ANIMATION RENAISSANCE FUELED BY TECH ADVANCES, NEW STORYTELLERS AND LOCAL CONTENT 1

ANIMATION RENAISSANCE FUELED BY TECH ADVANCES, NEW STORYTELLERS AND LOCAL CONTENT

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By CHRIS McGOWAN

Pixar’s Turning Red is a coming-of-age fantasy/comedy featuring 3D animation with anime influences, directed by Domee Shi. (Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney)

Animated features and series of all types and stripes are launching this year, thanks to growing global demand, an anime goldrush and the impact of the streamers. The diverse array of titles includes both high-grossing sequels of franchises that are mostly for children and fare for teens and/or adults that push the animation envelope in terms of content and style.

Animated movies have already established themselves as a significant part of the movie business, having achieved formidable box office grosses. Four animation titles in the top 25 films released in the past four years have grossed over $1 billion dollars worldwide, led by Disney’s Incredibles 2 (2018), The Lion King (2019), Toy Story 4 (2019) and Frozen II (2019), according to Box Office Mojo. More than 50 animated titles have topped the $500 million mark. Animation has also established a strong streaming presence.

“There has been an explosion of animation over the last few years in all areas and styles,” says David Prescott, Senior Vice President, Creative Production of DNEG Animation, which co-produced the Disney/20th Century Studios hit Ron’s Gone Wrong in 2021 and worked on Paramount’s Under the Boardwalk for this year and Alcon/Sony’s Garfield project for 2024.

Kane Lee, Head of Content for Baobab Studios, comments that “there has been a real sea change in supply and demand for animation content, both in general and across genres.”

According to Ingrid Johnston, Animal Logic Head of Production, “Right now, we have a great opportunity to see a wide range of animation styles and stories told in animation. Flee [the animated Danish docudrama] being nominated for this year’s Oscars is a great example of this. The success of films like [Sony’s] Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse are showing that audiences are engaged in different styles of animation. We have already seen an increase in the amount of animated content for adults, such as Love, Death + Robots, and filmmakers are seeing animation as a way of telling more diverse stories.” Animal Logic co-produced Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (2021) and is working with Netflix Animation on The Magician’s Elephant and Warner on Toto, the latter two due in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

High-profile 2022 titles include Paramount’s Blazing Samurai, Universal/Illumination’s Minions: The Rise of Gru, Universal/ DreamWorks’ The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Part One), Warner’s DC League of Super-Pets, Disney’s The Ice Age Adventures of Buck Wild and Strange World, Disney/20th Century’s The Bob’s Burgers Movie and Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red and Lightyear.

Plus, there are animated series bowing in 2022 that will join several dozen already available. New arrivals include Dan Harmon’s Krapopolis for Fox, Amazon’s The Legend of Vox Machina and The Boys Presents: Diabolical, and the Disney sequel The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.

The streamers have jumped into animation in a big way, either as producers or distributors. Netflix has had the biggest footprint, acquiring or producing numerous animated films. Several 2022 Netflix releases have auteurs at the helm: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood, Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon and the stop-action horror anthology The House, written by Enda Walsh. Netflix is also distributing Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, The Sea Beast and Riverdance: The Animated Adventure this year. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures Animation’s Hotel Transylvania: Transformania is distributed by Amazon Studios and Paramount/Skydance Animation’s Luck by Apple TV.

Lee comments, “As we move into streaming and other new platforms, the playing field is more level, and we have more ready access to global content than ever before. So, the audience’s perception of what animation is, can be and who it’s for especially here in the U.S. is changing.” Lee’s firm, Baobab Studios, makes both animated films and interactive animation, often releasing titles on multiple platforms.

Twenty-seven years after Toy Story, Pixar used computer animation tools in Lightyear that were “vastly superior in terms of scale and complexity” to what was possible in 1995. (Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney)

Twenty-seven years after Toy Story, Pixar used computer animation tools in Lightyear that were “vastly superior in terms of scale and complexity” to what was possible in 1995. (Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney)

Emiko (Kylie Kuioka) in Paramount’s Blazing Samurai, animated by Cinesite. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Emiko (Kylie Kuioka) in Paramount’s Blazing Samurai, animated by Cinesite. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Matt Groening (The Simpsons) created and co-developed Disenchantment, which was produced by Rough Draft Studios and the ULULU Company (Images courtesy of Netflix)

Matt Groening (The Simpsons) created and co-developed Disenchantment, which was produced by Rough Draft Studios and the ULULU Company (Images courtesy of Netflix)

WIDE VARIETY, DAZZLING DIVERSITY

VFX firms WetaFX and RISE Visual Effects Studios have expanded into animated film production, joining the likes of Animal Logic and Cinesite, who are well established in producing animated features. WetaFX CEO Prem Akkaraju comments, “Weta Animated has been something that has been discussed for years within Weta. We have such a wealth of storytelling talent within the company that creating a business structure around them to help generate original content really felt like the logical next step. Weta has also developed a robust pipeline of tools over the years that give artists and directors a broad palette to work from in creating a style that best suits their creative project. Now is the perfect time for us to make this move.”

