Technology Takes on Tradition in Animation

In the world of animation, a brave little clownfish has a big brown bear running scared.

"Brother Bear," "The Triplets of Belleville" and "Finding Nemo," (search) this year's Oscar nominees for best animated feature, are indicative of a fierce struggle between tradition and technology.

To put it simply, 3-D is more sculptural and realistic than 2-D, which seems more like drawings come to life.

Many animators, who actually vote for the winners, seem to prefer the traditional "cel" animation style used in last year's Oscar winner "Spirited Away." "Belleville," by French director Sylvain Chomet (search), and Disney's "Brother Bear" were also created in that hand-drawn, 2-D style.

"A lot of [Academy voters] that I talked to are heavily favoring 'Belleville,'" said Sarah Baisley, editor of Animation World Magazine.

But audiences were hooked by the computer-generated father/son underwater tale of Disney-Pixar's "Nemo," which was the highest grossing movie of 2003. That 3-D style, used in 1995's "Toy Story," is more true to life.

"Nemo" also recently won nine Annie Awards, presented by The International Animated Film Society, which may be indicative of how it will fare at the Academy Awards.

Most moviegoers, like 12-year-old Ashley Pelletier of Venice, Fla., haven't even heard of "Triplets of Belleville," which was rated PG-13 and screened in arthouse theaters in the U.S.

And "Brother Bear," about a Native American boy who is transformed into a bear by the Great Spirits, didn't look appealing, Ashley said.

But she loved "Nemo."

"If you look at a real fish, Nemo is kind of how it would look and talk," she said.

"Audiences want to see something they haven't seen before," said Jerry Beck, an animation historian who maintains the Web site "Disney dropped the ball with 2-D and Pixar picked up the ball with 3-D. They are the Disney of the 21st century."

In January, Pixar broke off negotiations to extend its partnership with Disney and said it would seek a better deal with another studio.

Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet" and DreamWorks' "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" were all 2-D busts at the box office. Meanwhile, 3-D films like "Shrek," "Monster's Inc." and "Ice Age" were all successes.

"'Treasure Planet' looked kind of stupid," Ashley said. "And I remember 'Sinbad' coming out -- it looked babyish."

In response to audiences' apparent preference for 3-D films, Disney recently shuttered its Florida animation studio, making some wonder if the traditional style is becoming a lost art.

However, longtime animator John Canemaker doesn't think 2-D is going away, and argues that the success of "Finding Nemo" has less to do with style than a tenet of good filmmaking:

"Story, story, story. A story well-told can be done with flip books," he said.

Beck, who wrote "Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide," agrees that ultimately, storytelling is king.

"Families could relate to ['Nemo']," he said. "What kid isn't Nemo? What father wouldn't search for his son? It's real; it came from the heart."

Disney's "Lilo & Stitch," which grossed more than $145 million, proved that traditional animation with a good story can hold its own, said Canemaker, author of "Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation."

"You really cared for this little girl and this outer space man," he said.

He also pointed to "Spirited Away" and "Triplets of Belleville" as examples of traditional animated films that are still thrilling audiences. Both films were hugely successful abroad but weren't marketed to mainstream American audiences.

"The adult market needs to be explored," said Canemaker, director of animation studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts (search). "And I'm not talking about pornography -- I'm talking about things like 'Belleville.' There's a world of literature waiting [to be animated]."

There are no cute animal characters in "Belleville," which is about a bicycle racer who is kidnapped by the French mafia and rescued by his feisty grandmother and a 1930s singing trio.

Beck said instead of laying off its 2-D animation staff, Disney should have concentrated on creating better stories, like it did in the 1990s.

"All the big features that Disney did, like 'Lion King,' appealed to adults as well," he said. "I think it's a secret to success that Pixar knows and Disney forgets."

Meanwhile, the mouse house's laid-off animators formed Legacy Animation Studios (search) and will offer a range of traditional hand-drawn animation services.

"Our goal is to create quality animated films with compelling stories and strong characters and to continue Walt Disney's legacy of hand drawn animation," Eddie Pittman, Legacy's directing manager, said in a press release.

But would a Walt classic like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" entice audiences if it were released today?

"Probably not, because it was made in an age that was not as ironic as ours," Canemaker said. "Although I think it was one of the great screen masterpieces of all time."