2D animation dead? No, but SHOULD it be?
“2D Animation is dead.”
You hear the phrase all the time, in spite of recent 2D releases, the likes of which make it to the top of the Oscar short list. Whether it’s dead or not, today we’re going to do something very different and look at reasons why 2D should be left in the past and abandoned completely from here on out. What case can be made for that?

First of all, let me tell you why I’m writing this editorial. (No, it’s not “to get hits on a website.” I truly could care less about such things, personally. Not much less, but a little.) 2D hand-drawn animation is one of my life’s passions. I consider myself a passionate person, but I only have a few that make it to the very top of the list, and animation (2D specifically) is right there.

Why, then, would I argue it should be abandoned?!

I came to the realization while working on an upcoming book I’m publishing on Creativity that in order to get a full understanding of a certain topic or idea, you must consider all angles. If people say “2D is dead” then we must understand WHY, and why that might be good and bad. For that reason, let’s go all-in and consider reasons we as creators might completely walk away from a tradition that began more than one hundred years ago. No hyperbole here, only actual, reasonable rationales. By understanding these reasons, we better understand both 2D and 3D animation.

1. 3D Animation is Easier

Controversy on top of controversy! There are animators who will tell you that 3D animation is most certainly NOT easier, and will argue that point until you slowly back out of the room and run to the safety of your car. Stay for a moment and hear me out.

Animation is animation. It is not “art style” or even medium (2D, 3D, stop-motion, etc). In order to get beautiful movement, you must apply the exact same principals in 3D that you would in 2D (or 1D or 4D or any other D you’d like to consider). Because of this, no form of literal animation is “easier” or “more difficult.” So we must turn our attention to PROCESS instead.

If only it were this easy!

If only it were this easy!

Let’s say you have an animator who is a master of movement. Somehow, without any experience animating (which is impossible, but this is Hypothetical Land) she has a grasp of the principals of animation the likes of which would make Glen Keane envious. It would be a waste to let her skill go unused, so it’s up to us to put her to work on an animated film.

In order for her to animate in 3D, she will need to learn a piece of animation software. It might be Maya, or Max, or RenderMan. (EDIT: As Paul points out, RenderMan is not technically software to “animate” in. Thanks for catching that!) Learning a new piece of software is hard, but manageable. With some dedicated classes and a handy reference book sitting alongside, our Fantastic Animator can put her existing animation knowledge (ie. movement, flow, timing, etc) into the 3D space and have rigs dancing about on screen with the best of them. Another animator can also link their scene next to hers and the character will transition perfectly, both artists using the same rig already created.

In order for her to animate in 2D, however, she will need to learn draftsmanship (drawing) at a masterful level. There are no reference books to check when you run into an issue with the graph editor here, because there is no graph editor. While you can take classes, those classes are merely a push in the direction towards a lifetime of practice. The skill required to keep a character consistently drawn and on-model is astounding, and it’s a wonder any artist even attempts such a ridiculous goal.

Don’t take my word for it, go try.

Get some paper and do 100 drawings in a range of poses and try to keep the character – who you didn’t design yourself, by the way – looking identical in size and shape throughout. It’s a nightmare.

It is not that 3D animation is inherently easier than 2D, because again “animation is animation.” It is the skill needed to bring animation to the screen that differs. One requires a moderate level of comfort in a particular piece of software. The other demands a mastery of drawing that very well might cause Leonardo DaVinci to set down his quill and toss his sketchbooks into the trash bin.

The truth is there are fewer and fewer artists every day that can pull off the drawings needed to make beautiful 2D animation. This is because animation is so much an apprentice/master style craft. You NEED a more experienced animator to show you where things have gone awry, and the fewer there are to do that in 2D, the fewer new 2D masters there will be in the future.

