Monday, October 25, 2010

Thoughts: The Secret of Kells and Traditional Animation

Traditional animation is a dying art.  Within, why this is bad, and how a small film by a no-name studio fought back.

Nearly every animated movie released today is a computer animated film, and I'm not even going to discuss animated television programming.  To illustrate this point, here is a list of major animated movies released (or upcoming) in the past few years.  Let's take a look:

How to Train Your Dragon
Shrek Forever After
Toy Story 3
Despicable Me
Alpha and Omega
Legends of the Guardians: The Guardians of Ga'Hoole

A Christmas Carol
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
The Princess and the Frog*

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggietales Movie
Horton Hears a Who!
Kung-Fu Panda
Madagascar: The Crate Escape
The Tale of Despereaux

* denotes a two-dimensional animated film

Now, things aren't actually as bad as this seems.  Two-dimensional animation has become the realm of smaller lower-budget studios and individual artists -- 2008's Sita Sings the Blues was an underground success (and is being given away by creator Nina Paley for free on her webpage) However, even Sita was animated primarily on a computer in Flash.

So why is traditional, hand-drawn animation important?  The short answer is because it is an art form.  The larger discussion behind that is one which The Secret of Kells -- a film about the art of illuminated manuscripts -- addresses.

First, the backstory.  Created by Cartoon Saloon, Kells is directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's fictional backstory behind the creation of the Book of Kells, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in history.  Drawing on Celtic mythology, the film follows Brendan, a young boy who lives in a village built around the Abby of Kells during a time of vicious viking attacks.  His uncle, the abbot, is obsessed with building a mighty wall to keep the invaders out and the people of the village safe.  When the famous illuminator, Brother Aiden, arrives at Kells, he takes Brendan under his wing and begins to teach him the art of illuminating manuscripts.

The film's visuals alone are a strong argument for the value of hand-drawn animation (and I'm not alone in thinking so, as the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animation.)  Longer works than this have been written about the caliber of animation in this film, and rather than wasting space explaining them, I prefer to let the images speak for themselves.  Click for full size images (Warning: Large Files)

Brendan and the fairie Aisling
Brendan in his room
Seasonal Triptych 
Stunning in their quality, Kells is nothing if not a visual masterpiece.  The emotional response evoked by the images in the film are enough to cause one to take pause and wonder why the film studios continue to shovel out dungheap after computer generated dungheap (like a fifth Ice Age movie) instead of producing high quality artistic films like this.  It must have to do with the computer animation taking a shorter amount of time, or being cheaper to produce, or still selling regardless of quality. Can you imagine having to pay somebody to draw every frame of animation by hand in today's world?  That'd cost a bundle, and money is what we're after here, right?

Hey, what did it say over the MGM Lion's head again?


So I said back a bit that illuminated manuscripts tie into this discussion of animation.  Remember that?  Illumination is an art that has completely died out despite having produced numerous works of fantastic beauty.  It would take a master illuminator years to complete even a single work, making mass production of books infeasible.  Remember, the printing press hadn't even been invented yet, so in addition to copying all the text by hand, now you had to redraw the pictures as well.  Illumination was expensive and impractical, which is why we see the production of the illuminated manuscripts die out during the Renaissance.  Illustration as an art form hasn't vanished, but the mastery of a certain style has been, for all purposes, lost.  The collective knowledge of human history is permanently decremented as a result of the retirement of this technique.  If the current decline in traditional animation continues, the works of studios like Studio Ghibli or pre-2000s Disney could become a thing of the past.

So bringing this back around to hand-drawn animation and the current computer animation trend.  Is computer animation going to be the new standard?  Or will it be like 3D Movies - a fad which will eventually die out? (For a good discussion of how 3D is and always has been the "next big thing" in film, I would suggest this article by Dr. Jeebus.)  We'll have to wait and see.  For now, I remain hopeful.

Oh yeah, I never said if Kells was a good movie or not.  It's a good movie.


  1. wonderful article.
    I agree full heartedly. I have been disappointed with the amount of 3D animated films being shoved on the big screen in the past few years. The Princess and the Frog excited me, because it meant that Disney was still interested in making 2D films, but after seeing the promise that the Rapunzel movie would also be 2D being broken, I have a feeling Disney won't try to go back to 2D now that they can make more on 3D.
    I just watched The Secret of Kells last night and was instantly in love. This is what animation should be. If you can do anything with animation, why strive to make it more and more realistic?
    It really reminded me of The Thief and the Cobbler, another under appreciated movie, mostly due to complications in it's production and release, but none the less, another great example of what you can do with animation, that you could never do with actors in front of a camera.

  2. Worry not, Nephthys -- the success of The Princess and the Frog spurred Disney to commit to producing one traditionally animated film every other year. This year, 2011, Disney will release Winnie the Pooh, a film in the style of the old Pooh featurettes with the plot adapted from Milne's original books, not a new story like the more recent The Tigger Movie and Pooh's Heffalump Movie.