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New Horizons in Animation: Nostalgia, High-Tech Innovation or a Mix of Both



LBB’s Zoe Antonov speaks to experts from across the industry to find out if animation is taking a step back towards classics or leaping towards technological advancement

New Horizons in Animation: Nostalgia, High-Tech Innovation or a Mix of Both

When the pandemic hit, animation was one of the understated heroes of the industry. A notable number of creators gave animation a chance where real life failed them. And, the metaverse is where animation continues its winning streak - with animated versions of all of us built to live in an animated space - the metaverse can be expected, sooner rather than later, to reach the peaks of animated storytelling that we now see on the daily in gaming, through various tech innovations. 

So here we are - the two things that we’re all denying, or accepting really slowly, in the face of the pandemic and the acceleration of the metaverse, seem to be two major ramps, in the past few years through which animation skyrocketed. Not to say that it hasn’t been at the forefront of popular culture beforehand; ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Family Guy’, ‘South Park’ and other iconic shows practically raised a generation.  But after these programmes widened the horizons for animation, we now see it employed in more mainstream content in various creative ways (see Love Island 2022’s fully animated campaign that placed its bets on comedy and hilarious character design).

So, with animation escaping its own genre and crossing into all aspects of the creative industry, what should we expect? On a mainstream level, we saw the adultification of animation go further even than the creations of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Mike Judge or Seth MacFarlane. For example, with the controversial sitcom ‘Big Mouth’ and the instantly recognisable humour of Nick Kroll. This all happened employing techniques rooted in traditional animation and the creation of simple characters, ones we have all met from the early days of Cartoon Network and before. 

Parallel to that, we’ve seen a rise in the usage of Unreal Engine in animation series, like Nexus Studios’ ‘Tape Deck.’ Will it be reversal or renewal for animation trends? Will we see the demise of adult animation, or is it just beginning to pick up the pace? What will happen when you sprinkle the influence of the metaverse and VR on top of everything else?

French-American writer and director, Samuel de Ceccatty, believes that when it comes to storylines, we are just at the dawn of the age of adult animation. “The audiences that grew up with ‘The Simpsons’ have now matured and still love animation, but want to see shows that explore themes more closely related to their current life experience. Because there is such a high saturation of content, streaming platforms are looking to differentiate themselves by offering stories anchored in local communities with international appeal, such as ‘Lupin’ or ‘La Casa De Papel’.” For him, without delving too deep into the tech side of it, 3D animation is here to stay, but there will always be space for 2D, which he believes is “more naturally inclined to be imbued with character and soul.”

“To me, Sergio Pablos’ ‘Klaus’ definitely feels like the cutting edge of animation, because it manages to perfectly blend 3D and 2D animation, and makes use of all the tools contemporary technology has to offer. That being said, not all animation projects have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes a good old cartoon, with new character archetypes, original jokes and an updated set of values is all audiences really need!”

On the flip side, Nexus Studios’ director of real-time production, Kim Adams, stands firmly behind the idea that we are moving away from the old factory-type pipelines into a new era, where much more collaborative work is possible with the help of technological innovation. “Animation workflows typically have strict separation between departments, but with the introduction of real time engines into animation we will see artists and technicians that are currently working in silos transition to a more collective experience.” 

For Nexus Studios, including real-time in their production pipeline contributes to some groundbreaking benefits, both in terms of creativity and practicality. From the ability to render images almost instantly, to seeing live lighting and camera effects, all these innovations help influence story changes “which would have previously been impossible to introduce beyond the early stages of traditional pipeline,” explains Kim. Speaking of the abovementioned animation, ‘This Tape Deck is a Time Machine’ which pushed boundaries like never before, co-founder and executive creative director at Nexus, Chris O’Reilly says, “This is a project that breaks new ground both creatively and technically. It’s an animated production with music at its core, told with a strong graphic sensibility, pushing animation to new audiences while simultaneously innovating the very way it's made.” Kim also adds that the project combined motion capture tools with real-time rendering, which allowed swift animation and iteration, and bespoke shading techniques. 

