Making Animation Old-School Again, Part 1/2

Any animator who’s been in the business for a while has heard rumors proclaiming “Traditional 2D animation is dead!”

The rumors of my death, as they say, have been greatly exaggerated.

Truth is, it’s not dead.  Might not be kicking as hard as it once was, but it’s certainly not dead.

Many current animated films lend themselves well to the classic style.  Imagine if a fan remade “Moana” in 2D animation!  I’d pay to see that.  The songs, the stories could be even more intense and meaningful if done in this fashion.

After all, that’s why filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen use black and white cinematography in some movies:  When you narrow the bandwidth, you focus the message.

 

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The State of 2D Animation
It is true that it’s been a long time since there’s been any major 2D movies released in America.  There have been some smaller releases, and there have been some foreign releases as well.  Perhaps some of the best recent 2D movies have come from Studio Ghibli (“Ponyo,” “The Wind Rises,” “The Secret World of Arrietty”).

There are a lot of good reasons to do animation on computers – it’s easier, it’s cheaper, not to mention faster.  Still, everything comes in cycles, and I’d lay money that art styles found in movies are no different.
Change in Your Pocket
Even given that, the major reason for the shift from 2D to 3D movies is going to be the Quest for the Almighty Dollar.  3D movies are indeed faster to make, and easier too.  So I wouldn’t blame you for waxing cynical when you weigh this against the effort required to put a few seconds of the Lion King in motion.  And although there are plenty of other quality studios out there, the Mouse Eared One is pretty much calling the shots on what kinds of animated features we see in theatres.  In short, they have the power to determine if those films are 2D or 3D.

Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to see them.  And especially today, if major movie studios don’t give folks what they want, people pick up the slack themselves.  Do a Google search for “crowdfunded 2d animated movies” and you get “Hullabaloo,” “Drukten,” “World Destroyer,” and “The Ape Man” — and that’s only on the first page!

Examining “Hullaballoo” shows that the film, created by veteran animators and artists from Disney, has far surpassed their monetary goals.  They asked for $80,000 to get it done.  And incredibly, as of this writing they have $470,726 pledged.  Backers will get to see not only the movie, but three bonus shorts as well.

 

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So yeah, people are putting their money where their mouth is.
But Is 2D Animation Worth Saving?
All animation has a soul.  And that soul is 2D – it blooms in every kid who ever made a stick-figure flipbook in grade school.  This kind of animation created the entire industry; without it, modern CG animation would not exist.  Also, in many ways 2D animation is able to convey amazing detail when it comes to feeling and emotion.  In a word, 2D animation is beautiful (still).

Indeed, there is a certain warmth, a certain artistry that hand-drawn animation captures.  Mathematically precise 3D characters generated by computer can’t quite match this.  Therefore it is an art worth preserving, despite the film industry not agreeing at the moment.
So Where is 2D Animation Now?
Sure, it’s been a long time since any major animated feature film, much less from Disney, or even in America.  Still, it’s actually pretty easy to find 2D cartoons in another medium:  On television.  You might have heard of “The Simpsons.”  It’s been on TV since 1990 — that’s 27 years, as of this writing.  Other shows are almost as popular, such as “South Park,” “King of the Hill,” and “Archer.”  It’s being shown to younger audiences too, by shows such as “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Steven Universe.”

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Even if it’s not Pixar-style animation, though, these shows are generated by computer.  Most cartoons are made on computers, using Flash and other tools.

Granted, it’s not two dimensional animation, strictly speaking.  There is often shading and other effects not easily achievable with cel-style techniques.  Even though it’s a blend of traditional animation and some aesthetic anime stylings, it does prove that audiences still love the medium.

Stay tuned for some more notes and musings in our next feature, Making Animation Old-School Again, Part 2.
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Classic Animation versus Live-Action Remakes

by John Onorato
There have been a lot of “live action” remakes over the last few years.  2015 saw Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous period remake of the classic Cinderella tale.  “The Jungle Book” was remade in 2016 with lavish special effects, and we got “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017.  The latter is a bona-fide hit, with box-office receipts grossing over $1 billion.  There have been more in the past, and those will certainly not be the last.  There are many more remakes to come.
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¶ Of course, many people (like myself) remain fond of the originals.  Even 25 year old films like The Lion King are still quite good.  The movie looks as good as it did when it was first released in 1994, and it’ll likely look as good in another 25 years.  Its remake is slated for 2019.  The films will be similar, but it won’t matter how good the remake looks.  They are totally different films.
¶ In other words, the market has plenty of room for new material.

