Does Hand-Drawn Animation Need Saving?

If you know me at all, you know that the future of hand-drawn animation is a topic that is very important to me. Hand-drawn animation (more commonly referred to as 2D animation, though I prefer the more descriptive term "hand-drawn") is an art form that I have long loved. Unfortunately, much of the conventional wisdom about hand-drawn animation over the past few decades has been forecasting its impending demise. From clueless entertainment writers who deem the medium irrelevant in the age of computer animation to more thoughtful commentators who recognize that there's a space for different styles of animation but that the market for hand-drawn movies seems to be drying up, nearly everyone seems convinced that hand-drawn is not long for this world. So I was pleasantly surprised, if a bit skeptical, to come across a blog post entitled "It's Time To Admit That 2-D Animation Does Not Need 'Saving'", penned by my animation blogger colleague Charles Kenny. After so many years of gloom and doom predictions for the medium I love, a bit of positivity was a welcome change. But is there truly good news for hand-drawn animation and its fans or merely wishful thinking? [youtube]

Television: Savior of the Medium?

One of the article's first arguments for hand-drawn animation being alive and well is the medium's success on television. Computer animation may be dominant in theaters, but hand-drawn still accounts for the majority of animated TV shows.

I agree that television plays a big role in maintaining a place for hand-drawn animation. For the lower television production budget, hand-drawn remains a better bargain than computer animation. With more shows and smaller budgets, television also allows for more visual experimentation than the more conservative world of movie production. Novel ideas like Adventure Time's special "guest animator" episodes are a step in the right direction.

I disagree that television animation is a substitute for feature film animation. While television animation can be as amazing and riveting as any movie, there are some ideas and techniques that require the time and money that only film production can provide. There's also the issue of where this animation is being done. In pursuit of the cheapest way to get a show through production, U.S. TV animation studios traditionally send large portions of their workloads overseas. It's great for their bottom line, but not so great for training up the next generation of U.S. hand-drawn animators. As the cost for producing animation overseas rise, more aspects of production are starting to creep back into the States. But whether any of this is an adequate substitute for a robust hand-drawn film industry is uncertain.

Web Animation Picks up the Slack

Another common argument is that the internet is becoming the new home of hand-drawn animation. With outlets ranging from YouTube to creator's own websites, it's becoming ever easier for creators to bring their animation to the masses.

I agree that the internet has given a wide variety of creators an audience. We've come a long way from the early days of crude Flash animations that took ages to download. Budding animators' student films can now be seen by everyone with internet access rather than a select few who seek out the animation festivals touring near them - if there are any. Creators aren't beholden to big studios and networks to get their work out into the world anymore. The internet gives creators the opportunity to bring their animation directly to their potential audiences.

I disagree that animation on the internet is a full-fledged industry. While there are success stories in the world of animation on the internet, they are still few and far between. Some of this is no doubt due to only a small percentage of what's available on the internet being quality product, but there's also the issue of how to monetize animation on the web. Many of the biggest success stories for hand-drawn animation produced for the internet involve previously established, big-name creators who have already enjoyed success in other media. If animation for the internet doesn't become a way to make a reasonable profit, it will quickly become the domain of casual hobbyists rather than a new option for career animators.

A Smaller, More Versatile Hand-Drawn Animation Industry

Rather than the last remnants of a dying art form, the post puts forth the argument that today's hand-drawn animation studios are more creative and more capable of pushing the boundaries of animation than ever before.

I agree that hand-drawn animated features are taking more risks with story and visuals than their computer-animated counterparts. Now that computer animation is the norm and big movie studios hope to make millions from a computer animated feature, a kind of sameness has been creeping into the big studios' output, particularly the visuals. Not so with hand-drawn. Freed from the pressure to copy the successful Disney formula of the 90s, hand-drawn animation has been experimenting with much more varied styles and narratives than the animated offerings from the major studios.

I disagree that this is what a healthy industry looks like. Hand-drawn features may have become a haven for creativity in the days of cookie cutter computer animated films. But the new hand-drawn feature studios have yet to prove that they have what it takes to stick around for the long term. Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is closing its doors. Many of the small studios that sprung up in the wake of Disney's closing disappeared before producing anything. With so few studios that have more than a handful of feature credits to their name, the future of hand-drawn feature animation is anything but certain.


Hand-drawn animation isn't dying; it's just changing

Despite so many predictions of its impending demise, hand-drawn animation has continued to survive. Rather than a medium that needs saving, this is a medium that is evolving for a new era.

I agree that hand-drawn animation will never completely disappear. Whether it lives on as a visual alternative to computer animation, a less expensive production option (even as computer animation gets cheaper to make), or the passion projects of devoted fans, I believe that it will always be around in some form. While there are areas that computer animation excels in, it is not the next evolutionary stage for all animation and there are some things that it will never do as well as hand-drawn animation.

I disagree that a bright future is assured for hand-drawn animation. Even if the medium isn't going to completely die out anytime soon, it may still need a kind of saving. Already we've seen techniques from the early days of feature animation lost because no one though it was important to write down how it was done or share that knowledge with a younger group of animators. How many more aspects of the craft could be lost if the next generation of animators is off learning how to manipulate polygons instead of wield pencils? What knowledge might be lost if the giants of the medium have no one to pass on their secrets to? Are television and the internet really shielded from an computer animation takeover like the one that hit Hollywood?

So what do you think? Is hand-drawn animation becoming a thing of the past? Or are its best days yet to come?