CG vs. Hand-Drawn Animation
May 6, 2020
(The Channel Awesome logo and NC title sequence play)
NC: Hello, I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. In the profitable world of animation, there's a battle going on between hand-drawn and CG.
(The words "HAND DRAWN" are displayed. Then, to a "ta-da!" sound, a huge dollar sign with the words "CG WINS" written on it, falls out of the sky and crushes them)
NC: Okay, maybe not a battle, but a conversation: which one is better?
(A clip of an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants is shown, then we are shown an animator working on Aladdin, flipping through various pieces of paper like a flipbook, showing animation of Aladdin and the Genie)
NC (vo): First off, let's clarify the difference. Hand-drawn, or 2D, animation is a series of drawings given motion by quickly displaying one after another.
(Cut to a clip of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run, and then an animator working on Frozen, using the computer, with hand-drawn sketches displayed off to the side for reference)
NC (vo): Computer-generated, or 3D, animation is the same idea, except it's not drawn, but rather created in the computer. So you don't have to draw every single frame; you can just put all your energy into one model and move it as you please.
NC: Both of these are amazing art forms, have changed the way people look at cinema, and are a buttload of work.
(Footage of the original animated versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King are shown, as well as clips from TV shows including The Powerpuff Girls, ReBoot, Gravity Falls, and the 2017 version of DuckTales, as well as clips from recent Disney films including Toy Story 4 and the live-action remake of The Lion King)
NC (vo): However, where hand-drawn animation used to be the dominant art form in both film and television, CG slowly worked its way in and eventually took over. While hand-drawn is far from being extinct, it's no question CG is being utilized far, far more.
NC: There's two areas I'd like to explore with this: how did CG beat out hand-drawn in terms of popularity and what are the strengths and weaknesses of both styles?
(Footage of Gertie the Dinosaur is shown)
NC (vo): Well, let's see where it all started. Arguably, the first animated film was Gertie the Dinosaur in 1914, a still-amazing feat when you consider its animator, Winsor McCay, had to redraw everything in every single frame: the rocks, the trees, the specks of water. All of it had to be redrawn every time Gertie would move. This groundbreaking move would lead to other animations like (images of...) Felix the Cat, Dinky Doodle, and, of course, Mickey Mouse.
NC: As the popularity of animated shorts grew, so did the art form...
(Footage of a Mickey Mouse cartoon being photographed frame by frame is shown, then we are shown clips of two Looney Tunes cartoons: Baby Bottleneck, with Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, and What's Opera, Doc?, with Bugs Bunny)
NC (vo): ...using cel animation so they didn't have to draw the background in every frame, adding sound so people can finally hear the characters talk, and naturally, evolving to color.
(Cut to Walt Disney as he displays the blueprint for his legendary multiplane camera, then we are shown a clip from a Mickey Mouse cartoon, then a clip from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and then some footage from The Secret of NIMH)
NC (vo): There was no question the biggest envelope pusher was Walt Disney, not only creating insanely popular shorts and characters with state-of-the-art ingenuity, but also producing one of his biggest gambles, a fully animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was a smash, and soon, other studios would try to cash in on creating animated features.
NC: On the other side of the world, Japan was also breaking new ground, too.
(A clip of a Mickey Mouse cartoon with Pluto is shown)
NC (vo): Despite Disney's work entertaining kids and adults, it no doubt had a family-friendly lean to them.
NC (vo): Well, several Japanese studios would go on to create anime: movies and shorts with a very distinct style, usually incorporating more grown-up themes and imagery. America would dabble in this, with films like (Images of the following are superimposed...) Fritz the Cat and Fantastic Planet, but many Americans still see animation as kid stuff.
NC: But a new form of animation was slowly sneaking into our consciousness.
(Clips of CG animation in live-action movies like Jurassic Park (the dinosaurs), a Star Wars movie (spacecraft flying through the air), The Mask (the wildly cartoonish reactions) and Casper (the Ghostly Trio) are shown, as well as a clip of The Matrix: Neo splitting into several clones of himself, followed by another clip of Jurassic Park)
NC (vo): An art form that could make dinosaurs come alive, other worlds look breathable, and even cartoons a bit more realistic. Computer animation gained popularity as a means to create better special effects for live-action films.
