Alive and Animated: Classical Traditions Make a Comeback

Classical animation is dead.

That was the salvo Disney fired around the world in March of 2002 when they shuttered most of their 2D operations and released hundreds of animators responsible for creating the kind of hand-drawn art audiences came to cherish in modern classics like The Lion King and Aladdin.

“Anybody with money listening to these guys, it scared them from doing anything classically for a long time,” says Vancouver Film School instructor Jim Inkster (pictured right), who teaches digital ink and paint in the one-year Classical Animation program.

The structural and philosophical shake-ups at the near 90-year-old animation giant were perhaps due in part to the tantalizing box office and awards success Pixar had been scooping up with its 3D-animated features like Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Within a few short years, 3D movies became extremely popular, drawing on the voice talents of seemingly every A-list actor.

But to long-time VFS animation instructor and project mentor Moose Pagan (pictured below), the frenzy surrounding 3D feature films and the industry’s current push to return to the fundamentals of classical animation aren’t so surprising: “I remember in the ’90s when, all of a sudden after The Lion King, every single studio everywhere was punching out classical films. It just went mad. And then around ’96, that was the peak. Around two years ago, it was the same thing for 3D.”

Disney’s string of underwhelming 3D features like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons proved that there was something missing from the big picture – as if their vision for animated feature films had been lost.

And then a new day arrived. Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar appeared to be an acknowledgment that maybe their earlier predictions for the future of animation were off the mark. As The New York Times noted when Pixar guru John Lasseter grabbed hold of the creative reins at Disney, “it seems likely that Disney may receive a much-needed re-education.”

“One of the first things out of [Lasseter's] mouth,” recalls Inkster, “was that ‘we’re going to start producing classical animation again. We’re going to start producing short films again. We’re going to honour the tradition of Disney.’”

And that tradition continues to be irrevocably tied to the basic principles of 2D animation, which reach beyond feature films to television series and shorts, all the way to the notebook doodles and hand-made flipbooks made by artists dreaming of drawing for a living. A passing familiarity with various software programs, as Senior Instructor Dieter Mueller (pictured below) notes, doesn’t imbue that same tradition; animators require much more to survive in this industry.

“A computer can’t give you good composition,” he says. “It can’t give you good design. It can’t give you good animation. It can’t give you good story. You have to know how to do all those things. and the best way to learn all those things is through pencil and paper.”

That’s exactly where students begin their year-long journey at VFS; the first intensive term focuses heavily on the basics of drawing, character design, perspective, composition, and layout. From there, they begin to get deeper into storyboarding, effects animation, colour theory, digital ink and paint, and a host of elective courses designed to broaden their skill sets. (Check out What You Will Learn in Classical Animation here.)

The world of television has also experienced some growing pains in the evolution of its animation techniques. On the small screen, Flash software has had the biggest impact on the classical animator.

“[Flash] is not really made for this type animation, but people beat it into submission into actually making 2D animation” says Inkster. The result has been some of the most visually unique series in recent years, such as Happy Tree Friends, Being Ian, or The Amazing Adrenalini Brothers. Many studios gravitated towards the same style and Flash quickly became the industry standard.

Responding to the demands of the industry, VFS’s Classical Animation program introduced a Flash project as part of the curriculum, comprising the second of two short films students create during their year. While there is hand-drawing involved in the process, the majority of the work is in learning to create “quality motion,” as Inkster puts it.

Not surprisingly, things are changing again.

“Five years ago pretty much everything was done in Flash and very little Toon Boom,” says Mueller, “which is software that is comparable to Flash but it’s much more animation-friendly. But there seems to be a shift now that is going more to the use of Toon Boom.”

Along with working in Toon Boom, VFS students also cut their teeth in Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects to keep their skill sets relevant to the demands of today’s industry.

“It is nuts these days,” says Jon Izen (pictured left), a Classical Animation graduate who has spent over 10 years building upon his foundation of traditional skills and serving as the creator and driving force behind series like The Very Good Adventures of Yam Roll in Happy Kingdom and Dex Hamilton: Alien Entomologist, as well as the award-winning short film series, Black and White. While unable to replace his training in the fundamentals, widely available animation software has definitely given him a leg up in the industry.

“Between 3D, After Effects, Flash, and audio and editing software, any individual has the ability to do mind-blowing work.”

A more recent grad, Bianca Beneduci (pictured right), exploded onto the scene through the film festival circuit. Her student short Popped won the $10,000 Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Nickelodeon Animation Festival. From there, Bianca landed a gig across the globe at Boulder Media in Ireland. “I’ve been working as a 2D animator on a TV series lately,” she says. “The training I got [at VFS] gave me most of the skills that I need to use daily at my job. Without the training, I wouldn’t be where I am, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m supposed to.”

The drive for a more competitive 2D animation industry has spawned the creation of devices like the Wacom Cintiq tablet, allowing studios to move towards higher efficiency while simultaneously returning to classical animation techniques.

“Imagine an iPad with a pen that you could just draw right on there,” says Inkster. “Rather than drawing onto paper and scanning that paper, you can draw straight into the computer and animate the scene the way you would classically.”

One of the most recent examples of a production that used Cintiq and Toon Boom technology is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. The Oscar-nominated film marked Disney’s philosophical homecoming and is the first of a number of upcoming classically animated movies they’re preparing to release, which bodes well for the 2D world.

“2D skills are more important now than they were when Flash was at its peak a few years ago,” Pagan says. “Everybody’s using these Cintiqs, and you’re actually drawing – you’re just not drawing on paper.”

Even Pixar has rededicated itself to revitalizing animation’s roots. In a recent VFS guest speaker lecture from Dylan Sisson, Technical Artist for Pixar RenderMan, he recounted how the lighting and shading techniques in the 3D-animated Up were designed to reflect the 2D landscape art of longtime Disney artist Mary Blair. (You might recognize her concept art from animated films of the 1950s like Cinderella or Peter Pan.)

That message was again reflected when Dylan Brown, the creative director for the Vancouver-based Pixar Canada studio, visited VFS for a special presentation. He talked about “finding the truth within a story” through subtleties of posture, movement, and dynamics – the kind of skills and understanding students learn in Classical Animation.

It’s all part of a positive outlook for the future of 2D: the ability to draw, to bring life to a character with your bare hands, is once again at the top of the list of skills studios are looking for today. While the traditions of classical animation are alive and well, the world has changed and that means animators today require the right training if they’re going to keep up with the industry.

To Mueller, the effort is worth it in the long run:

“You’re creating life. You’re creating a character that seemingly has life and personality, and that’s a pretty cool thing. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that for a lot of folks.”

Learn more about VFS’s one-year Classical Animation program here.

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