David Hobizal, senior 2D animation lead at BUCK, describes himself as a “lifelong fan of good ol’ fashioned brute force keyframe animation and classic storytelling,” but admits he can’t deny that there are a lot of exciting developments that help ease demands of tight production timelines. “The whole machine learning world has been interesting,” he says. “While in its infancy and mostly a tool we use to see what doesn’t work, EBSynth has been used to add another layer of finish to our compositions. Like other technologies, the first iterations feel interesting but not amazing until we learn to wrangle what works and how to make it unique to our specific visual problem; similarly, using Midjourney/Dall-E as brainstorming tools instead of finished products. Topaz is another example that comes to mind as a technology that could allow us to render fewer frames at a lower resolution and upres ‘in post’, taking a little bit of pressure off of the end of the production pipeline.”

Thorne "Healthy Aging" from BUCK on Vimeo created with EBSynth as part of the creative process.

Ultimately, however, David always finds himself asking the question,“How can this help us make more compelling stories?” when it comes to employing new tech. Hijaz Moosa, producer of the animated short ‘Majd and the Librarian’ for Al Etihad Credit Bureau (AECB), shares this sentiment. To create one of 12 short animated films, it took Hijaz a team of 50 animators working tirelessly, meetings on meetings and discussions ranging from traffic light design to a character’s nail polish colour. After everything, the outcome was what surprised him the most. “The version that went most viral was a seven-megabyte pixelated file cropped beyond recognition where you couldn’t make out a tree from a lamp post,” says Hijaz.

“I have come to the realisation that advertising has a fundamental misunderstanding of animation. It isn’t an alternate form of execution to make a campaign more likeable and share worthy. It’s a different beast altogether.” And unsurprisingly, this different beast provokes a totally different reaction in audiences. Hijaz points to Jay Jeon, father of two from California, who created ‘Cocomelon’ - a series of short-form nursery rhymes that became a multibillion-dollar worldwide phenomenon, albeit devout of “any real craft, voice-acting, or character development.” He continues, “Like Jay, hundreds of independent animators and small studios are creating short-form content that is reaching the kind of audience that would make Miyazaki question his existence.”

For Hijaz,  the eureka moment for Jay was that he never really tried to be an adult creating something for a child - he wanted to be a child creating for another child, subsequently stripping his content and communication to the absolute bare minimum. “Maybe we can take a page from his book and try to simplify our communication. Animation is a medium that speaks to the child in us. A medium meant to convey an idea in its simplest form.”

At production and illustration company Jelly, producer Laura Thomas also believes that there is still something to be said about the classics in the genre. Besides the rise in popularity of the more traditional cel animated style from the past few years, she says there are some more design trends nowadays that also echo the past. “Restricted colour palettes, bold block colours, as well as the use of more gradients within the artwork, to add texture and depth,” is what Laura has noticed in recent work. “Psychedelic neon-based artwork in animation has also become quite fashionable too, creating more of a bold, in-your-face, ‘wow’ factor that is on trend at the moment.” 

To Laura, it is worth noting that the way we view animated content also largely affects what animation trends we will see emerge. Content is being made predominantly for social media and VOD platforms and audiences are viewing commercials mostly on handheld devices, giving creators the very well known six seconds of attention time. But there is an upside to this. According to her, with creating moving GIFs, packages of deliverables and static images, it means that long-form content creators “don’t have the hard restrictions and guidelines of TV stations.”

“There is more freedom in both content and style, as well as more opportunity for animation studios who have previously only worked in the commercial world, to release more of their own creations in the way of series or anthologies on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon,” explains Laura. 

But parallel to the world of nostalgia and expansion of creativity, we have the undeniable soar of technology. According to Ilija Brunck, CEO at Woodblock TV, it is an exciting time to be in animation, especially looking at it through the lenses of content and technology. This begins with gaming asserting itself at the top of the entertainment industry, and the way that has changed animation storytelling forever. “Gaming basically has animation at its core,” says Ilija. “For the creation of the games themselves, but also for the story universes around them. No successful gaming franchise has risen to the top without the heavy use of animated storytelling.” As a close second after gaming, comes the good old metaverse. 

