A decade of animation

The desktop revolution transformed animation, making it accessible to all. Rob Carney recalls the significant milestone moments of the past 10 years.

Since the turn of the century, the animation industry has become democratised. Software barriers have gone - thanks to affordable, relatively easy to use and professional desktop tools - and the web, predominantly through the rise of social media, has become a distribution channel to pretty much everyone. In short, animation has stepped out of the specialist shadows and into the creative mainstream.

"The most significant technological advancement to affect animation is perhaps more global - the affordability and availability of high-end sophisticated software to the general public," says Jon Humphreys, creative director of Manchester-based animation studio The Neighbourhood. "Now anyone with any imagination and creative ambition can produce high-quality movies from their bedroom - and this can then be shown to a global audience in a way that wasn't achievable 10 years ago."

Of course, as a genre animation is vast. It encompasses motion graphics, advertising, short films, TV cartoons and full-length 3D features made popular by Toy Story five years before the millennium. Animation has undoubtedly become more accessible. But, if there was one area in which animation was really starting to broaden at the beginning of the decade it was online. Flash, of course, was a major tool responsible for this accessibility and appeal. Before the rise of ActionScript into a recognised programming language, Flash's timeline, symbols and movieClip functionality provided an ideal platform for animators wanting to move away from more traditional methods towards a digital, web-driven age.

Because of the accessibility of tools such as Flash and After Effects (the latter being perceived as a high-end post-production tool before the mid-noughties), and more dedicated animation programs such as Toon Boom Studio (launched in 2001), the last decade has seen the rise and rise of viral and online sketches - homemade entertainment distributed via such platforms as YouTube. "Flash has revolutionised how 2D animation can be made, and has led to a rise or resurgence in 'cut out'-style animation and clean vector designs," says Tom Baker, a freelance animator who has worked for such clients as The Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

"One of the funniest is Dog Judo, which follows Rexley and Roy demonstrating the fine arts of doing Judo as a dog. Another recent web phenomenon is Simon's Cat -simple, hilarious and very well-observed animated shorts featuring the antics of the animator's cat."

At the same time as this desktop revolution, another transformation was starting - this time for animated features. While feature-length animations were nothing new, the early noughties - 2001 particularly - was an incredible time for the genre, with technological advancements and new heights of storytelling taking hold.

Pixar's Monsters, Inc. took fur to a new level of realism, and DreamWorks' Shrek was a masterpiece in parody. Not to mention Hayao Miyazaki's beautiful Spirited Away, which deservedly walked off with the Oscar for Best Animated Picture in 2003. Technological advancements in animation were no substitute for brilliant storytelling though - something that the hugely realistic, yet rather dull, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within proved.

"When you work in the movie industry it's often hard to let yourself be taken away by a movie, and not be distracted by things that aren't done well," says Simon Otto, head of character animation on DreamWorks' latest animated feature, How to Train Your Dragon. "Really competent storytellers make you forget the technique, and transport you to a world that becomes real, no matter how sophisticated the technique or how big the budget. There is always that moment in a movie where I let go of any doubt, because I know that I'm in competent hands. I think films like this year's Fantastic Mr. Fox prove that you can heighten the movie-watching experience with less technological firepower, but you have to make sure that the audience is with you all the way, and work even harder at creating enchanting characters and a plotline that will keep the audience engaged until the end."

Throughout the eight years after 2001, technology has simply been refined - with Pixar and DreamWorks taking the lead. The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006) and Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) are all shining examples of the animated feature medium, but Simon Otto picks out a couple more: "Movies such as Kung Fu Panda and WALL-E are very convincing from the start. Each of them has a really great and ironic premise, a character that you instantly root for, and a world that has not been shown in that way before. This is where animation is at its best, because the audience is enchanted by this magical world that becomes real - even though they know it cannot be real. It becomes a graphic metaphor for our life stories, the kind that we have responded to since our ancestors drew stories on stone walls."

Of course, a look back over the last decade of animation wouldn't be complete without mentioning Aardman, whose output for both feature films and TV throughout the decade has been prolific. The continued rise of Wallace & Gromit, alongside partnerships with DreamWorks on Chicken Run (2000) and Flushed Away (2006), made the Bristol-based company a household name.

As we venture into 2010, live action, motion capture and animation are blurring. "The techniques that have emerged over the last few years and the talent invested into these areas has made it possible to create a photorealistic blend between all the worlds," says Otto. "James Cameron's Avatar is looking like the new benchmark. If the story holds up and the audience bites, it may become the movie that will redefine that part of the industry."

