Whether CG or traditional, animation isn't just about the big Hollywood movies. It's a discipline in demand across a range of media channels, from apps to advertising, websites to music videos and beyond.
Plus the distinction between live action and animation is narrowing all the time, as shown in two of the biggest hits of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which depended as much on the believability of their animated/motion captured characters as much as the 'real actors'.
In this article, I'll look back at some of the most notable developments of the past year and the animation trends that are most likely to continue into 2015. Make sure you also see our guide to 2015's hottest design tools.
01. Mixed styles
So what trends can we identify in 2014's output that can show us what's ahead for 2015? Let's start by looking at Disney/Pixar and their latest feature, Big Hero 6.
Based on the Marvel Comic about a Japanese Super Hero team, the film concentrates on the relationship between Hiro Hamada and the robot he creates, Baymax.
The film has been well received by cinemagoers in the US, and with its mix of western and eastern stylistic influences is receiving plaudits for its visual originality.
With an entire generation of Western animators influenced by the likes of Hayao Miyazaki now coming to the fore, we can expect this cross-continental mix to grow more and more important on both sides of the Pacific.
02. The rise of NPR
If a mixture of styles is becoming much more prevalent throughout the world of animation, so is an increasing reliance on NPR (Non-Photorealistic Rendering) (opens in new tab). This is where, rather than a CG animator striving to create a realistic world, the 3D software is instead used to create impressionistic animation that's much more like hand-drawn media.
As an example, Psyop's latest piece for AirBnb, Walls and Chains (opens in new tab), is evocatively analogue, but throughout you can see where CGI has aided this beautiful piece.
A lot of this kind of work is run through specialist software such as CelAction (opens in new tab), which can be used to create an illustrative style which can be then animated more easily than in applications such as After Effects (opens in new tab).
Part of the reason for this trend is that the animation tools have become so advanced that photoreal CGI is now more straightforward to acquire thanks to advances in render engines such as Arnold.
To my mind the greatest achievement in 2014 was the work by Animal Logic for The Lego Movie where every single brick was CGI, but with a desire from CG team to create a look as if the Lego was being shot for real, hence Depth of Field equivalent to a macro lens and glorious scratches and wear on the minifigs and bricks.
03. Organic influences
Another thing to note in both the Psyop's AirBnb and Lego Movie is that the animation befits the medium the story is told in. This ability to mimic organic media, ranging from film to watercolour, is not just about capturing a 'look'; it's about understanding the properties of the medium in question.
Girl Hub by Man vs Magnet is an excellent example of this, where motion graphics meld with traditional stylised animation to create a truly memorable piece.
Another good example of this is Riot Games' The Harrowing from Elastic, famous for their Game of Thrones title.
The Harrowing is an brilliant execution of using CG animation to create 'realistic' objects (in this case, string puppets) but in an environment that would be costly or just impractical to build using traditonial set building techniques.
Now here's an example in completely the opposite direction. Instead of using CG for the creation process, The Outside Collective (opens in new tab) worked with production company Brain London to mix traditional media (in the form of spray paint and a empty warehouse) with advanced post production techniques, to quickly turnaround this viral for the new Little Big Planet PS4 game.
04. CG-generated stop motion
The trend for mixing CG and traditional effects reached its zenith this year with the release of Laika Studio's Boxtrolls.
While a stop motion film, using traditional photography, CG and VFX tech was used extensively throughout the production pipeline from VFX either as standalone graphics to create set extensions and more complex animation, or to augment existing practical elements. It's a trend many other animators are likely to draw inspiration from in 2015.
05. Use of 3D printing
The Boxtrolls is also notable for its use of 3D printing to build the practical models – something has finally come mainstream in a huge variety of creative disciplines.
Laika were able to utilise the latest in technology to augment their already excellent traditional skills, and you can read more about how they went about here (opens in new tab).
Here's hoping that in 2015 we will see more of this kind of analogue and digital mash-up to create truly unique visions!
Words: Mike Griggs
Mike Griggs is a freelance 3D, VFX, mograph artist and technical writer. He can be found on twitter @creativebloke, facebook/creativebloke (opens in new tab) and his work can be seen at http://www.creativebloke.com (opens in new tab).