Turf war: Is 2D animation dying?

With the success of 3D in the cinema thanks to Pixar, is Hollywood and the future of animation firmly set on the path to 3D? In short, are the days numbered for 2D cel-based animation?


Melanie Tauchmann
Head of sales and development
Optical Image

I don’t think that 2D is dead but it is perhaps dying or regressing. Over the past few years, 3D has become faster, more cost-effective and more versatile. It now permeates almost every 2D production. The reason 3D hasn’t taken over yet is due its bad reputation from the early years. 3D slowly became a valid alternative to 2D animation when Pixar had its first successes with CGI films. A lot of companies then thought all you needed to make a great film or programme was a couple of computers and a render farm.

3D talent was scarce back then and, however promising an initial idea looked, the result was frequently poor and disappointing. In the meantime much has changed. 3D animators are no longer only perceived as computer freaks who love software packages and model weird objects. You can now actually find amazing 3D animation and modelling talent. A couple of years ago it was very difficult to find a good character animator but now you can find outstanding people who can animate a person walking, talking, laughing and crying without it looking plastic or wooden.

Investing in people

In the early days 3D was always brown and grey, dark and gloomy and rarely as fun and colourful as a Pixar movie. There were only very few companies out there who had the talent to do it right. If you look at it more closely, you’ll find that those who did not invest in the training of their people are still way behind in terms of CG development and are clinging on to 2D for sheer existential reasons.

People are key and they’re worth the investment. Here at Optical Image, we’ve invested in people and training from the very beginning – right from an already established graphics team through to the emergence of our 3D animation department. This strategy has proved successful for us and the programmes we’ve made so far.

Currently the only medium keeping 2D alive is the TV. Broadcasters are reluctant to commission CG, as in the past TV series’ done in 3D were an attempt to demonstrate technical achievements, but there were rarely any good stories. The development of 3D has been incredible, as animation studios specializing in CG now really care about the stories. The primary reason why CG is used has now changed. It’s now the tool you use to tell a story rather than the reason to do a film in the first place. Sophisticated 3D animation technology such as Discreet’s 3DS Max has had a large part to play
in opening up this market.

However, a lot of people still think that 3D is too expensive and too slow to be used for TV animation. This type of thinking is just what gives the industry its bad reputation. True, in its early days, 3D animation was very cost intensive as hardware and software cost a fortune and the rendering process was still too slow. But now the opposite is true.

You can produce 3D animation both very cost-intensively and really cost-effectively – your budget is your only constraint. It’s a fact that with 3D animation technology becoming cheaper and faster, 3D animation will also continue to become cheaper. And so in time, it will become a more economical way to make animated TV productions – and that, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about.

Having said that, whether or not you believe that 3D is the future of animation, if the story is good and gripping the audience will love it.

People sometimes wrongly believe that one of the reasons for 2D animation’s popularity is the belief that it has more warmth and charm than 3D. Classical animation has been around for almost 100 years, and so those guys have a big head start and a lot of practice! CG, as we practice it now, is a relatively new art form, so there’s a lot of hope for 3D animation to take over. The breaking point is actually just around the corner.

As Jeffrey Katzenberg put it last year in an interview, “I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is a thing of the past.” That’s because 3D adds another dimension in every way.


Morgan Francis
Managing director
Spider Eye

The reasoning behind the fear (or joy) of the death of 2D animation is, presumably the relative failure of the majority of recent big budget 2D movies in the theatrical market, followed by announcements from the likes of Disney – or more specifically Michael Eisner – that 2D is dead. This, coupled with the enormous success of 3D movies such as Finding Nemo, Shrek, and Toy Story, could lead one to believe that the traditional drawn animation game is up.

Firstly, this is only one arena of the medium and as such quite a small one as far as volume is concerned, but let’s deal with it first. Almost everyone that isn’t a movie studio accountant agrees that it’s about the story not the technique. Some great 2D movies such as Iron Giant and Lilo & Stitch have been made recently and some appalling 3D ones such as Final Fantasy. The failure of films such as Spirit, Treasure Planet and Sinbad, are simply due to their being bad films in terms of plot and pace rather the medium in which they’re made. Surely no one is suggesting that by just changing the format from 2D to 3D these films would have been any better? On a trip to the States last year we found in meetings with major studios that views there concurred with our own; Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull and Frank Gladstone at Dreamworks among others agreed that it’s not a 2D vs 3D issue, but one of storytelling.

Real classics

Within the realms of animation films on a lesser budget, real classics are still only being achieved in 2D, from anything by Hayao Miyazaki through to Sylain Chomet’s Belleville Rendezvous. Large scale financial success in this market seems to lie in bringing traditional TV series to the big screen such as the multiple Rugrats movies, but certainly the success of any of these outweighs and out-performs any 3D medium budget movies. In the straight to video/DVD market, the Lion King blew away the competition and it’s unlikely to have performed better had it been in 3D. In terms of short films, again the most moving and personal films are still made in the traditional style; the Oscar winning Father and Daughter by Michael Dudok de Wit couldn’t have been achieved in 3D because of the classic charcoal and paper look that was fundamental to the feel and mood of the film.

In TV the vast majority of animation is 2D, essentially because it’s still quicker, cheaper, and at the moment more people know how to do it. Will this always be the case? Probably not, but the visual simplicity and the unique human eccentricity of animation will always make it far more accessible to children than some massively over rendered 3D action hero-meets-robot-dinosaurs in space that simply replaces storylines with polygons. If the highly popular 2DTV (8 million viewers) or award winning Monkey Dust tried to produce their shows purely in 3D they would lose a lot of their spontaneity and snappy performance. The script-led Simpsons doesn’t need 3D and they, if anyone, can afford it. Ironically, South Park uses Maya to create a strictly 2D look, which is bizarre since Flash, Cel-Action or many other software packages could do this at a fraction of the cost.

In technique 3D is becoming more adaptable all the time, and if necessary toon shaders can achieve something of the look and feel of drawn animation, but essentially all a toon shader can do is define outlines and fill in a completely logical way. 2D animation doesn’t have to be logical, it can be abstract and inspirational (usually derived from lack of sleep, caffeine and alcohol), and has a long history. Imagine a Tom & Jerry cartoon being re-made in 3D – all the exaggerated extremes would be lost, the timing would become too smooth and there would be more in-betweens than necessary (if you’ve got ’em use ’em). We can all still spot a gratuitous 3D insert into a 2D film.

Essentially, 3D is just a tool to help in the process of filmmaking, like any other. We certainly use it and choose to use it where it best suits the project, but essentially it should not be the medium that dictates the final result. The best starting point for a film is ideas, pencils and paper.

Animation like any other art form, works in fashions, and right now 3D is the big thing. This is because the recent hits are in 3D, which has led to the feeling that all the subsequent ones have to be. As soon as a couple of 3D features flop, the call will go out, “It’s 2D that’s the answer, kids love it, didn’t I always say so?” Studios should be attempting to develop the story and build script department that the likes of Pixar have, not their software.

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