The History of Computer Animation and its Dominance Over the 2D World

By Joshua Wood

Computer Animation, what does this mean in today’s entertainment industry? As technology evolves, we see the progression of animation improve right before us. An early use of computer animation was seen in the sequel to the 1973 film Westworld, called Futureworld (1976), which is a science-fiction world set in a society where robots live among humans. The sequel incorporated 3D wire-frame imagery which was used to animate a hand and face in the film. The fall of 1994, debuted the first full-length computer animated television series, ReBoot. A series that followed the adventures of characters who lived inside a computer. In 1990, however, was the year that first introduced computer animation to the animated film industry.

The 1977 Disney film, The Rescuers, was a box office hit that soon led to the ambitious creation of its successor, The Rescuers Down Under (1990), which incorporated computer-generated animation throughout the film alongside the traditionally hand-drawn animation. For this project, Disney used a program called The Computer Animation Production System, CAPS for short. The program was used to digitally ink and color all animated cels. Which got rid of the need for inking and coloring to be done by hand, as well as cut down production time and the cost of films. As you could imagine, this was a huge step forward in Disney’s production. However, Disney did not completely jump into the computer animating world blind. The first time they used computer animation was in the 1989 film, The Little Mermaid, and they only used it at the end of the film which featured a rainbow sequence. Disney was essentially stepping their toes in the water by subtlety putting this at the end of their film. Following that year would be Disney’s next big step towards computer generated films. This was extremely experimental, especially considering that audiences might have rejected the idea of animation being created by computers entirely. So, producers went with a safe option, which was to test run the computer animation in a sequel to The Rescuers. Before this, a sequel to a Disney animated film had never been done before. And as much of a milestone as this movie was, it did awful in the box office and probably due to the fact that it had multiple plots that weren’t entirely cohesive, and not the animation itself. Nonetheless, its innovative use of computer technology would later be the basis of Disney’s later animations along with a number of animators studying the film’s techniques and sequences.

Following The Rescuers Down Under, more films began to integrate 2D and 3D animations. Subsequent Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, would later take advantage of the CAPS program in many of their scenes. However, CAPS was not a Disney invention. It was developed by Pixar, which at the time was only a small firm that had recently spun off from Lucasfilm in 1986. Pixar had worked alongside Disney animators in order to create the experimental film. It wasn’t much longer after this collaboration that Pixar Studios would produce the very first fully computer-animated feature-length film, Toy Story, which would be released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1995.

Toy Story became the highest grossing film of 1995, with $192 million just in the US and $362 million worldwide. Following the success of Toy Story was Toy Story 2 which came out four years later and even earned more money than its predecessor. Almost a decade later, Toy Story 3 became the first animated film to make over $1 billion worldwide. After Toy Story was made, Ed Catmull who was then a software engineer and now the President of Pixar said, “At that point, none of us knew what we were doing. We didn’t have any production expertise except for short films and commercials. So we were all complete novices. But there was something fresh about nobody knowing what the hell we were doing.” Catmull later comments on Disney’s incorporation of the latest technology of that time, “We grew with hand-drawn [animation], done the best at Disney Studios. It was very subtle and very emotional.” Together, they made the first push in computer animation that would soon accelerate the genre.

After the massive success of Toy Story, Disney went on to create A Bug’s Life and the sequel to Toy Story, Toy Story 2, wrapping up the end of the 90s for computer animation. After Toy Story 2, Pixar Studios decided to break off from Disney. Pixar thought it was unreasonable that Disney owned all the rights to the stories and their sequels, despite Disney’s only use being marketing and distribution. Pixar went on to create feature films such as Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars, each one being box office hits. In 2006, Disney decided to outright purchase Pixar Studios after seeing Pixar’s amazing talent and skills. Pixar was able to remain its own company and keep their name after being purchased. With the combined efforts of the two companies and their troubles behind them, Pixar was able to release Ratatouille in 2007 under their new parent company. They later created successes such as WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 by 2010.

While Disney and Pixar were receiving massive success for their computer animated films, other companies began to pop up. Before Pixar released Monsters, Inc., DreamWorks Studios released Shrek earlier that year. Which was the studio’s biggest success, surpassing their previous films in the box office. Prior to Shrek, the studio released Antz, which was their first computer animated movie.

