Is 2D Animation Coming to an End?

Hayao Miyazaki.jpg       Introduction

      In recent news, legendary animator and movie maker, Hayao Miyazaki, who with created renowned movies such as Spirited AwayPrincess Mononoke, and recently The Wind Rises announced that he would be moving away from traditional animation and would begin work on a short three dimensional (3D) computer generation animation video about a caterpillar for the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. While this isn’t his first use of computer generated images in an animated movie (ex. Princess Mononoke), this is the first time he is not using hand drawing along with it. In an article posted by the media website, Vulture, when he was asked about his decision to make an computer generated movie, he would respond with this.

I think talent decides everything….More than the method, what’s important is the talent using it. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about a method, whether it be pencil drawings or 3-D CG. Pencil drawings don’t have to go away, but those who continue to use the medium lack talent. So sadly, it will fade away.

 As sad as it is, Hayao Miyazaki has a point. Over the recent years, the art of two dimensional (2D) animation has slowly become lost to the film world as more three dimensional films become the norm. But it is to be expected as technology further progresses and new means of creating animation take over.

A Brief History of Animation

       For this history, I will be focusing on American animation history rather than global animation history, though I will make mention to other country’s animation as the situation calls for it. Animation has had an extensive history that would span just over a hundred years as what can be considered the first animated film emerged in 1908. Entitled Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl, it featured a basic animation of a man who encountered a series of transforming objects.


Later in 1919-1920, Otto Messmer would create the one of the first and most iconic cartoon characters, Felix the Cat, who would also be one of the first animated characters to be marketed.

The first cartoon to be slapped onto everything from newspapers to bombers.

The first cartoon to be slapped onto everything from newspapers to bombers.

Enter Walt Disney; With Walt Disney’s success with the animated short Steam Boat Willy (Featured Image), which was the first animated short that synchronized sound with animation, he would soon set the standard for 2D animation. On December 21st 1937, Disney Animation Studios would release what many would consider the first full length animated movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was composed entirely of hand drawn animation. From there, more animated movies were made through hand drawn animation such as Lady and the Tramp, Pinocchio, and Bambi.

Though during the sixties and seventies, 2D animated movies would experience a decline as companies such as Disney would focus on creating live action movies and sparsely create animated movies. Enter Don Bluth.

One of the Greatest Animators of all time.

One of the Greatest Animators of all time.

Yes, Don Bluth , who I consider to be one of the greatest animators of all time. He originally was a part of Disney Animation, working on projects such as Sleeping Beauty. While Disney was lacking in 2D animated movies, he would become the genre’s savior by creating the movie The Secret of NIMH. This movie would not only become recognized as one of the greatest animated movies of all time, but it would also challenge the standard of exposing children to darker concepts such as on screen violence, lab experimentation, and death. Previously, adult themes were unheard of in animated movies with the exception of a few (ex. Felix the Cat by Ralph Bakshi and Watership Down). Don Bluth would also help redefine the standard of what 2D animation could be used for by being the first to use the medium for video games with the releases of Dragons Lair and Dragon Lair 2. This would help drive Disney to resume their animated movies with the release of films such as The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective.

What would soon follow would be known as ‘The Disney Renaissance‘, a period where Disney was churning out multiple successful animated movies such as The Little MermaidBeauty and the Beast, and Tarzan almost non stop. However, as technology advanced, 2D animated movies began to decline as 3D animated movies became to become more popular.

Still holds up to this day.

Still holds up to this day.

In Japan, 2D animation was also finding its renaissance Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) by Hayao Miyazaki and Akira (1988) by Otomo and Izo Hashimoto, who many consider to be one of the greatest animated movies of all time. This was also the time where anime as a television show was starting to become more mainstream, leaving the original comics where they had previously existed and become more available to the main market.

So, Why is 2D Animation Declining?

     Well, in my opinion, there are a few reasons that 2D animation is becoming less common in movies despite having a stronger presence in television.

  1. Hand drawn animation can be more costly to produce than computer animation. While some of the animated movies today can cost hundreds of millions to produce (i.e. Frozen cost an estimated $150 million to make), they have more options for release than earlier 2D animation movies had at the time with the innovation to straight on demand, VOD releases and more lenient international releases. When 2D animated movies were released, production companies had to make their money on either the Box Office or home release, which was more difficult if the movie was underwhelming in the box office. So, the budget to profit ratios for both 2D and 3D movies can be considered close.
  2. 2D Animation can also be more time consuming to create than the computer generated counterparts. While computer generated movies can take months to produce, 2D animated movies can take several months to years to be made.
  3. The main view audience can be fickle when it comes to a movie’s presentation. What can impress people one year, can be deemed unimpressive the next. When Steamboat Willy was released, people were amazed that Disney was able to fully sync audio with film. But after some time as the practice became more common place, expectations were risen and the standards for what animation could do had to be changed. The same goes for the transition of 2D to 3D animation as people got bored with the commonly recurring use of 2D animation. With movies such as Pixar’s Toy Story, people got more excited for the new technologies that were emerging with computer generated animation and craved for more of it.

Is there any hope for 2D Animation?

     Despite its decline, I still think that there is a future for 2D animated films. While traditional methods of drawing each and every panel of film is fading away, the animation style will still be around. Digital drawing using tablet technology can help create the animation that is used for the movie while hand drawn images are used for storyboard designs and conceptual ideas. Recent movies such as The Princess and the Frog (2009),Winnie the Pooh (2011), and The Wind Rises (2013/14) have shown that 2D animation can still find a mainstream audience that would admire and appreciate the artistic style that is incorporated into the movie as each line of every scene is drawn.

There is even an attempt to bring back 2D animation to mainstream culture as in 2014, several Disney veteran animators such as James Lopez (Paperman & The Princess and the Frog) and Bruce Smith (Tarzan & The Proud Family) have come together to begin production on a fully 2D animated movie entitled Hullabaloo, a steam punk based movie with two female protagonists.

Let’s just hope that the artistic style that many of us grew up with in animated movies doesn’t die.

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