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

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  1. Couple points. Igar had been a fantastic CEO. The fact that he green lighted $1 billion plus to redo California Adventure is a big deal. Plus he also green lighted the new Fantasyland and soon to be announced upgrade at Hollywood Studios. Igar also personally came up with the D23 fan club. All doing this and much more netting Walt Disney Co over $4 billion of profit !!

    All that aside I think it would have been better served even from a ” PR” standpoint to reduce the size but keep the majority as there is still room and appetite in the world fir something handmade.

  2. My heart sank so fast when I caught the tweets coming from Cartoon Brew regarding the lay off of Animators from the Walt Disney Co that I had to post it on Mice Chat’s Facebook page (along with as many updates as I could find in order to confirm as much as possible); because Cartoon Brew is made up of not only Animation Fans? But also the Animation Industry. I certain;y felt bad that it was overshadowing the posts regarding the Gumball Rally ….

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/breaking-disney-just-gutted-their-hand-drawn-animation-division-81043.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/disney-will-layoff-people-in-the-animation-division-80635.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/business/breaking-disney-shuts-down-lucasarts-150-staffers-laid-off-80498.html

    Right now? the Walt Disney Co is on my sh@t list – they’ve spent so much money purchasing both Marvel and LucasFilms to profit off their existing brands (because schilling cheaply made over priced merchandise to kids seems more of a priority to the Company); yet they didn’t waste time shuttering Lucas-Arts / Disney Interactive / Traditional Hand Drawn Animation Department (so many lay offs this year for Animators, even Dreamworks Animation had to restructure and lay off 1/3 of theirs – and my biggest fears have come to be when hand drawn animation is no longer deemed relevant because cgi animation is more profitable in theatres – now its moved on to television programming as FOX cancels The Cleveland Show AND the Walt Disney Co canceled the production of another season for CLONE WARS); then failed (again!) to follow up on CAL-OSHA recommended changes @ Disneyland / DCA (do Park Guests like paying full price admission knowing there are E Ticket Rides & Attractions closed down? I sure as hell don’t!) ….

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/business/breaking-big-layoffs-looming-at-dreamworks-77655.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/business/dreamworks-will-layoff-350-employees-78471.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/ideas-commentary/was-rise-of-the-guardians-a-victim-of-the-bill-joyce-curse-75236.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/tv/lucasfilm-cancels-stars-wars-the-clone-wars-78996.html

    http://www.cartoonbrew.com/tv/fox-cancels-the-cleveland-show-81419.html

    If part of the Walt Disney Co’s complaint is they lost revenue due to poor entertainment sales? Then re-think your strategy (1) stop selling over priced multi disk bundles – I sure as hell didn’t buy a blu ray player to end up with a dvd disk 2) offer the same bonus content regardless of what consumers purchase 3) a premiere blu ray version of a prior dvd release marketed as a diamond (or platinum) edition should include all of the existing bonus content + new bonus content (not less bonus content!). And I thought Universal Studios was the only Company that double / triple duping you into buying the exact same content on a different package (now you can add the Walt Disney Co (rolls eyes). And please don’t get me started on how Walt Disney Pictures spent $ developing Henry Selick’s; only to cancel what would’ve been another award winning stop-motion animation film by saying “No we can’t market this film” (but they sure as hell can waste money on anything Jerry Bruckheimer wants) ….

    Finally? Walt Disney Co (& Warner Bros’ Cartoon Network) are failing to understand their audience who <3 Animation made for Television (especially Animation that has more of an Adult Fanbase). Part of the Disney Co's error was moving most of its Television Animation to DisneyXD (I'm not paying my Cable Co more $ to watch Disney Animation, obviously neither are most Consumers). It makes me sad to realize the Disney Channel ONLY has 3 Animated Series geared to a broad audience (FISH HOOKS, PHINEAS AND FERB, GRAVITY FALLS), then decided to end one of their best award winning Television Animated Series (TRON: UPRISING) because they couldn't market it to kids (hello! this is a show with a HUGE Adult Fanbase! please put it on the Disney Channel, ABC, ABC Family @ a reasonable hour vs midnight on DisneyXD). The Walt Disney Co isn't the only one guilty of ending quality Television Animation due to the same excuse of "not marketable to kids" (Cartoon Network sh@t canned GREEN LANTERN, YOUNG JUSTICE, THUNDERCATS, SYM-BIOTIC TITAN without caring that each series is being left without a conclusion to the over all story arc). This begs me (& others) to ask, what the fuh-hell is wrong with executives @ networks – don;t they realize that an Adult market is just as significant vs just appealing only to kids (so that you can schill cheap over priced merchandise to said kids?)! I guess this is the death of adult cartoons (unless its on Adult Swim) ….

