American Animated Film: The Digital Evolution

Animated filmmaking is an extremely unique art form because it allows people to create and mass-produce media in ways that can’t be matched by any other medium. Throughout its history, the American animated film industry has definitely seen it’s up and downs, just like every other industry. And just like most technologically driven markets, the boosting successes of animated filmmaking have typically come immediately after an industry innovation. Whether it was a result of a disruptive technology that put a brake on societal acceptance, or an innovation driven by a need to simply be bigger and better, animators have managed to not only survive, but thrive in an industry that was originally perceived to be irrelevant to the mass media market.

The Beginning

In 1896 a New York newspaper cartoonist named James Stuart Blackton was interviewing inventor Thomas Edison, who happened to be experimenting with moving pictures. Edison asked Blackton to produce a few drawings in a motion series. Edison photographed the images and in 1906 released Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which was later attributed as the first prototype for American animated film. It featured a man blowing smoke into his girlfriend’s face as she rolls her eyes, among various other related face-changing scenes (Williams 2001).

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces only lasted a few minutes, but required about 3,000 drawings to produce, (Williams 2001) requiring an incredible amount of effort for such a short production. Four years after the release of Humorous Phases an artist named John Bray got frustrated with the tedious nature of this form of hand drawn animation, and felt the need to innovate (Hayward 2006). According to Everett Rogers, author of The Diffusion of Innovations, a need is a state of frustration resulting from when an individual’s desires outweigh the means to achieve those desires (Rogers 1995). In this case, Bray’s need for a more efficient way to develop more complex animated films led to an innovation that revolutionized animated filmmaking.

In 1914 Bray filed the patent for his innovation: cel-shaded animation (Bray 1988). His goal was to establish a technique that would only require artists to re-draw the animated portions of a scene while re-using the backgrounds. The idea was simple; paint characters on clear celluloid sheets that could be stacked over a permanent background (Hayward 2006). On Bray’s patent he wrote: “By means of my invention I am able to produce on a commercially practicable scale a kind of moving pictures which may be designated as animated cartoons to distinguish them from the ordinary moving pictures” (Bray 1988).

Bray’s cel-shaded animation technology answered the supervening social necessity that accelerated the diffusion of animated filmmaking. According to Brian Winston, author of Media Technology and Society: a History from the Telegraph to the Internet, a supervening social necessity is the social need for a technology that transforms prototypes into inventions (Winston 1998).

After the introduction of cel-shaded animation, animated films gained popularity as theater openers for the realistic original motion pictures. Winsor McCay, one of the first American animators, was well known for producing the first animated films to be enthusiastically received in theater showings (Williams 2001). Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Message, claims that the medium itself has a symbiotic relationship with how a message is perceived (McLuhan 1967). Winsor McCay’s films were popular because the unique medium, animated film, was directly correlated with the perception of the messages he was sending. For example, without animation, The Sinking of Lusitania (1918) could not been visually displayed to audiences in a believable manner. The animation became part of the political message, emoting feelings that other mediums could not (Williams 2001).

By the 1920s animated films were expected to feature slapstick comedy and live-action sequences because the medium allowed animators to illustrate comical illustrations in ways that traditional film could not (Goldmark 2005).  Silent productions such as Felix the Cat grew to be as popular as the productions of the notorious Charlie Chaplin. A wide range of demographics enjoyed the Felix series because the characters displayed individual personalities that could connect with audiences, even though the restrictions of film at the time forced them to use motion alone (Williams 2001).

The Disruption and Application of Sound

Around the mid-1920s the entire film industry was disrupted after the radio was introduced to the mass market. As a result, movie theaters saw a dramatic decrease in consumers, as they craved the convenience of in-home entertainment (Rausch 2004). Animated filmmakers combated the competition the simultaneous introduction of sound in film (Williams 2001), an innovation that author Clayton Christensen would refer to as a result of the evolution theory.  Evolution theory occurs when an innovation improves a product in an existing market in a way that is expected by developers and consumers (Christensen 2004).  Since sound could now be viewed in the comfort of one’s own home, it only made sense to also apply it to the theater. In 1928 Walt Disney released Steamboat Willie, the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound. In an interview, Ward Kimball, the animator of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, stated:

“You can have no idea of the impact that having these drawings suddenly speak and make noises had on audiences at that time. People went crazy over it” (Wilson p18).

