With the announcement of Studio Ghibli’s new CGI film, have we seen the last of traditional techniques?
The first full-length traditionally animated film to be augmented with computer-generated (CG) animation was Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, where cel-shading was used in one scene to produce the gears inside Big Ben. The animators were inspired by a fight in a clock tower in Castle of Cagliostro, the first feature film made by master animator Hayao Miyazaki. The Great Mouse Detective is credited with having saved Disney animation, following the massive financial disappointment of The Black Cauldron in 1985 and Disney’s shift in focus towards live-action filmmaking and theme parks.
In cel-shading, non-photorealistic computer-generated images are printed onto animation paper, which the animators can then draw the characters over. They can get past the limitations of fixed backgrounds, like all those beautiful but very static watercolour images you see behind older Disney films. This technique is particularly helpful for scenes like the one in The Great Mouse Detective since it can approximate the moves that might be made by a physical camera in a live-action film. It enables animators to use familiar cinematic language — this kind of smooth, steady motion that would be extremely tricky to animate by hand since the level of precision required is so high.
After cel-shading came CAPS — Disney’s Computer Animation Production System — created to speed up the animation process by removing the need to transfer ink drawings onto cels. We’ve all used a system something like this — any time you drew on MS Paint as a kid, you were drawing a digital image, avoiding having to use any physical resources. This, again, enabled camera movements that were previously impossible — if everything exists digitally, you can move it all around as much as you like. CAPS was licensed by Disney from a newly-independent former division of Lucasfilm called Pixar. It was this relationship with Disney that led to a $26m three-picture deal and eventually to Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film.
A big limitation of 3D CG animation is that it all looks a bit plasticky — especially on 90s computers, rendering anything other than hard surfaces was impossible. Instead of fighting against this issue, Pixar’s animators leaned in: they made a film about pieces of plastic coming to life. You can see the problems with this early phase of CGI in how deep into the uncanny valley the humans in Toy Story fall, but the toys hold up incredibly well for a film that is now nearly 25 years old.
The founding fathers of Pixar came to CG animation because they were awed by its potential, and it certainly has delivered, particularly in its replication of real life. 2019's The Lion King was described by many (although not by Disney) as “live-action”, but of course it isn’t: every frame of the film was produced by a computer. This film perhaps demonstrates both the ultimate achievement in CGI technology and its most serious problem — while the filmmakers succeeded in recreating the appearance of real animals, in doing so they erased all the personality that’s built into the original, traditionally animated version. There are plenty of other issues with Disney’s shot-for-shot recreations of their traditionally animated films, but the loss of personality certainly is a serious one.
The Lion King is at the limit of what can be called animation — animators were not actually involved with all of the production, since artificial intelligence was used to help the characters copy animal behaviour. In traditional animation, it’s said that an animator is also an actor — every movement the character makes comes from them. It works something like dubbing, but in reverse — animators listen to a voice actor’s performance and then draw the character’s expression. Often animators are assigned to their own characters, encouraging some form of emotional connection, as well as consistency of art style. When you add the interfering layer of a computer between an animator and their character, and especially when animators don’t handle every movement themselves, you lose that direct interaction, and some of the magic is gone.
Many of the current generation of CG animation directors graduated in the 1970s from the Walt Disney-funded CalArts Character Animation program, and many worked at Disney before joining (or forming) Pixar and other animation studios. These directors are trained in traditional animation, and are all, at heart, artists. Perhaps part of the reason for the failure of projects like The Lion King is that they are, by and large, directed by live-action filmmakers with no animation experience. Traditionally trained animators are able to successfully push the limits of CG animation precisely because they understand the foundational language of characters created out of thin air. CG animation is at its best when a director uses it to make something that would be impossible either with live-action filmmaking or traditional animation — using the medium to its full potential, rather than to mimic what already exists.
The same thing has happened with animation as has happened in so many other industries — computers can produce the same (or better) quality of work as humans can, and for significantly less money. Labour is expensive, and the more man-hours you can remove from a process, the more money you can make from what you produce. Most animated films are shot on “twos”, meaning that 12 frames are shown every second. Over a 90 minute movie, that would amount to 64,800 individual drawings, not to mention the occasional action scene that necessitates shooting on “ones” (24 frames per second, the same as live-action films). You can’t work animators all day and night, as much as these notoriously fastidious directors would like to, but you can leave a computer on for days without a break, a pay rise or a good meal.
The last traditionally animated film made by Disney was Winnie the Pooh in 2011. CGI has been king for a long time now, and only one of the animation giants has held out against the tide: Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Computer animation has been implemented into Ghibli films in the past, particularly to aid with fluidity of movement, but they have always emphasised the hand-drawn nature of their films — on Howl’s Moving Castle, they even retouched digital images to maintain the feel of hand-drawn animation. During production on Ponyo, released in 2008, the computer graphics department was deemed counter-productive and closed down. What, then, are we to make of the announcement of Aya and the Witch, a fully CGI Ghibli film from Gorō Miyazaki (Hayao’s son)? Does this signal a shift from the studio in the same direction as Disney, et al?
The early images released from the film are certainly worrying — the Ghibli house style looks eerie at best in three dimensions. The film will not be released in cinemas, but rather on Japanese national broadcaster NHK, perhaps suggesting a lack of faith in the project, or perhaps that it is simply a different kind of production for the studio. My hope is that Aya and the Witch will be innovative and beautiful, and that the CGI will improve as more time is dedicated to rendering. It’s impossible to judge any film from still images, especially a CGI production. Still, one cannot help but wonder whether, if this film is as much of a disaster as it initially appears, Ghibli will cease the CGI experiment there. While traditional animation is much more costly, it is also much more reliable, and it certainly seems from the outside as though Ghibli’s mission is to produce beauty rather than money (although often they manage both).
It would be an overstatement to suggest that the fate of traditional animation hangs in the balance because of a Ghibli-produced CGI film, especially one that is being released on television. Traditional animation is not, by any stretch, truly dead — smaller studios such as Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon have been producing beautiful hand-drawn films in recent years. Ghibli itself has an entirely hand-drawn project on the books, one from the master Hayao Miyazaki, out of retirement for the hundredth time. The film has been in progress for four years already, and it seems to have at least three more to go. Personally, I’m happy to wait as long as it takes — although I’d like the animators to be treated better — but I don’t run an animation studio.