invented and developed by artists.

Yet I intend to focus upon motion pictures of the painted (at least initially) variety: the art of animating. Animation is technical, in fact a science as much as an art, though this science is one which only an artist could have discovered, and much earlier than “Fantasmagorie” in 1908. Everyone who had drawn flipbook animations in elementary school unwittingly employed a similar technical procedure to the classic hand-drawn animations of Walt Disney. The flipbook, the treasured motion showcase of cartoonists and doodlers, small schoolchildren and bored monks, likely existed since the invention of parchment—certainly, well before the first patented flipbook.

There is no effort too great for the animator, like any artist, to undertake in order to realize a vision. Artists are especially inclined to let passion possess them—to fully relinquish their presence of mind to the demands of their creation. Yet so driven are animators to make art from this technology that they will, given the absence of live action to fill up their frames, create every individual frame themselves, hand-drawn and painted—even if the first full-length motion picture animation required 120,000 of them, to complete a project of 362,000 cels, 250,000 drawings and 2 million sketches.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a colossal experiment; and yet, “Disney’s folly” succeeded: after 1937, animated films became a bastion of cinema alongside their live action counterparts, with the former’s frames generated from scratch and the latter’s from light. The technology naturally improved; its often bold experimentation justified the moniker of “folly” about as much as “Titanic” (1997). In “Mary Poppins” (1964) the live action and animated mediums famously hybridized, perfecting the blend of those cinematic categories four decades after “The Lost World” (1925) first attempted it. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” narratively maximized this effect in 1988. No matter their potential for collaboration and combination, the two categories remained distinguishable on the screen, suspended between the differential representation of two- and three-dimensional pictures.

Emergent computer technology promised a three-dimensional form of animation that threatened this dichotomy. “Toy Story” (1995) introduced the industry’s most revolutionary animation since 1937. While 2-D animated films already incorporated such technology (think, for instance, of the buffalo stampede in “The Lion King” in 1994), Pixar had fashioned the world’s first full-length computer-generated animation, whereby the computer, rather than the hand, rendered every frame. A digitalized environment, designed by artistic minds and assembled by instructional codes, could now simulate the real world and be approached from all perspectives, as if an actualized location. The interacting objects and characters could now be manipulated by code and captured as sequential images, utilizing various shots from different perspectives.

What implications arose from this? The motion picture continually evolved new appendages, from a sequence of live action photographs, to one of drawings, to one of computer-generated frames. A fourth, stop motion, combines elements of the latter two, replicating the 3-D environment of computer-generated animation with the hand-made individual frames of hand-drawn animation (rather than a continuous digitized motion captured in a fixed number of frames per minute); its novelty lies in its physical tangibility, in a sort of sculptural rather than painted conception of motion. All four are arts—in origin, theory and practice. What commonalities link the latter three? Each is an animation; each captures fantasy in motion. Each assembles frames from scratch through processes of imagination. Even rotoscope animation (utilized notably in sequences of Ralph Bakshi’s animated Tolkien adaptations), which traces over live action frames, recreates painstakingly by hand its animated reels. Yet computer animation possesses benefits of efficiency and realism–the former, from its computerized generation, and the latter from its capacity (along with stop motion) for 3-D visualization. Yet none of this degrades the imaginative value of 2-D, just as animation wields no creative superiority over live action.

Nonetheless, in a competitive consumer market, computer-generated animations proved more adaptable. Dreamworks Animation fully committed to 3-D by the mid-2000s; Disney, the trailblazer of hand-drawn frames, bid a late farewell to its traditional animation after the twin hurrahs of “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Winnie-the-Pooh” (2011). Of course, full-length 2-D animated films still survive, from productions by Studio Ghibli to such films as “The Song of the Sea” (2015). However, in the new decade, computer-generated animations fully exploited their advantages of realism and faster production. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) increasingly saturated movie frames (as “Avatar” foretold in 2009) as a special-effects medium, through its capacity (though often unmet) for pristine illusion. Unlike in the whimsical productions of the previous century, CGI-live action hybridization is designed to be seamless and indistinguishable from reality. Its evolution is bent upon the technical perfection of this illusion. Of course, some animated features of live action motion capture offer fantastical deviations, such as “The Polar Express” (2004) or “A Christmas Carol” (2009); however, these must be fundamentally regarded as parallel in their development to “Avatar,” as another motion-capture creation.