NC: It wasn't long before it was more utilized not only in cinema, but in television, too; specifically, hand-drawn animation.
(Footage of modern Froot Loops commercials are shown, with CG-rendered backgrounds and scenery while Toucan Sam is 2D-animated)
NC (vo): You see, people were still used to their 2D mascots, but 3D was offering a convenient time saver. Instead of drawing a moving background for every single frame, you just create it once in a computer, and you can move it however you like.
(Another CG/2D hybrid clip is shown, this one in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as Quasimodo holds up Esmerelda's body while crying out for sanctuary, followed by clips from Samurai Jack, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White)
NC (vo): On top of that, the backgrounds looked more realistic, which sucked many viewers in even more. But this wasn't a big worry for 2D. Sure, 3D can make realistic backgrounds that move, but they can't capture the soul of a living character that feels 100% believable.
(Footage of Toy Story is shown)
NC (vo): Well, fuck. Toy Story was one of the first feature-length CG animated films, and not only was it a hit with kids, but a hit with adults as well. The writing had a lot more modern talk that both children and adults could relate to, and on top of that, it just looked more realistic.
NC (vo): I know so many adults who said they couldn't get into Lion King or Hunchback because, despite their heavy themes, it still looked kiddish to them, probably because they grew up with so much animation being aimed at children. But with CG, not only are the lines gone, but the style Toy Story created would be duplicated countless times, with dialogue centered on pulling in just as many adults as kids.
NC: But again, big deal, CG still wasn't as universal as hand-drawn.
(Two alternating shots of Belle are shown, one in the original Beauty and the Beast and the other in Ralph Breaks the Internet, then we cut to Andy in Toy Story, along with storyboard drawings of him)
NC (vo): If you were to turn a 2D character, like, say, Belle, into a 3D character, it wouldn't be too tricky. But if you were to turn a 3D character, like, say, Andy into a 2D character, it would look pretty awkward.
(More clips of Monsters vs. Aliens and Antz are shown, then a Mickey Mouse cartoon showing a blue Mickey head covering most of the screen, before cutting next to clips from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Shark Tale)
NC (vo): The quick simplicity of the drawn line wasn't there, so it couldn't really cross mediums. You can take three circles lined up a certain way and know that's Mickey Mouse. It's that kind of clever simplicity that CG just didn't have. If anything, they were focusing on being more realistic, and within a few years, they would often look dated. So unless this hurdle was jumped, CG would never wipe out hand-drawn–
(We then cut, rather abruptly, to a clip of The Incredibles)
NC (vo): Well, fuck again.
NC: The Incredibles made a breakthrough that, in my opinion, isn't talked about nearly enough, but is still hugely influential.
NC (vo): You see, its director, Brad Bird, did (A shot of The Iron Giant is displayed in the corner) hand-drawn animation first, and he figured out how to turn (Early sketches of the characters appear in the corner) his 2D drawings into 3D models.
(Now we cut to footage of Kung Fu Panda and Minions: The Rise of Gru)
NC (vo): After that, most smart animated films designed their characters so that they can look good in both 3D and 2D.
NC: To make things worse, Disney's hand-drawn studio, the leading animation studio at the time, was not turning out the hits they used to.
(Clips of Disney's later 2D animated movies are shown: Hercules, Fantasia 2000, Treasure Planet, before we are shown a collage of direct-to-video titles: The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, Mulan II, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, The Return of Jafar)
NC (vo): The audience for 2D cinematic films just wasn't as prominent anymore, and most of their efforts were going into straight-to-video releases.
NC (vo): Why see a Disney Princess that looks good but less realistic when you can see a Disney Princess that looks good and more realistic? Don't get me wrong, this wouldn't fool anybody that this is a real person, but it certainly looks more three-dimensional than a beautiful, but still flat, drawing.
NC: (crosses arms) The art form that once combined both 2D and 3D animation was now giving all its focus to 3D and...
