Future of 3D Animation is Anything But "Cloudy"

Future of 3D Animation Is Not Cloudy

Later this week in Los Angeles, key figures from all levels of the entertainment industry will gather at the 3D Animation Summit.

After decades of simply being a tacky marketing gimmick, 3D appears to have finally come into its own. 3D animation in particular, has become a Hollywood A-lister.

Among the expected keynote speakers at the Summit is Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation. One of the most vocal proponents of 3D, Katzenberg is on record as saying all DreamWorks animated projects will now be done in 3D. His faith was rewarded this past spring when DreamWorks’ 3D animated romp “Monsters vs. Aliens” earned nearly $200 million in the U.S.

“I think 'Monsters vs. Aliens' heralded the official arrival of the notion…that you could have long-term success with 3D animation,” said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Katzenberg was waiting for that movie to open, to determine…whether or not it was a viable and profitable genre, versus something that might just be considered a fad.”

Disney/Pixar’s summer blockbuster “Up,” with its $291 million tally (the highest-grossing 3D film of all time) reinforced the belief that 3D is here to stay.

Wearing glasses has never been cooler.

“There’s just something about 3D animation, almost in a way more than in live-action 3D, that brings you right into that world,” said Dergarabedian.

Transporting the audience into a spectacular new world, whether it be Paradise Falls or the Ice Age, is what 3D proponents call the  ‘immersive experience’ that only 3D can offer [for a look at 10 Milestones in the history of movie 3D, click here].

While box-office results for live-action 3D films remain spotty – only three such films have ever earned more than $100 million in the U.S. – recent box-office receipts indicate audiences want to be immersed in animation. The five highest grossing 3D pictures of all time at the domestic box office are all animated and have been released in the past year, signaling 3D animation may be ready to overtake superhero movies as Hollywood’s newest home-run hitter.

Those five pictures are:

All-Time Domestic 3D Earners: (source: Box Office Mojo, as of Sept 16)

1. Up (Disney/Pixar) – $291.4 million

2. Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks/Paramount) – $198.3 million

3. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (Fox) – $194.7 million*

4. G-Force (Buena Vista) $117 million

5. Bolt (Buena Vista) – $114 million [Nov. 2008 release]

[* "Ice Age 3" has earned a whopping $667 million in foreign release to-date, making it the third-highest foreign grosser of all time]

“Coraline,” a darker tale adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel, took in $75 million during its early-year release. The one blemish on 3D animation’s box-office performance was springtime flop “Battle for Terra.”

Next up

Friday marks the debut of “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” the sixth 3D animated movie released so far in 2009. Sony has high hopes for the family-friendly picture, which is based on a bestselling children’s book.

More than a dozen new 3D animated films are due out between now and the end of 2010. Some old favorites will try to cash in on the 3D craze, including the "Smurfs" (due out Dec. 2010), a fourth "Shrek" movie and even the Beatles.

Disney just announced plans to have Robert Zemeckis direct a three-dimensional remake of the Fab Four’s 1968 psychedelic animated picture “The Yellow Submarine.”

Then there is the return of two old pals named Woody and Buzz.

In October, Disney will re-release “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” in 3D. Each film has been given a complete 3D makeover in a process overseen by John Lasseter, the Academy Award-winning director of both Pixar movies. The re-release will also include the first trailer for “Toy Story 3,” which debuts next June, in 3D of course.

Adding a new dimension to one of its most beloved franchises is just the latest move in Disney’s ambitious 3D plans. It has a half-dozen such movies in the animation pipeline, including “Cars 2” and the animated musical version “Rapunzel.”

This would seem to paint a bleak picture for traditional hand-drawn animation, which have struggled recently to find audiences.

Disney’s summer release “Ponyo,” from legendary Japanese animated filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, failed to connect with audiences.

“’Ponyo’ was too Japanese for mainstream American audiences. It's a kid's film – aimed at small children,” states animation historian Jerry Beck, who writes about the genre for the website cartoonbrew.com. “U.S. audiences are interested in animation that kids and grown ups can relate to.”

Drawing by hand

The House that Walt Built hasn’t completely abandoned the classic animation style the company was built on. “Rapunzel” is a hybrid of CGI and hand-drawn animation. And December will see the release of “The Princess and the Frog,” the studio’s first non-CG animated movie in five years.

Beck, who has seen the first 30 minutes of the film and was impressed by what he saw, says without a doubt, “'The Princess and the Frog’ is very important to [the future of] hand drawn 2D.”

Ironically, perhaps the biggest proponent of hand-drawn animation inside Disney is the man who helped usher in the Age of CGI Animation with “Toy Story.”

At last weekend’s D23 expo in Anaheim, Disney Chief Creative Officer Lasseter told fans hand-drawn animation has become the industry scapegoat for poor storytelling, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Shane Acker, the director of the recent CG-animated adventure “9”, echoes those sentiments.

“It’s just going to take a really amazing 2D film to come out with a really good story, interesting characters and look, and all of a sudden 2D will be back,” says Acker, whose film earned $15.3 million in its first week of release.

Lasseter, who studied under the tutelage of veteran Disney animators, promised fans more traditional efforts in the future, saying hand-drawn films can deliver certain things computer animation can’t.

Writer and animation veteran Mark Evanier echoes that sentiment.

“What's driving 3D is that since everyone is deciding it's the wave of the future…new animators are learning CGI instead of hand-drawn...so hand-drawn is simply being neglected,” says Evanier. ”Which is a shame because there is so much it can do that CGI can't.”

“I love 3D. But the 3D we have today, with glasses, is a gimmick,” says Beck. “It's a gimmick designed to get movie theaters to convert to digital projection… It's just that the public is being misled into thinking 3D is the future.”

3D's big challenge

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to 3D animation’s growth is the fact that fewer than 10 percent of American movie screens are equipped to handle digital 3D. The economic downturn has hurt theater chains’ ability to borrow money to fund the digital conversion.

And as Beck pointed out, studios have much to gain by pushing the 3D revolution. Not only do 3D movies command higher ticket prices, but also delivering digital copies of movies will cost far less than thousands of expensive film prints.

Studio executives like Katzenberg also believe digital delivery will also cut down on film piracy.

But those ancillary benefits aside, 3D will likely live or die at the box office as a means, rather than an end. After all, who wants to be fully immersed in a bad movie? As Lasseter said last weekend, what audiences don’t like is bad movies, in any dimension.

That’s why a film like “Up” became a box-office sensation despite having the unlikeliest leading man in recent history: 78-year-old Carl Frederickson.

“Pixar is more successful with 3D because their movies are better,” Beck said. “Their stories are better.”

The 3D aspect at that point simply becomes the icing on the cinematic cake.

“I think at some point 3D will become to animated films what navigation systems are to cars,” Dergarabedian says. “You’re just going to have to have it in every single one. Otherwise you’re going to feel like you’re missing out.”

More on Newsarama:

  • 10 3D Movie Milestones

  • Film '9' May Set New Animation Standard

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