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.


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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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Olubunmi john

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!!!

Olubunmi john

Hmmm…great insight mr.englander,i can’t help agreeing more with you…im anxiously awaiting your next post!!!

Sabina K

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.


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! 😉


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!


But I love that style lol!!

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

Josh K

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.


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.

Philip V

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.


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

Woolie G.

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.

カ アウ

Totally and 100% agree.


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


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.


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

Michael L.

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


dude this just inspired a post of my own, thanks


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


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!


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

Carolina M.

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.

Jordan S

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


i agree that experimentation is important, creativity will die without some breathing room. it’s mostly about preferences really, i like all sorts of animation from all sorts of sources, there are many very beautifully animated japanese anime films, also studio ghibli is amazing! all of those movies are tops and i watch them again and again. howls moving castle being one of my very favorites along with princess mononoke. but the thing is, like you said it’s all about the story, or the characters. even if the show is geared towards children, if it’s well done i will watch it. spongebob seasons 2 through 5 are the best), angry beavers, ren and stimpy, powerpuff girls (90s version) , dexters lab. but again disney makes a lot of amazing films, the gestures and flow are fantastic and engrossing. it’s good writing paired with talented and devoted animators. if someone wants to imitate that there is nothing wrong with that, who knows if it might evolve from some other influence in the future? gathering all sorts of experience allowing it to digest and mix with other such interests can be recreated into something wholy different. so take inspiration from where you can! !


Sure there are a lot of animated films that are original in terms of style and storytelling. The most surprising one was Minions, which told the story of some comedic sidekicks in a toughing and funny way and it did cost less than the average Hollywood Animated Film. Also Illumination seems to be the only company who realizes that other studios apart from Pixar and Disney could adapt a visual style for all of their movies. It makes you comfortable. Doesn’t seem that all of the animated studios should do it, though.

tyler johnson

That’s a good point that more unique animation styles would look better than the more generic styles sometimes. I would think that would be a good way to make your film look much more unique and stand out from the crowd more. I would think that cartoons and animations would be a lot more interesting if there was more variety.


Wtf? Disney isnt even that smooth. Why should i go for Jerky lifeless animation when Im not on a budget? I just hate when artist always draw in that awful art style. Where they have the round eyeballs, the dot eyes, smoldering eye brows, thin neck, thin body. It all looks the same. Cant people be more original and not use what they learned at a university because its “dynamic”? All those new Disney movies look the same what with the eyes too big for the head. Annarexic bodies.


I’m not an animator, but I find Pixar-style body proportions and–especially–mimics, with all its exaggerations in brows and lips movements, extremely annoying.


Your examples are not great, but you are very right. We suffer from a massive Pixar-imitation problem. Most do it poorly, but everyone tries to imitate anyway. Meanwhile, the world of art is vast, and it’s enough to surf Pinterest for a few hours, to discover amazing art styles. The challenge tho, is 3D is not very friendly to Style, most tools are designed for photorealism. On top of that, if a solution is great, and works, and it has been polished to perfection in decades of research and experimentation, of course the big budget studios are going to want a slice of that. Why dare to create something new, original, if it’s a risk.. ? Of course, Pixar itself keeps changing and reimagining and pushing the boundaries of their own style. And nobody achieves anything worth anything without risk and experimentation. Don’t expect most big studios to want to take the risk tho. At least, not if the audience is perfectly fine with what they get.