(A shot of an article in The Guardian is shown, about Disney moving away from 2D animation)
NC (vo): ...shutting down most 2D studios, including Disney.
(A montage of modern 2D animation is shown, in shows like the 2017 version of DuckTales, Looney Tunes cartoons on HBO Max, and Star vs. the Forces of Evil)
NC (vo): 2D still pops up in many places, particularly on television, but nine out of ten times, they're in an industry where CG is massively dominant.
NC: One of the places they still do mix half-and-half, though, is Japan.
(A montage of shots of Japanese anime that easily mixes 2D and 3D is shown)
NC (vo): While there's more than enough 3D animation there, too, there's still countless anime being created every day, often utilizing both line work and computer technology. Could it be they had more time to accept hand-drawn for the variety of genres it offered, as opposed to just family-friendly? Could it be the constant exposure made them appreciate the simple line just as much as complicated technology? We can't say for sure. But whatever the reason, it's still alive and well, while in many other countries...
(Cut to a clip of Minions: The Rise of Gru)
NC (vo): ...particularly America, it continues to fade.
NC: Even when you do see something that looks 2D, it's usually...
(Cut to a clip of the short Paperman, then to a clip of another episode of Star vs. the Forces of Evil, then footage of Kung Fu Panda, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and the original Lion King)
NC (vo): ...over a 3D model. Only once in a while do you see frame-by-frame drawings used to create life. So, does it make sense to put more effort into animation that looks more realistic and three-dimensional than animation that looks more simple and flat?
(Surrounding NC now are images of the original animated Timon and Pumbaa and their live-action/CGI counterparts. The animated meerkat and warthog are shuddering at the site of their uncanny counterparts, teeth chattering)
NC: It's complicated.
(On that note, we go to a commercial break. Upon return from the break, we have footage of Toy Story 4 and footage of the wildebeest stampede in the animated Lion King)
NC (vo): So, while CG certainly won out between these two types of animation, we naturally have to look at their pros and cons.
NC (vo): Both of them have created masterpieces of cinema, while others have...sinned.
NC: But what are the unique strengths and weaknesses of each art form?
(Cut to a clip of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run)
NC (vo): All right, let's start with what CG has that hand-drawn doesn't.
(The words "A DISNEY STUDIO?" pops up under NC)
NC: (shakes head) Too soon.
(Footage of Frozen II and Kung Fu Panda are shown)
NC (vo): On top of being more realistic, like I've said before, CG is wonderful at making breathtaking landscapes.
(The multiplane shot of the village in Pinocchio is shown, as well as a clip of a film of some people at Disney operating the multiplane camera)
NC (vo): Make no mistake, hand-drawn has created some amazing backgrounds, even utilizing amazing technological breakthroughs to achieve them.
NC (vo): But however much detail hand-drawn can create, CG can almost always add more. I know a lot of it depends on the style, and yes, we'll get to that in a bit, but most animation wants the backgrounds to look nice and detailed, but not distracting. And CG is good at adding a lot of detail without taking away from the focus of the foreground.
NC: With that said, the characters in the foreground also have a ton of detail.
NC (vo): I'm always amazed at the freckles, the hairs, even the pores you can see on a character in CGI. If you were to add all this detail in hand-drawn animation, it would look like a mess. But in the 3D realm, it looks amazing.
NC: CG also allows a lot more time to get something right.
(Cut to footage of animators, one drawing Maleficent and the other drawing Aladdin, then we cut to another animator working on Frozen II and footage of Moana, Coco, and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run)
NC (vo): What I mean is, if you get, say, a reaction wrong in hand-drawn animation, you have to go back and redraw the reaction all over again from the top. With CG, though, the faces, textures, practically everything is still there. All you have to do is tweak the details and the timing. The same goes for coloring, enhancing filters, erasing unwanted elements, all of these are improved in a way that hand-drawn animation either couldn't do as well or couldn't do as quickly. Obviously, like with any art form, there's no doubt other elements, but we're focusing on the main ones, and in my opinion, those are the biggest. So, with what seems like a huge advantage, how can hand-drawn animation compete?
NC: Well...they're powerful in a different way.
