Studios take on juggernauts with traditional 2D

Talk about David and Goliath. In an era when 3D CG animation and big studio juggernauts such as Disney-Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky-Fox seem to dominate the toon landscape, a few smaller, auteur-driven projects — notably, Bill Plympton’s “Idiots and Angels,” Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s “My Dog Tulip” and Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” — are keeping the traditions of the form alive.

“People think all animation’s the same, but 2D animation is a different art form from 3D,” notes Chomet, whose “The Triplets of Belleville” scored two Oscar noms. “It’s about drawing, and 3D isn’t.”

And for all three animators, working by hand is a far more expressive medium. “What’s really cool is you can see all the little details of the lines and layers,” explains Plympton. “I spend a lot of time on each drawing, and I over-shade and erase and work up the surface, so it actually looks like a Degas drawing in the end.” The images also possess “a warmth and a certain artistic feel you just can’t get with a computer,” he adds. “I like all the mistakes and little imperfections.”

For Paul Fierlinger, “It’s very hard to put individuality in 3D, while it’s relatively easy to be original in drawing.”

It’s also “pretty inexpensive” compared with 3D, says Plympton whose fifth feature-length toon tells the story of a lonely, bitter man who sprouts wings. “If I’d used computer animation, it would have multiplied my costs by hundreds. I can’t afford to do that.” Instead, Plympton sticks to traditional 2D animation. The result? “Every one of my films has made a profit,” he reports, “and you can’t say that about every CG film.”

“You don’t need a huge budget to create an interesting 2D project,” agrees Chomet.

But just because these artists work by hand doesn’t mean they’re Luddites. All are quick to avail themselves of the latest technology, especially if it helps speed up the notoriously time-consuming and labor-intensive traditional animation process. The husband-and-wife Fierlinger team used French software TVPaint to create more than 60,000 drawings and give a painterly look to “Tulip’s” detailed postwar London settings.

“We call it ‘computer-assist,’ as the process hasn’t changed — it’s still hand-drawn and hand-painted, except we draw on a plastic tablet instead of paper,” he explains. “And Sandra paints the same way, with a plastic pen on a tablet. But it’s now much quicker and far more convenient. I love the new tools. Not for a minute do I miss the old 19th-century ways.”

Likewise, after his initial drawings, Chomet relied on computers for all the compositing and coloring on “The Illusionist.” “Everything’s done with Photoshop and Painter. They’re very helpful tools for a very slow process,” he says.

Every frame of “Idiots” and Plympton’s new short “The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger” was first hand-drawn — Sharpie on animation bond for “Cow” and pencil on bond for “Idiots” — then scanned into the computer and colored via PhotoShop.

“The tools make it faster and more malleable,” Plympton says. “I can easily and instantly change things with the computer, while the old way of shooting 35mm meant you were really stuck with the cels you’re shooting.”

And all are bullish about the future of the format. “Animation’s exploding all over the world, and there’s room for all the different techniques and styles,” says Chomet. Agrees Plympton: “Audiences don’t want the same old style each film. They want new experiences.”

Adds Fierlinger: “CG used to dominate, but I think people are getting a bit tired of it now. I see 2D’s future in its capacity to be original and surprise.”

More from Eye on the Oscar: Animation:
Decade proves toons’ worth | Indie pics keep hand in game | Non-toon talent brings life to animation

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