Hand-drawn down, not out

Last year, all three best animated feature Oscar nominees were 2-D films — two stop-motion affairs and the hand-drawn “Howl’s Moving Castle.” A year later, the feature world has witnessed a massive CG parade, so much so that only two of the 16 contenders were created in the traditional hand-drawn style.

Could this mean studios are abandoning hand-drawn animated features, their former bread-and-butter?

Not entirely. Fox obviously expects a hit with next summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” made to mimic the style of the famous TV show. In fact, in a new trailer, the studio pokes fun at the “unsurpassed beauty” of CG films, describing “The Simpsons Movie” as the exception that “dares to be ugly.”

Of the major studios, only Universal released a hand-drawn feature in 2006. At $58 million, U’s “Curious George” was reasonably successful, but earned far less than its CG cousins, which is part of the problem the medium faces: “decent” B.O. no longer cuts it.

“It’s been said that Hollywood is a game of home runs, not of hitting singles and doubles,” says Kevin Koch, president of the Animation Guild, Local 839 in Hollywood. “The studios all want ‘Shrek 2′ or ‘Finding Nemo’ numbers. And that makes any other formula risky, given the success they are having right now with CG films.”

Beyond “Curious George” and “The Simpsons Movie,” the only significant studio-originated 2-D feature even remotely visible on the horizon (possibly in 2008, though not yet confirmed) is Disney’s “The Frog Princess.” And that project is so early in development that Disney officials decline to discuss it.

Ironically, many in the rank-and-file are applauding the arrival of the godfather of computer animation, John Lasseter, as chief of Disney Animation as the best news for traditional feature animation in a long time. Lasseter was the one who approved making “Frog Princess” using traditional techniques, and he indicates a general willingness to keep the art form alive at Disney.

“I totally disagree with all the studios that have chosen to stop doing hand-drawn animation,” he tells Daily Variety, “because it’s not about the technology — it’s about what you do with it. So many people are getting on the computer-animation bandwagon because they think that if a movie is computer-animated, they’ll get a hit. But the history of cinema shows that audiences love to be entertained — it’s as simple as that.”

Fox Animation prexy Chris Meledandri echoes the sentiment. Though he fully concedes there is “an industry trend that is aggressively pushing CG, away from traditional animation,” he also insists Fox will consider any medium for making films based on the nature of individual projects. Fox is doing “The Simpsons Movie” in the skein’s hand-drawn style, the Dr. Seuss-inspired “Horton Hears a Who” using CG and Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” with stop-motion.

“At this moment, I believe we are the only major studio that is simultaneously making features in all three media,” says Meledandri. “We obviously have a commitment to CG movies, based on the foundation of our having acquired Blue Sky Studios, but we are always looking for opportunities in all forms. Traditional, hand-drawn animation is a beautiful medium, and this business is cyclical, so we will see more films made in traditional ways.”

The wane in 2-D features can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the failure of a series of hand-drawn studio pics coincided with a rise in labor costs and major technology breakthroughs in CG.

According to Steve Hulett, business representative for the animation guild, studios have traditionally adhered to strict formulas to figure out what works. And right now, quite simply, the CG formula is working.

“It’s not that CG is cheaper, as some people think,” he says. “It isn’t necessarily cheaper by any means. But what is working on the theatrical level is drawing great numbers, and that approach is therefore the model.” But 2-D is thriving on television and homevid, and many believe the current lull among features will ease up eventually.

“I think you will start to see some hand-drawn films coming back — not to the level of what we had in the ’90s, but more than what we have now,” suggests James Baxter, a veteran studio artist who left DreamWorks to start his own indie studio. “After a time, people will appreciate the choice and might even consider it fresh.”

Koch hopes the industry will eventually return to the modest level of having at least one major, hand-drawn studio feature in production each year. But even the most respected independent artists have a hard time getting studios to notice, says Bill Plympton. A cult hero and Hollywood outsider, Plympton has made several feature-length films independently and has been nominated twice for Oscars for his shorts.

“There is a herd instinct at the studios right now, and they all want to make Pixar-type films,” says Plympton, who plans to self-distribute his 2004 feature “Hair High” in early 2007. “But when you see the money they are pouring into CGI films, it’s obscene. They cost thousands of times more than what I make films for. Why myself, and others, don’t get a call from the studios is a mystery to me. It’s a great question why they won’t take a chance on more (traditionally made indie films).”

For now, as “Curious George” director Matt O’Callaghan says, “Almost everything will be CG, except in rare cases when somebody steps up and has a strong vision for why the movie should be traditionally animated.”

“Curious George” was in development for more than a decade, going through “every possible variation of live-action and CG” before producer Ron Howard insisted the style match the books, he says. “Universal backed him on that, but those cases are pretty rare.”

(Ellen Wolff contributed to this report. Michael Goldman is senior editor of Millimeter magazine.)

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