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How Can Traditional Film Animators Compete?

Technology is changing how animation is done, but animators are still at the heart of it. Animators are still the creative artists whose imaginations and artistic skills bring characters to life.

"Technology hasn't reduced demand for animators at all," says animator Bobby Beck. He has worked on films such as Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.

"[Technological advances] are just some of the tools animators use to influence what kind of effects you want," says Beck. "It's exciting to see how these tools continue to improve, but ultimately the core of what makes an animator great is... their ability to make a character connect with an audience and support the story."

Digital technology removes some steps, saving a lot of time over the approach to traditional animation. But artists still create all the drawings you see on the movie screen.

"Even though today's animators are working with some powerful technology, the technology isn't doing all of the work," says Beck. "There is a ton of skill, finesse and creativity involved in how you use these tools to make characters come to life in believable ways."

Animator Nick Fox-Gieg uses vector-based 2D animation software. He creates nearly as many drawings as he would with the traditional animation method. With traditional animation, you draw each frame (generally, 24 frames per second for feature films). The frames are put on sheets of plastic called cels (short for celluloid) and each frame is photographed. It's a time-consuming, expensive process.

With 2D animation software, however, you draw each frame on a computer tablet. "It's the complete removal of all the intermediate steps," says Fox-Gieg. "What really makes the new 2D approach economical is that you don't have to re-photograph. You draw on the tablet, then you just hit play. Having done it both ways, the difference in speed is amazing."

This amazing difference in speed has made classical animation economically feasible again.

Fox-Gieg explains that classic animation is the more general term that describes the hand-drawn animation approach, whereas traditional animation is the process of drawing on paper, transferring to plastic cels and photographing on film.

"The traditional process of animation, outside of fine art, is dead," says Fox-Gieg. "Basically [you can do it] if you have arts funding, if you have something that places you outside of economic necessity. In terms of any kind of commercial production, it's going to be done digitally.

"The industry began to move away from the traditional process earlier than many people think -- Disney switched to 2D computer animation in the late 1980s," Fox-Gieg adds. "[Traditional animation] probably won't return on a large scale, but we can preserve the look with new technology."

A good example of 2D animation is Beauty and the Beast, as compared to a movie like Toy Story, which involves 3D animation. Fox-Gieg predicts that 2D animation will continue to be popular -- film studios just won't be using the traditional method to create it anymore.

"I think 2D animation is viable and will continue to be, but animation drawn on paper and photographed on cels will not," says Fox-Gieg. "It should still be taught in schools... I think students need to learn the stuff that came before, but the traditional process is not something that the vast majority of people will be able to depend on commercially."

Aspiring animators should learn how to program on a computer, using all the latest animation software programs. This is true whether they work in 2D or 3D animation. Fox-Gieg warns learning new programs can be expensive and they're not always necessary. He recommends a starting with a program called Processing, which is free, if you're interested in programming. "I've worked mainly in 2D, but a concentration in programming alongside that is very important," says Fox-Gieg.

Fox-Gieg predicts a growing number of films such as Waltz with Bashir, which combined digital 2D and 3D methods on a relatively low budget.

"We're going to see more and more hybrid forms, using traditional pencil and paper to sketch out drawings and then using digital technology to finish it," says Fox-Gieg, "or sketching out only the key frames on paper and drawing the in-between drawings on the computer."

Animators have been evolving their skills alongside the changing technology. There are plenty of opportunities for animators who are willing to learn some computer technology and incorporate it into a classical animation background.

"Learning computer technology is unavoidable, but there's a lot of flexibility for those who work best in older methods," says Fox-Gieg. For some people, animation is just a hobby. It's done for fun and creative expression. In that case, learning to use complex software is not necessary.

You shouldn't let big-budget Hollywood movies scare you away from trying your hand at animation. "The majority of animation that we see in our everyday lives is either children's TV shows or large-scale 3D features, like Pixar films," says Tara Schorr. She is the coordinator of a nonprofit arts society for animators. "People come in and find that they can animate with much more ease than they thought.

"There are many, many different ways of animating and you don't need a PhD in compositing to do something really fun and make something that looks really great," she adds.

Right now, movies created using digital animation are highly popular. Digital animation is also referred to as CG or CGI (computer generated imaging). It involves creating three-dimensional models using computer software. These models are then manipulated, similar to the way puppets are manipulated.

Some digital animators are programmers who are experts with the software. Increasingly, digital animators are traditional animators who have learned the tricks of the new digital trade. Studios have moved away from 2D animation based on hand-drawn illustration. That's starting to change, however.

"We've been moving away from illustration for decades," says Fox-Gieg. "Now we're in a period where hand-drawn animation is coming back because it's become economical again. Economics drives everything."

No matter what amazing new technology comes along, people will still want to see the hand-drawn work of animators. Even a hugely successful film such as Avatar doesn't change that. Avatar was created using motion capture technology. Real-life actors performed the roles and computers were used to capture their performances.

"Motion capture serves a purpose," says Beck. "It is hyper-real and works for photo-real projects very well. However, animation is the characterization of life. That means pushing life beyond what you see. That cannot be captured. That has to be studied and then expanded on."


Bobby Beck's Blog
Career tips and links from an experienced cartoon animator

Animation Mentor
An online animation school, offering career advice and mentoring

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Free podcasts from successful animators

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