Pen succumbs to power of pixel

August 19, 2005

It's the end of the line for the hand-drawn Disney character. What would Walt have said, asks John Canemaker

In the 1960s, Walt Disney joked that one day he would replace his elite corps of animators, known as the "Nine Old Men", and their slow, expensive way of making hand-drawn movies, with audio-animatronic figures.

At the end of last month, Walt's joke came true. The corporation bearing his name announced that, due to a "changing creative climate and economic environment", it would be shutting DisneyToon Studios Australia next year. The studio, which turned out sequels - such as Tarzan II , The Lion King II and Bambi II - was the company's last remaining facility creating hand-drawn or 2-D traditional animation. To compete in the 3-D computer-generated imagery (CGI) arena, the house that a hand-drawn mouse built will become a pixels, rather than a paper-and-pencils, place.

As the old animators often asked themselves: "What would Walt think?"

The decision was not entirely unexpected. In the past few years, Disney 2-D facilities in the US, France, Canada and Japan have been closed, and 3-D computers have replaced all the traditional animation drawing tables at the studio's home base in Burbank, California.

Of course, future features will not be made by robots but by skilled human animators working with a different kind of tool. But the demise of hand-drawn animation at Disney is a sad and significant cultural watershed that deserves a proper mourning rather than a brief press release.

For it was at the corporation's studio that hand-drawn personality animation - an indigenously American contribution to the international art form of animation - soared to its greatest heights. For nearly eight decades, the line was king at Disney. It could express anything. From the minds and hands of many artists sprang marvels of imagination: in addition to Mickey Mouse, there were three resourceful little pigs who inspired a Depression-era nation; balletic hippos, crocodiles and mushrooms; a prince slaying a fire-breathing dragon; a puppet wishing to become a real boy; and a rambunctious duck with a short fuse.

The magical drawn lines often coalesced into an emotional arrow that could pierce audiences' hearts as well as tickle their funny bones. They enchanted generations with moments that have become as memorable as those in live-action movies. For example, animated drawings of two dogs enjoying a night on the town and a pasta dinner became an icon of romance. There was also raw emotional power in the sensitive drawing of a baby elephant visiting his incarcerated mother; in the growing love between a hideous beast and a headstrong maiden; and a fawn's heart-rending futile search for his mother, who has been shot by hunters.

Over the years, Disney drawings became more and more expressive and better able to define delicate human emotions, sensibilities and personalities. "I want characters to be somebody," Walt said in 19, one year before he begat Mickey. "I don't want them just to be a drawing." He believed that for drawings to connect with an audience's emotions, they must become believable caricatures of reality.

In the beginning, Mickey's head and body were simple circle shapes and his limbs resembled rubber hoses, a design borrowed from Felix the Cat, the reigning toon superstar of the 1920s. Soon Walt opened an on-site drawing school at his Hollywood studio to train novice animators in the art of draughtsmanship and motion studies. As their skill at life drawing increased in the classroom, so did their ability to capture life on screen. Disney drawings became a lingua franca for animators learning a new craft, and careers were made or lost at the studio based on artists' abilities to express themselves in sketches.

"I was plunged into this sea of drawing" at Disney in the 1930s, recalled illustrator Martin Provensen to animation historian Michael Barrier in 1983. "You really waded up to your neck in it... (and) you saw drawing as a way of talking and a way of feeling."

Traditional drawn animation is not dead, of course. It thrives in TV series and commercials, in video games, and in some of the most admired recent animated features, such as Belleville Rendez-vous , Spirited Away , Howl's Moving Castle and Millennium Actress , which have been marketed to older audiences.

For animators emerging from Japan and other countries, the computer has been a boon to the handmade drawing, enabling them to scan their illustrations for digital colouring and tweaking or to draw directly on an electronic tablet, then integrate them with CGI characters and effects.

American animated features, such as Shrek from DreamWorks, Robots from Fox and all the Pixar blockbusters - from Toy Story to The Incredibles - favour pure CGI. And Disney has decided to follow this trend.

There are, of course, supposedly solid business reasons for this - there always are. But, for me, as an animation historian, Disney's decision to eliminate hand-drawn animation for its features is sad. It implies on the part of management disrespect for the studio's history and a lamentable lack of flexibility and vision.

What would Walt have made of all this? Considering that the new technology of movie soundtracks put his studio on the map, and that he constantly sought out and exploited innovations such as three-colour Technicolor, the multiplane camera, stereophonic sound, TV, audio-animatronics and lasers, I feel sure he would have embraced CGI animation. "Our business has grown with and by technical achievements," he said in 1941.

But somehow I doubt he would have thrown the baby out with the bath water by abandoning hand-drawn animation. Walt was known to spend years trying to find the best way to deploy the talents of certain of his artists, and perhaps he would have found new ways to use the unique qualities of the handmade moving image - its inherent warmth; the happy accidents of the human touch; the immediate intuitive link between brain, hand and drawing instrument; the special flexibility and style that is so different from the dimensionality, essential coolness and realistic imagery of CGI.

Ultimately, Walt - an instinctive showman - knew that audiences are attracted not by technology alone, but by engaging stories and appealing characters. The Disney studio's recent string of expensive hand-drawn feature failures, such as Treasure Planet , Brother Bear and Home on the Range , were the result of poor story choices and corporate meddling in the creative process, not the wrong kind of animation.

As Steven Spielberg, who is a great admirer of Disney, recently said: "If storytelling becomes a by-product of the digital revolution, then the medium itself is corrupted."

John Canemaker is director of the animation programme at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and author of Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation , £45, Disney Press. This edited article is reprinted from The Wall Street Journal . (c) 2005 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

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