Things have been equally exciting in the world of music videos. At the beginning of the century one of the most exciting ongoing animation projects of the decade was about to be revealed. In 2001, from the minds of Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn came Gorillaz. And Hewlett - who teamed up with Passion Pictures' top director Pete Candeland - created the incredible music video for Clint Eastwood. At a time where there were generally two schools of thought - the stripped-down 2D, and guns-a-blazing 3D - Gorillaz presented a beautiful, experimental medium.

"Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are, I believe, important artists, and it was very interesting to be part of the early stages of a creative project, and to see how it grew in scope," says Passion Pictures' executive producer Hugo Sands. "We worked with Jamie Hewlett more than 10 years ago on a commercial job for Virgin Cola. When Jamie came back to us a few years later to talk about an idea for an animated band that he was creating with a friend, we were intrigued to hear more. The subsequent eight videos from two albums - directed by Pete Candeland and Hewlett - remain something we are very proud of. In each of the videos Candeland and Hewlett have tried new techniques: in Clint Eastwood the animation is exclusively 2D; the characters are combined with live action in Dirty Harry (2005); and CG and background matte paintings feature heavily in El Maana (2006)." Passion Pictures continued to work with Hewlett - in 2008 creating the critically acclaimed Monkey spots for the BBC's Olympics coverage. Candeland then went on to direct one of the most visually impressive shorts of the decade for Harmonix's The Beatles: Rock Band in 2009.

The growing capabilities of CG and readily available tools enabled independent studios to produce incredibly slick, wonderfully executed animated commercials. One of, if not the, most memorable was Nexus' Grrr ad for Honda - produced in 2004 - which demonstrated the changing face of diesel engines through a psychedelic, cartoon, cutesy animal-infested landscape. The spot was directed by Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes, a creative duo that throughout the noughties has produced some of the UK's most attention-grabbing commercials.

"Alan and Adam seemed to come out of nowhere, and suddenly kept trumping themselves with great pieces of work," says Tim Searle, director of animation at Baby Cow. "I had this vision that they were geniuses with heads the size of houses, but I met them and they were just two cool young men. Motorola Grand Classics [a spot the pair directed in 2005] is one of my favourite bits of animation, full stop. There are so many animator gags in there!"

Other notable animated adverts include Psyop's incredibly popular Happiness Factory (2006) for Coca-Cola, and Passion Pictures' harrowing NSPCC Cartoon and technically brilliant Play-Doh for Sony Bravia. Elsewhere in television, there have been too many brilliant shows, shorts and spots to even begin to mention. Family Guy, The Simpsons, South Park et al continue to dominate mainstream US animation audiences, while in the UK, Triffic's 2DTV (which debuted in 2001 and ran on ITV for five series) became the world's first topical animation show, and 2004's I Am Not an Animal made the company a force to be reckoned with in UK animation circles. "I'm still very proud of I Am Not an Animal, and Matt Groening liked it, so there!" laughs Tim Searle, who was head of Triffic at the time. "It's more than a little irritating that the BBC didn't love it as much as its many fans. If you're new to it, my top tip is to watch episode five first, then go back and watch the rest. As for 2DTV, we made five series of that for ITV. Initially it attracted huge audiences, then they kept moving it about in case anyone tried to watch it. We used to make 12.5 minutes in the four days running up to transmission, for six weeks at a time. It was full-on, but we had a lot of fun."

Rex Crowle, renowned UK animator, and the man responsible for the look of LittleBigPlanet, perhaps best sums up what this decade has been about for the world of animation - and perhaps the creative industry in general: "Sure, fur is now furrier and hair is now hairier thanks to software and hardware developments, but the greatest advancements have not been in production but in distribution methods, which have led to a much wider diversity of content. Rather than expensive broadcast projects commissioned in traditional ways, there are far more ways to create and have this work seen via web and mobile devices."

Price cuts, free educational applications and emerging cheap software and hardware, along with the web providing an easy method of distribution, have made it easier than ever for anyone to get into animation. But as Tom and Mark Perrett, directors at Nexus, conclude, a good animation will always be about a good idea, no matter what technology is involved: "We're moving away from the 'wow factor' of it all and starting to focus again on ideas, stories, characters and design." And that can only be an exciting thing for 2010 and beyond.