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Editorial: From $130,000 a Year to McDonalds Manager
CGI's Impact on the Traditional Animator
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine

It's a sad and exciting new age in the world of animation as studios continue to downsize traditional animation facilities in favor of computer animation. Leading the way in this effort is Disney Feature Animation, which continues to lay off hundreds of traditional animators with a "promise" that hundreds more will be let go by the end of 2003. Long time traditional animators are suddenly finding themselves without employment.

The LA Times recently cited one example - a Disney traditional animator veteran named Steve Starr who had made up to $130,000 a year. Now he's out of a job and selling his house.

The mass layoffs are resulting in many traditional animators looking for new work or heading back to college to take courses in computer animation. However, that has created a new problem - there's not enough room in the schools.

According to the LA Times: "Eric Huelsman, who teaches computer animation classes at the Los Angeles Unified School District's Abram Friedman Occupational Center to displaced and employed studio artists, said: 'I have a waiting list longer than my arm.'"

Consider the following:

1) All three animated movies nominated for the first ever "Best Animated Feature" Academy Award are computer animated (Shrek, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, Monsters, Inc.).

2) The highest grossing movies of the past several years have all been computer animated (Shrek, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc.).

3) In general, computer animated movies are easier to make and allow more immediate control over all aspects of the production. Making changes to a scene is much easier when the scene is computer animated.

Traditional animation isn't dead yet, of course. There's all the upcoming Disney direct to video sequels in the works using traditional animation and studios (including Disney and DreamWorks) still have traditional animated features in production.

But new studios being built (like the $100 million one by a Shrek producer, John H. Williams) are all CGI based. Studios like Universal have given the green light to new animated projects - all CGI.

Traditional animation is now headed down a path that could make it a lost art. However, it could also make it a unique experience. How? Well, CGI animated films will soon be headed to theaters in droves (yes, including the Big Idea Jonah Veggie Tales movie). It used to be that CGI movies gave a "new look" to animation. Yet when the CGI movies hit in mass it will suddenly be the traditional animated movies - the rare ones - that stand out as "different".

Different or not, studios must remember that it isn't the type of animation that makes or breaks a movie. It is the story, originality, creativity, imagination, and character development. Just because a studio makes a CGI feature doesn't mean it will have Shrek returns. Does anyone remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? You know… last summer's CGI animated movie that flopped so bad that Square Pictures was forced to close down. Studios are about to learn a very hard lesson when it comes to animation: just because it is CGI doesn't mean it will be a success.

Chicken Run was stop motion based animation and it was a huge hit. Imagine if Aardman's next several productions are equal hits. Soon other studios will be announcing "New Stop Motion" facilities to take advantage of this "new hot medium."

Um… hello? To repeat: "just because it is [enter animation form here] doesn't mean it will be a success."

It's a shame that so many traditional animators are being put out of jobs. How quickly studios have forgotten that the number one grossing animated movie of all time is still The Lion King. Yes… gasp… a traditional animated movie!

I would love to see a new $100 million studio built that focuses solely on strong traditional animated stories. Could you imagine if there was a "Pixar" for traditional animated movies? Suddenly all the "follow the leader" studios would be putting a focus back on traditional animation. Imagine Glen Keane, Don Hahn, and Brad Bird becoming partners in a new traditional animation studio called "AnimWorks KHB". Yes, it is far fetched, but one can still dream.

So let's cut to the chase. The next great "John Lasseter" won't be the one that duplicates the success of Pixar via the CGI medium. The next great "John Lasseter" will be the one that puts the focus - no matter what the medium - on great entertainment with original stories. The person will have the ability to capture the imagination of kids and adults alike. This next great visionary won't be one that "follows the fad" but rather one that reinvigorates the story telling process; and if it happens to be in traditional animation form then a lot of unemployed animators will be very happy... and employed.

Click here to discuss this story in the Digital Media FX Forums.

Joe Tracy is the publisher of Digital Media FX, author of four books and former editor of the visual effects print magazine, NewTekniques. He is also a visual effects columnist for The Hollywood Forum.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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