American animation has lost something. While not detrimentally important, if not addressed at the studio level it could vastly narrow the variety of content. American animation has lost it’s sense of artistic aesthetic. To be clear I don’t believe this is something exclusive to American animation. It’s more of a large studio problem. America just happens to have a lot of big animation studios.
This loss of aesthetic largely came about with rise in CG animation. However, it’s not restricted to this type of animation. Let’s back up for a second and let me explain exactly what I’m talking about.
What sets animation apart from live-action more than anything is that everything is hand-crafted for that film. From the landscapes to the faces on the characters. While live-action still has visual development (costumes, sets, etc). Production is still largely restricted by making it look as realistic as possible. Even when you look at films that are grounded in fantasy (Pan’s Labrynth, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) you’re still held back by realism.
Not too say that this bad. In fact, it is down right amazing when you are able to create a world that looks real no matter how ridiculous it might actually be. However, when you no longer have to hold to reality there are some interesting directions you can take.
When you have absolute control over the medium you can make your world more accurately represent the story. The most recent best example does actually come from 3D. Mostly in the form of the design of the emotions from Inside Out. For the most part, each character was designed to reflect their personality. Sadness small, blue, and modeled after a tear drop. Anger was red, blocky, and rigid. Fear was all squiggly, bent out of shape, and all around spastic. So on and so forth.
Joy, Sadness, and Disgust could have been modeled more distinctly but that get’s into a much different discussion about diversity and women in the industry. The point is, the characters were able to be shaped to their personalities. This doesn’t even take into account the design of the rest of a films world. However, this is restricted to Riley’s mind world. The outside has to reflect reality as closely as possible. This isn’t necessarily case for every 3D film but it’s quickly becoming the trend.
Another example from 2D animation would be Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When your in the surface world, you have a lot of hard edges. Lots of squares and triangles. In many ways, it mirrors rigidness of Milo’s world. One where everything is straightforward and defined. Thus no room for his fantastical voyage to a lost city. Plus, the surface world is cloaked in darker hues further adding to the depressing tone. Sure, it may look like our world but the artist’s were obviously not going for photo-realism.
Now when Milo first enters Atlantis, we get much brighter hues and less rigid shapes. Thus marking the joy Milo initially finds and signifying his crossing of the threshold. These sorts of design choices in animation can add an unconscious depth for the audience. A layer that helps suck the audience in even more.
So what does this all mean? Well like I said earlier, this isn’t necessarily just an America problem. It’s more of a problem with big animation studios. Looking at Studio Ghibli films, they tend to all have similar design aesthetics as well. This basically means that when a studio gets big enough, design becomes a branding issue. When your films at least look similar, it’s easier for the audience to recognize a studios work. Since it becomes about branding, it basically means your films are easier to sell.
In much the same way certain directors can have their own distinct, recognizable styles (Zach Snyder, Quentin Tarantino) so can studios. Why is this a problem? Simply put, the art of the medium gets pushed aside in favor of money. You can’t really fault anyone for this because after all, it gets movies made.
The real question is how can we we have both? A money making movie that still has a more unique look and feel. Maybe we can’t but, no matter what, it won’t happen until technology get’s a little further. What makes different styles easier in 2D rather than 3D is because there is no barrier. None. As a 2D artist, you take what’s in your mind and put it on paper. It’s literally that simple. The only thing standing in your way is your own artistic ability.
When it comes to 3D, you’re blocked by the level of technology and your own personal experience of the technology. Take hair for example. Hair is incredibly hard for 3D since you’re basically trying to animate millions if not billions of individual objects. That puts a tremendous strain on the computer and software. With 2D, you can get away with treating hair as one object. If you do that with 3D, you basically get a beanbag chair strapped to somebodies head.
So, what is the solution here? Frankly, there isn’t one. A reason, I suspect at least, why 3D has lost it’s distinct design aesthetics is because it’s more expensive. For 2D, you can change aesthetics on the fly. For 3D, there are a lot more steps between initial idea and final product. Plus, if you want to switch styles half way through, you pretty much need to start from scratch.
Until technology get’s more advanced where the barrier between artist and 3D gets thinner, we’re stuck. The best thing to do now is to enjoy the films being made and continually come up with ideas that push the technology.