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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

An Appreciation for Animation

In my youth, I was a fair artist, until that age old dilemma took hold and I was encouraged to pursue activities that would help me earn a living as an adult.  So, with my artistic desires dashed, I moved on to other endeavors.  Oh well, I know others who have experienced the same fate…  That’s Life!!!  J
But, think about the number 130,000  24 frames a second, and approximately 90 minutes.  So, about 130,000 is the approximate number of pictures that need to be produced to create an animated feature.  That number may well be much higher, when you consider that you may have multiple pictures (of multiple characters and background mattes) composited into a single frame of film.  And then… there are the storyboard drawings, concept art, and inevitable pencil test animation.  I don’t know if anyone actually has an accurate number, but I think it is very much higher, maybe in excess of 500,000.

It is very easy to, as most do; myself included for a long time, sit in a theater for an hour and a half and be entertained by animated fantasy.  I think most do it under the guise of taking our children for such entertainment, but I believe we – ourselves relish the change to escape into the world of fantasy as well.  In recent years, my journey delve deeper into the world of Disney has put me in many audiences where the art of animation is the topic du jour.  With that, my appreciation of what it really takes to produce an animated feature film has grown significantly recently, particular the true effort involved in taking and idea from concept to the screen. 

In Walt Disney’s first animated feature, the hand drawn animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there was a cast and crew of about 130 people.  In the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ soon to be classic hard drawn animated feature, The Princess and the Frog, that number swells to almost 600.  For some additional numbers:  Snow White began as a concept in 1934, premiering in Los Angeles in December of 1937 at a cost of almost $1.5 million.  Princess and the Frog was introduced as a concept in 2006, premiering again in Los Angeles in November 2009 at a cost of about $105 million. 
As my own personal footnote, there was actually another premier a few days earlier in Burbank.  Members of the D23 Club were invited to attend a premier party and screening at the Walt Disney Studios in the Studio’s theater.  My oldest daughter and I were in attendance at the party and had an incredibly good time.
Interestingly, both almost did not get made for various reasons, and both took about the same amount of time to produce, albeit the latter with about 4 time the people and 10 times the cost.  So, in about 70 years, while the time from concept to screen has remained the same, the personnel requirement and associated costs have gone up dramatically.

I wrote almost two paragraphs here about the intricacies of the animation process, when I realized just how limited and dreary my knowledge.  With today’s technology, instead of making a feeble attempt to describe the process to you, I suggest reading primers like this one on the animation process, or this on traditional animation, to get a superior understanding for the depth of commit needed to bring an animated feature to the screen.  What is important from my viewpoint is what we see on the screen.

I realize that I am a sappy old man, but, I am drawn to the classic Disney animated features, and I include Pixar in that group, because of the true attention to detail.  I find these productions to be an almost perfect blend of the arts… story, animation, voice, and music combined to create a truly magical viewing experience, with each of these components having equal importance the finished product.  And then there is that attention to detail component.  In Snow White, live actors performed most scenes so that the animators could see and therefore draw character movements, adding just enough realism to give the finished product an almost life like quality.  In Bambi, Walt had live animals brought to the studio so that his artists could add life like motions to the story’s animated characters.  First tested in Sleeping Beauty, and then used from start to finish in 101 Dalmatians, Ub Iwerks developed the Xerox process for transferring artists drawing to cels, bringing even more of the artists’ visions of these characters to the finished animations.  All of this effort adding to make these fantasy just a little more believable, after all, isn’t the real joy of watching an animated feature…  The scenes on the screen being just real enough to allow you to momentarily suspend reality.

Then along comes the computer age and CGI – Computer Generated Imagery, and the age of Pixar.  Pixar’s artists took the tried and true methods of Disney’s hand drawn animation, and figured out how to apply this new technology to the process, and WOW!!!  A whole new way of storytelling is born.  My best examples, of the level of detail, which CGI animation affords the artists come from Monster, Inc. and Cars.  There is a scene where Sully is careening down a snow slope, coming to a crashing stop at the bottom of the hill.  As the screen pans onto Sully, you can see the hair on his back bristling in wind.  Or in Cars, where Doc is teaching Lightning the finer art of dirt racing, the intricacies of the dust coming off of his tires.  Give the time and cost constraints of a hand drawn feature, I don’t think that level of detail would be possible.  I could go on…  But, if you watch Disney or Pixar features, try watching with a more discerning eye next time.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