NC (vo): You see, where CG feels more realistic, hand-drawn feels more honest. That is to say, its strength is in one of the simplest forms of artistic expression: the line. CG often focuses on trying to fit in everything, where hand-drawn is more about cutting out what isn't needed.
NC: You ever notice if you have a smiley face...
(An image of a happy face is shown, with lines under the eyes added in)
NC (vo): ...and you just put a line under each eye, it suddenly looks exhausted? One small line placed under a dot can completely alter your take on a character.
(Cut to a shot of Belle and Rapunzel in Ralph Breaks the Internet, with the camera zooming in close on their faces, then we cut to a quick montage of other characters: Snow White, Porky Pig, and Chihiro Ogino, all with lines under their eyes)
NC (vo): If a small line is put on a CG image, it's unlikely it would have that big a reaction. But put it on any of these different hand-drawn characters, and it changes the way you look at them.
NC: This means whenever a drawing is done, an artist has to ask, "What is the most essential line to convey a reality?"
(Animation drawings of Peter Pan are shown)
NC (vo): Imagine that mindset going into every single drawing in a piece of animation.
NC: Now, don't get me wrong; a lot of animators work around this to save time...
(Cut to a shot of SpongeBob Squarepants with a grim look on his face as he stands still while aiming a cannon, while Patrick Star frantically loads the cannon with potatoes)
NC (vo): ...by just having a character stand still. It's a common practice.
(More footage of anime is shown)
NC (vo): But that just makes the line work even more crucial.
NC: Take something like The Proud Family.
(Footage of The Proud Family is shown)
NC (vo): They didn't have an amazing animation budget or anything, but whenever a character wasn't moving, they had to strike a pose that still gave the illusion they were alive. So even in stillness, the correct line work is essential.
NC: CG couldn't get away with that.
(Cut to a shot of one of the hairless hamsters in Foodfight!, and then, comparisons are shown between Toy Story 4 (showing Woody in his lifeless toy state) and Foodfight!, and a shot of Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons, with his eyes moving around shiftily and blinking)
NC (vo): If a character is still, he just looks dead. There has to be some breathing or reaction or some form of movement, where in hand-drawn, even if just the eyes move, that's enough to convey life.
(Now we cut to footage of The Angry Birds Movie, UglyDolls and the 2019 Addams Family movie)
NC (vo): Now, you don't see this kind of stillness much in CG, because it is so easy to move the character once it's created. It still takes time and effort to do it well, but it's almost like puppetry: you make one detailed model and you move it as you'd like.
NC: (holds up index finger) Hand-drawn, surprisingly, takes more life to create, though...
(An animation pencil test of the title character in Robin Hood is shown)
NC (vo): ...as each drawing has to be done from scratch the majority of the time. So each frame is somebody breathing life into a character.
(A test rendering of Imelda Rivera from Coco is shown, and then a clip of Tarzan, showing the title character raising the now-dead body of Sabor in the air, roaring as he does so)
NC (vo): It's not just moving a CG puppet, it's creating life from the ground up in every frame. You may not be aware of it, but chances are, you can still feel it.
NC: Take, for example, this scene from Princess Kaguya.
(A clip of that movie is shown, looking like scratchy drawings with what looks like some coloring from pencils)
NC (vo): When the main character gets upset, the artwork reflects it. It becomes more sketchy and rough, but it's somehow still beautiful. The reason is, you can see and feel every stroke, every line, every raw hand movement. You practically have charcoal pencil on your fingers while watching it.
NC: While it doesn't look real, it feels genuine.
(A drawing of a girl sitting on a tree branch is shown)
NC (vo): An artist on paper can draw something in seconds and leave an emotional impact.
(A computer rendering of a character in Coco is shown)
NC (vo): An artist on a computer would need a lot more time. Probably hours.
(A clip of Kung Fu Panda is shown next, before cutting again to Princess Kaguya)
NC (vo): Yes, more time and detail can definitely lead to a lot of emotion, but sometimes, the fast, raw brushstroke can be even more powerful.
NC: (crosses arms) I think the best way to prove this is not necessarily to look at what the best each art form has to offer, but maybe the worst.
