• Wait, wait, I think I can add a little more secondary action!

Less is more… Stop imitating the Disney/Pixar style


A lot of people think that the best style for an animation film is the style that Disney and Pixar have established and mastered over the years. And true, their films often come close to perfection and are an example of excellent craftsmanship, but animation has so much more to offer… or shall I say, less to offer… Reduction is a powerful tool to make your animation stronger. Not every film needs the fluid motions of a Disney masterpiece, not every CG picture needs realistic light bounces and waxy skin shaders of a Pixar blockbuster.

Every country in the world except the US (and maybe Japan) seem to have severe difficulties building up their animation feature film business. At least in Germany part of the reason is that the investors expect a Pixar or Disney look, which is easy for said studios to do with budget above $100 million, but in Germany studios can be glad if they can scrape together $10 million. And you know what… some of those actually almost look like a Pixar film with fur and water and crowds and what not:


You never heard of this film called “Animals United”? That’s because instead of watching this film you could do things that are more fun… like an endoscopy. I could rant for hours about what is wrong about this movie and this way of movie making, but let’s focus on this: Their primary goal was to create a successful movie, so they stole the look and some characters from other animated features. They ended up with a movie that played okay in the German theaters, but soon will be forgotten forever. No heart, no soul, many talents wasted years of their time. I was so angry after watching this.

Now look at this:


Doesn’t this look horribly bad compared to nowadays? Neither the character nor the background look anywhere near as pretty as anything in “Animals United”, but Toy story 1 is a classic, one of the greatest animated films of all time (and this is not because it was a milestone in CG history). Why is that? Because the story is so great, you don’t care how it looks – even if you watch it today! The story (or at least some kind of point) is the most important aspect of a film – not the style.

Okay, my argumentation is a little wild because I compare old Pixar with recent Pixar, but I think you get my point. A good film doesn’t have to fulfill all the recent beauty standards, to be good. And now we get to the main point of the article. It’s good news that a film doesn’t have to look like whatever insane sum Hollywood can afford. It can be extremely beneficial if you no longer (more or less successfully) copy a style, but come up with a new one. A reduced, affordable one that supports your point. You will have more time to develop the aspects that you actually want to spend time on.

Deciding what you don’t need can be much more powerful, than deciding what you do need to have in your film. It not about the absence of something, it’s more about the power of a condensed selection. If you only left over what needs to be there, your film will leave a better (and, for you as a filmmaker, a more controllable) impact.

If you realize you only need very simple stick figures to tell your tale, you don’t have to set up a complicated skin shader and you can use that time to improve posing and timing. Maybe you know some of the highly entertaining Flash shorts by Bruno Bozzetto. The “characters” often consist out of simple shapes and the timing, music and sound design sell it (like this one) – that’s all he needs. Yes you could do this in a Pixar style, but you really don’t need to.


Also think about TV shows like South Park where it is not at all about a high-end look, but a very reduced style that fits the dialog-focused and sometimes very gross humor that you really wouldn’t want to see any other way.

“But these are example of short animations”, I hear you think. And I have to admit, for some reason people rather make a poor Pixar imitation than to create an original style for their feature film, but it has been done. The animated feature “The Secret of Kells”, tells a story all around the creation of the holy book of Kells. And because it’s centered on said book, the design of the film looks like it could be illustrations pulled straight from it.


Medival celtic and irish drawing styles influence, no, determine the look and feel. Big no-nos like tangents are part of the design and it all fits together perfectly with the quite decent story. Yes it’s not super-smooth Pixar, but isn’t this just as appealing and even more interesting?

I want to end with an example of how far you can pull the reduction. This music video for the song “Splitting the Atom” by Massive Attacks sets most of the elements that normal animation has aside. Very reduced color palette, mostly low-poly mechs, no cuts and… a lack of actual animation. Nothing except the camera moves.

Massive Attack – Splitting the Atom directed by Edouard Salier from Edouard Salier on Vimeo.

And I don’t know about you, but this thing blows my mind every time – and I think it’s not just because of the music. It’s because for their “story” it was the best way of telling. Hah, isn’t it amazing how this thing has a story? How you want to know where the camera is heading and later wonder what’s going on?

I hope I could give you some motivation to think outside the box. This has nothing to do with being more artsy and less mainstream, but with finding your own style or an style that fits to what you want to tell…

What do you think about this? Is the Pixar/Disney bar the one that you want to reach every time? Do you know other films that successfully did their very own thing? I would be very happy if you join the discussion and leave a comment.