“Yes, there has been too much hype around this recently,” Ilija admits. “But in the long run, there’s no way around shared digital spaces that we’ll spend big parts of our lives in. Once again, the gaming industry is leading the way here. Yet we have also seen new, powerful players entering the space, innovating and breaking ground. [There’s] No mass adoption of the metaverse without amazing content. And the animation community is at the forefront of the creation of this content.” This leads Ilija to explain the third way in which animated content is being shaken-up right now - the avatar economy. Ownership of one’s virtual identity and the giant market developing around this, which also has animation at its core.

All of these developments in animated content have their roots in tech developments that have been unfolding in the past couple of years. For Ilija, these are crucial to mention, as they are the keys to accessible, quality animation that's faster and more fun than ever. Real-time production for example, through the two leading game engines Unreal and Unity, is starting to push “the envelope in innovation”. She says, “Both are investing heavily into their strategy of becoming the leading content creation tool for interactive AND linear storytelling.” 

Senior interactive producer Joseph Bell at Aardman is also aware of the ever-relevant trend that has been the “cross-pollination of philosophies and tools” between filmmaking and gaming. Currently in production on ‘Wallace & Gromit in The Grand Getaway’ - a new VR adventure sitting “on the spectrum between a film and a game” - Joseph explains that one of the joys of the process has been to bring the characters and their world into a brand new medium, but also carry them through realms of interactivity, immersion and audience agency afforded by new tech. To go back to the points Nexus Studios makes as pros for game-engine technology, Joseph reflects on the ability to quickly ingest and review scenes in-context, which helps animators to essentially see the final product and think of the animation process more holistically.

Many animators and animation junkies can’t keep their hands off the virtual world and everything it could provide in terms of creativity. Luke Robson, creative director at The Berry, also believes that, thanks to the ever-evolving technical advancements in the industry, brands have found entirely new ways of engaging in a much more immersive way. Long gone are the days of attending 4D cinemas to get an immersive experience, as those experiences are slowly but surely making their ways into the comfort of our own homes. Due to VR being at the tip of our fingers, with the 360 degree world awaiting us, animation cannot stay away from that, especially in adland (evidently from the adaptation of a classic such as Wallace & Gromit into VR). 

“This provides brands a near-infinite range of creative opportunities to connect with their consumers, audiences and users, and offers a whole new medium of engagement,” says Luke. At The Berry, the team just finished working with a client on creating a VR experience that allows users to navigate their way through three floors of an entirely CGI-built NFT gallery. What’s more 2022 than that? The VR approach, according to Luke, is something that is here to stay and that argument goes way further than the somewhat gullible safeguarding of 3D animation - soon we will be the 3D animation. “Who knows where the future of this technology is heading, but I think we can all imagine how immersive experiences will evolve, whether it’s virtual performances, implementing more of our senses or increasing quality.”

Milana Karaica, founder and executive producer at NERD reels it back a bit - “old and resurging styles of animation, of old hand-crafted stop frame, using paper, textiles or other real materials, are returning,” she says. We’ve seen this style come back time and time again, and according to Milana, the teams at NERD have seen a resurgence in scripts popping in their inboxes with the everlasting visual approach of classic animation attached to them. Without dismissing the fact that technology and modern software have given the field endless possibilities of crafting faster and easier, Milana still sticks to the opinion that sometimes people just want something to emotionally and visually connect with - and this usually happens to be animation styles “that look and feel as if they have been touched by a human hand and brought to life with a physical effort.” She concludes, “For many, it seems that this has an everlasting power when crafting and bringing meaningful films, commercials and content to life.”

So will the ultimate strategy lead us to the past and bring us back to basics, where we protect 2D animation from becoming an unrecognisable version of itself, and we endorse classic humour, bold colours and super memorable characters made out of three simple shapes? Or will it lead us to ditch everything we know, to fly towards the glaring light of the metaverse and VR beacons, where animation will take its final form as the main vessel of creativity? It seems like we might be a little torn, as neither of these options is giving in. Perhaps both are bound to mix and we will end up sitting in our 3D living room in the metaverse as the best animated version of ourselves, watching a stop-motion version of ‘The Simpsons’.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 10 Aug 2022 17:09:04 GMT