Now a little bit on the different types of animation.  There is of course, hand drawn, CGI, Motion Capture, or Stop Motion animation.  Most of these can be broken down further, but for my purposes, we’ll stick to these.  Much of today’s animation is coming out of the CGI stable, with Motion (or performance) capture becoming a popular medium.  With this year’s Golden Globe for animation going to Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, a recent comment on a social media board proclaimed that, “Animation is now officially dead!”  Sorry, I don’t think so…  We’ll see what happens at Oscar time, but a GG for Tintin isn’t all that surprising…  Spielberg’s talent for storytelling is well established, Tintin is a relatively popular story internationally, the motion capture’s capacity for interjecting life-like action, and the Golden Globes being a more critique based award, and all lend themselves to this award.  However, I can say, I haven’t seen Tintin yet, and I doubt that I will…  It is not really a story that interests me.  The beauty in art, all art, is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye varies tremendously… hence the variety of art of all kinds available to us.  And over time, history has told us that critical success does not guarantee financial success.  With hand drawn animation, and especially as developed by Walt and his artists (even to this day), there is an amazing warmth and depth of character unparalleled in any other form in my opinion.  The CGI methods can compensates for this challenge in the depth of detail available when applied.  So far, in my experience, the Disney/Pixar artists are the only one’s who routinely take on this challenge, but, bottom line to the success of any animated classic is the combination of story, art, and music, and in this the Disney/Pixar teams are unmatched by any other in the industry.

I watch as any new animated features each year as I can, of course depending on my interest in the story.  But, it is the Disney/Pixar features that I go back to watch again and again and again.  I find most animated feature to be little more than a 90 minute collection of gag shorts interwoven by a common thread.  They are funny, and I do enjoy the hour and half’s escape, but there is nothing really to draw me back for a second look.  On the other hand, I have seen almost all of the Disney and Pixar features more than once and several of them many… many times.  Of late, The Princess and the Frog holds a particular draw for me.  It is a great story, there is the warmth of the hand drawn animations, the characters are timeless, and the music perfectly draws you into the story…  But, with all that, there is one more piece, at least for me…  The Princess and the Frog is amazingly reminiscent of Mary Blair – an artist I hold with much fondness, probably because she is also the artist behind my favorite Disney movie of all time – Peter Pan.  Princess is one of the few movies that I look forward to the credits rolling as much as the movie itself.  I think the real draw for me is being in a comfortable place where I can let my mind running wild, and explore me.  Truth be told, I think even tough guys want to be able to believe in a fairy tale life.

Finally to close this out, I recently got to sit with my daughters and watch the new release of Beauty and the Beast 3D.  The original is T’s all time favorite movie.  Over the last 20 years, she has burned through 2 VHS version that I know of, and at least 3 DVD’s.  And, there was a period from age three to four that I could guarantee waking on Saturday morning to the B&B playing in the VCR.  What the significance of Beauty and the Beast 3D, other than T literally vibrating with anticipation before hand, was the 3D component.  I have not been a really fan of 3D films to this point.  One, I wear glasses, so putting a pair of 3D glasses over my regular pair is somewhat awkward and uncomfortable.  Second, I have found most of the 3D features I’ve seen, add elements to the story to showcase the WOW factor of 3D that don’t necessarily add value to the story.  Nothing could be further from the truth with the 3D version of Beauty and the Beast.  The 3D effects here do nothing to detract or change the original classic, and everything to enhance and give great depth to an already magnificent piece of work.  Don Hahn, the original producer, and his crew did an incredible job with this release, and I think it is an excellent example of what Walt Disney called plussing the experience.  I will gladly see this version again… and again…

So I have a new found respect, admiration, and appreciation of animation, well done.  Each viewing, even repeats, is a new experience, and chance to both escape and explore the human condition.

As always, it is my hope that you draw some value from my ramblings, and I appreciate you spending some time at my blog.  Next time, I continue my developing thoughts on Walt Disney – the Man.

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

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  1. Good job, I love the animation partner,,,, May I copy later for my job

  2. Judi, you are most welcome to use my content here, I would only ask to be credited for any of my material you choose to use. Thanks Walt.