Johnston notes, “Factors such as an increase in animation studios, with traditional VFX studios starting to make animated films, and audience demand for content have expanded the types of animated films being created. Also, storytellers and filmmakers are seeing that not only can you tell stories beyond traditional family films, but that there’s also an audience who want to see them. The idea of traditional animated content is really being challenged, and we’re also seeing how it can work alongside other forms of content to tell rich, complex stories.”

“There has been an explosion of stylistic exploration in computer feature animation in recent years which I find super exciting,” says David Ryu, Vice President, Tools for Pixar Animation Studios. “Projects big and small are experimenting with looks, and I love seeing the range of looks projects are finding. There’s borrowing from so many influences: 2D hand-drawn animation, stopmotion, live-action film, so many lineages of 2D traditional art. And the ways we see the principles of all these things being put together to make something new is exciting and inspiring. This is going in so many directions, and I’m excited to see what looks arise over the next few years and what that means in terms of the technologies and pipelines we use to make them.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks contributed to the visual effects on Hotel Transylvania: Transformania. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Sony Pictures Imageworks contributed to the visual effects on Hotel Transylvania: Transformania. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Elfo and Bean cross a bridge in Disenchantment, which was animated by Rough Draft Studios (Futurama). (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Elfo and Bean cross a bridge in Disenchantment, which was animated by Rough Draft Studios (Futurama). (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Animal Logic worked on Warner’s DC League of Super-Pets. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Animal Logic worked on Warner’s DC League of Super-Pets. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Cinesite Head of Animation Eamonn Butler points to many titles with NPR (Non-Photorealistic Rendering) styles, for example The Mitchells vs. the Machines (produced by Sony and distributed by Netflix), Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Arcane (produced by Riot Games and Fortiche and distributed by Netflix), which utilize 3D-manipulated renders combined with hand drawn 2D techniques, painterly lighting and clever experimentation with surfacing and form. Cinesite has itself created a painterly NPR look for Hitpig, an Aniventure film from author Berkeley Breathed. Butler says that it’s exciting to experiment “with design, animation style and lighting” to create unique and appealing looks for Cinesite’s movies. Cinesite also teamed with Aniventure on Blazing Samurai and Riverdance: The Animated Adventure.

 

NEW STORYTELLERS TELLING DIFFERENT STORIES

Looking at animation history, WetaFX’s Senior Animation Supervisor Sidney Kombo-Kintombo comments, “Animation was at first an art for the initiated only. It used to be expensive and only a very small group of people had the required expertise. But nowadays, animation is a very accessible door to producing and sharing a story. Thanks to online tutorials, student licenses for professional software and the generosity of studios such as Weta, knowledge and professional tools are being put at the disposal of whoever wants to learn, even in remote regions where the use of internet is still a luxury. Thanks to that, we have witnessed the emergence of new talents and storytellers that create content based on remote cultures, stories and legends. These changes have a refreshing and enriching effect on the entire animation industry. The art is getting richer with more diverse artists and storytellers representing a wider range of cultures, [and] the world is opening up even more to the fact that there is more than one way of animating.”

Animal Logic approaches each film it works on as a new opportunity to evolve artistically and technically. “We first consider the story and then we look for the best way to represent it visually,” according to Johnston. “This has allowed each of the films we’ve worked on to have their own distinctive look.” This includes the Warner-distributed Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’hoole, with richly detailed feathers and foliage, Sony’s Peter Rabbit films with realistic rabbits integrated with live-action plates, and Warner’s LEGO Movie franchise with their unique stop-motion style. “Even within the LEGO universe, each film explored what elements of real world or stop-motion would best suit the requirements of the film. And DC League of Super-Pets has a whole new look of its own, too.”

 

ANIME CONTINUES TO GROW AND EXPAND

Anime accounts for a growing portion of the global animation business. Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train and Spirited Away have globally earned over $503 million and $396 million at the box office, respectively, and 20-odd titles are nearing or above $100 million, while innumerable series and movie sequels contribute to large totals for anime franchises.