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  1. But animation-wise…isn’t it beneficial to mimic the great disney way of animation…you know the fluid character movements…judging from the examples you gave (south park) or even family guy,these are cartoons that most traditional animators consider as ‘shame to animation’…even the american animators use to label the japanese anime ‘lazy animation’…though i agree with the fact that you can tell a story even with stick figure animation…but i believe someone that wants to enjoy the ‘wrath'(challenges) of animation won’t stick with a stick-style non-challenging animation…but if this article is referring to someone that wants to go into feature movie..fine! Its good to innovate,but mind you,i don’t think something with extreme poor quality will be accepted by the crowds…i can’t really blame the feature animated movies that has failed to reach the level of pixar or disney in the box office,they only wanted to tell their story in the way the audience can relate(they believe the audience are used to the HD disney and pixar style)…what should we say about the successful ‘despicable me’ franchise?…those guys(mac guf/illumination) probably did the pixar style animation…but see them today,despicable me 2 has grossed $800+m at the box office…my own opinion is..i think a good(i mean good good and very funny) story coupled with great animations(that shows brilliant timing,acting,emotion,weight…etc) and visuals can really make a great movie that the people can even accept that its something new coming out from the animation industry…thank you
    great article mr.ferdinand,you are just GREAT!!!

    • Personally I must admit that I used to consider “South Park” to be some kind of shameful cheap animation. But then I forced myself to actually watch some episodes and was pleasantly surprised. In connection to the satirical intention “South Park” is perfection. They don’t do high quality animation, they do high quality satire. The quality of their animation comes from being spot on in their simplistic style (which is not as easy as it looks) and in their best episode you even are emotionally involved (not necessarily with one specific character but you shake your head about humanity). I even would go so far to say that some South Park episodes are more meaningful than some “high quality” Dreamworks flicks. A polished, wonderfully animated CG look does not automatically gives a film a heart or meaning. Look at Tangled… without a doubt one of the most beautiful CG films ever made, animation wise you couldn’t do anything better. But the story has some severe weaknesses. The style alone doesn’t make a film good.
      And animes may have less frames and be less fluent, but in good animes the acting often is superior. They have such a close eye on human behaviour and put in so many little gestures, that you wouldn’t find in American animation.
      But, yes, striving to create the most beautiful animation is indeed a valid goal. And I just listed extreme examples to show that animation is not the core of your film, it’s just a tool. To my mind the Disney style is just a little overused – I am sick and tired of the same waxy skin shader. You could still do Disney quality animation and be inventive with the materials that make your world. The Disney/Pixar style is a good bar, but I think its about time to bring in some variations (and that can still be done on this level of detail)

  2. Sabina K says:

    Great article! I was thinking about this a lot lately. The audience’s expectations are high, because of pixar and other known companies, but that doesn’t mean all animated movies need to look the way pixar does them. Each movie that is set in different universe needs to have it’s original and characteristic art style. Like the little triangle nostrils in Madagascar. I loved that. Those are little things that really make a movie stand out from the others.

  3. alessandrocchipinti says:

    I definitely agree with your pint of view! I’m a great fun of Disney/Pixar’s style, but I accept that the story is the unique powerful heart of a film. The style is only a partner. Of course, an important partner, but it isn’t the king. Story is the King.
    John Lasseter always remember us this important lesson.

    Great article, congrats! 😉

  4. Gesù says:

    Hi Ferdinand, it was about time that some other one (except me I mean) say these kind of things to the people.
    I’d like to suggest to everybody the author Nina Paley: she made her own feature film by herself (!!!) using flash and it’s called “Sita sings the blues”. I saw this movie in Annecy some years ago on the big screen and it was awesome. She selfproduced it so if I’m not wrong you can google it and find it easily.
    See you!

  5. jeffO says:

    But I love that style lol!!

    Good post I really liked it. I think everyone should go their own path!

  6. Josh K says:

    Decades and decades of blood and sweat went into developing the Disney/Pixar style. It’s main source of inspiration was real life. That’s why it’s so highly regarded. It should be the very goal of every animator.

    You’re saying people should reinvent the wheel.

    • Wheels can always be improved, tweaked and designed slightly different.
      And most importantly:
      Different kinds of cars needs different kinds of wheels!

