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):

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?