Sarah Merritt argues that looking at the history of animation makes the future look very bright indeed.
Maybe it’s just the rose-tinted glasses, but the early 3D animated films I grew up with seemed perfect to my eight-year-old eyes.
How could you get a clearer polish than the glacier mint ice caves traversed by Sid, Manny and Diego in Ice Age (2002)? Surely the lively green facial contortions of Shrek and Fiona in Shrek (2001) could not be any more believable? There’s no way you could make a whale’s teeth in Finding Nemo (2003) more scarily realistic, could you?
But suddenly, I find myself no longer a child entranced by the plastic face of Woody in Toy Story (1995) but an adult who can scarcely believe the intricate details in Frozen’s (2013) ice palace, or the hundreds of visible red curls given to Merida, the feisty protagonist of Brave (2012). Suddenly, the old favourite of Ice Age seems clunky and flawed next to its new, winter-themed superior: Frozen. 3D animation has come so far, so quickly, and the mind boggles to wonder what will be next.
Frozen is, without a doubt, the best example of 3D animation so far, and a tribute to the gruelling work of animators and visual effects artists over such a short space of years. The timeline of 3D animation is so brief that it’s a wonder we’re here already, and the process has been fascinating to watch unfold: just compare Monsters Inc. (2001) with its recent prequel, Monsters University (2013), and the progression of technology is obvious.
Interestingly, the development of hair in animated films has been a useful marker. Key milestones include The Incredibles (2004) with the straight, shimmering hair of Violet presenting a challenge for animators – but this was a small step compared to Merida’s head of curls in Brave, which took three years and the development of a new computer-generated simulator to produce. With Disney Pixar animators having pushed through the challenge of Merida, the gold and silver hair of Frozen’s protagonists, Elsa and Anna, seems a breeze.
Each new struggle lends a breakthrough to animation, and with animators constantly looking for new challenges, it can only keep getting better.
But have we reached a pinnacle? How can we tell when 3D animation is good enough? Will we only stop when the difference between real action and 3D animation is impossible to distinguish – and where will be the fun in animation, if that’s the case?
As with the recent Galaxy chocolate bar advert, which featured an uncanny digitally recreated Audrey Hepburn, 3D animation seems set to head in that direction. But creative studios seem to enjoy twisting the conventions to constantly develop new forms of animation.
The black-and-white short, Paperman (2012), features a unique blend of computer animation and 2D hand-drawn animation, for a quirky, nostalgic style. Get a Horse! (2013), the short that preceded Frozen, aims to surprise by beginning with an archaic, vintage-style Mickey Mouse cartoon, which then bursts into vibrant 3D and seems to parody Disney’s own development of animation.
The clever self-parody of Get a Horse! makes for a fun twist and assures us that, although animation might be getting older and wiser, it sure isn’t getting boring.
I hope that, as animated films continue to become more impressive, character and script-writing will also be developed to promote increasingly more intelligent, non-black-and-white values to children. As with Frozen, which features a fresh storyline that parodies the typical Disney romance narrative, this will hopefully be the case.