Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hand-Drawn Land

For those who long for the days of hand-drawn features (you can find some of them in the contentious comment thread here) there is a place, on this very planet, where the pencil-and-paper cartoon is alive and thriving:

A new crop of ambitious Gallic 2-D toons are now aiming for mainstream auds, helped by the international response to such arthouse pics as last year's "Persepolis" and 2003's "Triplets of Belleville."

With lower production costs than 3-D features, the 2-D films enable French producers to get into the toon biz with less risk while bringing Gallic subjects and sensibilities to their projects.

"There is a growing trend towards traditionally animated films that can be considered auteur films, with audacious universes and storylines that cater to family audiences and not merely children," says Didier Brunner, producer at Paris-based animation shingle Les Armateurs ("Triplets of Belleville").

Of course, Disney Feature is producing the hand-drawn Princess and the Frog at a lower price than many of its recent offerings, but over in the land of the croissant, they're working with even lower production costs:

... French 2-D toons have been solid performers on the homefront and abroad. Last year, "Persepolis" grossed $4.4 million in the U.S. and $18 million worldwide; pic was budgeted around $7 million. Michel Ocelot's "Azur et Asmar," with a $9 million budget, grossed $16 million in Gaul. "Triplets of Belleville" parlayed its animated Oscar nom into more than $7 million in the U.S., with nearly $15 million worldwide ...

What American congloms, chasing after the half-billion dollar payday, overlook is that hand-drawn features are viable at the right price-point, and there's no good reason that point couldn't be in the $20-$30 million range in current dollars.

(According to the esteemed inflation calculator, The Rescuers' $7.5 million production cost would be a mere $25.4 million today.)

I think the reason that hand-drawn features have disappeared from American landscape isn't due to cgi being more sexy or "with it", but because the last crop of hand-drawn features (1998-2004) were lacklustre compared to their c.g. competition. (One quick example: Sinbad vs. Toy Story 2? They were released a month apart at the turn of the century, and one did way better than the other. Maybe I'm a Luddite, but I don't think Sinbad crashed and burned because it was hand-drawn ...)

It isn't that hand-drawn features aren't viable. It's that they are perceived by the conglomerates as less bankable than c.g.i. Execs don't stop to consider much of the lack of viability links directly to lousier content, so until that aspect of traditional features climbs to higher elevations (and box office grosses ascend with it), the pencil-and-paper art form will continue to take a back seat to c.g.i.

Might not be fair, but it's the way, sadly, it is. You want to work the hand-drawn side of the divide, wait for the next traditional Disney feature ... or the sequel to The Simpsons Movie.

Or go to France.


Kate said...

I think that's exactly the problem with 2-D not getting enough love. If you've been to Terry Rossio's website, he detailed the problems that happened with Sinbad. If the studio had let them stick to their original concept, it would have made millions instead of lost them.

Steve Hulett said...

Woulda coulda shoulda.

But DreamWorks Animatin has learned from its mistakes ... yes?

However, let's not lose sight of the larger problem. When you make a movie people don't want to see, you can't stop them.

As always, it's story, story and also story. Good execution is a boon as well

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of 2D also...but NOT a fan of poorly-designed, ugly characters like that rat thing with a pencil that's posted here. Why is it so many TV toons have horrible, scrawly, unappealing-looking characters these days? Like "Jimmy Twoshoes" - my gawd what an eyesore. I don't think kids like them and as a semi-grownup I sure as hell don't like them!

Steve Hulett said...

The rat thing depicted the right thematic note, so I used it.

No argument from me that it's ugly.

I could always image grab some Disney artist at the light board drawing Bambi, but how many times have we seen that?

Anonymous said...

That's Big Pants Mouse!
Where did that come from?!

Anonymous said...

First, a slight nitpick:

"One quick example: Sinbad vs. Toy Story 2? They were released a month apart at the turn of the century, and one did way better than the other."

I thought they were released three years apart? ("Toy Story 2" in 1999, "Sinbad" in 2003)

Now, when you mention that hand-drawn animation takes a backseat to CGI because it "doesn't seem as financially viable", it pretty much confirms my suspicions. On another website, I commented that this mindset proves that media bosses do not have creative sense. After reading this entry, I realize that such a comment is blatantly pointing out the obvious. I now realize that a better wording would be to compare such businessmen to robots because based on such observations, they don't seem to think with human emotion!

Instead, they seem designed to focus only on the Almighty Dollar.

Paul said...

Of course they're going to focus on the dollar. It is a business after all. The problem highlighted here isn't that the execs were greedy, just that they misinterpreted the box office results. But to be fair, so did the rest of us as consumers.

The point made in this article is a good one. CG replaced traditional animation as quickly as it did partly by accident. In retrospect, we can see that a couple of good CG movies were released in the middle of a series of bad traditional movies. The movie execs interpreted the box office results as meaning that CG does better with audiences.

Here we are a few years later, and we've sat through quite a few very bad (and a few very good) CG movies that have tried to capitalize on the boom. This has left many yearning for the "good old days."

The lesson should be that character, story, and style are more important than the medium. There is a place for 2D, a place for CG, and a place for stop motion. There's no reason why the three can't coexist or why we can't have high caliber movies in all three categories.

All mediums are capable of producing diamonds and coal alike.

As the studios realize that different mediums are differently suited (and vary in cost effectiveness) for different stories, they will diversify. After all - serving the story (and thereby pleasing the audience) is good for business. So is reducing costs.

Steve Hulett said...

I thought they were released three years apart? ("Toy Story 2" in 1999, "Sinbad" in 2003)

Oh. My. Gawd.

You're right. I had originally read the text as "Sinbad" - January 2000, "Toy Story 2" -- December 1999. Mistake.

But outside of that, the example still holds. You look at the DWA traditional features, and they underperformed relative to DreamWorks c.g.i. features.

(I think the other problem was, the hand-drawn DWA product was mostly serious/dramatic, and the C.G. features were comedic/cartoony. And the audience opted for comedic/cartoony.)

At least, that's the way it struck me at the time. The deal is, DWA's CGI pictures did way better than the hand-drawn stuff, so DreamWorks Animation stopped making the hand-drawn stuff.

"Prince of Egypt", the company's first, had a worldwide gross of $200 million. Compare this to their last two releases, "Mad 2" and Kung Fu Panda." Both of those were north of half a billion each.

Fans of traditional can complain all they like, but as long as this pattern holds, there won't be a large number of hand-drawn features made.

It's business.

Anonymous said...

Yet more evidence of what little tact you have, Steve.

1) "Could woulda Shoulda" ? It must be nice sit back in your ivory tower and throw snarky smart ass comments at people working hardin the industry.

2) You swipe Gabe Swarr's character, post it up, and then state how ugly you think it is?!?

As a regular visitor of this blog, I'm really disappointed. How about being a little more professional and little less smarmy.

Anonymous said...

Jeeze, some people just need to be upset. Steve sure isn't sitting in any ivory tower from what I can see. He's worked in the industry, and he's a hard-working business agent trying to defend our rights.

The "coulda woulda shoulda" wasn't directed at animators, silly. Get over yourself, and stop seeing slights were there are none.

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