I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I love animation. I have a particular fondness for computer animation. Think about it: this is probably the newest moviemaking medium. This is a medium that we’ve been able to watch grow and evolve over the past few years. And then, I saw that Disney was releasing a special 10th anniversary edition of Toy Story. Wow! It was 10 years ago that Toy Story hit theatres and it was marveled as a technical achievement. That means this medium is 10 years old. So, I just wanted to sit down, note how far we’ve come, point out certain developments that have been made, and try to ponder where it’s going.
Seeing as to how the medium is only 10 years old, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that there aren’t a lot of established computer animation studios yet. Well, that’s not true. There are quite a few. I’m talking about the ones that are 100% dedicated to making animated films. By my count, there are only three that have truly established themselves:
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures (until 2006)
Films to date: Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004)
Next One: Cars (2006)
Number of Best Animated Film Oscars won: 2 (3 if you include the special one for Toy Story)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): Pixar was originally founded by George Lucas way back in the early 1980s to be the computer animation division of Industrial Light and Magic. ILM did a lot of R&D into computer animation, but it wasn’t really a priority. It wasn’t long before George Lucas was approached by Steve Jobs. Jobs is the inventor of the Apple Computer, the founder, president, and CEO of the Apple Corporation, and is considered by many computer nerds to be a god. Jobs went to Lucas with a wad of that sweet, sweet Apple money and said, “Ya know, George, I just don’t think you’re exploring computer animation as extensively as you could.” So, Jobs bought the ILM computer animation division and renamed it Pixar. Jobs figured he should hire someone who knows about cartoons in order to help him put this company together, so he hired John Lassetter, a rising young star of animation at Disney. Lassetter worked extensively with the Pixar folks, exploring computer animation as far as it could go, and producing animated short films to test the equipment. It wasn’t long before their computer animated shorts started getting them noticed, and soon they were ready to try a full-length animated film. At this point, Pixar was already working extensively with Disney to produce CAPS (Computer Animated Production System; the computer system in which Disney colours and composites their traditional animated). Pixar wanted to make an animated film…Disney was noticing Pixar thanks to CAPS and the Pixar animated shorts…a deal was struck and Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, hit theatres in 1995. The rest is history.
What They’ve Done for the Field: Pixar pretty much invented the medium and is still regarded as the envelope-pusher. They like to keep a strong focus on the story and the characters, knowing that all their fancy technical doo-dads are nothing without that in place. They win the awards, they win the accolades, and they’ve developed a reputation as being very creator-friendly. They also seem to have resurrected the animated short film with their habit of placing one of their shorts in front of their films. They, more or less, established the industry and continue to lead it. Although, they still haven’t achieved their goal of matching Disney’s output: one new film per year. (I find it interesting to point out that, upon hearing of Pixar’s goal to produce one new film per year, world-renowned animator Hayao Miyazaki said, “Jeez, slow down.”)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Distributor: DreamWorks SKG
Films to Date: Antz (1998), Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Shark Tale (2004), Madagascar (2005)
Next One: Over the Hedge (2006)
Number of Best Animated Film Oscars Won: 1
A Brief History (As I Understand It): DreamWorks SKG was founded in the mid-1990s by Steven Spielberg, Jeffery Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Seeing as to how Katzenberg was the man largely responsible for Disney’s animation resurgence in the early-90s, everyone knew that animation would be a big part of this new studio. And, since Katzenberg was also responsible for the Disney/Pixar deal, Katzenberg went looking for a computer animation studio to make animated films for DreamWorks. He eventually chose Pacific Data Images, better known as PDI. PDI was best known as a maker of TV commercials and a doer of special effects. PDI made Antz and Shrek before being bought out by DreamWorks in 2001 and officially becoming DreamWorks’ animation division. And then, in 2005, DreamWorks Animation separated from DreamWorks SKG to become an independent company.
What They’ve Done for the Field: While Pixar may be the envelope-pusher, DreamWorks Animation has established the formula that now dominates computer animated films: a big name celebrity voice cast doing little more than playing themselves, a soundtrack dominated by contemporary pop hits, and fast and furious pop-culture-reference humour. They’ve also taken the concept of “animated films as franchises” and taken off with it. Two more sequels to Shrek are in the works, as is one for Madagascar. And, with a final goal of producing two films per year, DreamWorks Animation has created the fast food of animated films: good at the moment, but it doesn’t last very long.
Studio: Blue Sky Studios
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Films to Date: Ice Age (2002), Robots (2005)
Next One: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): So, 20th Century Fox’s feature animation division kind of imploded in 2000 with the failure of Titan AE. But, all was not lost. Already, they were starting to think about the future, and promptly entered into a deal with Blue Sky Studios. Up to this point, Blue Sky Studios had been primarily known as a special effects house, having done the effects for Star Trek Insurrection and Fight Club. Blue Sky promptly hired rising young animation star Chris Wedge, and pumped out Ice Age.
What They’ve Done for the Field: Even though they’ve already established themselves, Blue Sky Studios is still very much trying to find their voice. Ice Age did a good job of trying to mimic Pixar, and Robots was trying to mimic DreamWorks. They still need a few more films under their belt before they capture their own unique style.
