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Rayne Martin

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A Revisit on Digital and Traditional Animation

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I have posted on this topic before, but I feel that it deserves a revisit. After learning much more about the animation since the last post in October 2011, I can’t help but enlighten you all. Here is a link to the old post if you haven’t read it. It’s quite different from this one, as this post focuses more on the technical aspects: Japanese Traditional Animation Characteristics & Digital Animation.

Please remember these are my opinions. If you don’t agree, or would like to add something, leave a comment below, or contact me. I enjoy talking about this stuff. And I will also admit to being slightly biased. If you find the topic boring, stop reading.

Let’s take a look at what the main differences are in these types of animation.

I will try and simplify 3D digital animation into a few major points of the process:

  • Design and concept of scenery and characters
  • Storyboarding
  • Modeling (sculpting/building) these concepts in a 3D environment
  • Applying materials and textures to these models
  • Animating the models
  • Positioning of virtual cameras
  • Rendering (creating a sequence of images from all these settings)
  • Editing

(I won’t get into things such as voice overs, which aren’t too relevant as to what I am trying to get across in this article).

Here is a simplified process of traditional animation:

  • Design and concept of scenery and characters
  • Storyboarding
  • Keyframing (Main movements are drawn)
  • Inbetweening (All frames between keyframes are drawn)
  • Background paintings
  • Cel shading ( Drawings are traced onto transparency and painted)
  • Cels are overlayed onto backgrounds and photographed

The immediate differences are that digital animation is done almost entirely using a computer, while traditional relies on ol’ fashion pencil and paper. Literally. In the book¬† The Illusion of Life, Disney animators stated that an animator working on a full-length film drew about 75 000 drawings per year. In total, from planning to production and editing, there could be up to 2 500 000 or more drawings that went into the making of the film.

The Illusion of Life

I guess you have got to decide with a bit of practicality here, what is the best choice? Clearly it should be the one that produces the most realistic and accurate movements, takes less time to produce, costs less and is the most popular? That right there is the reason traditional animation is becoming redundant. It’s extremely time consuming, extremely challenging, and takes around 3 years to produce a film.

I’m not saying it’s at all easy to create a digitally animated film, believe me, but try your hand at traditional and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Modeling in 3D is challenging indeed, but when it’s done, it’s done. You can view that model from any angle, and if properly rigged up, you can position it in any way you want to. You have to know the software, know the lighting setup, atmospherics, photography and countless more complex areas, but it’s there for you to know. Once it’s set up, you can sit back and let the computer render out your scenes. It’s much faster to get to your final product.

Almost everything leans in favour of digital 3D animation, yet there is something missing….

...the hand of an artist.

By drawing every frame by hand, everthing comes directly from the artist. You see what the artist wants you to see, you feel every movement made. Traditional animation is simply a sequence of about 12 to 24 artworks in the space of a second.

Lines are one of the most powerful tools of expression and movement. Lines can create shape, texture, space, form, emotion and almost anything else imaginable. The artist carefully selects the curve and texture of his contour for every single shape in every single frame, in order to convey his message.

In the ‘making of’ series of Hayao Miyazaki‘s 1997 Princess Mononoke, you will find an episode where a bunch of new employees had to sit an exam. Their exam was a short piece in which a samurai soldier swings his scythe at Ashotaka and Yakul. They spent the day drawing the 3 second animation from start to finish, and where later individually examined by Miyazaki and Ando, his lead animator. In the end, they all failed to capture the movement Miyazaki wanted, and Ando had to do the scene. But when you watch the scene, the movement is unquestionable. Countless hours of work go into the detail and planning of movements that we don’t even recognize.

In today’s technology, surely there are faster ways? Well, yes, there are. Let’s have a look at digital 2D animation.

A 2D Faith from Mirror's Edge cinematics

  • Characters are created at specific angles
  • Characters are manipulated to create movement (eg. The arm is pivoted from the shoulder)

We can see examples of this in the popular South Park series. Another good example is the animation done for the cinematics in the game Mirror’s Edge. With this method, characters can be created in a traditional way, but they will stay at that angle, and will be moved or repositioned, but will seldom rotate in 3D space, as this requires more inbetween frames which haven’t been created.
Have a look at Nothing to Fear for another good example of this.

 This method is very strong visually, but is not very flexible when it comes to angular movements, depth and camera rotation along the x-axis, as the characters are drawn from a specific angle, then that angle is changed, but they cannot show the transition without inbetween frames.

In conclusion, I feel it comes down to preference. While a lot of 3D digital animation strives to achieve more and more realistic scenes, that are often very difficult to distinguish between reality, I feel that reality is the opposite of what I want to accomplish. Personally, nothing can compare to the stylized nature of traditional animation. So a compromise needs to be made, to retain the nature of traditional animation while taking advantage of digital tools.

Thanks for reading,

Visit two articles on Miyazaki’s traditionally animated features here:
Mononoke Hime
Spirited Away

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