Following Steamboat Willie, Disney released the Skeleton Dance, the first feature to be accompanied with a proper musical score commonly referred to as ‘the silly symphony’ (Williams 2001). As more similar slapstick comedies emerged, animated short film music manuals surfaced to teach methods on how to emphasize a joke or action with musical cues, along with the proper way to apply a score. The music had a dramatic effect on the way the audience interpreted the films. Writers and producers recognized which sounds created the feelings they were targeting. For example, in Edith Lang and George West’s Musical Accompaniment of Moving Pictures they recommend using the deep sound of an organ to emphasize gloom to the audience (Goldmark 2005), which is something that we still familiarize with gloomy scenes today

Daniel Goldmark, writer of Tunes for ‘Toons’: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon wrote about a particular musical experience he had when he was a young boy; a song was stuck in his head and he couldn’t figure out where he had heard it. After a little research, he and his mother figured out that the song was Mozart’s C major sonata, a composure featured in more than a dozen Warner Brother’s cartoons. He later realized that he had acquired a significant amount of knowledge about classical music just by watching cartoons (Goldmark 2005). Once again, the interpretation of the message was directly effected by the medium in which it was produced. The animators may not have intended to teach Goldmark about classical music, but utilizing that unique medium had a true effect on the way he interpreted the messages.
Early animations also featured hooks or cues from popular songs for audio stimulation. The music was typically borrowed from a source rather than taken from an original score. Appropriation seemed to be a common theme throughout the evolution of animated filmmaking, as you will read more about later in this paper. In this case, well-known songs appeared to help illustrate on-screen humor on a level separate from the actual animation. They helped animators to connect with something the audience may recognize, even if the recognition was subliminal. This style was popularized by Warner Bros. musical producer Carl Stalling, and was later referred to as the Warner Bros. style (Goldmark 2005).

The Golden Age

The introduction of sound in animated film kicked off what was considered the “Golden Age” of the industry. It was at this time that Walt Disney Productions took their stance as leaders of animated filmmaking.  In 1932 the studio released Flowers and Trees, the first full-color animated film, which also won an Academy Award. One year later they followed up with The Three Little Pigs, which was considered one of the first animations to clearly define separate personality types among characters, truly engaging the audience to root for the pigs as they attempted to escape the Big Bad Wolf (Williams 2001).

In 1937 Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, considered to be the first full-length animated film (Rausch 2004); although my research shows numerous contradicting opinions about what is considered “full-length.” Nonetheless, the commercial release of Snow White changed the industry forever, initiating the animated fairy tale genre that dominates to this day (Williams 2001).

Unfortunately, the Golden Age of animation did not last forever. Animated film distributors during the post-war era needed to cut production costs after they felt their revenues hit by a struggling economy and drop in theater attendance. The original solution was to re-release the animations they had on stock. Across the industry, distributors for Walt Disney, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Tom and Jerry), and United Productions of America (Mister Magoo), found that redistributing previously released cartoons allowed them to make nearly the same amount of money as when producing new films. Nonetheless, this success was short-lived. Neglecting to promote innovation and further animation development led to a bored consumer and a stagnant industry. Once the animations had circulated a few times, a majority of audiences began skipping that portion of their theater experience, if they were even going at all. (Lehman 2007).

TV vs. Film

The lack of theater attendance was also attributed to the television, a major industry disruption. In his book Seeing What’s Next: Using theories of innovation to predict industry change, Clayton Christensen describes how a disruptive technology is particularly threatening to an existing market, because it can fulfill a need that older technologies could not. The television was a new disruption for the animated film industry because it reached a fresh market segment that the theater could not, and it’s rapid, widespread adoption was fairly unexpected (Christensen 2004). The introduction of the television resulted shifted the industry by reviving animated short film production, which was cheaper for studios and producers.