Netflix has invested heavily in anime acquisitions and original programming. Hulu also has a large selection. Sony owns Crunchyroll, which, as of March, had more than 40,000 episodes, or 16,000+ hours, of a wide range of anime, according to Rahul Purini, Crunchyroll Chief Operating Officer. Looking back, he observes, “Animation in the West has primarily focused on children or comedy and the growth of anime and video games has helped create a generation that is much more comfortable with adult dramatic animation.” He adds, “Anime is not new, but it has grown exponentially over the last decade or so with the expansion of streaming platforms and expanded international rights and distribution. Many don’t understand that anime is not a genre in itself there are many styles within it, like fantasy, action, adventure, comedy and more. And as investment in the anime ecosystem and industry increases, you will see the storytelling growing and expanding in all directions.”

 

NEW TECHNOLOGY UNLEASHES CREATIVITY

Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) was the first feature-length computer-animated film. This year, Pixar will launch its latest spinoff, Lightyear, about which Ryu comments, “It’s interesting, in terms of software, that we’re actually using lots of spiritually similar stuff! We are still using RenderMan, and our animation system Presto shares DNA with our old ‘Menv’ system used in those days. Of course, RenderMan and Presto are light years ahead of what they were in those days. We’re in a different universe in terms of the scale and complexity of what we can do. And looking at where we’re at now vs. where we were, it’s cool to see the sea change in terms of artist interactivity and how far we’ve come in terms of reducing the technical barriers to entry. Both of these are showing up on the screen in terms of the complexity and quality of what we’re making.”

Lighthouse Studios, which animated The Cuphead Show!, is based in Kilkenny, Ireland and specializes in 2D animation. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Lighthouse Studios, which animated The Cuphead Show!, is based in Kilkenny, Ireland and specializes in 2D animation. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Cinesite animated Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, directed by Eamonn Butler and Dave Rosenbaum. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Cinesite animated Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, directed by Eamonn Butler and Dave Rosenbaum. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Turning Red has quickly become another top-notch addition to Pixar’s growing library of classic animated films. (Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney)

Turning Red has quickly become another top-notch addition to Pixar’s growing library of classic animated films. (Image courtesy of Pixar/Disney)

Kranz (Zachary Levi) in Mission Control in Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood, which blends a unique combination of hand-drawn animation, live-action and CGI. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Kranz (Zachary Levi) in Mission Control in Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space
Age Childhood, which blends a unique combination of hand-drawn animation, live-action and CGI. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Warner Animation Group, Animal Logic, DC Entertainment and Seven Bucks Productions teamed on the production of Warner’s DC League of Super-Pets. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Warner Animation Group, Animal Logic, DC Entertainment and Seven Bucks Productions teamed on the production of Warner’s DC League of Super-Pets. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Hank (Michael Cera) and Jimbo (Samuel Jackson) in Blazing Samurai. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Hank (Michael Cera) and Jimbo (Samuel Jackson) in Blazing Samurai. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Prescott comments, “New technology always has an interesting effect on any form of creative storytelling. With animation, it is allowing filmmakers the chance to tell stories they were not able to really approach before. It is also allowing each project to have a look and feel that suits that particular project. We’re integrating real-time workflows and machine learning to develop new and cutting-edge interactive experiences for our artists, which is changing the animation production process, all designed to let creativity thrive.”

Cinesite Chief Technology Officer Michelle Sciolette, speaking of game engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity, notes that, “In the past few years, major technical advancements in the graphics-processing unit [GPU] of computers have enabled such engines to render production-quality imagery while maintaining their real-time speed. Cinesite, along with its production partner Aniventure, is currently developing an animated feature film utilizing game engine technology.”

Akkaraju adds, “The most exciting technology development is the inclusion of AI and machine learning techniques in the animation workflow. It has the potential to affect the artists’ day-to-day workflows as much as the transition to having computers handle the in-betweens. There is still much of the animation workflow that is manual and repetitive tasks that are not aiding the creative process.”

 

ADAPTING TO THE PANDEMIC

The growth of animation was accelerated by adaptations to COVID-19. “With the arrival of the pandemic, live-action filmmaking was largely put on hold while the demand for animation accelerated our mostly digital pipelines could adapt to remote work and such. So, in 2022 we’re going to see the fruits of that labor, and it’s only just the beginning,” says Lee.

During the pandemic, “live-action directors and studios were able to consider animated scripts, and now we’re seeing a large demand for animated films. The industry has never been busier,” comments Johnston.

“Audience demand for animation has also grown substantially over the last few years and people are consuming more and more,” observes Akkaraju. “One interesting by-product of this trend has been an expanding of audience perception of what animated storytelling can be. We’re seeing a wider range of stories and storytellers be embraced by the mainstream, and that’s great for everyone.”

Concludes Johnston, “The beauty of animation is that anything you can imagine can be created, so there’s a lot more freedom and scope within the world of animation.”



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