NC (vo): Let's compare some of the shittiest 3D animation with some of the shittiest 2D animation. On this side of the ring, Rapsittie Street Kids, one of the ugliest CG cartoons ever made by man. On the other side, the worst Christmas special I've ever seen, The Christmas Tree. Both of these are abysmal, but between these two balls-of-shit-semen, which one is more appealing?
NC: If you're like me, even though it looks awful, you went with The Christmas Tree.
NC (vo): Because a shitty drawing has more life in it than shitty CGI. There's just something simpler and more relatable to it. Not everyone has drawn something great, but everyone has drawn something at some point, so we recognize the importance and the difficulty of the simple line.
NC: Even when you look at the process, which of these looks more engaging?
(Several in-progress shots of Zootopia, plus some pencil clips from The Prince of Egypt and an in-progress clip of Coco, are shown)
NC (vo): These unfinished CG shots or these unfinished hand-drawn shots? Even the pencil sketches are bursting with more life because it had to be created in every frame. There's something simple, even primal, about 2D animation that 3D simply doesn't have. Its life blooms from a hand drawing a line, not a hand typing on a keyboard, moving around a mouse, and figuring out code.
NC: But to most people, a very direct and understandable question arises: what does it matter?
(Footage of Zootopia (the final product, not just some in-progress CG renderings) is shown, as well as footage of the 2019 Addams Family and Spies in Disguise)
NC (vo): Isn't it all about what looks best in the end, the final product? And...yeah. Yeah, it is. And the final product shows that CG has more detail, more realism, and you can make a lot more of them in a timely fashion.
NC: So it seems like whatever style you go with, you're gonna be gaining something and you're gonna be sacrificing something.
(More footage of both hand-drawn and CG films are shown)
NC (vo): With hand-drawn, you sacrifice more complex beauty, and with CG, you sacrifice more simple beauty. Now, both can excel in being complicated and simple, but it's obvious where their natural strengths are. So you may think I'm pissed off that 3D beat out 2D in this fight.
NC: But honestly, what I'm trying to say is, why does there even have to be a fight?
(Footage of Klaus (the Netflix film) is shown, as well as footage of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the video game Cuphead, which also mixes 2D and 3D to look like an old 1930s cartoon, and an anime, also with 2D and 3D mixed, before cutting to footage of The Angry Birds Movie, The Princess and the Frog, Snow White, the new Looney Tunes cartoons on HBO Max, and Star vs. the Forces of Evil, as well as alternating footage of the 2D and 3D SpongeBob movies)
NC (vo): Both of these are amazing art forms, and both of them still find ways to experiment and cross paths. Into the Spider-Verse cleverly combined the world of 2D and 3D, as well as video games like Cuphead. Japan, like I mentioned, is still mixing the two beautifully as well. I guess what I'm saying is, in a world where one is clearly more popular than the other, it might make sense to look back and see the benefits of the one being ignored. Yes, hand-drawn animation is still around here and there, and it looks great, but my fear is it's going to become like stop-motion or puppetry, something that still exists, but is only recognized (A collage of stop-motion movies is shown: Corpse Bride, Coraline, ParaNorman, The Box Trolls, Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link) for its genius and beauty once in a while. Now, while stop-motion and puppetry are art forms that could certainly fill up their own videos, in terms of how underutilized they are...
NC: ...I wanted to focus on hand-drawn because it's the one I feel like I understand the most.
NC (vo): Not everyone grew up with CG animation, but everyone grew up with hand-drawn animation. And somewhere, we decided it's not as important as it once was. I think it's even more important now, seeing how we have new technology and styles of animation that can be experimented with. Sometimes, when there's several options as opposed to just one, you realize how much more certain ones stand out and how much more it could be utilized from them. Whatever style you prefer, there's a goldmine of creativity that deserves to be dug in more. While both are breathtaking in their own way, and I can't definitively say one is better than the other, I can say there's a beauty of complexity, a beauty of simplicity, and both of them, either on their own or together, have a ton more to offer.
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic. I remember it so you don't have to. (gets up from his chair and leaves)
(The Channel Awesome logo is shown before the credits roll)