The television also resulted in a need for rapidly produced content leading to simpler and cruder productions.  The 1950s saw the birth of United Productions of America (UPA) located in Hollywood, which released Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing. UPA’s quick, simple approach to animation was regarded as featuring more sophisticated graphics than those of Disney; even though visually the animations were very limited and less realistic (Williams 2001).  America had jumped on the TV bandwagon, and loved what they were seeing, as long as it was new.

Media Technology and Society: A History From the Telegraph to the Internet, is a book based around the thesis that societies shape technologies more than technologies shape societies. When addressing the widespread adoption of the television author Brian Winston claims that the public’s need for realism and narrative were the background supervening necessities in its dissemination (Winston 1998). While I agree this may have been a factor in the widespread adoption of television viewing, Winston neglects to address the enchanting and powerful feeling of independence viewers likely experienced while viewing a stream of images for the first time in the convenience of their own home. I believe that in this case, the technology shaped society. Nonetheless, the adoption of the television led to a disruption in the animated film industry both financially and creatively (Gerrold 2010).

Theater animators attempted to combat the television industry with new innovations including the first animated films to utilize 3-D glasses. Contrary to the popular belief that 3-D is a new technology, the first 3-D animated film was actually Disney’s Melody, released in 1953. While it was originally used as the theater opener for a western, it was later shown at Disney’s Fantasyland Theater in 1957 as part of a 3-D series (Sampson 2009).

Animator and director Chuck Jones stated that the reason the classic Warner Bros. animation studio was closed in the mid 1950s was because it was believed that all future animated films would be released in 3-D, and producing animated shorts was too expensive for that process (Sampson 2009). Unfortunately, the 3-D craze of the 50’s wasn’t sustainable. The technology was too complex and expensive to generate an appealing return on investment. The amount of technology and staffing needed to generate the 3-D effect doubled for each film; not to mention the fact that the two projection systems had to be synchronized at the exact same rate or the picture couldn’t be viewed (Wood 2009). Major studios made multiple attempts to establish an innovative new 3-D market to combat television, but interest died. The invention was released long before its time, and did not result in the industry revival that many had hoped for.

At this point, theater distributors realized that they needed to be even more innovative to get back to the top of the market. As mentioned previously, re-releasing films was no longer a profitable business model, and everything else they tried only brought temporary success. Television brought the product to the viewers, unlike theater releases that forced the viewers to come to the product. The reality was that the television was passing by theater production; so studios began working on new ways to bring patrons back. The solution was to produce more Technicolor films, because televised animators were still restricted to black and white. Additionally, the size of theater screens increased to entice consumers who were always looking forward to something bigger and better (Gerrold 2010). Major animation studios of this time also resumed work with distributors to produce new theater-oriented films and stop re-distributing the films already in heavy circulation (Lehman 2007).

In addition to forcing change in the theater, the television also led to the birth of various forms of new animated made-for-TV shorts. According to Christopher P. Lehman, author of American Animated Cartoons of the Vietnam Era, the most dramatic thing to hit animated filmmaking in the 1960s was the “loss of originality in animation as a result of successful licensing” (Lehman pg4). In 1965 a studio named King Features Syndicate started a trend by creating caricatures of The Beatles and animating stories that correlated to previously recorded music by the group. Two years later the first comic book based animation, Superman, was created by Filmington Associates. Superman instantly boosted CBS’ Saturday morning ratings and changed the format for producing animated films forever (Lehman 2007).

After the success of these appropriated animations networks put pressure on studios to “find the right property” to base animations on, rather than trusting animators to create original characters. The popularity of these shorts challenged the theater industry because theater studios did not have the kind of licensing that allowed them to mimic previously established pop culture characters (Lehman 2007).

Ultimately the new innovations in theater animation did bring back customers, but even with the Technicolor and larger screens, televised productions had already laid the path for a long, uphill battle. Around this time, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera launched their own successful studio initiating the popular Saturday morning cartoon genre under Hanna-Barbera Productions. The popularity of these cartoons made titles like The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Yogi Bear household names (Lehman 2007).

Even though many animators still focused on slapstick comedy during this time, as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased in the late 1960s TV and theatrical studios became apparently divided taking political stands through their animations. Television studios found that superhero characters glorified combat and mainly targeted the white middle class viewers whereas theatrical shows were a little more blunt questioning the war itself, while promoting peace and cutting out most violence (Lehman 2007). The industry was at war just like the country.

