In Praise of Hand-Drawn Animation Over CGI

by David Vining

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When I was growing up, movie animation was the Disney movies from the 90s. The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Aladdin. They were ubiquitous and formative about my views on what animation should look and feel like. They became, in a word, the standard in my mind.

I’m using the word standard a bit more pejoratively than I expected. I equate it to standard features on a car. Do you get excited about power steering, seat belts, or air conditioning anymore? Probably not. They’re what you expect, and when looking at a new car, you take those elements for granted.

I bring this up because I’ve seen some things over the last few years that have really opened my eyes about the beauty of hand-drawn animation, and each one has the distinct value of being made by someone other than the Walt Disney Company. What made me fall in love with animation as an art form was those films that looked, moved, and felt different from Disney, while also being beautiful. I’ve previously talked about the 1971 short film version of A Christmas Carol and how I love it because it looks like the sketches from the book come to life. It’s that sort of thing that sparks my imagination and gets me looking.

I’ll admit it, though, I think my love of animation has begun to override my other critical impulses.



The Thief and the Cobbler

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Here’s a movie where the history behind the film is more interesting than the film itself, and I love the film. Richard Williams was and is a great animator. He was in charge of the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and used the success there to fund a movie he had been in some process of making on and off for about twenty years. He already had Vincent Price’s performance as ZigZag in the can for years before he got serious money to make the film. Williams’ process, though, is exacting and ever-expanding, which translated to a ballooning budget and production schedule, angering the studio so much that they eventually took the film from Williams and gave it to a bond company to finish. What was finished got released just after Aladdin, a movie to which it shared many similar visual cues. The documentary Persistence of Vision outright states that Disney stole those cues from Williams’ long in production film, but because Disney was bigger and their movie got released sooner, everyone considered The Thief and the Cobbler to be a knockoff.

Which is really too bad, because what he put together, while choppy and disjointed, is wonderful. As I said earlier, he didn’t actually finish the film. The movie released in theaters had songs added on, and a bunch of other changes, including new, much less impressively animated, sequences. However, the original vision is one of those counter-factuals that attracts the attention of a lot of movie fans. One of those fans has spent years trying to reconstruct the original idea as much as possible into what is called The Recobbled Cut, the entirety of which is available on Youtube.

Enough of that, though. Here’s why I love this movie:

The Thief and the Cobbler Recobbled Cut Mark 4 Pt. 1

Do you see what he did with motion, design, and color to bring it all together? No matter how well or poorly that sequence fits into the movie, it’s a thrill to watch. And, it involved not a single computer. The bit down the staircase, where the camera swings down? To my eyes, it looks like an early computer background with the characters animated on top of it. It was done by hand.

The Thief and the Cobbler, War Machine sequence
That, above, is a sequence done fairly early in the process that Williams used whenever he needed to find new funding or get support from a new executive. And it pretty consistently worked because it’s gorgeous, complex, and wonderful.

The Secret of Kells

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Here’s a movie that looks so different from most animated movies, that simply seeing it’s poster in a gallery draws the eye. The movie’s style almost completely eschews any sense of the third dimension, preferring to look more like a medieval tapestry than a modern animated film. It shares a certain aesthetic with the television show Samurai Jack but with greater detail and a gentler soul.

Below are two clips that exemplify what I mean when I find animation that is decidedly different from the standard to be fascinating and, when well done, beautiful.

The Secret of Kells - Aisling's Song
Secret of Kells - Invasion scene

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Comparing either of the two movies above (one that is more than 20 years old the other about 8) to the most recent animated film from Disney and Pixar, Coco (a movie I love, by the way), and all I see is that traditional hand-drawn animation is still more beautiful and soulful than computer generated animation. No matter the beauty put into the designs of a computer-generated image, I always find that the image itself has a certain sterile feel to it in comparison. I don’t disdain computer animation. I celebrate how it’s allowed some very good stories to be told. Moana is an example of a movie that contains a lot of very detailed and realistic water effects that would be damn near impossible to create with hand-drawn animation.

MOANA 2016 | The Making of Water, Lava, and Sand Simulation
And yet, there is no awe in me when I see the marvelous water effects in Moana. I feel like it’s expected at this point. In my mind, computers can create any image, and it feels easy (I know that computer artists work really hard at a job that few people can do, but still, it feels like the computer is doing most of the work). Seeing a sequence come together like the war machine sequence in The Thief and the Cobbler or the fight against Maleficient in Sleeping Beauty and knowing that a team of people started with blank paper and came up with that is amazing to me.


Read the whole thing at the Ace of Spades blog here (but be warned, if you comment on any older posts on their message boards, your account may get blocked. It’s a glitch they haven’t overcome.)

And check out David’s personal blog here.

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David Vining

I am a fiction writer living in Charleston, SC. I've had a variety of jobs, but nothing compared to what Heinlein had. I don't think that time I got hired to slay the wild and terrifying jack rabbit of Surrey counts since I actually only took out the mild mannered hedgehog of Suffolk. Let's just say that it doesn't go on the resume. Lover (but not, you know...lover) of movies. Married to the single most beautiful woman on Earth with a single son who shall rule after my death. If that didn't deter you, check out my blog or browse some of the books I've written.