10 years ago was a really unique time for animation. With Disney’s resurgence, suddenly every movie studio was trying to get into the animation game and started forming their own animated film divisions. We’re very much back in the same place. All those animated film divisions collapsed, and everyone’s jumping on the CGI bandwagon. Some are forming their own computer animation divisions…others are entering into deals with independent animation houses, much like the Disney/Pixar deal. And, 2006 seems to be the year when they’ll all explode on the scene. Here’s who hopes to be the next big players.
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
First One: Chicken Little (2005) (In fact, I’m writing this the day it came out)
Next One: Meet the Robinsons (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): Better people have written much better histories of Walt Disney Feature Animation. I’ll only tell you what you need to know for this. About three or four years ago, when Disney’s last batch of traditional animated films flopped, Disney declared traditional animation to be dead, and then began re-organizing their animation studios to pump out nothing but computer animated films.
Previous Attempts: Dinosaur (2000). Dinosaur was actually a very experimental film. Live-action backgrounds filmed around the world, photo-realistic CGI dinosaurs, some aren’t sure if it should count as CGI or something different. Regardless, it didn’t perform very well.
Current Buzz: Well, as I said, Chicken Little came out today, and the reviews haven’t been very kind. From the sounds of things, Disney tried to take their traditional animation formula and graft it onto the DreamWorks Formula. And the graft isn’t taking. I think we’ll need to give Disney time to stop trying to abandon everything they’ve established and go back to what they know best.
Studio: Aardman Animation
Distributor: DreamWorks Animation
First One: Flushed Away (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): Yup, the world’s premiere stop-motion animation studio is getting into CGI. Aardman is quick to point out that they’re not abandoning stop-motion animation, just simply expanding their horizons. Aardman was always a well-known stop-motion animation house throughout the 80s, but they gained worldwide acclaim in the early-1990s when Nick Park joined their ranks and made his Wallace and Gromit shorts. Jeffery Katzenberg entered into a deal with them to make stop-motion animated films for DreamWorks. The first film under this deal, Chicken Run, came out in 2000 and was a huge hit.
Current Buzz: Still unknown. But, one thing’s for sure, Aardman knows their stuff. Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were both huge hits, so if they can transfer everything they know into computer animation, they’re going to be a major player.
Studio: Nickelodeon Films
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
First One: Barnyard (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): Hmm…in the past Nickelodeon Films has done little more than produce traditional animated films based on their cable channel’s cartoons. Apparently, they want to get into the original animated film biz.
Previous Attempt: The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001). Way back in 2001, they had the bright idea to do things backwards: release the movie based on the cartoon before the cartoon hits the TVs. It’s notable in being the first computer animated film that critics didn’t like.
Current Buzz: Not much. Granted, there’s an amusing teaser for Barnyard currently circulating. After doing some research, I learned that it’s from most of the same creative team behind Jimmy Neutron, so I’m wondering if it’s 2001 all over again.
Studio: Sony Pictures Animation
Distributor: Sony Pictures (Columbia/Tri-Star)
First One: Open Season (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): Sony started their own computer animation studio in 2002, following the massive success of the Sony Imageworks short film The Chubbchubbs, which ran in front of Stuart Little 2 back in 2002. In fact, even though the animation house is called “Sony Pictures Animation,” the actual animation is still done by Sony Imageworks. (Imageworks is Sony’s special effect studio.)
Previous Attempt: Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within (2001). Made by computer animation house Square Pictures and distributed by Sony, Final Fantasy was such a colossal flop, and cost so freakin’ much to make, that Square Pictures went belly-up.
Current Buzz: A mildly amusing teaser for Open Season is circulating the ‘net, and it looks like they’re aping the DreamWorks formula.
Studio: Vanguard Animation
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
First One: Valiant (2005)
Next One: Happily N’ever After (2006)
A Brief History (As I Understand It): John H. Williams, a former producer at DreamWorks (he produced Shrek and its sequel), left the company to form his own production company, Vanguard Productions. And, he also added a computer animation division to his company, Vanguard Animation. While Vanguard Productions is in the USA, Vanguard Animation is based largely in England. They made headlines back in 2003 when the Disney/Pixar disputes first started, and, in the midst of all that, they signed a distribution deal with Disney.
Current Buzz: Not very good, actually. Valiant was a colossal bomb, and Happily N’ever After is far below most everyone’s radar. But, they’ve got the producer of Shrek and backing from Disney. They’re still a real dark horse in the game.
So, with 2006 about to become glutted with computer animated films, the question is where is this industry headed? One thing’s for certain, the DreamWorks formula has taken root and it’s not going to go away for a while. The field of computer animation is being dumbed down to fast food entertainment, and, quite frankly, that can’t last. Computer animated films will start bombing. The critics will turn on them. Mark my words, there will be a revolt. And what will rise from the ashes? Will Pixar’s creator-driven focus and emphasis on the plot win the day? Will Aardman successfully make the leap to CGI and dominate all? Or will the DreamWorks formula just keep on plugging along, providing the maximum profit for the least amount of effort?
There is one thing for certain: the marketplace is about to become glutted.