After the turbulent market of the 1960s and 1970s animation studios realized that they still craved new innovation in order to retain and maintain interest in their films. Under the new ownership of Michael Eisner, Disney studios created a team that also included Jeffrey Katzenberg and the late Frank Wells to establish the ‘rebirth’ of Disney magic. They wanted the corporation to reflect the typical American success story, through hard work, innovation, and creativity (Bell 1995). Their solution was to stop the war with the televised market, and join it.

The popularity of Disney Studios led to the growth of an empire because they understood the market and realized that competing with televised animations was a suboptimal approach. By producing films for both TV and film Disney could reach more target markets. This was what Christensen would refer to as a sustaining innovation, because the crossover from theater to television targeted an already established and demanding market (Christensen 2004). While Disney Studios were not inventors in the televised market, they caught on to the adoption quickly and recognized a need to implement new, innovative practices.

Before long, Walt Disney Studios went beyond producing televised shorts to purchasing their own TV station. Shortly after, they took the ‘jack of all trades’ approach and published books-to be purchased for cable channel stories, and music which was licensed and used in publications. In addition, Walt Disney Studios took animated filmmaking beyond the screen with the introduction of Disney theme parks (Bell 1995).

Over time the overwhelming saturation of Disney media products created a growing concern among critics who said that Disney had too much power in the industry operating as a monopoly. This kind of power was seen as harmful to the consumer because many felt it allowed Disney too much control over the written (or animated) word (Bell 1995). Social learning theory states that people acquire beliefs, attitudes, and tendency to engage in behaviors based on first hand experiences with others or based on what they have observed including observations of mass media productions. (Klein & Shiffman 2006). Critics were concerned that in terms of this theory, Disney would have too much control over the influence of children’s beliefs through their mass saturation of the animation industry (Bell 1995).

The reality is that Walt Disney films used innovative market saturation techniques to reinstate their stance as successful producers of theater production, their origin, among every other aspect of animated filmmaking. Their innovative deliveries and utilization of the various mediums available made them not only profitable, but powerful influences in the media industry.

Computer Generated Imagery

Walt Disney Studios was one of the first major producers to begin playing with the prototype for computer-generated imagery (CGI) in the early 1980s (Rausch 2004). CGI short films had been produced as independent animation since 1976, but the popularity of computer-generated animation didn’t reach the commercial market until it was adopted but mainstream producers in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Goldmark 2005).

Up until computer-generated imagery, popular studios had seen a slight revival in the theater market, but once again, the industry needed a change. It just hadn’t returned to the boom it saw in the Golden Age. This hunger and need for innovation resulted in the adoption of tradigital animation. Tradigital animation is the combination of traditional hand-drawn or cel-shaded animation with computer-generated imagery. It still has the look and feel of the traditional two-dimensional animation, but with a slightly different, optimized process using mixed mediums. Disney is well known for utilizing tradigital methods in their creations. It allows for animators to play with imagery in ways they couldn’t with traditional animation (Rich 2009).

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the first films to utilize tradigital animation by blending animated, cel-shaded cartoons in a digitally enhanced scene with live human beings. There were a couple of Disney releases prior to Roger Rabbit that attempted to mix the two, but they weren’t as successful. When Roger Rabbit was released in 1988 it was considered revolutionary for animators everywhere. Not only was it a tribute to classical characters of all of the major animation studios, it also proved that animated characters could be featured in real, live-action film and look believable. It was a box-office hit (Dirks 1988). Nevertheless, even with this seemingly amazing display of tradigital animation, animators still felt the technology was too restricted to create the worlds they desired.

Richard Williams, Director of Animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, said, “If drawn ‘classical’ animation is an extension of drawing, then computer animation can be seen as an extension of puppetry – high tech marionettes. Both share the same problems of how to give a performance with movement, weight, timing, and empathy (Williams pp20).”

Fortunately, for the world of animation, John Lassiter, a former junior animator at Disney, was passionate about this new form of computer-generated imagery. Ironically, Lassiter was fired from Disney briefly after their initial discovery of computer-generated animation in the early 1980s. He went on to found Pixar studios, with the intention of creating beautiful and innovative films. In 1995 he re-linked with Disney in a partnership to release Toy Story, the first fully computer-generated animated film (Wood 2009).

When Lasseter’s Pixar joined forces with Disney he knew he had to revamp their mentality to break new ground. This innovative approach has changed the industry today. Pixar got its start by conquering fully computer-generated animated film. Prior to this revolution, Hollywood was considered a place where people didn’t try new things, because when new ideas didn’t work, it often meant you were out of a job. Contrary to this Hollywood mentality, at Pixar, Lasseter places a huge influence on the need for innovation (Wood 2009). That is the main reason that today Pixar is at the forefront of animated filmmaking (Rausch 2004).

Toy Story was revolutionary because the multi-dimensional look of the film attracted and engaged viewers in a whole new way. Unlike tradigital animation, full computer generated animation did not feature any hand-drawn techniques (Rausch 2004). Traditionally, we have seen the adoption of new technologies occur when they answer a need to optimize or cheapen a process. This was not the case with computer-generated imagery. It actually made the process more complicated and required more resources. It took over 100 servers almost an entire year to render all the scenes for Toy Story (Ryan 1996). Nonetheless, the industry didn’t care about the extra effort, because adopting multi-dimensional CGI technologies meant endless possibilities for the art form.

The realism of the computer-generated imagery meant that a viewer could recognize the toys in the film and relate to those characters in ways that hand-drawn images could not. The imagery in Toy Story especially hit home with viewers because the use of classical toy models in the 3-D environment could be recognized by a majority of audiences, awing them with the realistic nature of the animated toys (Rausch 2004).  When my family saw the film my dad loved it because he was amazed of the realistic look of Mr. Potato Head.

The success of Toy Story led other films to follow suit. The 2004 release of DreamWorks’ Shrek brought young and old to the theater with appealing multi-dimensional imagery. In 2004, Shrek held the title as the top grossing animated film of all time (Steyn 2004) and won an Oscar for Best Animated Picture (Ellison). The success of both Shrek and Toy Story proved that the industry was not done innovating, and was appealing to more audiences than ever. Since the release of Shrek, there have been two sequels with a third on the way. This new genre of film has successfully deterred from the stereotypical fairy tale sequences, while still maintaining the charm that helped major studios such as Disney achieve ongoing success.

Adult Targeted Animation

Films like Toy Story and Shrek were successful not only because of their realistic visual appeal through computer-generated imagery, but also because they combined youth targeted imagery with clever adult targeted humor. In an interview, Lassiter said that in order to make films for adults the premise and themes have to be smart (Wood 2009). Toy Story, Shrek, and most of the animated films released within the past 10 years have all mastered this balance between intelligent content and enchanting stories.

The adoption of adult targeted ‘in’ jokes in animated films is referred to as The Simpson’s Effect. Toward the end of the 20th century, Hollywood realized once again that animations could be successful by targeting 18-34 year-olds. Behold, what resulted was the release of the ever popular Simpsons in 1990. In order to gain and maintain our attention, adult targeted animated films (shorts and full-features) have to set themselves apart from the pack. When The Simpsons debuted, animators proved that the medium was useful for toying with and destroying traditional narrative conventions. The fact that it was a cartoon also meant endless possibilities for addressing topics and issues that live-action sitcoms couldn’t touch. Once again the medium had a direct effect on the interpretation of the message. The Simpsons was also unique in that it capitalized on the television literacy of its viewers utilizing popular culture as a way to convey messages (Stabile 2003).

The success of The Simpsons has led to the development of an adult-targeted genre of animation that is more popular than ever. This is because animated films targeted at both children and adults encapsulate the “bimodal address” that is considered appealing to advertisers. Media and popular culture commentaries appeal to the adult demographic whereas the playful nature of the episodes appeal to youth, meaning advertisers can hit two birds with one stone (Stabile 2003). The staying power of shows like The Simpsons, King of the Hill, South Park, and Futurama have proved that animated films can successfully appeal to all demographics (Goldmark 2005).

