Food for Thought: The State of Traditional Animation

Hello everyone, and welcome to a quick bite of some Food for Thought! Tonight’s article is inspired by a rather uninspiring Christmas special that I had the “pleasure” of watching yesterday while gearing up for a weekly Saturday morning cartoon run.  The most memorable aspect of this cartoon was its “quality” animation: jerky rigging combined with unappealing, neon-colored CG models. A friend of mine who was (unfortunately) present at the time couldn’t help but voice his opinion, succinctly summarizing: Ugh CG animation sucks. Traditional animation is so much better.

Both Young Justice and Green Lantern are wildly popular series — but is one better than the other because of its animation style?

Which is silly, considering he sat through a screening of Wreck-it Ralph and loved it to pieces —  but his comment, and the ensuing “argument” that followed, is perhaps a question that many animation fans often consider. In the wake of highly anticipated animated movies ranging from the successful Wreck-it Ralph, to The Rise of the Guardians, and even the onslaught of other CG sequels of varying quality, where does traditional animation stand when the rest of the industry seems to be pushing towards digital, digital, and still more digital films?

Well, it all seems to be a matter of semantics, a sort of nostalgic binary that people place on the traditional look of old animation versus the digital animation of today.

After all, traditional animation is not a dying art, per se. It is still taught in art schools, although I know people who have made the jump between “traditional” and “digital” mostly because there are more opportunities within the realm of “digital” animation. Actually, I believe that people make a misnomer of “digital” animation, using it to exclusively refer to the 3D models that can vary from Pixar awe-inspiring gorgeousness to Ratatoing.

There is this delightful work of art…

And then there’s this.

Because digital animation is not just the 3D rendering, but encompasses 2D animation–the kind that “traditionalists” love–drawn using computer software. And yes, that software also varies from the relative simplicity of Flash to beyond.

So, what is the big deal between “traditional” and “digital” that seems to make people grit their teeth and pick one side over the other?

After all, over the last twenty-or-so years there has been a plethora of films that have mixed and matched the two. Disney has made ample use of digital media from The Lion King and beyond, and even Miyazaki’s beautiful, lovingly hand-painted cels are sometimes enhanced by a little digital magic. So why the stigma?

Why do people think that computer animation is a “lazy” man’s way out? That the pinnacle of animated milestones is found only within the realms of traditional animation? Is it a time factor, a perceived notion of “work” that is put into something handmade versus something that is “helped” by a computer? Because let’s be honest, it is rather unfair to the digital animators of the world–including my friends working on their digital animation theses who practically live in their computer lab now–to call their effort “lazy”.

The computer is a powerful tool, yes, but like the pencil and the paper, there is skill and training needed to yield good results.

Obviously digital.

Traditional enhanced by digital.

Again, traditional enhanced by digital.

It all seems to fall to a question of aesthetics, of a sort of “look” that one can achieve when there is time (and money) put towards software that can make remarkable affects, versus the sort of software that can produce digital animation quickly. Not every studio will have the same access to the sort of software that top digitally animated films have and in that way there is a considerable variation between digital film.

And that’s okay — after all, you don’t need sophisticated studio software to create popular animations. As (laughable) as 90s digital animation was, there are those of us who remember oh-so-fondly shows ranging from Transformers: Beast Wars to even Digimon that employed CG renderings for some of its digi-evolution sequences.  Even now, the hit Green Lantern series is just as popular as Young Justice — which has that traditional animation aesthetic but is (arguably) a product of a digital animation age.

The techniques necessary for traditional animation are far from over — yes we are perhaps over-saturated with low-quality CG shows, but the medium does not define the story that these shows can produce. For instance, the delightfully quirky The Amazing World of Gumball is praised for its visual style — which involves pitching CG renders ranging in quality alongside characters that have that “traditional” aesthetic. And sure, while the How to Train Your Dragon: Riders of Berk series is not at all like its parent film (In terms of quality — although there is some sneaky recycling of animation sequences from the actual film), the story maintains the film’s spirit.

But again, it all boils down to the look for most people.

The Last Unicorn is an inspiration for many artists now — would the same happen if it was “digital” with current stigma?

Traditional animation runs the gambit in terms of style and form–just like digital animation–but is paired with a feeling of nostalgia for the bygone days of animated masterpieces. The Last Unicorn, for instance, may have a convoluted story but is a popular pick for its style and its grace that makes it memorable for most of us 90s kids that picked it up at our local video rental store. And not every traditionally animated film is a Don Bluth classic, a solid in the Disney line-up, or a Miyazaki masterpiece, either; there are traditionally animated films good and bad that leave much to be desired.

After all, nostalgia did play a role in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog which is by all means an entertaining movie but perhaps, not the best example of a “traditional” animation great. Nostalgia for the “good old days” of Disney definitely played a role in the marketing of the film, but does that make it one of the best of the Disney films?

So actually pitting “traditional” animation as a pinnacle of artistic pride as the “purest” style against “digital” animation with all its facets from the stunning to the subpar is a contest between apples and oranges. You can argue all you like that one form is better than the other, that traditional animation looks “better” — but then you have to realize that digital animation is doing the same thing.

In the end both styles are mediums for plotting out a story, and yes they can range in what looks “good” and what looks “bad”, but what makes a successful film or show is (arguably) the story as well as the look; “traditional” animation may not be a power-house in the animated film industry but its aesthetic does live on, there will still be that 2D look that people value.

It just might not be within the realm of the painted cel, but the stylus and the tablet.

Of course, for those of you who still mourn the “loss” of traditional animation — never fear. The techniques and practices may change with the time, but the spirit of animation is still there. And well, if that is too optimistic, there are attempts to combine the two; Wreck-it Ralph’s accompanying short, The Paperman, notably makes use of a combination of digital and traditional animation to make a cute Disney-style animated short.

The process of combining the two was released to the public some time ago, too, and it demonstrates how the two techniques can meld and work together:

So don’t lose heart, traditional animation purists — the technique still lives on, but like much of the “digital age”, it is simply adapting.

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A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place

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A would-be anthropologist, writer, food historian, and professional glutton hoping to combine fandom with her love of food. Ever wondered what a nug tasted like? Is butterbeer alcoholic? If you've asked such questions and are already drooling at the thought of a big old plate of lembas bread, then you're in the right place


  1. Hopefully someday, the age of classic animation will get its comeback on the big screen and not just television. After all, for every Adventure Time and Regular Show (Good shows, mind you, but the animation…) there's a Young Justice or Thundercats 2011.

    • Oh def.! xD I mean yeah it'd be GREAT to see traditional art (Or at least, the aesthetic) make it to the box office, but at the very least we still have shows like Young Justice!
      So it's definitely not a dying art (As much as some people would like to believe haha)

  2. I find it odd why no studio decides to go fo Adventure-Time-looking traditional 2D style in a feature film. The look is distinct, appealing, and cheap to produce. Traditional animation does not need fancy drawings completel with shades and shadows, like Princess and the Frog. All it needs is a distinct look and a good story, which is what John Lasseter thinks… (correction, what John Lasseter THOUGHT before he pulled the plug on 2D animation.)

    • Oh John Lasseter – that's another thought for another day
      But hey, who knows; maybe more major studios will catch on that people do not necessarily need "cel-shading" but just the 2-d "look" to get people to come to the theaters; it'd definitely open up some work for my friends who started traditional animation as freshmen but then jumped ship to digital

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