Full-length computer-generated animations freely experimented as the technical capacity developed to mimic textures and movements. Animations diversified in their degree of abstraction—contrast the proportionally exact adherence to real life in “Shrek” (2001) with the radical departure from representational forms in “Madagascar” (2005). “Happy Feet” (2006) and “WALL-E” (2008) which notably incorporated live action elements (“Avatar” also effectively represents an animated film with limited shots of CGI-free live action). Warner Bros. Animation’s “The LEGO Movie” (2014), in modifying its animation to resemble the stop-motion tangibility of LEGO, kick-started a trend of stylistic experimentation in the service of creative expression. Sony Animation’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) conceived its animation in the style of comic books, in aesthetics, action and the effects of so-called 2.5-D—a medium in which a three-dimensional format uses only a Y-plane to structure itself, such that forms only tend to rise vertically, never protruding on the X-plane towards the viewer’s perspective; this thereby produces the effect of a flat surface, displayed through objects that nonetheless interact in a fluidly 3-D manner. The technique has earlier roots than computer-generated animation, and served as a means to preserve the illusion of 2-D whenever its use became necessary within films such as “The Lion King” (1994), “Tarzan” (1997), “Mulan” (1998) andThe Iron Giant” (1999)

“Spider-Verse” in particular catalyzed an explosion of stylistic liberty, adopted throughout the studios, from Pixar’s “Turning Red” (2022) to DreamWorks’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (2022). The style features a more abstracted presentation of reality, unmoored from objective imitation. In this regard, stylistic trends advance in the opposite direction of live action CGI, and might parallel the deconstructionism of contemporary painting following the invention of photography. It certainly helped that each of those films (excluding “Turning Red,” which was criminally denied a theatrical release) performed profitably at the box office. Each was also of exceptional quality. 

As things thus stand in the world of animation of 2023, do these films suggest a universalization of style? Several things must be considered—first, that many more 2.5-D animations will follow in the wake of the trailblazers’ success. As in 3D animation, bad movies will inevitably emerge to blemish the medium’s present qualitative connotations; this is especially foreseeable in light of the simpler and cheaper nature of rendering a landscape at one-half a dimension less than before. To these aforementioned films, this was no excuse for a shoddier and more rushed quality (“The Last Wish” waited over a decade since its predecessor). No such guarantee can be extended to future films.

Secondly, the nature of artistic innovation is cyclical. Determinants distinct from scientific criteria define whether a thing is obsolete. There is never an artistic “innovation,” but experimentation that never serves to nullify its preceding artform. Artistic directions adhere only to universal impressions of objective quality and beauty from human audiences; artistic experimentation does not perform a technical function to secure a greater speed, power and efficiency, such as what defines the scientific innovation. Painting may evolve from medieval simplification to baroque exactitude, to modernist deconstructionism, to perhaps an ongoing contemporary re-infatuation with representationalism. Grand cycles characterize the circulation of creative tendencies in human societies. Perhaps, if 2.5-D attains a certain level of ubiquity, the true novelty will once again return to the realistic delivery of action we observe in “The Incredibles” (2004). Or perhaps, films like “Avatar,” which hitherto dissociated itself from other animations on the basis that its CGI is intended to be indistinguishable from the live action of its motion-captured actors, might admit their animated nature and proudly display their realistic interpretation of animation’s modern potential.

The fundamental work of the artist is to realize an illusion—an imaginary creation, made real through its perception by the human mind, and applicable to all ages. The manipulability of this illusion-making renders its power incalculable. Through it, the human lens is made to work differently from the thoughtless machines we too often are opined to resemble; the mind can suspend its logic, detach at will from its reserves of data and be made to feel, see and believe anything. In film this power, still hardly tapped, can service civilization. No matter the cycles of free experimentation within feature-length animations, we must recall that the shared object of all such productions is to animate; to make alive. Such movies create illusions for us to perceive, and believe, which justify their intrinsic artistic value in a world increasingly contemptuous of the artistic mind. 

It’s a good time to cherish our animated films.

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