Due to the success of films targeting both adult and youth markets, some are now worried that animated filmmakers are focusing too much on putting adult references in children’s films. The claim is that the jokes in some of these films are too racy or irrelevant to work for children’s audiences. Regardless of your opinion, the reality is that this adult appeal is nothing new to the animation industry; it was just suppressed for a while because it wasn’t turning great profits. The satirical nature of these adult-targeted animations is actually reminiscent of the political pieces produced in the early 20th century (Ellison). Early Disney and Warner Brothers films like Betty Boop were also racy and controversial and Looney Tunes was banned from Saturday morning showings in the 1970s because the jokes were too “risqué” (Riedemann 2008). Utilizing animation to appeal to adults was, and still is, just another way that the medium could attract more viewers and revitalize the industry.

The Present

Adult Animation

Currently adult-targeted animation has taken on a whole new level. Adult Swim, an adult-oriented cable television network hosted by the Cartoon Network, has helped prove that adult-targeted programming can be extremely successful, even when focused solely on the 18-34 demographic. This year Cartoon Network announced that in 2011 they plan to move the Adult Swim segment to primetime from 10:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. This is reflective of the market demand for adult animation. Stu Snyder, president and COO of Turner Animation: Young Adults & Kids Media said that more recently the kid’s market has been challenging, much of that due to the recession and the desire for hot topic discussions. Adult Swim has been a way for animators to express what was going on in the world around them without having to worry about being politically correct. The network launched in 2001 and was moved from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m. just last year (McLean 2010), which is indicative of the Network’s rapid success.


Cel-shaded animation is once again becoming a popular art form, much like the original ‘crude’ animations developed in the early 20th century. This style is utilized to re-create the look of a comic book or old school cartoon. The first feature film to mark the ‘return’ of 2-D imagery via cel-shaded animation was Disney’s 2009 release The Princess and the Frog, a musical set in New Orleans (Bynum 2008).

This Princess release was intended to re-create the classical feel of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (Rich 2009). Today, it is unique to see a production using cel-shaded animation because the technique is challenged by full computer-generated imagery (CGI), which has single-handedly revolutionized animated storytelling. When Disney decided to return to the original 2-D effect they took a great risk because the public had become accustomed to the fancy detailed multi-dimensional imagery produced by CGI (Rich 2009). Nonetheless, through this tribute to traditional and tradigital formats, The Princess and the Frog proved that classic animation techniques are still desirable in today’s children’s films (Bynum 2008). The message in this case, was more important than a fancy delivery.

Even with the apparent return of cel-shaded animation, computer-generated imagery is the main driver of today’s animation market. One would think that the advanced nature of computer-generated imagery would result in over the top and extravagant forms of animation, and that traditional storytelling techniques may be left behind. In actuality, utilizing CGI imagery has influenced animators revert filmmaking back to the original artistic principles of animated communication.

For example, in the film Wall-E, a Disney and Pixar collaboration (2008), there is very little dialog spoken early on. Much like early animations that lacked vocal communication, the Wall-E animators utilized imagery and audio effects (and very little dialog) to convey their story. The personification of the characters themselves was compelling enough to engage the audience without a single spoken word in the opening sequence. Even the cockroach companion has enough human characteristics to emote feelings in the audience without any source of verbal communication (Hurlburt 2009). Wall-E was the first animated film to win Best Picture of the Year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association as well as a Golden Globe (Wood 2009). It proved that animated film was a force to be reckoned with in the film industry by utilizing innovative visual and audio techniques to display traditional approaches to storytelling.

3-D Film

Even though CGI technology has led to positive unforeseen possibilities in the animated film industry, it has now also become a standard in the theater industry to master the 3-D delivery. When I say 3-D in this case, I am not talking about 3-D in terms of computer-generated imagery, but in terms of the viewing method that requires 3-D glasses. Even though 3-D technology was initially introduced in the 1950s, it did not become a sustainable art form until the advanced technologies of the past decade made it affordable enough to have the potential for a positive return on investment.

The adoption of 3-D computer generation in the 21st century was a result of the value chain evolution theory, as described by Clayton Christensen. The value change evolution theory applies when a business integrates to improve what is currently not working well enough for their needs (Christensen 2004). In today’s day and age filmmakers need to produce something that will not only bring people back to the theaters during a recession, but also resist the piracy facilitated by the current disruptive technology, the World Wide Web. The answer is a sophisticated 3-D animation that is unlike any other.