Animation Today

CG animation is ascendant in the industry, however.  Yet traditional animation still survives, despite not having many recent major releases.  It was used, for example, in 2016’s Pacific Island epic “Moana,” to animate the tattoos on the character Maui.
¶ Still, it is accurate to say that hand-drawn animation is being deprecated in today’s workplace.
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At the same time, though, traditional drawing skills are still in demand.  They’re especially useful when planning an animation.  Even if the final product will be digital, it’s incredibly useful for an animator to create a thumbnail with clear facial expressions and body poses.
¶ Audiences, too, seem to be favoring CG animation.  Whether the CG manifests photorealistically (as it did in Beauty and the Beast) or as “Pixar style animation” (think “Toy Story,” “Cars” and “Wall-E”), producers are responding to this trend.  Producers make their business decisions based on market data, so the trend is likely here to stay.

On The Making of Films

Making films remains an astonishingly risky business.  Especially since viewers are drawn by over-the-top special effects (which cost a lot of money), the movies with the most spectacle and heft are the ones that draw the biggest crowds.  In 2012, Disney released “John Carter,” which seemed destined to be a big thing.  It had the glitz, it had the glamor, and it had excellent effects work, but it never pulled in audiences.
¶ A much safer proposition is to go through the vault of films that already achieved “hit” status, and remake them using live action.  And why shouldn’t they?  They’ve been tried, and they seem to be true.  People are likely to be more interested, as they’re already familiar with the characters.  Most of the hard concept work has been done already.  If it was a hit before, it can be a hit again, right?

¶ Still, it’s too soon to say if these live action remakes will ever be considered “classics.”

Either-Or

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Though they have been mixed together since the 1900s, the line that separates animation and live action has become blurred even more since 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”  That’s the first movie this writer can remember which did this.  Since then, some movies are nearly all CGI, with only a smattering of live action.  One example is 2016’s “The Jungle Book.”  In that movie, nearly everything was CG, aside from Neel Sethi who played the boy.  Other movies blend CG and live action even more seamlessly.  Only those with the keenest of eyes would know that the James Bond movie “Spectre,” which came out in 2015 was mostly CG … even the parts that looked “normal,” as if they were shot on location or on a set.
¶ Today’s directors have many more choices open to them, creatively speaking.  They only have to decide how they want their film to look, then gather the right team to realize that vision.  So the question is not about what’s better – it’s more about what’s more true to the director’s vision.

 

Facebook or website? Self-promotion on a shoestring

by John Onorato

Marketing and promotion are important parts of any animator’s toolkit. Unless you want to create videos by yourself and for yourself, it’s important to let people know about your work.

Yet there are many ways to accomplish these tasks. You can benefit either from having a dedicated website, like this one for the recent Dunkirk movie, or a Facebook page like this one for 2016’s Arrival. Many films have both.

Before Facebook allowed pages that weren’t directly related to people, a website was how you promoted your film. A website helped your film attract fans and a following. When someone expressed interest at a networking or other event, it was pretty easy to give them your URL. When they visited, there was all kinds of data about your film: contact information, about the crew, backstage photos, credentials and the like. And the better the site looked, the better you and your project looked. But it cost money.

Creating a website from the ground up, though, is neither easy nor cheap. Today it’s easy to do that on Facebook. And Facebook is free.

Big plus, huh?

So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each method.

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How Much Will It Cost?
For those of us who have yet to create a website, let’s look at the very basics. We’ll assume you’re going to use the WordPress.org content management system as it’s easy when using it.

One of the great things about WordPress is that there’s lots and lots of themes (or skins) aimed at creatives. There’s even a number of themes aimed at short films. You can easily use these to make a unique website. Sure, there’s a learning curve, but it’s easy to glean what you need to know. And they usually offer the essentials at a discount for first time buyers.

If you’ve never created a website before, let’s break down the basics. We’re going to assume you’re using something like a wordpress.org hosting platform. (Learn the difference between WordPress.org and .com here). Using WordPress, you can find a ton of great short film or creative-oriented themes that you can build upon to create a unique website. While there is definitely a learning curve, you can pick up what you need to know relatively quickly. For your first purchase, you can also get the essentials at a discounted cost:

  • Domain – Also known as the website’s URL, you have to purchase the right to use JohnsAwesomeMovie.com . This runs usually a dollar or so for your first year, and $10 a year after that.
  • Hosting – Your site has to be hosted on a server so that it’s accessible to the rest of the Internet. This usually costs $10 a month, or less if you’re able to pay for a whole year up front.
  • Theme – Without a theme, your site will look like everyone else’s. Like you simply dumped a bunch of stuff on a page. There are some available for free, but the better ones cost between $40 and $150.

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So to get started with a basic package, you’re looking at between $50 and $160. Sure, you might have that in your back pocket right now, but for a low-budget film, that can be a big chunk to let go of. And that’s not even factoring in the time you’ll need to put in to make your site work right.