Certainly we can use digital tools to lessen the need for every frame to be drawn, as in limited-style animation, but then we must ask ourselves if this is worth while. Because:

2. Computers are Superior to Humans (Detail)

We’ve already got a nice fire going, so let’s throw another can of gas on it, shall we? The simple fact is a computer is capable of a level of detail and perfection than no human hand is going to come close to. Don’t believe me? Try to pull this off by hand:

Brought to you by 3D Animation

One could argue “Well, you just don’t do those sorts of shots in 2D; you plan differently.” Then the question above remains: Why? Why limit yourself when the technology is right here at your fingertips to pull off a shimmering, glistening, geometric ice castle being conjured up out of a snowy mountain cliff? Why go backwards and do things that are more difficult and much more limited due to the human element? Why not embrace the future instead of living in the past?

These are questions that need sat with and answered by every and all animators, whether your focus in 2D, 3D, or another type entirely. We MUST ask “Is this the best way? Would this story be told better in 3D? Would the characters connect with the audience from screen to seat better if it were live action? Do these beautifully rendered shots of skyscapes and ocean waves really push the purpose forward or should they truthfully stay on the cutting room floor, no matter how ‘pretty’ they are to watch?”

Using technology for the sake of technology is just as fruitless as doing things “the old way” because that’s how they’ve always been done. If the new way is superior, it is a fool’s errand to grasp tradition for no reason other than nostalgia. As artists, we should know why we choose the mediums we choose, and that choice should never be “because some other artist used this one time.” Being inspired by our art ancestors is a wonderful thing. Comparing ourselves to them, or worse trying to BE them, is the fastest way to failure. You are you, and they are they.

3. Computers are Superior to Humans (Subtlety)

I ran this “What Makes 3D Better” idea past the supremely skilled Tom Bancroft in the hopes of getting his thoughts on the subject, being that he’s one of the best 2D animators currently living. (If you disagree, just go watch some Mushu scenes.) He was kind enough to share his perspective on subtlety in animation. From Tom:

One thing that I can concede that 3D (and the animators behind the machine, of course) can do much better than 2D animation is Subtlety.

Extreme subtlety to be more accurate.

I animated some of the most subtle scenes of Disney’s 2D modern age’s most subtle film: Pocahontas (like her thinking about her dead mother). I can attest that even with the best clean up artists in the world working on those scenes, its incredibly hard to show a character barely moving for an extended amount of time and make it look good on a large screen. And at Disney, in the 2D days just like today, we wouldn’t just hold a character drawing for any extended amount of time because they would go “dead” and look like they were part of the background.

Pocahontas by Disney

But in Computer animation? No problem. Barely moving something is easy and remains ever solid. No wobbly lines- ever. And the best CG animators have taken great advantage of this ability of the computer with even the first Toy Story having some really subtle moments of acting. I have heard that many CG animators look at 2D animation as “vaudevillian” acting/ performances because to them they look very rudimentary and over-preformed. There’s SOME truth to this since 2D animation acting works better with broader performances and we 2D animators needed the drawing ability of a Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, James Baxter or Ruben Aquino to pull off that kind of subtle control of your drawings.

Has the pendulum swung too far the other direction in CG animation? Yes, I think we’re seeing that now. Ultra realistic animation performances have given way to CG animated films that can feel like watching a live action film and, therefore, loosing the magic of what is at the heart of animation: Believable characters that are imaginative and fantastic in some way.

Big thanks to Tom for his insights, and be sure to check out his animation podcast with his brother Tony at Taught By a Pro.

It’s also important to note his point of “and the animators behind the machines.” Obviously contrary to what many non-artists think, the computer doesn’t “do all the work.” When I say it is superior to humans, I mean that as a tool it has a greater degree of accuracy. It allows an animator to do things a pencil doesn’t. As said before, animation is animation.

In Part 2 of this article we take a look at a few more reasons 2D should be dropped for good, and then one single very compelling reason why the pain, effort, and life-long endeavor that is hand-drawn animation deserves to stay out of a lonely grave and continue on until the end of time.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment (hopefully reasonably, but yell if you must) below and discuss the ideas listed here. The purpose of this article is to bring things to the table for deep thought on why we do what we do, instead of doing things blindly. Discussion is necessary if we are to truly understand our own reasons for what we spend our time and energy on. Given the amount of overall time and energy animation requires, scheduling time to talk about the “why” is time very well spent.