Disney and Pixar have been at the forefront of 3-D production over the past few years. John Lassiter, founder of Pixar, was even featured in the 2008 Edition of Newsweek’s Global Elite before Oprah and the Dalai Lama for his work with Disney’s new sub sector: Disney Digital 3-D, which uses a cutting edge form of projection that allows viewers to experience animated films in new, interactive ways (Wood 2009).

Up and Bolt, released last year, were the first 3-D experiences produced by Disney Digital 3-D. While the adoption of the 3-D format is drastically changing filmmaking, Disney has still not forgotten its history and the need to remind viewers that this innovative studio has deep roots. At the beginning of every Bolt screening, a new logo comes into view. It is the animation of an original sketch of Mickey Mouse. The monochrome draft of the Steamboat Willie character whistles in Walt’s voice. The message is that Lassiter is re-structuring the Disney organization in an attempt to bring back Walt’s original vision for the medium. (Wood 2009).

Another major innovator of animated film of the 21st century is James Cameron. His 2010 release Avatar is currently the top grossing movie of all time. As of March third, 2010, Avatar had brought in almost $710,842,764 in revenue (Box Office Mojo). It is considered a pivotal point for the industry for two reasons, the mastery of life-like animation, and the success of the 3-D delivery.

Computer Generated Humans

Avatar is revolutionary because unlike the previously mentioned films, it considered the first film with CGI to successfully generate realistic human characters that capture the distinct physical attributes of living beings. Up until this year, most computer-generated films have featured personified characters in the forms of monsters, machines, or cartoon-like humans. Over the past ten years a variety of animation studios have attempted to create realistic-looking humans in an effort to establish a new style of animation that could appeal to more markets. For example, in 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was the first animation to feature realistic human models created with CGI. The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and Resident Evil (2009) all followed Final Fantasy also featuring computer-generated humans. With the exception of this short list, animations of realistic looking human characters are still rarely used in animation because the more realistic a character becomes the more difficult it is to re-create the small details of a human being. Even with their best efforts, the animators of these films still couldn’t convince the audience that they were real beings (Hiltzik). But James Cameron figured it out.

James Cameron’s Avatar was shot using a motion-capture technique using performance capture cameras created by Cameron himself that allowed producers to seamlessly sew the movements of human actors into their computer-generated counterparts. The idea was to “explode the boundaries of cinema with an immersive film spectacle,” according to an interview in Entertainment Weekly (Svetkey pp29). Avatar is expected to revolutionize animated filmmaking the way cel-shaded animation and sound did in the early 20th century.

According to Autodesk, creators of the widely used Maya animation software used for Avatar, the film pioneers virtual cinematography by not only featuring believable characters, and by also being the first mainstream live-action movie to be fully produced in stereoscopic 3-D. Until now, only fully computer-generated animations such as those of Pixar and Disney were produced in 3-D (Petit 2010). With Avatar, the usage of this innovative new form of 3-D technology in a real live motion picture created a buzz that forced a whole new world of filmmaking and almost made viewers go see it in the theater; because it offered an experience that could not be matched at home (Svetkey 2010). Cameron realized that in the current theater film market one must not only compete with the television, but also the internet. So he created an experience that couldn’t be matched by any other medium, giving him the control to better regulate the distribution of his film and combat piracy.

The Internet

Even though the internet helps facilitate piracy of animated film, it has also served answered a supervening social necessity for the independent animation community. Social media have led to the emergence of a new form of collaborative animation. Using Facebook, the Mass Animation Project, by former Sony Pictures Animation exec Yair Landau, invites the public to collaborate to create scenes for its first short films based on the DC Comic franchise. The company provides the software, story, backgrounds, characters and audio. Animators then utilize these materials to create their own scenes. Each chosen scene is worth $500 to the animator (Amid 2009). They can also win a new Biosystem from Sony along with other ‘exclusive prizes.’ The project is now the largest global animation collaboration ever with over 50,000 participants from 101 countries. Viewers and animators can then vote on what animations they think should win (Mass Animation).

