We look at the fall of American 2D animation, and why you should be more excited about the My Little Pony movie.

Odds are some of your first movie memories are of animated films. For me, it’s Disney’s Robin Hood—and then basically the entire catalog of Disney Revival animated movies. I mean come on, Disney animation in the 90s was at its peak. Specifically, Disney 2D animation was at its peak. But then something happened. Like so many sci-fi movies, the computers took over. Toy Story kicked off the 3D (computer-generated) animation invasion, and Shrek taught us that Pixar wasn’t the only studio that could pull it off.

I guess I’m just going to embrace sounding like a grandpa, but the newfangled trend of 3D animation really did a number on 2D (and traditional) animation. 75% of the highest grossing animated films between 2000 and 2009 are animated in 3D. On top of that, the highest grossing animated film of each of those years was also 3D. Studios listened to the cash and began almost exclusively using 3D animation in their animated films. For someone who misses the look of traditional animation, this is why this week’s release of Allspark Pictures’ My Little Pony: The Movie is so exciting. It’s one of only a handful of 2D animated US features.

But how did we get to this point? Why has 3D animation taken over, and is the use of 3D animation slowly pushing 2D animation to extinction? The answer can be found by focusing on Disney’s innovation in animation since the company’s creation, influencing nearly every other animation production company to follow their lead. To fully answer these questions grandpa’s going to take you back a few decades.

When most Americans think of animation they think of Walt Disney, but they don’t necessarily think of all the incredible artists he helped to develop. Through the Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts), Disney fostered the first generation of Disney animators during the 1930s. The students at CAI were taught traditional 2D cell animation in which each frame of the animated film is hand drawn and inked.

Great Mouse Detective

This group, which included Disney Animation’s famous Nine Old Men, innovated on traditional animation by creating more filmic sequences. One of the ways in which they achieved the more dynamic animation was by drawing figures with motion blur. Instead of each drawing having only one version of a subject, an animator would blur the lines of the character to mimic the look of a live action film shot at 24 frames per second. These kinds of innovations poured out of this first group of animators.

The process created by this founding crop of 
Disney animators were used in the US until 1989’s The Little Mermaid. With this film, Disney utilized computers to help paint cells. The program Computer Animation Production System was only used in one shot, but it signaled a change in Disney’s animation workflow. Two years later, Disney used computer-generated backgrounds in Beauty and the Beast to simulate sweeping camera moves. By the time Disney released Pixar’s Toy Story, computer-generated 3D animation had been around for more than two decades.

Ed Catmull (future president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios) and Fred Parke created the first 3D animated short. This technology was first used in film in 1976’s Futureworld to animate hands and faces. Twenty years later Toy Story was released.

Strangely, the 3D animation development timeline is incredibly similar to that of 2D animation. Both had roughly two decades of development before breaking through to mainstream audiences. The first traditional animation short Gertie the Dinosaur was released in 1914, but Disney’s stable of animators didn’t expand the form until the 30s. Similarly, the first 3D animation short was released in 1971 but was not brought to feature film until the 90s. This equal timeline suggests that twenty years is the natural amount of time for a new form of animation to develop.

Once Toy Story hit, computer-generated (or at least assisted) animation was the hot trend in the genre, and Disney (along with many other animation studios) began winding down production on 2D animated features. Why not do both 2D and 3D animation? The skillsets for both types of animation are wildly different. Additionally, studios want to make films that make the most amount of money, and in this case, 3D animated movies make much more than 2D animated movies.

Apart from the financial and skill aspects of investing heavily in 3D animation, the practical benefits of 3D animation outweigh those of 2D. In 3D animation, the artist manipulates a subject and an environment that has a 360-degree reality. This means the artist can essentially move the “camera” or perspective of the character to any angle he or she wants. In contrast, for 2D animation, the artists would have to draft an entirely new rendering of the background and subject in order to change the camera angle or move. This flexibility found in 3D animation allows directors to change multiple aspects of a shot on the fly without the added cost of re-drafting a scene.

While 3D animation is ubiquitous in mainstream film, 2D animation is making a comeback. Disney’s Moana used 2D animation to bring Maui’s tattoos to life. This hybrid 2D animation in a 3D animation world may signal a new form of animation altogether. Just as Beauty and the Beast merged a small amount of 3D animation in the predominantly 2D world, Moana brought the 2D form to a 3D environment. This almost symmetrical chain of events tells us that these two forms of animation form a sliding scale. There’s a happy medium where both forms exist, we just haven’t found it in features yet.

The closest we’ve come to a hybrid form was in the 2012 short, Paperman. The Disney short film married 3D dynamics with 2D expressiveness. A program called Meander allowed artists to interact with the frames in new tactile ways. Subsequently, the program was used partially in Zootopia and Moana. I’m really hoping for a feature using only Meander.

In the meantime, I’m glad studios are continuing to make 2D animated features like My Little Pony: The Movie. While it is not a film that marries 2D and 3D animation, it keeps the 2D animation flame alive—and for that, we salute you, Twilight Sparkle.

More to Read: