What drew artist Kevin Koch to the world of animation was a pencil. What has kept him in the business is a digital tablet.
Like dozens of animators who work for movie studio DreamWorks SKG, Koch spent nearly a decade honing his pencil-on-paper artistic skills: turning a curved line into a straining back, blurring colors to bring a subtle blush to a woman’s cheeks, transforming a flat drawing into a living, breathing creature.
Then, this year, Koch’s managers at DreamWorks sat down and gave him the news: The studio, facing a steady box-office decline for its old-fashioned two-dimensional animated films, was making a big push into the new territory of digital animation.
Put down the pencil, his bosses said, and let us retrain you to use a software palette. Otherwise, you’ll have to leave.
As president of the local chapter of the union representing animators, Koch knew it was a choice thousands of other artists in California would have to make. With 2D animators facing waves of layoffs as their jobs move overseas, there is only one answer.
“You retrain in 3D,” Koch said. “If you’ve kept your eye on the horizon, it’s been pretty clear that this was coming.”
Computer-generated, or CG, animated films are the toast of today’s Hollywood. George Lucas recently announced the creation of Lucasfilm Animation to produce computer-animated features. Sony Pictures Animation has six CG films in development.
DreamWorks has four in its pipeline, including the sequel to the 2001 sleeper hit “Shrek” and the mob-themed comedy “Sharkslayer,” which features a cast of fish. Of the 15 animators working on “Shrek 2,” all but two have a background in traditional, non-digital animation. Nearly all of the 40 artists working on “Sharkslayer” have been retrained from 2D.
Even Walt Disney Co., the studio that has led the way in hand-drawn animation for nearly a century, is embracing computers. Although some 2D feature-film projects are in the works, artists at Disney’s animation headquarters in Burbank speak nervously of drafting tables being put into storage, to be replaced by Linux machines.
Employees point to a staff meeting this spring, where the president of the animation division, David Stainton, proclaimed that the future would be digital and that the more than 500 animators would have to be retrained to work on computers.
The shifting landscape inside Hollywood’s animation studios has created an unexpected culture clash between artists who were raised in the tradition of “Pinocchio” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and those who came of age with “Toy Story.”
Digital artists understand technology. For them, animation often is about creating 3D reality -- to make characters on the screen look lifelike.
The 2D artist, on the other hand, tends to focus on performance. For them, animation is about creating performances -- to turn the characters into believable actors.
And for artists such as Koch, making the shift from 2D to 3D means facing criticism from both camps. Traditionalists insist that their brethren have betrayed their roots, while the digital crowd grumbles over a new crew of artists competing for a limited number of jobs.
“It’s like tectonic plates rubbing against each other,” said animation artist Charles Zembillas, founder of the Animation Academy in Burbank. “It’s an exciting time, and a stressful one. To say there’s a lot of tension would be an understatement.”
Not too long ago, studios were embracing traditionally drawn films with gusto.
In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg jumped into the animation arena with the wildly successful film “An American Tail,” the highest-grossing debut for an animated feature at the time.
That prompted Disney to shove its production schedule into overdrive. It hired thousands of animators and story artists. By the early 1990s, Disney was releasing a hand-drawn feature almost every year -- “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” -- and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in domestic box-office sales. “The Lion King” has pulled in $328 million.
Other studios rushed to set up their own 2D animation facilities. The creative results were strong, but the financial tally was less than spectacular, ranging from the $24.6 million brought in by 20th Century Fox’s “Fern Gully: The Last Rain Forest” to the mere $1.1 million for “Freddie as F.R.O.7.” from an independent British studio.
As the studios began to pull back, artists felt the pain first. In 2000, Fox shuttered is 2D animation facility in Phoenix, laying off almost 400 workers. Disney’s troubled animation division, which has been through three management changes in four years, has cut about 75% of the more than 2,000 artists it had on staff at the peak.
“Artists are watching the current studio buzz over 3D projects and wondering whether history is going to repeat itself,” said Brian Reynolds, who runs AnimationNation.com, an “online water cooler” for artists and other workers in the animation industry. “Will there be as much demand for these films five years from now? Will the jobs still be here? Or will the studios all close down again?”
Such concerns add stress in an industry that has seen jobs migrate offshore for more than 30 years. The Philippines, for example, has long attracted work from U.S. studios eager for English-speaking artists willing to work for far less than their American counterparts. Now the Philippines is losing jobs to South Korea, which helps animate the TV series “The Simpsons,” and India, whose animation firms pulled in nearly $100 million in sales last year.
Studio executives say that much of the 3D work is too technical to ship offshore. But those assurances do little to calm artists’ fears.
“If they’ve shipped jobs overseas before, the studios could do it again in the future,” Zembillas said. “There’s just no guarantees. That’s one of the reasons why people are training in 3D. It’s to protect their future.”
Whether drawing with a pencil or pixels, breathing life into an animated character isn’t a simple task. Each camp has medium-specific skills and talents that the other may lack. So while 2D artists are learning to use 3D tools, some 3D animators are getting reacquainted with paper and chalk.
At Sony Pictures Imageworks, the visual effects powerhouse in Culver City, employees are encouraged to take classes in life drawing.
During a recent weekday lunch hour, animators, software designers, technical directors and digital compositors slipped away from their offices to a small room on the ground floor of Imageworks. Clad in jeans and rumpled shirts, the students straddled wooden benches and began sketching the nude female model posing on a tiny square stage.
Slowly, their random pencil strokes emerged into shapes. A woman’s face. The bend of her wrist. The sharp, crisp edges of a magazine tossed at her feet.
“What’s important isn’t the details,” instructor Karl Guass told them. “It’s the movement. It’s the activity.”
Upstairs, Ginger Bowman led a course on composition software. Lines of green code scrolled across the flat-panel monitors lining the tables.
Students punched in a file name to pull up images from the film “Spider-Man.” Bowman guided the students, including software coders and traditional animators, through the steps required to manipulate the light hitting actor Tobey Maguire’s face and the color of a nearby brick building.
Such cross-fertilization between the 2D and 3D specialists inspired one storytelling class to create a comical coming-of-age tale of a tadpole called “Early Bloomer.”
“We had people from totally different backgrounds working on this,” said instructor Kevin Johnson, a lead storyboard artist for Sony Pictures Animation. “Everyone learned a lot.” Sony played the short film as a preview during the recent run of the Eddie Murphy film “Daddy Day Care.”
The Story Is the Heart
At Pixar Animation Studios, there are so many classes -- from Maya software to oil painting to improvisational acting -- that the CG animation giant set up its own internal “university” at its Emeryville, Calif., headquarters.
“Everything we do stems from the story itself,” said Dylan Brown, a 3D artist who worked as a supervising animator on Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” “If you have a compelling story, it doesn’t matter what the medium is.”
In addition to offering training, studios such as DreamWorks are tailoring their software tools to have a more graphical interface -- something that may make them more comfortable for 2D animators than systems requiring typed-in program commands.
A white board perched behind animator Ken Duncan’s desk at DreamWorks drives home the point. It contains a drawing of a sad and cranky little face. Above it is a cartoon thought bubble with a line of confusing mathematical gibberish.
“I just don’t want the software on the computer to get in the way” of creativity and art, said Duncan, the sequence director for “Sharkslayer.”
DreamWorks’ software teams built a program that allows animators to break down and track each sequence of the movie using an “exposure sheet” -- just as if it were being made in 2D.
Each frame of film is marked along a timeline. Alongside it are each pose the character will make and the time each action will take. That is paired with the geometrical coordinates of each character’s musculature and skeletal system.
If the animators want to make a change to one of the sharks, for example, they can turn to a menu whose buttons are arranged in the shape of a shark body. Want to tweak the spine? Click on the buttons that run down the middle of the menu. Want to make it grin? Click on the buttons near the top of the menu’s “head” and then go move its mouth.
Although the tools have become increasingly user-friendly, they haven’t completely eased the fears of artists making the transition to 3D.
“The biggest hurdle for me wasn’t technology. It was psychological,” said DreamWorks animator Pres Romanillos, who is working on his first 3D project, “Shrek 2.” “The fear I had was about whether I could do the same quality of work -- convey the same kind of emotion -- in 3D that I could do in 2D.”
His answer is on his computer. With the click of a mouse, Romanillos shows off a short clip from “Shrek 2.” The green ogre hero stares pensively out a castle window and wonders whether he has done the right thing by saving Princess Fiona. Or has he stolen her away from her true Prince Charming?
“Look at that emotion on his face!” Romanillos said. “It’s so expressive. Look at the lighting. It’s amazing what you can do on the computer.”