The Sad End of Disney Hand Drawn Animation

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Disney Movies, Features, The 626

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Published on April 17, 2013 at 12:01 am with 79 Comments

[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

If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

You can read past columns of The 626 by clicking here!

Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.

Other MiceChat columns by Jeff:

From The Mouth Of The Mouse

Dueling Disney

The Disney Review

Jeff co-hosts the weekly podcast Communicore Weekly as well!

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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79 Comments

Comments for The Sad End of Disney Hand Drawn Animation are now closed.

  1. The Princess and the Frog suffered from poor marketing too. It was less about the film and more about “hey remember those popular 2D films we made in the 90s? Wouldn’t you want to see something like that again”? The promotion puts too much pressure on the film itself which is quite a shame because had this film been released much sooner it would’ve gotten the credit it deserved instead of being considered as just a marketing ploy for the African American demographic.

  2. I am tired of people ONLY judging Princess and the Frog by its box office returns. Yes, that is important to the bottom line, but what is also important is it was just as good a film as Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph. The problem that no one wants to address: America had a problem with an African American princess. Period. Even the argument about voodoo being “too much for young children” was racially motivated, as NO ONE complained about witchcraft found in other films. Stop blaming the lack of success on Princess and the Frog, and lay the blame where it should rest: America’s taste (or lack there of). Although artists may not be “Cranking out cells” for a movie, that does not mean their talents cannot be used in other ways. Once you take the artists out of Disney, you are left with Magic Mountain.

  3. What a truly sad day, to eliminate the foundation the Walt Disney Co was built on. I personally will miss 2D animation, It is the only animation I like. I strongly dislike (can’t say hate) 3D/computer animation, I don’t even like pixar really. I knew Princess and the Frog was my last hope, and while I thought it was an amazing movie (a new fav in my family with a true role model for a princess who understands you need to work hard for what you want in life and with great music!), and was disappointed others did not see it the way I did. I will miss you old school animation! Animation will never be the same for me again; I guess I will just have to watch the classics over and over…

  4. In a world that has produced Avatar, the last airbender andThe Legend of Korra, you can’t tell me that animation is dead. If your 2D films aren’t making a return you probably are making poor films (i.e. Home on the Range, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, etc.). There’s still a place fo great 2D films, it’s just a question of making them.

  5. I find it indeed, very sad that the WDC has decided that hand drawn animation is a thing of the past. I find CGI very big on color and texture, but lacking in emotion and personal connection. While the stories of Toy Story, Monsters, etc are very well crafted, they lack the visual beauty of movies like Snow White, Bambi and Hunchback of Notre Dame, (probably one of the most beautiful creations from the studio). Beauty and the Beast certainly used the best of both. The ballroom scene was crafted artfully and held the emotion of a true classic.

    Secondly, the hand drawn creations took an art style, ie. impressionism and used to entertain as well as educate. The Asian influence used in Bambi showed us all the beauty of this technique and never once let us realize we were being educated. The CGI creations show us no style, no art but instead bold bright colors that are often irritating over 90 minutes with little light variation other than the use of creative shadowing and shading. The use of 3-D is completely lost on those who are visually impaired while the hand drawn can still be appreciated by most.

    I remember the 2nd rise of the Disney Company when the triumphed with Lion King, B and B, Mermaid and Aladin. Hunchback was in there too as well as Pochahontas. All brilliantly done and beautifully told. This was the rise of a studio that remembered their roots and their quality.

    Toy Story 1,2 and 3, Cars 1 and 2, Up, Monsters, etc all look the same. While there are textures from denim to pavement crafted well, the stories are superb and the voicing done artfully, the beaty of the visual art becomes expected, predictable and frankly boring.

    I will miss the art. I will miss the heritage and I will miss going to see an animated picture. If I want CGI I will stay at home and play a video game.

  6. I’m not sure if this has been raised yet, and as upset as I am over the loss of 2D Animation, I am heartbroken over the loss of such talented artists like Reuben Aquino, and co.

    The loss of 2D would have been easier to take for me if I had

    This news, plus the closure of LucasArts, leaves me with an un-Disney feeling.

  7. 3D animation is a great art form, but I think it is silly to believe it replaces 2D animation.

    2D animation needs a hero; look back to the 1980′s; Disney was in a creative slump, Don Bluth left the company and started making films which took away from Disney’s bottom line. Disney was forced to be better, and they did do better with films such as “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit” and “The Little Mermaid.” If a 2D film from a third party could compete with Disney in the future, Disney would become very very very interested in 2D animation again.

