CGI + Traditional Animation = The Future of Cartoons?

I recently wrote a review of The Princess and the Frog (2009) – a movie made using a combination of scanned in hand-drawn images and CGI (computer generated imagery) –  for a film class I’m taking and wanted think about a couple of interesting things brought to my attention as a viewer in further detail.

Because CGI makes for very crisp, slick-looking backgrounds and hand-drawn pictures make for very rich, varied, and often diaphanous backgrounds, the combination of the two made for a visually stunning movie. That is to say, all the static (or mostly static) drawings were excellent. However, the character animation was where this and many other examples of modern animation fall apart.

The movements made by various characters’ arms, legs, and other body-parts appeared overly fluid – almost snake-like. Conversely things that should have been more fluid or bouncy (e.g., hair, flesh, clothing) appeared overly stiff – kind of like sponge rubber. This, in my opinion, is largely due to the influx of new animators who are untrained in older methods of studying movement and applying it to animation. The solution? Get some older, more experienced animators to work with and mentor these young animators.

In Jurassic Park (1993), that’s exactly what Spielberg did. Initially, experienced animators were brought in and regular stop-motion models were used for the dinosaurs, but the models didn’t have enough range as far as what they could do and they didn’t look realistic enough. Then, they tried pure CG dinosaurs, but the movement wasn’t believable (same problem I was just talking about). Eventually, they came up with an ingenious way to combine them. Model dinosaurs were built for the stop-motion animators that transmitted all the movements made by the models to a piece of computer animation software. These were used by the experienced stop-motion animators. The CGI trained animators then combined and tweened the movements indicated by the stop-motion inspired models and made the dinosaurs look prettier with texture maps and other CGI.

Theoretically, this is what they were trying to do with The Princess and the Frog: combine the best of the old techniques with the best of the new techniques to create something wonderful. The only problem was that the people doing hand-drawn images to provide the element of traditional animation were not familiar enough with the techniques used in the past to simulate realistic character movement to make the experiment a complete success. Many modern examples of character animation in cartoons either consists of those cartoons that look like they were drawn in flash (with characters whose joints move as if attached by hinges), of characters whose movement is conveyed by motion capture technology attached to a human, or by characters modeled in programs that allow for the creation of model skeletons to determine the movement of the characters. None of these modern methods are conducive to teaching young animators how to study movement properly –  especially when they are drawing by hand and there are no computers to provide artificial assistance.

There is definitely a place for traditional animation in the future of animated motion pictures. Indeed, the combination of hand-drawn art and computer-generated art raises the bar for future endeavors by Disney and other makers of cartoon movies. There are two important things to take away from looking at movies like The Princess and the Frog and Jurassic Park. Firstly, combining traditional animation and CGI makes for a more visually complex and generally prettier movie. Secondly, it is important for up-and-coming animators to study under older, more experienced animators so that they may learn how to properly use both new and old techniques. If the old techniques are entirely forgotten, the opportunity to create many fine pieces of art in the future with those techniques will be lost and animators will come to rely exclusively upon technology rather than their own talent as artists. If new technology is ignored or not used to its fullest capabilities, innovation will cease. The only way to ensure continued innovation and artistic experimentation in the animated motion picture industry of the future is to keep all the older techniques in use and build upon them with new techniques and new technologies. As with math and science, the great discoveries and methods of the future are built upon all the discoveries and methods of the past. Just try to take the derivative of a polynomial expression without using arithmetic some time and see how far you get.

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