3 Reasons Why “Klaus” Is a Game Changer for Animation

Why Klaus is a game changer

Chances are that you have already seen Sergio Pablo’s trailer “Klaus” and maybe you were among the many people whose jaw dropped. Gorgeous 2D animation shaded like a 3D CGI movie! Unbelievable!

In this article I want to discuss why this film (or rather the possibilities of the mysterious technology behind it) could mark an important milestone in animation history, and how it might signal the return of 2D in American feature animation.

Here is the trailer in case you haven’t seen it (or want to see it again):

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1. It’s not imitating

There is one big problem with 3D CGI: In its early stages it doesn’t “automatically” have the appeal that a quick scribble or some rough colors done by a skilled artist can already have. Only after a lot of time and work those grey models start to look appealing.

And what is used to develop the look to come out of the 3D production chain? Beautiful 2D concept art! It can create a “final” look so much faster, which is why every CG production uses mock-ups and blueprints created with traditional drawing and painting techniques. Especially in cartoon styles, the 3D result often times is a pretty direct “imitation” of 2D aesthetics, weirdly blending realistic lighting with not so realistic, stylized motion. There are some truly amazing pieces of 3D work that come pretty close to the 2D originals it was inspired by (motion-wise: the new CG Loney Tunes shorts, Hotel Transylvania, Peanuts Movie; look-wise: Paperman, Feast), but you could argue that those methods are always “just” an imitation.

Multiples and Squash from 2D to 3D
Some things that are easy to do in 2D need a lot of perperation and know-how in 3D. (c) Warner Bros.

Many people complain that a lot of CG productions simply don’t have the charm of the original concept art and maybe this is because of the imitation step literally separating two different “worlds”.

Klaus doesn’t have that problem.

2. 2D is a more direct animation technique

In “Klaus” the final image probably looks nearly identical to the concept art – simply because it doesn’t switch dimension. A final frame looks like it was created with the tools of the concept art (which it probably wasn’t – at least that’s what I hope for the sanity of the colorist). It brings the end result and the initial vision so close together. And this probably is the most important strength of this approach.

Until recently it was pretty laborious to give an animation a painted 2D look. While a single image can be done much faster in pure 2D, faking 2D in 3D has been just so much more effective for creating many pictures. This is why very few people attempted to actually paint animation – there are some glorious exceptions, but seriously this is an insane and unhealthy amount of work, which is why I hope that the “Klaus” team found an effective method to speed things up.

Beautifully shaded still
In “Klaus” every frame looks like it could have been the concept art for itself. (c) Sergio Pablos Animation Studios

But while the shading sticks out as the highlight, I think it’s the drawing underneath that might be the main advantage of this technique. Many good 2D animators (one of them is Glen Keane) talk about how your pencil or brush is like a direct extension of your mind and feelings. You can just let all your emotions flow into your strokes and, for example, create a very strong and “emotional” line of action to build your character around. In 3D you don’t have this dynamic moment of transfer from your mind to canvas. To pose a character you need to touch many controllers, shift something here, nudge something there and you need to have a lot of skill to make a pose appear to be full of flow and energy. The spontaneous flow that just seems to happen in 2D isn’t spontaneous at all for 3D.

In the “Klaus” trailer you can see them using the dynamic and directness of 2D many times. Many poses have a flow that might be doable in 3D, but these are drawings created by an animator who could really feel the flow at the time of creation.

Strong arc pose
Pose from the trailer with a very strong arc. It’s just a few strokes for a 2D artists. (c) Sergio Pablos Animation Studios

On top of that 2D allows you to easily optimize the shapes. Something that is a challenge for 3D rigs. Look at the pointy elbows here.

Still from "Klaus"
Look at how beautifully gentle curves flow into pointy edges. (c) Sergio Pablos Animation Studios

They contribute so much rhythm and contrast to the pose, but there is no way you would ever model a triangular elbow into your 3D rig. In 2D this is just a little touch done as you go. In 3D an animator couldn’t spontaneously make the elbows more pointy if it wasn’t a supported feature of the rig.

3. It’s stealing an advantage from 3D

Now, this point is a bit of a mystery for me but for some reason 3D feature animation resonated so well with the audience, it pushed 2D animation almost completely out of the market. I honestly never quite understood why. Amateurs often claim they like the “realism” of 3D, but I suspect they just mean the shading.

With Klaus we have a 2D animation style with glorious shading – this could potentially be the revival of 2D.

Even if they shaded it frame by frame by hand and didn’t find a super effective automatic method, even if the story turns out to be bad, this is a change of direction that hit hard in the heads of many animators, including me. Now I can no longer understand why we were all so focused on faking 2D in 3D. Faking 3D in 2D just makes so much more sense. 2D offers so much freedom and spontaneity. Admittedly, you need a lot of skill to draw such perfect 3 dimensional head turns and paint such beautiful light like in “Klaus” – but if you can, why keep the 2D to 3D step to potentially suck the life out of your creation?

Bonus Conclusion: Let’s all live in peace

Now let’s make one thing clear: this is not about what technique is better. There is room for all the styles, techniques, and technology. There is no reason for one to replace all others or for one to die out. Everything has strengths and weaknesses. Think about stop-motion which is the undisputed king of creepy styles. It lends itself perfectly if you’re going for an eerie feeling.

It’s just that not every combination makes the most sense. Honestly, if you want to make a cartoon that feels like 2D, why put all the effort in to fake 2D in 3D? Doable, certainly – but it loses many advantages of the original medium and you need to plan extremely well (which, yes, can work out). Often hybrids make sense – even “Klaus” has 3D doors, because those are just a pain to animate in 2D, and Laika made stop-motion and 3D go hand in hand.

