The Year of Animated Features

by Noelle Brandmier

“In the eight-year history of the animated feature Oscar, there have been five nominees only once.” Due to the incredible amount of qualifying animated feature films being produced this year, it’s looking like there may be five nominees. This is exciting, people! Get on your feet and give a great “hoorah”! Can you think of a time when there have been more animated features in theatres? It’s certainly making its mark on the industry. And what’s really remarkable is that a good portion of the films are coming from rising studios (which is a good thing for us soon-to-be-graduating animation students).

Now let’s get some discussion going on these features:  

A good portion of the films are, I hate to say it, throwaway films. Some I’ve never heard of, some unfortunately won’t make it to theatres in the U.S., and some are pretty little jewels that a couple of rising independent studios have contributed. The mainstream gems that will probably get the most consideration are Coraline, Ponyo, Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and (I’m assuming despite the fact that I haven’t seen them yet) The Princess and the Frog, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The two independent films I’m rooting for are Mary and Max (which I had the extreme pleasure of catching at the Ottawa International Animation Festival; it was an utterly delightful stop motion animation) and The Secret of Kells (which is looking to be an absolutely stunning 2D animation; I really need to figure out how I’m going to get my hands on it).

Now, I know Tony wanted me to talk a little bit about the different kinds of animation. I’ll use these feature films as examples.

Let’s start off with 2D. 2D is, to me, the classic form of animation. You can animate traditionally, which means hand drawing each frame to create the illusion of movement (usually using paper and pencil), or you can use a 2D program such as Flash or Toon Boom which can create an animation quicker. A lot of animators look down on programs like Flash because it uses shortcuts and doesn’t create the beautiful movement of traditional style, but there are a lot of us who consider them two separate styles, both wonderful in their own way. Disney is famous (for at least used to be) for its traditionally animated feature films, thus creating a great prestige behind the form of traditional 2D animation. Ponyo and The Princess and the Frog are both animated traditionally in 2D. The Flash form of 2D usually creates a far more colorful and bouncy style of animation, very suitable for television. An example of non-traditional 2D animation is Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and The Secret of Kells.

3D is the most common animation style seen today. Pixar is famous for its 3D films, as is Dreamworks, Sony, Blue Sky, and even Disney. 3D animation is created completely within the computer, the most widespread program being Autodesk Maya. With 3D, there is a lot of preparation before animating can take place, such as modelling the scenes, props, and characters, as well as a a lot of time devoted to rendering. Believe it or not, a lot of programmers and engineers get involved with 3D animation because of its technical aspects. Up and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs are both examples of 3D films.

Another aspect of 3D animation is the technique called “motion capture,” which uses sensors on actors to pick up how those actors move. It cuts out a good portion of the animation work and thus gets the film finished quicker. Unfortunately, motion capture usually has very stiff character animation (motion would be a better word, actually). Many artists in the industry are very opposed to motion capture for this reason. Why take shortcuts if the product is going to be so…emotionless? Examples of motion capture include The Polar Express and Disney’s A Christmas Carol.

Last but not least is “stop motion” animation, which uses physically built puppets and sets to create animation. For me, stop motion takes the most precision and patience. You must move the puppets very slightly, take a picture, move it again, take a picture, and repeat that about 10,000 times. Because of the process of stop motion, there are not many in the industry who practice this style, but those who do can really create beautiful animation. Coraline and Mary and Max are two examples of stop motion, as are The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride.

With that knowledge, I’ll leave you with a funny little story. My professor told our Storyboard and Layout class about a nightmare he had once back when his wife was pregnant. The professor is not exactly the biggest fan of 3D animation or anime. He dreamt that his wife gave birth to two baby girls, and she named them Maya (the popular program for 3D) and Anna May (sound it out). He woke up extremely troubled and told his wife the nightmare. She thought he was crazy.

I guess that’s an animator’s joke. Well, I laughed.