[Regarding 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'] The animation of the dwarfs themselves is something pretty much impossible to achieve in computer animation. That fluidity, that squash and stretch, that kind of stuff – it just works in hand-drawn animation. – John Lasseter
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news: Disney has laid off their hand-drawn animation staff. 2D animation is now dead at Disney.
Of course, this sort of thing is upsetting. The Walt Disney Company was built on the back of hand-drawn animation, tracing all the way back to extremely early days of Walt’s original follies. As a Disney animation fan, I’m saddened by this news, and for the folks who lost their livelihood. But as an animation fan in general, I have to say that not all hope is lost.
Let’s take a look at what happened. This wasn’t just a gutting of the animation division. About 150 folks, overall, from all aspects of the film division, were laid off. Many of those who were left in the cold admitted that they could see the writing on the wall before the layoffs occurred. Walt Disney Company CEO, Bob Iger, has been looking for ways to cut costs throughout the company, despite the fact that the stock price was pretty high on the day the layoffs occurred. With new digital technology being able to take the place of some of these folks, it makes perfectly good business sense to trim the fat, so to speak. At the risk of sounding heartless, I do understand why they did it. But I don’t have to like it.
This isn’t the first time that Disney has slaughtered their animators (nor will it be the last, probably). If you think back, almost every major release of the last few years was followed by layoffs in the animation department. Most of the staff who worked on The Princess and the Frog, the last traditionally animated film Disney released, were let go as soon as the film was completed. The same could be said for Wreck-It Ralph. The fact of the matter is, these kinds of things are commonplace. It costs the company too much to keep these folks on in-between projects, so they let them go until they have need of them again.
Is it a terrible practice to have? Realistically, yes, but from a business side, it makes fiscal sense. And that’s all many publicly traded companies care about. Even for a company as large as Disney, keeping folks on staff that aren’t actively working on a project costs them money, and at the end of the day, it’s their bottom line that counts.
And while looking at their bottom line, Disney has seen the wave of the future: CGI is in, hand drawn is out. Just look at box office returns for their recent features. The Princess and the Frog grossed under $300 million worldwide. Tangled grossed almost twice that. Wreck-It Ralph is just on the cusp of $500 million. The numbers don’t lie. It’s not hard to see which way Disney is going to swing when it comes time to green light the next animated feature. While both are time consuming and costly, the returns on a CGI film vastly outweigh those of a traditionally hand-drawn animated feature. Even with the budget of a CGI film carrying a slightly higher price tag, seeing that profit at the end of the day is well worth it for Disney’s pockets.
I mentioned earlier that this didn’t come as much of a surprise to folks in the animation division. As early as last year, they were told in pitch meetings for new stories that their ideas wouldn’t necessarily be used for hand-drawn features. John Lasseter has reportedly been known to shy away from the subject during said pitch meetings. It was pretty clear what direction the Company was heading for quite some time now.
That said, is it fair to base an entire company’s animated future on the profits of a few films? Just because one film did better than the other may have nothing at all to do with the format of the film. I feel like they are not taking all the other factors into consideration, such as the release window, marketing, title, or even the story itself. There are many things that contribute to the success, or failure, of a film. Basing it solely on the type of animation is unfair, and quite frankly, seems like a bull-headed decision; more of a gut reaction than anything else.
But the simple fact remains that now there are some great animators that are out of a job. For a Company that was literally built on hand-drawn animation, you would think they would at least try to find a way to keep this division going in some way. Even if it was just to do short films to be shown before their features, it would have been appreciated. I fear that the hand-drawn animation department as we knew it will never exist at Walt Disney Animation again. Some form of it may be resurrected in the future, after Iger has finally retired. However, it will probably be in a vastly different form.
The big question that everyone is now asking is if 2D animation is dead. My optimistic answer is No, I definitely do not think so. As long as there are talented artists in this world, hand drawn features will continue. They just may not be at Disney.
The format is in desperate need of a champion, someone who will lead the revival of hand drawn animation. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a person like that at the moment. Where is the modern day Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, Tex Avery, Hayao Miyazaki or Don Bluth? John Lasseter had indicated that he was a huge fan of hand drawn animation and wanted to continue it at Disney. Unfortunately, he’s let us down. I’m holding out hope that a new animation messiah will come. The when and where, I don’t know. But if even one studio has a huge hit 2D film, hand drawn animation is sure to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
As for those who were laid off, I think the best thing to remember is that there is life after Disney. There have been plenty of animators laid off over the years that have gone on to other companies, or even created their own, and found new success. Sometimes, even more than what they achieved at Disney. It’s a terrible moment in time right now, without a doubt. But these men and women are extremely talented individuals, and I have no doubt in my mind that they will be able to thrive in their future endeavors. Even if they are eventually forced to work in a digital world.
In the meantime, us fans of traditionally animated, hand-drawn features can do little more than complain and wait. And buy tickets to the hand drawn films of other studios.
Watch this short but brilliant montage of Disney animated films by Nick Kinder we found on YouTube (there are a few digital film clips in there as well). Just look at the artistry, the magic, the emotion and heart. The very reason you love Disney is in every hand painted cell.
I refuse to say this is the end. It’s simply a new beginning. . . right? Oh how I hope I’m right.
UPDATED: To address a few comments, I just wanted to add a few things to the end of this!
1 – I did forget to mention how Winnie The Pooh was a wonderful film that did terrible at the box office. Its poor marketing was its downfall, and honestly, made me forget to even mention it in the above column. My apologizes!
2 – I cannot play the “Walt card” on this one…it just doesn’t seem right to me. I know a lot of you are saying “Walt would never have allowed this,” but we obviously will never know for sure. Walt was one to embrace new and changing technologies, as evidenced over the course of his career. If Walt were alive today, whose to say he wouldn’t fall in love with CGI and today’s 3D technology? I, for one, honestly believe he would have. However, because of his background in hand-drawn animation, I do believe he would have kept that going in some way as well.
How do you feel about the recent layoffs at Disney’s hand-drawn animation unit? Do you think this is the end of traditional animation as we know it? Have Iger and Lasseter gone too far? Will other studios be able to successfully continue on the art form? Please leave us your thoughts below.
by Jeff Heimbuch
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