Walt Disney's lovely songbird made history in 1937, debuting in Hollywood's first movie-length cartoon. It was an instant creative and financial sensation.
But the films that made 2001 a record box-office year for animation hardly resemble their ancestral "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Lifelike computer-generated images have nudged aside traditional hand-drawn characters in such mega-hits as "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc.," both of which were nominated today.
What's more, the animation industry is redefining itself at a furious pace, leaving everyone from financiers to artists wondering where the evolution of technology and tastes will lead. Although the new world of digital animation is creating opportunities for some, it is leaving others behind.
"The industry is in a very odd transition now," said Tom Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Animation. "We're making more animated movies than ever, they're being made with different techniques, and the nature by which we make those movies -- in a garage or in a studio -- is all changing."
And all this has prompted painful changes and choices not only for studio chiefs but for the hundreds of displaced animators who made their living drawing pictures by hand, not by computer mouse.
Jobs once considered essential for hand-drawn movies are no longer needed in computer animation, which is far less labor intensive than the traditional style.
"There's been a huge amount of dislocation," said Steve Hulett, business representative of the screen cartoonists' union, which has seen its membership plummet from a high of 2,800 in 1996 to about 1,500 today.
Among the casualties is Steve Starr. He worked as a traditional animator at Disney for 26 years. When times were good, he commanded more than $130,000 a year. Last month, he was laid off and forced to sell his dream house.
"It's very tough, there's not much out there right now," said Starr, 49, who plans to enroll in a community college course on computer animation.
Leading the digital charge is another former Disney animator, John Lasseter, creative chief of Pixar Animation Studios in Northern California. In 1995, Pixar and partner Disney were behind the movie that started the animation revolution -- "Toy Story" -- and continued it with last year's "Monsters, Inc."
Throughout Hollywood, Lasseter is revered as the modern-day Walt Disney. He believes digital animation is simply the logical extension of "Snow White," when Disney used a new multi-plane camera to give more depth to his hand-drawn characters.
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Lasseter said that when he saw early computer graphics coming out of university research labs in 1980, his first thought was: "Wow, this is what Walt was always looking to do -- getting more dimensionality in his animated films."
Still, he said, no amount of wizardry can make up for a lack of substance. "You need a great story populated by compelling characters that takes place in believable worlds."
That's what made "Snow White" the highest-grossing movie of its day, upstaged a couple years later by a movie called "Gone With the Wind." For its artistic and technical achievement, "Snow White" was awarded a special Oscar.
Since then, other animated films have been nominated for, or received, Academy Awards, mostly in the musical or short-film categories. Only "Toy Story" and Disney's 1991 "Beauty and the Beast" have crashed the top tier -- the former a nominee for best screenplay, the latter for best picture.
Nearly two years ago, however, with hit animated films flooding the market, the motion picture academy decided it was time for full-length features to compete head-to-head.