      • LaRock says:

        I agree with you in some aspects, but in other ways I must say i have to disagree. Disney/Pixar should be the goal for every animator. It should be considered a rival that you strive to be as good as or better than. Not every animator mimics that style. There are plenty of successful movies that are really realistic and detailed as a Disney/Pixar movie would but the characters are unique. Not all disney/pixar movies are the same either. Yes the have extremely high quality, but when fluidity and realism are your goal it is going to happen. However, you can tell disney/pixar movies apart by there style. For example, monsters inc is different from everything. Its own unique style. You’d be able to take one look at a monster and think that is in monsters inc. Even movies with people are different. Tangled is a completely different style than even The Incredibles. Incredibles has the long real skinny look about it where as tangled is different. Then there is movies that aren’t disney/pixar at all but are incredibly detailed and are amazing such as Hotel Transylvania that has fantastic realistic animation but is also unique in its style. SO i think it is not fair to say that everyone is mimicing when even each disney pixar movie is unique from each other. There are also amazing artist like Tim Burton who have been quite successful with their unique style. So i think it is a little unfair to say that every animator is mimicing when there are clearly lots of other styles. Just because someone takes great strides to make their work the best it can be with details it does not mean theyre trying to be like disney. The goal of every animator is to bring life into one of their creations, some choose realism like disney has, others go into other styles like Tim Burton.

        • Well I agree with you and that’s even the point of the article. Tim Burton did exactly that – not going the classic Disney way. He once even got kicked out from Disney. And that is exactly this non-conformist approach that I would like to see more and that some animators don’t even see as an option. I wrote this article especially for those who think that everything they do always has to be as close to Disney as possible. While there are differences between Disney films (believe me I celebrate that), they are still very close together. But if you compare concept art for The Incredibles with the concepts of Tangled you will see that they are extremely different, while the styles the films ended up to be “just somewhat different”. Yes they are in daring styles sometimes… but I just wish more people and companies would be even more daring.

  7. Philip V says:

    Great, great post. It seems that right now is the time for some studio to come forward with a different approach. Just like Tex Avery did (with Chuck Jones and Clampett) to “rebel” against the Disney style. Not because it is a bad style but because its healthy for the art of animation. It is interesting that Glen Keane who just recently left Disney wrote in his resignation letter “that animation really is the ultimate art form of our time with endless new territories to explore. I can’t resist it’s siren call to step out and discover them.” {Letter is here http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/the-full-text-of-glen-keanes-resignation-letter-59606.html }

    If animation is an art form, then different, unique styles are needed just like Van Gogh, Monet or Dali. I can’t wait to see where the art form goes from here.

  8. Clem says:

    WOW Philip V that was amazing and almost a post in and of itself!!

  9. Woolie G. says:

    The problem with any immatation is that you never really grow your own style and if you don’t have a style you have nothing. So many kids on Deviant Art are spending all their time making stupid my little pony garbage or whatever and they will never get any better at actual art and they have a million other kids telling them they are great when really they are not at all.

  10. カ アウ says:

    Totally and 100% agree.

  11. a.t.v. says:

    I like Pixar’s style much more than Disney. It looks nicer.

  12. Barry says:

    I would like the likes of Blue Sky and Dream Works to be the one stopping intimating the Disney style. Did you ever notice how cookie cutter their films feel? Its like they can’t think on their own and everything ends up being plastic. So bad.

  13. Jordy says:

    Now Frozen will be the new thing and everything will look like it. Mark my words.

  14. Michael L. says:

    I hate that the industry has become nothing but copycats. It’s like grow some creative braincells people!

  15. sam says:

    dude this just inspired a post of my own, thanks

  16. Maxoid says:

    It is a form of flattery that we imitate anyone so Pixar should be flattered. 😛

  17. Marcus says:

    More people need to treat 3D like they used to with 2D where they are trying new things! Then I think that 3D animation will surpass all other artforms. It has that potential!

  18. herrec says:

    Pixar copied their style from other places too so it isn’t originl.

  19. Carolina M. says:

    The best way to learn something is to copy it. So while you are learning it pays benefits to imitate the styles of the artists you most enjoy. Disney and Pixar are the greatest artists in the animation industry and make the most sense to imitate.

  20. Jordan S says:

    ONE WORD: BOXTROLLS. Go see it and support not-Disney-style movies. It’s amazballs.

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