If you have been paying attention to American movie releases within the past few years, you may have noticed a stark lack of hand-drawn films. Recently, the market has been flooded with computer-generated animation, abbreviated as “CG”. Where have the hand-drawn films gone? How did something that was so popular twenty years ago become almost non-existent today? Was it simply a fad like Pogs, Pokémon cards, and Harlem Shake?
In a word: no. Though I am disappointed in myself for digging Harlem Shake out of its much-deserved grave, but I digress. Let’s take a look at the historical side of these two animation pillars.
Once upon a time (namely the early 90’s), CG-animated films were completely unheard of. CG animation at that point was essentially the Wild West. The animation technique was only beginning to become popular and realistic in live-action films, such as Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Jurassic Park (See Empire Online’s “A History of CGI in the Movies” for a more in-depth look into CG in film). Hand-drawn films dominated the industry, many of which, such as The Rescuers Down Under, incorporated CG into their films. For both live action and animation at the time, CG was only used as an addition, almost solely for special effects.
Then along came Toy Story, the first completely CG-animated film. This film essentially affirmed the use of CG as a legitimate story-telling medium, a medium not solely for special effects. The success of this film piqued the interest of every major studio. Each wanted to cash-in on this new animation technique. And from there, the popularity of CG animation skyrocketed.
Hand-drawn animation continued until the mid-2000s, where interest and profitability in hand-drawn animation gradually declined in favor of CG. What seemed to be the final nail in the coffin arrived last year, when Disney laid off its entire hand-drawn animation staff. At present, CG films are everywhere, while western hand-drawn animation is all but nonexistent.
So why is Hand-drawn animation so unpopular and unprofitable today?
First, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Hand-drawn animation has only become unpopular in the West, whereas in Europe and Japan, hand-drawn animation flourishes. So, we could assume the popularity of hand-drawn animation is cultural.
But culture is only partially the case. Economically, CG animation is much quicker to produce than hand-drawn, and uses fewer resources.
Remember, these studios are businesses, which obviously function because of money. They green light and release their films in hopes of making a profit, hopefully a large one. Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and Disney each shut their hand-drawn animation doors because of the unprofitability of their 2D-animated releases. Ever heard of The Iron Giant, Titan A.E. or Home on the Range? If you haven’t, there’s a reason as to why (Except for Iron Giant. If you haven’t seen that masterpiece, shame on you). These were each complete financial disasters for each of these studios. If these films were financially successful, we would more than likely still have an abundance of hand-drawn films.
Occasionally, a studio will take a risk, like Disney did with their recent hand-drawn film The Princess and the Frog. Though moderately successful, the film’s $267 million gross does not hold a candle to the grosses of their CG films. Case in point, Tangled grossed &591 million, while Frozen grossed $980 million.
American studios simply want to play it safe. For most of the reasons listed, hand-drawn animation is a financial risk, while CG is where the money is at. CG animation is thus the safer option.
CG animation obviously won’t be going away any time soon, if ever. It’s best to just embrace it. There are numerous fantastic CG films from the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. But if you’re too much of a purist, hand-drawn animation has found a reemergence though a very cool hybrid technique with CG, shown in the Academy-Award winning short, Paperman. Or you could go the foreign animation route and watch anime films. Just remember, good films can come in any form.
What is your opinion regarding CG vs. hand-drawn animation? Sound off in the comments below!