With the animated film industry seeing a boom in computer animation, what does this mean for 2D animation? Some are saying it’s a dying era and they may not be too far off. The last 2D animated film that Disney released was Winnie the Pooh, and this came out in 2011, more than half a decade ago. Following this movie, however, was Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. All of which were huge successes in comparison to Winnie the Pooh. Disney has stated that there are no 2D animated films in production nor is there plans to make any more in that style. And this is a shame, coming from a studio that had pioneered the traditional hand-drawn medium way back in 1937 with Snow White. So, with the end of Disney’s 2D animated films, what does this mean for the future of the medium? Well, maybe it’s the end of fully 2D animations, but the medium’s aesthetics still continues on in the digital world. Movies such as Reel FX Creative Studio’s Book of Life, Sony Pictures Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and DreamWorks’ Madagascar, still continue to use 2D aspects in their films. Whether it’s through their character designs or with the use of ‘squash and stretch’, which is a classic animation technique for exaggerations in facial features and body movements. This isn’t excluding Disney either. In 2016, Disney released Moana, which used traditional 2D animation in the form of living tattoos on one of the main characters, Maui. The tattoo, dubbed “Mini Maui,” was rendered in graphic 2D animations across Maui’s 3D frame. Mini Maui moves around the body of Maui and even plays a key character in Moana. While this is a nice callback to Disney’s roots, it doesn’t mean Disney will create another 2D animated film in the near future.

Now, does this mean it’s all computer animations from here on? As it stands, most animation companies have made the switch over to CG animation entirely. The only company that’s still producing 2D animation is Warner Bros. Animation. Founded in 1980, Warner Bros. is best known for Looney Tunes and DC Entertainment. The company was split into two sections, Warner Bros. Feature Animation and Warner Animation Group. Warner Bros. Feature Animation has made features such as Space Jam and The Iron Giant, but they haven’t made a feature length film since 2003 when they made Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Warner Animation Group was then created for developing theatrical animated films, and became the successor to the dissolved hand-drawn animation department Warner Bros. Feature Animation and is still in production. The department of Warner Animation Group has, however, only made a handful of feature length films since it’s creation in 2013. The first movie that was released from the studio was The Lego Movie in 2014 and it became a huge success with a gross of almost $470 million. However, The Lego Movie is a computer animated movie as well as the rest of the feature lengths following it. The only 2D animated films that are being produced by Warner Bros. are Direct-to-video features. This means they’re not released in movie theaters and are instead released to DVD or Blu-ray. So the era of 2D animated films isn’t quite over yet. In fact, Warner Bros. Animation is currently working with DC Entertainment on producing three films that are set to come out in 2017. The first being Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, which is set to release in late April. So 2D animated films are still being produced, just not for the big screen.

It’s safe to assume that we won’t be seeing a 2D animated film at the movies anytime soon. While the medium does persist, it won’t gain the traction it once had. And even if a studio did produce a new 2D animated feature-length film, it’ll be for the sake of making it in that style. In fact, there’s a project called Hullabaloo, that’s been crowdfunded on Indiegogo, and it was created by veteran Disney animator, James Lopez who has worked on films such as The Lion King, Hercules, Princess and the Frog, and Paperman. The story is a steampunk adventure about a brilliant young scientist named Veronica Daring and her vigilante alter ego, Hullabaloo, and it’ll be split into four episodic shorts. How long each episode will be, is unclear, but the creator anticipates to make the project into a feature-length film with the right funding. On the Indigogo page, the first line of the About page is, “Hullabaloo is a 2D (hand-drawn) animated steampunk film that hopes to help preserve the dying art of 2D animation; and by supporting this project, you get to help save 2D animation from an untimely demise.” The project has reached its fixed goal of $80,000 by 588% with $470,726 raised. Needless to say, there is a push to have it produced. But again, it’s for the sake of having a feature film made in 2D animation. Which at this point, might be the only way a 2D animated film is going to get made for the big screen. As computer animated films become the standard for the animated film genre, creators would have to make the conscious decision to produce a film in that style just for the sake of doing it, as sad as that may be. While some are trying to keep the 2D era alive in spite of the 3D dominance, most have embraced it. In the recent Disney film, Moana, the animation team pushed to create an engine just for animating water, since water is a key factor in the movie. The team was able to make advancements in water animation (which is one of the hardest things to animate properly, alongside hair physics) that’ll affect future CG animated films for generations to come.

Even now technology is evolving all around us. We continue to strive for the latest and greatest, especially in the entertainment business. For nearly 70 years, traditionally hand-drawn animation had been the only type of animation there was. And only in a matter of two decades did the medium cease to exist. This is the effect of the rapid development in technology, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. Currently, we’re seeing the rise of VR gaming (Virtual Reality) and VR headsets are now on the market. At the moment, they’re primarily used for video games, but how long will it be before we get to experience an animated movie in VR. VR is such a relatively new technology but in all honestly, what’s stopping someone from creating a feature-length film that you can experience all around you? Maybe even to the point where you can interact with the film, but then it might spark the debate of whether it’s a movie or a video game. Further blurring the lines between the two mediums and redefining what we know. But that’s what innovation is: redefining what is already known and improving it. And that’s just what computer animation is to 2D animation, an innovation.