The Future

The future possibilities of animated filmmaking are endless, but don’t expect the classical studios to be tossing out their traditional techniques any time soon. Disney has plans to continue along the same path or appropriation that brought them to where they are today. This Christmas they will release an updated version of Rapunzel (Bynum 2008), and the studio also plans to re-release all of the Disney Classics in 3-D formats (Wood 2009). In the true nature of Disney, producers have realized which stories are successful among audiences and have jumped on the opportunity to extend that success as long as possible.

We will also be seeing sequels, such as Toy Story 3 and Shrek 4 to be released this summer, along with Cars 2 to be released in 2012 (Bynum 2008). In addition, Disney plans to cover all arenas by also releasing original films. On Christmas of 2011, Disney and Pixar will release The Bear and the Bow, an original narrative adventure that will be followed by other original projects including a film titled Newt (2011).

Even with the widespread adoption of today’s advancements in animated technologies, Disney does not have the intention of eradicating the style of the original 2-D classics any time soon. According to an interview with Slashfilm writer Brenden Connelly, producer Peter del Vecho stated that Disney intends to release other 2-D pictures including a Winnie the Pooh feature and another titled Snow Queen, in addition to a project that is still considered ‘top secret” (Rich 2009). This proves that technology does not always drive the industry and that sometimes taking the risk of reverting back to traditional methods can prove to be a successful opportunity. Plus, it’s cheaper to produce a film in 2-D.

In a recent interview, Lassiter said that Disney and Pixar are planning to go in an innovative direction while paying tribute to classic principles of animation. While they intend to push the boundaries for 3-D delivery and computer-generated technology, they also plan to draw on their history to recreate memorable characters and “edge-of-your-seat” stories (Bynum 2008). In 2008 both DreamWorks and Pixar announced that all future animated movies from these studios will be produced in 3-D. Reportedly, adding 3-D effects to a fully animated feature film requires an additional $15 million per production (Murph 2008), which is probably why the main reason the technology took so long before it was widely adopted. But now, 3-D delivery is the present and the future of animated filmmaking.

Over the next ten years we can also expect the animated world to reach further into realism. Clearly stereo 3-D animation will continue to prosper throughout the 21st century because of the engaging, interactive experience it creates for the audience. Not to mention the previously mentioned fact that currently, there is no way to pirate 3-D films. Similarly, with the production of the 3-D compatible TV, I think we can also expect to see animated sitcoms jumping on the multi-dimensional bandwagon.

The internet will also play a larger factor in the animated film industry. Collaborations like those previously mentioned on Mass Animation are expected to grow, as well as the promotable factors from networks like Facebook that greatly aided the buzz for Avatar.

I personally believe the possibilities for animated film are somewhat endless. Now that we are seeing interactive 3-D formats becoming increasingly prominent, I expect that animators and producers are going to get more innovative about how they incorporate their audiences into their programs. Animators have realized that integrating the audience through innovative deliveries is key to today’s success.

Now this may seem like somewhat of a stretch, but the following is my personal theory on the direction of animated filmmaking. I recently watched a special on the Discovery Channel showing a new feature at Niagara Falls that allowed visitors to go into a theater with a 360 degree screen that makes viewers feel like they are in the falls itself. As the film simulates splashing actual waterfalls and mist enter the theater to create a more realistic experience (Winter Magic). I think this is the future of animation. I believe that one day animated film will get to a point where it will become more of an augmented four-dimensional interactive reality. When the roadrunner ignites a bomb, we’ll feel the heat.

From the crude facial sketches of the early 20th century to the three-dimensional productions of the 21st, the evolution of animated filmmaking has resulted in an experience that creates a new world unlike any other; and it’s only going to get bigger from here. Marshall McLuhan claimed that in the 1960s the ‘machine’ had turned nature into an art form. This has held true for animated filmmaking in the digital era. Through constant innovation and technological adoption, animators are now able to utilize seemingly endless possibilities from a gorgeous 3-D delivery to the development of an entirely new fabricated world.

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Slide Show Presented for Class:

  1. […] American Animated Film: The Digital Evolution […]

  2. Gemma Rubio says:

    Very interesting article.

    Thank you


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