Animation has taken on many forms in the lifetime of moving pictures and the silver screen. From stop-motion and claymation to hand-painted and technologically drawn figures that someone can program, the history of animated movies is evidently robust and ever-evolving. After Disney stopped creating 2D animated movies in their renaissance, with the release of The Princess and the Frog, they turned to 3D animation, beginning with Brave. Since then, most animated movies have followed those footsteps, turning to 3D animation, which keeps getting more and more real-looking as each project comes out, from the waves in Moana to the hyperrealistic close-ups in Turning Red.
However, that 3D mold was broken with the release of the mixed animated, comic book flip-style superhero movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. With its massive box office success and overall fan engagement and enjoyment, it skyrocketed in the animation industry and seemingly changed the game. Indeed, musical artist Kid Cudi released a film this year that he helped create called Entergalactic, starring Timothee Chalamet and Laura Harrier. This film follows a young comic book artist and his search for love, and was created in the same mixed style of 2D and 3D animation as Spider-Verse. It followed the beautiful colored, spacey vibes that only animation can accomplish, especially in the mixed format. This has once again drawn attention to the incredible storybook-like animation format and gained hype around adult centered animation films. So, the question becomes: is 2D mixed with 3D animation making a comeback?
The Rise and Fall of 2D Animation
When animation first started, it was naturally in 2D. This is when there is an illusion of movement in a two-dimensional environment (like on a screen) by piecing together single individual drawings together to make characters, backgrounds, objects, and effects look as if they are moving. This technique was mostly used with hand-painted frames, where artists would create each panel to follow another, like a flip-book. This was highly popular with studios like Disney and Pixar in their early days, as well as many forms of cartoons on the small screen. All the classic animated characters came out of this, like the Looney Tunes bunch, Mickey Mouse and the gang, even Saturday morning cartoon favorites like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
2D animation reigned superior, as did Walt Disney Animation Studios, who had a monopoly on animation until 1995, when Pixar released its first feature length film, Toy Story. In fact, Toy Story was the first 3D feature-length animated film, effectively opening a whole new world within the genre. After the release, Disney struggled to keep up and ultimately bought out Pixar in 2006 (via New York Times) and made the switch over to computer-generated 3D animated films.
The Breakdown of 3D Animation and the Mixing of Styles
So, what is the difference between the two styles? While 2D animation is centered around each individual frame and hand-drawing them, 3D animation is creating moving images in a digital space, mainly focusing on using a 3D software.This allows animators to create 3D images while still in the confines of a two-dimensional space, like on a screen. This proved a popular animation technique, innovative during its prime, so naturally 3D animation took off. With each movie looking more and more realistic, blurring the lines between animation and reality, 3D was the veritable go-to animation technique. Of course, as with any trend in the film industry, after more than a decade of the same type of media, someone would want a bit of a change. That happened when the two seemingly different animation styles where mixed, and animators on a certain project had the motto, “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
Into the Spider-Verse & Entergalactic: A New Wave of Animation
That project was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one of the biggest superhero movie releases in the past decade, gaining the most support and love for the project. Spider-Verse took the two animation styles and merged them, creating a computer-generated web slinger while mashing it with all the charm and creativity that 2D animation once brought. It was able to create this incredibly comic book-like appearance, with text bubbles at times and motifs like “Boom!” and “Pow!” written across the frame during a battle. It was the best medium to test the new style of animation, and it worked incredibly well for the project.
This was the first case of western 3D/2D animated films. Director Hayao Miyazaki has three mixed animated films: My Neighbor Tororto, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. But these films still have the regular 2D look while being computer generated as well. This year, in 2022, artist Kid Cudi paired with director Fletcher Moules to create the Netflix original, Entergalactic, using the same 3D/2D animated technique to bring to life this very art heavy swirl of colors about finding love in your young adult years. It was a huge success, not only because of Cudi’s influence and actors like Chalamet and Harrier headlining, but because of the stunning visuals and the feel that a comic book is jumping off the screen. This rejuvenation of 3D/2D animation will continue with the release of the second Miles Morales film, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, with its long awaited release in June 2023, and seems to be spearheading many more projects like this to come.