On the other hand, a Facebook page is free. They’re easy to get up and running; might take you ten minutes. There is no daunting learning curve or fussy plug-ins. And there’s no code to mess with either. But you won’t own the page outright like you would with a dedicated website.

Now if you wanted a website that’s completely unique and new, you’d incur the additional expense of a web designer. That’s a good way to catapult your site into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Given that, it’s usually best to pick a theme you like and then tweak it so it doesn’t look like the original. Or you could hire a WordPress theme designer, who are generally more affordable than creating a whole site from scratch.

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Engaging the Social Element
There is a lot more to having your own website, too. You have to think of discoverability – you might have created the greatest site in the world, but if no one knows about it, and therefore no one visits it, then you’ve wasted your time and money. Webmasters spend lots of time on making pages that are friendly to search engines (also known as SEO, or Search Engine Optimization). They work on the site content as well, all with an eye towards increasing the page rankings of the site. If all that’s on your site is a short film, and no additional content to add value, people will soon stop visiting your site. And thus your site will slip to the bottom of the search rankings barrel.

Even if the video players on Facebook and YouTube are pretty basic, they do get the job done. And again, they’re free, aside for the time you put into content creation.

So there’s a lot of value in examining the benefits of promoting – and maybe hosting your film on Facebook as opposed to a conventional website.

There are a lot of benefits to hosting your work on Facebook. Granted, there are several ways of getting it out there: You can put your film on YouTube (or Vimeo), you can create a website, or you might create a Facebook page. Regardless of how that happens, though, people are at some point going to start talking about your film on Facebook. It might even start making the rounds there. But the reach of people sharing your Facebook page versus that of people sharing your film’s site will be much much greater. One major reason for this is that the algorithm that Facebook uses to share things strongly favors content that will keep a user on the Facebook site. The more times advertisements get pushed out in front of users’ faces, the more revenue Facebook gets. So if a few people watch, then share your film, you’ll probably get more people viewing your Facebook page than if those same people shared a dedicated website.

Facebook makes short work of marketing and promotion

Sounds like a done deal, doesn’t it? Facebook seems to win all around. But there’s one more perk to creating a Facebook page, and that has to do with how you communicate with your audience. On Facebook, that communication can be real-time. In other words, you can use Facebook to communicate with your fans on a moment’s notice.

On Facebook, as soon as someone posts a thing, you get a notification. You can’t beat that for ease and speed of use. You can build a following, an entire community surrounding your film on Facebook. And your audience will grow, as communities tend to do. About the only area in which a dedicated website beats Facebook is if you wanted to have multi-threaded forums. Of course, those can be pretty tedious to install. And Facebook does offer the one thread to you, which is great for disseminating information about your project. People can talk about it on there, too; always a plus.

Sure, it’s easy to configure WordPress. It’s even easy to do so on the fly, from your phone. But it’s still not as easy as using the Pages app provided by Facebook.

If you’re making a low-budget short piece, setting up an entire website solely for promotional purposes just isn’t feasible. You’ll be spending money that you’ll likely never get back. On the other hand, though, if you want to sell merchandise (or if you wanted to install forums, as above), a dedicated site is the way to go. Although they are improving it, the merch portions of Facebook are currently pretty fickle. So if you think you’ll have a market for hats, shirts, pom-poms and DVDs of your movie, then for e-commerce purposes, a dedicated site is the way to go.

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There is one more situation in which a full website is preferable. That’s when you have a large body of your work to showcase. Using a dedicated site, it’s easy to put all of that work on a single easily accessed page. It’s harder to do on Facebook. Not only is there a river of status updates to navigate, but any additional work has to be buried at least one or two clicks deep.

And let’s face it: The harder people have to work at finding your great Making Of featurette, the less likely they are to actually watch it.

The Takeaway
What’s the takeaway here? If you want to have an entire exhibition showcasing all of your project, then make a website. On the other hand, if all you have is a short film (and maybe one or two other things) then it’s better to avail yourself of Facebook’s great Pages feature.

On Advertising
When was the last time you took a look at your Facebook feed? If it was any time in the last month, you’ve seen a Sponsored Post. These are “smart” promotions.

Facebook Pages looks at what categories a thing is in, and pushes content out to people who have expressed similar interests. For example, if you already follow several different romance pages, and I had a film named “Pretty Woman Redux,” then posts about my film would appear in your timeline, since I’ve targeted those kinds of keywords.

You can do pretty much the same thing with a website, but the process is much more involved. And you have to use a third-party ad manager. More money down the drain.

Facebook can be a thing that you either love or you hate. Either way, it’s an indispensable tool for any sort of creative type — even filmmakers! — to promote their work. It’s a great idea to use it for any creative venture.