Pixar has been at the fore with solving the medium’s challenges. With Monsters Inc. (2001), they created the most convincing fur-covered creature yet seen in James P. “Sully” Sullivan. In Finding Nemo (2003), Pixar created a believable and gorgeous ocean environment. The Incredibles (2004) was the first Pixar film that saw stylized humans as lead characters. Bird called the film, “everything that computer-generated animation had trouble doing”. At that year’s San Diego Comic-con panel for the movie, Bird touched on the technical hurdles of the medium in mentioning how easy it was to create an explosion and how complicated it was to animate the folds in a person’s shirt as he’s being lifted by it. In Cars (2006), their first production after having been purchased by Disney, we were exposed to jaw-dropping vistas as the cars drove across the country. In their latest films, they’ve begun finessing their work with delicate touches such as the shadows of balloons or the stubble on Carl Fredrickson’s chin in Up (2009). This is all eye candy, of course. Whenever prodded for their focus, they inevitably mention good stories and characterization being what anchors a film.
The studio has had an amazing track record. Every single one of the 10 films they’ve released [Toy Story, A Bugs’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up] has seen domestic grosses larger than their production budget. Even their weakest film in terms of characterization and story scored a 75% fresh rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. All of their other releases range between 91% to 100% fresh. Prior to their purchase by Disney, Pixar had supplanted them as the world’s dominant animation studio. Like it or not, every other studio’s success is measured against theirs. It’s an almost unnatural level of success, and it has fans and critics of Pixar alike waiting and watching for their first true misstep.
Walt Disney has been quoted many times as having said, “I don’t make movies to make money — I make money to make movies.” Pixar seems to have carried on in that tradition. In fact, we’ll close out this section with some quotes from current Chief Creative Officer of Disney, John Lasseter, because they’re heartening and give hope for the future of 2D animation.
“Quality is the best business plan.”
“From the beginning, I kept saying it’s not the technology that’s going to entertain audiences, it’s the story. When you go and see a really great live-action film, you don’t walk out and say ‘that new Panavision camera was staggering, it made the film so good’. The computer is a tool, and it’s in the service of the story.”
“Andrew Stanton always said that 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling, but you can make just as bad of a movie in 3-D.”
“The whole notion that the audience didn’t want to watch hand-drawn animation any more was ridiculous. It would be like saying the audience didn’t want to watch something made with a particular camera. Give me a break!”
“It’s storytelling. No one goes to a movie to see a particular technology. They go to see story and characters. They go to be entertained. What it was is that 2D became the scapegoat for bad storytelling.”
It’s not uncommon for an advancement in technology to capture the attention of audiences. It happened in live-action film with the addition of sound and then color. The novelty of the technological advancement does attract more attention and put more people in the seats. For awhile. Eventually people grow accustomed to the additional stimulation and, once again, begin to notice flaws in other areas of the film. The exact same storytelling flaws exist in CG that did in 2D. It will probably take a hit in popularity sometime down the road and likely for the same reasons. Though, if you’re holding out for CG to disappear entirely, you’re in for a long wait. Like sound and color, it’s here to stay. It has cemented itself as a viable storytelling medium and produced some exceptional films.
Even if it could, do we want 2D to return to its place of prominence? 2D was certainly poorly serviced as an art form in the 90’s and 00’s because of it. Why not allow it to exist in a more niche role? Why not allow the more commercial vehicles to be what they will be and allow 2D to exist as a choice of artists? The best reviewed CG films are as such because their artistic style complimented an already solid story. It’s also important to remember that the number of animated films released annually has, on average, doubled from the prior decade. More animation is always good, even if it’s not all 2D.
The 2D medium is not dead. It never fully left us. We have only touched on the big studios and the films they had a direct hand in producing. Disney still had traditionally animated 2D output into 2005 with films that were originally intended as DTV releases. While we saw no traditionally animated releases from the major studios in 2008, we did have Waltz with Bashir, a 2D CG movie created in Adobe Flash. Throughout the decade we’ve had limited and wide releases of anime. Later this month, we’ll see The Princess and the Frog from Disney. Whether we’ll see Lasseter continue to deliver on his 2D commitment remains to be seen, but things are not nearly so bleak as they may have seemed mid-decade.
Cartoon Research, Box Office Mojo, The Numbers and Rotten Tomatoes were vital reference material in the writing of this blog post.
Innovation lessons from Pixar: An interview with Oscar-winning director Brad Bird, McKinsey Quarterly, 4/2008