    http://whatculture.com/tv/the-death-of-adult-cartoons.php

    http://www.uproxx.com/gammasquad/2013/01/tron-uprising-likely-aired-its-last-episode-last-night-thanks-to-disneys-fear-of-bronies/

    Conclusion – If profits from an existing brand are all that the current Bob Iger regime cares about? Then do us all a favor and retire a.s.a.p. you d o u c h e (thank gawd I can’t afford to become a D23 Member! I’d be too busy demonstrating @ the Conventions!). Same for every Network which only wants to market Animated Series for kids just to schill toys and kid meals (you're killing a fantastic art form that appeals to a wide age group). I would hope the future provides better treatment for Anaheim Cast Members (because the current direction of shoving the moral down the toilet is not the right direction to take) as well as Industry Animators (whether they do stop-motion, hand drawn, computer aided) and – wake up – John Lasseter (aren't you supposed to be championing animation as an art form?)

    Yes, I'm sorry this situation overshadowed honoring the loss of Annette Funicello (she will forever be my Pineapple Princess) –

    C J

  3. So I have spent a couple days now watching old 2-D Disney animation and today checked to see what my library had in the way of cartoons. The 2006 Disney SingALong Songs “You Can Fly” edition has clips from from Peter Pan, Dumbo, Pinocchio and more. Kids will see this artwork and respond to it, just the way I did to Mickey and other 1930′s full animation. One of those kids will be the next Tim Burton, who revived stop-motion for us Harryhausen fans. We mustn’t fret overly much.

    Now the Annette thing…that’s still sad to me, that she was so easily overlooked by the Current Suits.

    Lynne

  4. And “Blam!” offended me after the first five seconds of exposure to it. Yuk!

  5. No lesson about the popularity of 2D animation can be gleaned from Princess and the Frog. White people will not go see a movie about black people. That’s why, if a major release is made about black people, it stars a white person to make it palatable to the the public at large. You don’t have to delve too far into the movie industry to see that. That’s why Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer STILL have to go begging for work, accepting minor roles in major movies. A black princess cartoon that is accepted by a white audience? Keep dreaming.

    Wreck-it Ralph as a black character? Bye-bye box office.

  6. How can a company like Disney (not Igerland or Eisnerland) buy out George Lucas, show huge profits, lay off all of it’s hand drawn animators, and can a bunch of Lucas Studio personnel and keep his own job? I was fortunate enough to hear Don Hahn speak at a conference at the Disney Resort and at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Bob Iger’s mantra is the antithesis of what the creative force such as Don Hahn stands for. Don Hahn has more creative genius in his little toe than Bob Iger will ever have. Ludicrous at best! Bob Iger has turned out to be just as bad as M. Eisner and in fact possibly worse. He keeps trying to find out ways to cut back on expenses, overhead, and all of the other fabricated excuses he can to lace his own pocket. Walt Disney would be rolling over in his grave right now along with Roy O. and Roy E. When a company is raking in the dough like Disney is presently how do they rationalize raising hotel rates, park entry fees, A.P. Rates, food, refreshments, and merchandise. Also is there a conflict of interest with board members being formerly or presently affiliated with Starbucks when they are now popping up all over the park. Starbucks was doing the same thing nationally up until about 5-10 years ago when they started closing stores. Walt Disney was a creative genius, risk taker, and a wonderful person with a clear vision. The current and past C.E.O.s are only in the business for their ego, fleecing of the public, and are narcissistic at best/worst.