Is CGI Technology Killing Hand-Drawn Animation?

In a recent article, we discussed how virtual reality art software like Tilt Brush could influence the ways in which we create, design, and collaborate on projects in future. As part of that, we mentioned that technology, however innovative, could never replace the tactile experience of real-world art. In this article, we are going to consider this statement in relation to the world of animation.

Whilst real-world art cannot be eliminated entirely, there is evidence to suggest that certain methods have declined over time as a direct result of technology. The first example that springs to mind is animation, in particular, Disney animation, which has seen its unique and creative approach almost entirely replaced by CGI. The feature-length animations that Disney is famous for, from Alice in Wonderland to Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia to The Little Mermaid, were feats of artistic creation that were all the more impressive for having been created by hand.

Though recent feature-length animations such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen have carried that torch in their own way, retaining that classic Disney quality, something is arguably missing. Tangled and Frozen were hugely successful Disney movies, but the main body of Disney’s recent portfolio has been overshadowed by the CGI Pixar aesthetic. Whilst funny and engaging, not to mention enormously popular, the aesthetic quality of the animation takes on a somewhat impersonal quality – something is missing. It remains stunningly well-rendered, beautiful in many ways, but if the human touch is trapped the other side of a computer screen, is it as real?

Whilst these mainstream examples demonstrate a lamentable loss of hand-drawn animation, however, there are technologies emerging to bridge that gap. The 2012 animated short, Paperman, which appeared in cinemas ahead of the feature Wreck-It Ralph, was created with the use of software that allows animators to use a tablet and stylus to draw freehand lines directly into a 3D digital space. Rather than being created in CGI from start to finish, this software brings the artist back into the frame.

The subject and content of Paperman is an echo of this, a tribute to the software with which it is created – the bright coloured human mark on paper, facilitated by the technological force of a train whooshing past, connects two strangers in a black and white world:

The Hand-Drawn Animation of Studio Ghibli

If Pixar’s little nod to the power of hand-drawn animation is not enough to convince you of the enduring power of the human hand, the breathtaking animations of Studio Ghibli shatter the illusion of the death of the artist. Sketches and watercolour scenes abound. Nonetheless, Studio Ghibli is not completely devoid of technological intervention. In My Neighbours the Yamadas, for example, computer software is used to replicate brushed ink and charcoal strokes, giving the animation a loose, sketchbook-like quality. This is a far-cry from the meticulously rendered, squeaky-clean finish of the CGI mode of animating. And it’s alive with raw human artistic energy.

The Impact of VR and AR on Hand-Drawn Animation

So, that’s CGI technology versus hand-drawn animation. But how will virtual and augmented reality impact animation? Whilst it’s clear that the true art of animation continues to survive, albeit on the periphery of mainstream cinema, a question hangs in the air about whether this art form will survive the leap to virtual.

Considering that classic animation techniques have survived this far into the digital era, there is little reason to believe that virtual and augmented reality will kill it off altogether. In fact, these technologies may find a new home within the virtual space. Though we can probably expect hand-drawn animation to remain in the backseat, whilst CGI technology continues to dominate the animation space, there will almost certainly be software developed to collaborate with the skill of hand-drawn animation to allow this fine art to continue in whatever form the future of visual media brings.