Talking with a scribe last week, it occurred to me that there's been distinct trends in animation -- teevee and theatrical -- over the last two decades. And when you think about it, they kind of leap out at you. (Please note that what follows is painted with a broad brush.)
Television Cartoons -- 1990 to Now
In TeeVee (circa 1990-95), there was a surge in higher quality toonage, away from the Hanna-Barbera/Filmation styles of the eighties. Spielberg teamed with Warners for Tiny Toons and the various series that came after (Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, etc.); Disney ginned up the Disney Afternoon and blocks of animation derived from the roundish Disney house-style going back to the 1930s.(But was also influenced by what Warners Animation was doing.)
Budgets were relatively high in the quest for quality ...
Then came the Nick and Cartoon Network era.
The round "classical" look of television cartoons were, series by series, supplanted by flatter, simpler, more angular styles epitomized by Rug Rats, Ren and Stimpy, Cow and Chicken, Sponge Bob and the other Nick-style shows (produced by every company -- from Cartoon Network to Disney) that came after.
The changes, I think, arrived in the second half of the nineties for several reasons:
1) Ratings for the flatter-style shows compared well with the classical Warners and Disney television cartoons.
2) The Nick-style shows were perceived as "edgier."
3) The Nick-style shows cost less to produce.
4) The boom in syndicated broadcast animation came to an end and licensing fees declined.
5) The need for low-budget cable-programming exploded and lower-cost cable-based toonage took off.
One overarching development that happened as we shifted from one millenium to another was that television animation studios and divisions got cost-conscious, real cost conscious. The business model of large, stable, in-house staffs turning out animated shows with 65-episode orders morphed to the thirteen-episode, project-to-project, freelance-heavy style of employment we know and often loathe today.
There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. Prime-time animated shows on the broadcast networks (otherwise known as "the FOX Sunday block") employ large in-house staffs, but even this has changed over time as Fox and some of its sub-contractors have attempted to rein in production costs.
Now, in the second decade of the new century, television animation is changing again.
Nickelodeon, once a pioneer in the flat and edgy, is pivoting toward cartoons of the computer graphics persuasion, what with Kung Fu Panda, Penguins of Madagascar, Fan Boy and Chum Chum and other CG product. Up until recently, CG cartoons for the home screen were but a small subset of total output, since some ambitious CGI series from the turn-of-the-century didn't perform well enough (Starship Troopers) to justify costs.
That now has changed.
And what changes the oncoming era of three dimensional television will bring is anyone's guess. But as I write, it's pretty obvious what three dee cinema means at your local AMC ...
Theatrical Animation -- 1990 to Now
The big milestones in theatrical, feature-length animation have been simpler and more pronounced than in t.v. land. Below, the big events (again with the broad brush, since I'm not writing an Encyclopedia Britannica entry ...)
* Prologue: From 1937 to 1980 it was pretty much Disney and a few pretenders to the throne. Everything was hand-drawn, most product was based on the Disney model (Yellow Submarine being one notable exception) and the most prominent, on-going theatrical animation staff was housed at 500 S. Buena Vista Street in Burbank, California.
In 1980, that changed a bit when Don Bluth and part of the Disney staff bolted from Burbank and commenced creating their own feature cartoons that were also built on a Disney foundation. Although Don was not wildly successful, he did have two animated hits in partnership with Mr. Spielberg, and he turned out over a dozen features over the course of fifteen years.
* As the 1990s floated into view, Disney was proceeding in its usual way, turning out a new animated feature every two to three years. But new management took over and the tempo picked up. And starting in 1989 with Little Mermaid, the department's feature cartoons became lots more profitable. When the profits reached gargantuan proportions in the earlyand middle nineties (LionKingAladdinBeautyandtheBeast), most of the Mouse's rival conglomerates jumped into Cartoonland with decidely non-gargantuan results (Quest For Camelot, Titan A.E., etc.).
* In the late 1990s, the tide receded. But as Disney's hand-drawn animation crested and the rivals flamed out, a small studio partnered with Walt's place turned out a c.g. feature entitled Toy Story; it was a major hit, and the course of feature animated was reset.
(Side note: I don't think hand-drawn animation would have declined as rapidly as it did from late 1990s to early 2000s if the Mouse's story prowess had remained as potent as is it was under Mr. Katzenberg. But power centers changed, and the happy chemistry that had clicked for five or six magical years at Disney Feature Animation faded away, and CG feature animation became the platform for bonafide hits.)
* By the start of the new century/millenium, other studios clambered aboard the CG bandwagon to partake of some of that computer-generated goodness (a.k.a. profits). This second time, the congloms didn't crash and burn, but had hits of their own. And this (by my estimate) sealed the fate of CG animation's pencil-and-paper cousin. The day of Snow White style animation was O-VER.
* Today: CG animation hasn't simply displaced the older style. It's displaced live-action, too. Directors and animators can argue who controls the performance of big blue aliens or 19th century Londoners, but the bottom-line is, lots of animators are sitting at lots of computers doing something that impacts the images projected on those big, silver screens.
There's lots of new animation and CG technical work in this brave new world, but the question is, where is the work going to get done? A sizable chunk will be outsourced to various parts of the globe. However, a lot of the work will be performed stateside because cost differentials aren't the crucial fulcrum in high-budget features. The most important elements are quality control and timeliness. (It does no good to save a million and a half dollars on your sword-and-sorcery epic if the shots don't get done in front of the release date.)
This doesn't mean, of course, that CG personnel are going to have an easy time in a sellers market, far from it. I've been sitting in this grandstand seats for awhile, and I've observed that supply always catches up to demand, and in-demand skill sets never stay in-demand over long stretches of time. (I know CG artists who could write their own tickets in 1995 who now work as independent contractors because their leverage is now less.)
What I also know is that animation is an expanding part of the movie universe, and the jobs supporting it are high-skill and high-value. Lower end product will be outsourced because lower-end product seeks the cheapest labor market in order to get made.
But the high-end product? The name of the game there is quality not cost. The last thing that James Cameron, Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg want is a hackish CG job-shop in Bangladesh wrecking their vision. It has been ever thus, and I don't see that changing anytime soon.