    And while it is true 2D animation lives on TV; it is in a lessened state. Shows like “The Simpsons” “Family Guy” and even Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb” use a very basic, almost limited style. While humor overcomes their visual problems, they still are very basic visually compared to the best of 2D animation. However it can also be argued limited animation saved the medium in the 1960′s, maybe it will have to save it again. But I don’t want to see another limited animation era again.

  8. I wonder if 2D animators will eventually work as contractors on various projects. Maybe we will see a 2D musical here and there. Here’s to hoping.

  9. Walt Disney created the animated feature film, with “Snow White”.

    The company has a moral obligation to show loyalty to its own creation.

    Disney’s recent 2-D films haven’t flopped because they were 2-D – they flopped because they just weren’t very good films, and didn’t live up to the Disney standard. I love classic Disney animation, but I didn’t much enjoy “Princess and the Frog” or “Brother Bear” or “Treasure Planet”. I found the crude style of animation on “Hercules” & “The Emperor’s New Groove” to be cheap and TV-cartoon-like.

    The studio has put out a string of weak 2-D films, yet they expect the public to just blindly accept whatever second rate efforts the studio tosses to them? Sorry guys, it doesn’t work that way.

    The last Disney animated film I really loved was “The Lion King”, and before that “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. They were great. That is what the public expects from Disney. Those three classics represent the standard they should be reaching for, rather than abandoning art form.

    If Disney makes great 2-D films like those three classics, you can bet your bottom dollar that ticket-buyers will flood the theatres to see them. If they put out crap, 2-D or 3-D, the public will stay away.

  10. This is very sad, they should just keep the studio for rides and tv shows at the moment, and rethink their marketing once they realize it’s their marketing’s fault, not because it’s not cgi.

  11. Everyone acts as if humans are no longer involved in the animation process and computers do it all by themselves. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The computer is simply a tool used by the animator, and the result is only as good as the animator behind the tool.

    Walt was all for innovation and use of technology. Why else would he have developed transportation systems like the Wedway? Why did he develop audio-animatronic people and animals? Was the House of the Future something to which he was opposed?

    Do you expect Disney employees to use typewriters in the era of computers? Should all Disney correspondence be done with stamps and the U.S. Postal Service? Would a telegraph be preferable to a telephone? Maybe Disney employees should be required to drive a horse and buggy to work.

    Tools change. That does not mean that Disney has lost “its sense of identity in such a profound way,” as Dusty Sage put it. Disney is about entertainment, not about paintbrushes. Others call it shortsighted, as if controlling costs is more shortsighted than refusing to adapt to new technology.

    Get over it, people. Companies that refuse to change with the times go the way of the dinosaurs. Just ask Kodak.

  12. I agree that as any company, the Walt Disney Company should keep up with the times / markets / trends, etc. There was a time when the Walt Disney Company was in the lead with animation. This slipped when other studios were introducing CG animation and more and more video games, etc. were improving with the graphics and things. So the younger audiences were more accustomed to the visual stimulants that come along with CG.

    Walt Disney’s generation and “baby-boomer” era of animators were most gifted at the 2D animation and story telling. Now we have my generation and younger who are more gifted with the CG animation and the story telling of today.

    Eventually something else will come along. As far as which company comes first? Who knows. It all depends on the leadership of that company. Walt had a vision and drive to encourage people go his direction…after that it was left to whoever was placed in charge to go from there….for better or worse….

    Perhaps someone else will start small as Walt once did and grow his or her company in their way and will suround themselves with inovative and creative people once again without the over shadowing clouds of shareholders. Of course then they could one day sell to the highest bidder and get swallowed up and then we’re back to square one again…

    We shall see! =)

  13. If Hanna-Barbera didn’t kill animation in the ’60′s, this won’t, either.

    • Actually one could make the argument that limited animation saved animation; if only through reducing the cost and keeping it in the public eye until the animation revival of the 1980′s came about. (an essay on it here: http://fredseibert.com/tagged/HB%20essay )

      However I do not want to repeat the limited animation age to save 2D animation. That is why Disney shutting down their 2D studio, is sort of scary.

  14. That rumbling in the southern California ground is both Walt and Roy rolling over in their graves, seriously a sad sad time at Disney even tho Iger and pals are sitting on a even larger pile of money.Big frown to Lassiter……

  15. Does this include the artists at the Disney Parks?

    I know that they no longer make the custom watches at Virtuosity on Main Street in Disneyland. The only other place I’ve seen sketch stands was at Off the Page in California Adventure. Are those guys gone now too?

    :(