Still from Boxtrolls with and without CG extras
Laika uses CG not only to add more background characters, but also to create face replacements that can then be 3D printed. Source: cinefex.com

Personally, I just don’t understand how I could be so blind to completely underestimating the possibilities of bringing concept art to life in concept-art style. Since no one can really tell the future or how the market reacts it’s hard to say if the approach used in the “Klaus” trailer will change the industry soon, but I strongly believe it has opened our collective eyes to the fact that we were (and are) too focused on faking 2D with 3D, while the solution might be the other way around. Sure, I am interested in finding out the technical details and if all this leads up to a good story, but the lesson here is bigger than this little impressive trailer and alas not a new one: Techniques and technologies are tools. Don’t let tools dictate your vision, make the tools to create your vision!

What do you think about the “Klaus” trailer? Do you think this technique could be the future of 2D animation?

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J.K. Riki

I don’t know if it would be the future of 2D animation (frankly I think the best future lies in variety) but I do have to say that this trailer was incredible. The whole time my mind fought between “Is this 3D?” and “This has to be 3D, right?” and “But it’s so fluid and beautiful!”

I cannot wait to see how this turns out. It is by far one of the best trailers I have ever seen. I was at the movies the other day watching Tomorrowland, and I was amazed by how poor so many of the trailers before the film were. They were lifeless, and this small little clip has more soul than entire films recently released.

Can. Not. WAIT. 🙂

Sabina K

Klaus is gorgeous.
There is a risk when it comes to those ‘new’ animation techniques. People complain about lack of 2D feature films, but when they get them they don’t care. (Just compare the box office results of Song of the Sea and the 3D movies from 2014). The Book of Life didn’t do as well as the other movies too. My guess is because it looked different. I know that artists were interested in that new approach, but the regular people probably were confused by it. I’m worried this might happen to Klaus too. It will get tons of attention from artists but very little from regular people(I hope I’m wrong). It’s really brave to take that risk, I know that only passionate people are able to do that and I can’t wait to see more of their work. The trailer is astonishing.

Conzeit Craftmused

Well, this has been a long time coming. there’s a japanese software in development called Cacani that is all about this.

In regards to realism in 3D, I think it’s not just lighting but also the more complex cinematography the built in sense of place. Without the actual 3d spaces it is much easier to go for hanna-barbera like setups where character simply scroll from left to right. Of course, this can be done in 2D like the japanese have shown with their ridiculously detailed action scenes but it isnt as much of a given in the 2D medium.

I think the solution to this dimensional conondrum is as follows:
1-3D not trying to look like reality, embracing it’s own medium. David Oreilly fueled that in a big way.
2-both 2D and 3D expanding to look like eachother, merge seamlessly and either of them being applied when it makes sense.

But ultimately animation should go for any number of dimensions, workflow or aesthetic that best conveys the story. I mean, didnt LEGO movie feel incredibly tactile and alive even though it was all 3D? who would have thought REMOVING points of articulation would do that?

Chris

I been writing articles covering the possibility of traditional animated films making a comeback. As more trailers and short films come out celebrating traditional animation I feel like we will see a feature film within the next couple of years. I mean heck Brad Bird mention he wants to do a traditional animated film in the future.

I do agree Klaus is a game changer! Just a beauty of this film gave me flashbacks of traditional films of the past. It really does feel like they took concept art and brought it to life! I can’t wait to see more of these films and definitely the behind the scenes of how they created this.

muriel rich

I think this will be the dawn of a new golden age for 2D ^.^

William

A number of viewers are keen to watch humorous movies, but I like to watch terrible videos on YouTube.
Legendario.

Jim Richardson

In the Klaus trailer, notice that almost ever shot is locked down giving your attention to the appealing animation, color, shading etc. I can spot 2D because the drawing lines are alive, ever so slightly, whereas CG model outlines stay consistent.

The camera can be in constant motion thru out a scene in CG only because it can. Sometimes, I would prefer CG to just keep the camera locked down and let the animation performance move us instead of framing.

There is a lot of appealing animation in this trailer, which makes me want to see this fun Pre-Christmas story without a mix of more Superheroes.

Mikko Rantalainen

You probably want to checkout free open source software called Blender 3D. It has “Toon BSDF” shader and “FreeStyle” extensions suitable for this kind of rendering style.

You still need lots of skill to create the scene and the character models but the actual drawing/rendering and coloring is done by Blender 3D.

For additional details see following links

https://www.google.com/search?q=blender+freestyle

https://www.google.com/search?q=blender+cycles+toon

https://www.google.com/search?q=toon+BSDF+freestyle

Mikko Rantalainen
Rafael

Good article on the pros and cons of each tecnique. I wonder though, what does this have to do with “2D American feature animation”, as the headline suggests? This isn´t an american production…

Elliot

Great article. I think to answer the mystery of why 3D became so popular, from the perspective of someone who grew up during that transition, it seemed like there was a complete lull in animation in general in the mid-late 90s. Just the other day I realized I’ve never seen Disney’s Hercules. A ton of people i’ve talked to over the past couple years (mostly non-animators) haven’t heard of or seen the Iron Giant. Thus, when Toy Story came out and blew the audiences out of the water, every studio thought it’d be a great idea to only make movies look like that.

but I agree. Why on earth do the general audiences find cgi more appealing???

Omocha

Sadly, but trailer was very boring and animation isn’t so good, that somebody position it.

Silas Knight

It’s really cool to learn more about animation. I like how you said that this movie doesn’t switch dimensions, so it’s more direct. I think it’d be so cool to work on animated movies like this.

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