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Is animation experiencing a renaissance?

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 6:13 a.m. MDT

In the nearly 20 years since "Toy Story" revolutionized the animation industry, a lot has changed.

Disney/Pixar

The release of “Toy Story” in 1995 forever changed the face of animation.

As the first fully computer-animated feature-length film, Pixar’s modern classic about toys jockeying for the affections of a child introduced a world of possibilities to animators and audiences alike.

Technologically speaking, the industry has progressed by leaps and bounds during the nearly 20 years since “Toy Story” first hit theaters. If you need proof, just take a gander at Merida’s flowing red locks in trailers for “Brave,” Pixar’s latest cinematic offering, which comes out next week. The photorealistic hair alone is practically worth the price of admission.

But aside from the ability to produce jaw-droppingly detailed graphics, how is the animation industry really doing these days? Have the technological innovations helped or hurt, and what do some of the current trends say about the future of animated movies?

Thanks to the relative cheapness of computer animation (versus the labor-intensive hand-drawn variety), “Toy Story’s” success quickly spawned a small army of CG imitators in the late ’90s. Most of them, though, weren’t very good.

As “Toy Story” director and Pixar chief John Lasseter was quick to note during a lecture given last month titled “The Development of the Digital Animator,” the technologies involved in computer animation are just tools for the storyteller.

“They’re unbelievable tools,” he said, “but they’re really no different than a pencil and a piece of paper.”

It’s really only been in the past couple of years with movies such as “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) and Disney’s own “Tangled” (2011) that other studios have begun to compete with Pixar in terms of storytelling, not just graphics.

To give an idea of how big the advent of CGI has been for the industry, since “Toy Story” premiered 17 years ago, fully computer-animated movies have generated something on the order of $20 billion.

Of course, the popularity of the more technologically advanced medium has come at a cost. Over the past two decades, traditional 2-D animation — what Walt Disney founded his company on way back in 1923 — has become a dying art in spite of the vocal support of people like Lasseter himself. Even while the success of each new Pixar film over the years has seemingly put another nail in the coffin of hand-drawn animation, Lasseter and others at Disney and Pixar have tried to revive the format.

Unfortunately, recent attempts haven’t quite captured the magic of Disney’s golden age. Both “The Princess and the Frog” (2009) and “Winnie the Pooh” (2011) underperformed at the box office, and for the time being, at least, the future of 2-D animated features at Disney is up in the air. Instead, the studio is focusing on more Pixar-ish fare like the upcoming computer-animated feature “Wreck-It Ralph” (set for release this November).

It isn’t all grey skies for fans of hand-drawn animation, though. Studio Ghibli, the Japanese studio behind such gems as “Spirited Away” (2001), “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) and the recently released “The Secret World of Arrietty,” continues to produce movies on par with any studio in the world while remaining committed to the dwindling art form.

As Ghibli’s co-founder and figurehead Hayao Miyazaki remarked in a 2011 interview with CNN, “We are an extinct species maybe. … (But hand drawing) is the only thing I’m interested in and therefore people who are not interested in working by hand should choose another place of work.”

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