The Future of Computer Animation

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When it comes to entertainment in the modern era, animation is big business. Really big business. Consider this: since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios have released eight computer animated features which have collectively grossed a staggering $4 billion — a figure which dwarfs the annual GDP of many nations. The success of the Dreamworks-produced Shrek franchise and other computer animated films like Ice Age and Happy Feet have only served further notice that computer animation will be the dominant form of animation in the future, edging out traditional 2D animation, which will likely continue in television and foreign animated programs.

Until recently, computer animation dealt primarily with 2D graphics. Increasingly, however, and as the technology advances and software programs grow in capability, 3D graphics are playing a larger part in the creation of computer animation. The translation process between the computer and the physical film used in feature making is also something which is becoming increasingly easier to deal with.

One of the main challenges facing animators in the immediate future is how to depict humans in computer animation: after all, most animated films deal with animal characters (Finding Nemo) or anthropomorphized objects (Cars). A common dilemma among filmmakers is whether or not to shoot live action films with human actors, which can be executed far more easily (and faster) than the typical animated film. (Fact: the average animated film takes about four years to complete from start to finish).

The main challenge facing contemporary animators lies in their ability to depict human beings realistically, with all the natural movements, biomechanics, and sheer physics of natural life authentically reproduced. Because of the widely understood difficulty of doing so, animating a “photorealistic human being” is considered the “holy grail” of the animation industry today. This was not the case with traditional hand-drawn animation, in which artists were free to experiment with character designs that were essentially caricature or idealized mythic figures.

And then there is the fact that computer animation extends far beyond the domain of family features: films like King Kong; 300; and the Spiderman, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Lord of the Rings trilogies relied heavily on computer animation in virtually every aspect of their production, from character design to physical simulation. Video games, of course, also incorporate various aspects of computer animation and graphics design.

A common criticism from animation purists of computer animation is that it is simply an exercise in technological know-how, and that it has all but obliterated story-based hand-drawn animated features. Despite the recent plethora of computer animated films, the fact is that traditional animation is far from over. The Simpsons Movie, which was released last summer, was a huge hit and is expected to make more than $500 million, making it the biggest animated grosser since Disney’s Lilo & Stitch in 2002. And the success of Disney’s Enchanted (which featured a 10-minute hand-drawn animated introduction) proves that the medium has retained a lot of its power. Disney is also well into production on its first fully traditionally animated 2D feature since 2004. Called The Princess and the Frog, the film features Disney’s first black princess and is scheduled to be released in December 2009.

Some industry watchers argue that while traditional animation is undergoing something of a lull, its grasp on the public imagination is far stronger than any CGI film produced to date: after all, no computer animated film has translated to stage with the critical or commercial success of Broadway shows like Disney’s The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and its newly launched The Little Mermaid.
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