What is “Hand-Drawn Animation” in the Age of Technology?

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As we’ve witnessed many times before, the debate surrounding the current state of 2D animation is one that is well-tread.  However, this debate never gets boring or appears to be in any danger of running out of steam, simply by virtue of being a topic that can be approached at so many different angles.

In this article, however, we will take a step back from the argument about the fabled ‘2D comeback’ and talk instead about what 2D animation is right now (or, at least, what shape or form it could possibly evolve into).

2D Animation…on the computer?


While hand-drawn animation has a certain charm that can’t be replicated by a computer, the question of what is or what isn’t “hand-drawn animation” gets complicated when the existence of tools like Wacom tablets, open-source software programs, and the extensive (and controversial) use of Flash and Photoshop on a number of animated TV shows are factored in.

Simply put, we’ve now come to an age where the digital tools provided by the computer can lend as much assistance to the creation of 2D animation as they can to CG animation.  Just as we have a significant number of software programs that we can use to craft CG animation, we also have quite a few programs that allow us to do 2D animation on the computer.

Two examples of such programs are ToonBoom and Synfig. ToonBoom is consistently hailed as “the animation industry standard.” It has been used on a number of 2D-animated projects that range everywhere from TV productions like Wonder Over Yonder, Adventure Time, Archer, Futuramaand SpongeBob SquarePants to short films like this year’s Oscar-nominated Me and My Moulton. ToonBoom was even used for the last two hand-drawn films to come from Disney: The Princess in the Frog and Winnie the Pooh.

Synfig is a free and open-source software (available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X) that basically functions as an industry-level alternative to Flash for creating 2D animation on the computer. It also uniquely eliminates the need for tweening and frames (both are common elements of Flash) by simply allowing one to animate using a vector and bitmap artwork.

These two programs are only two of the many, many ways the age of technology has allowed for alternate paths to producing 2D animation.

Are these tools viable?

ToonBoom-CMYK [Converted]

Now that we know what the tools are, let’s ask ourselves this question: are these tools just as valid an option for creating 2D animation as drawing on cels with a pen or pencil?

To answer this question, let’s look at a tool that’s long been met with equal amounts of praise and scorn ever since it’s inception.

Adobe Flash.

I honestly can’t think of another type of software that’s despised more in animation circles. The arrival of just about any new animated TV series is almost always met with long tirades about Flash and how it’s supposedly a disease of the animation industry.

To some extent, I get what they are complaining about.

In lesser hands, Flash can look extraordinarily cheap. While this cheapness is usually masked with the production values typically afforded by the studios producing the animation, the flaws will nonetheless be apparent in one fashion or another.

On the other hand, the heated complaints leveled against Flash are often greatly exaggerated. In the hands of talented animators, the best Flash-animated productions don’t even feel like they were animated in Flash. Take the work of Titmouse, the production company best known for producing the short-lived Disney XD series Motorcity.  Its work can now be seen on Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja (also on Disney XD), DreamWorks Animation and Netflix’s Turbo FAST, and Comedy Central’s new upcoming animated series Moonbeam City (NSFW warning for the trailer, which you can watch here).

So really, while arguments can be made for or against its use, Flash is simply another tool in the modern animator’s vast toolbox. The same can be said for Photoshop, Maya, ToonBoom, Synfig, and just about any other digital tool one can think of.

A Technological Bleed-Over


So, as we’ve seen, technology brings about endless possibilities for creating 2D animation in different ways. And, as a result of this technology, we are seeing 2D animation take on forms that previously weren’t even thought possible. Said advancements are also bleeding over into the inner workings of big name studios.

On November 2, 2012, animation fans were treated to a short film from Disney titled Paperman. Paperman was the first animated short film to use Disney’s in-house Meander, a hybrid vector/rastor-based drawing system that blends together the style and atmosphere of 2D with the depth and dimension of 3D.

Check out this video below to see how Meander works:

But, even with all of these technical advances, the artist remains the most important part of the entire animation process and its definitely not impossible to keep 2D animators and artists involved. DreamWorks Animation’s new Primo software is one example of how technology can find a way to put the pen back into the hands of the artist.

In Conclusion


In short, there are still elements unique to 2D animation that the computer can’t replicate or wholly recreate on its own. This being said, what the computer can do is help 2D animation evolve into something else. The computer can help make 2D animation more transcendent and, ultimately, make it become more.

Once again, I leave you with the words of The Legend of Kells and Song of the Sea director, Tomm Moore:

“It would be a pity for the tradition of hand-drawn animation to die out. Yet with technology, we’re offered the opportunity to make hand-drawn animation in a way that we weren’t even fifteen years ago. With today’s computers, we can make hand-drawn animation on a feature scale with much smaller teams and lower budgets, and still make it more personal than high-level CG, which still requires a lot of money, a lot of technology and a lot of people. Through technology, hand-drawn animation has actually become more accessible.”

Wouldn’t you like to see what hand-drawn animation could become in the future?

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on the subjects presented in the article? What do you think qualifies as 2D animation?

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About Brandon Smith

Brandon is your average nerd with a love for nerdy things (games, comics, anime/manga, etc.). He also loves reading and writing and plans to be an author someday. For now, he writes with passion and curiosity about the world of animation. He lives with his family in North Carolina and is currently attending college.
  • Baymax

    As long as we have Irish stuff, Ghibli, and Disney expirementing with paperman, get a horse, and feast, we will survive. I was thinking about if we had animated films every week, like live action. Inside out would be in a few weeks!

    • Keaton Bicknell

      I don’t think that’s possible; Studio Ghibli made their last film — “When Marnie Was There” — last year.

      The fate of hand-drawn traditional animation does kinda rest in the hands of Japanese and European animators — I’ve seen such amazing films like “Patema Inverted” and “Ernest & Celestine,” from Japan and France, respectively.

      But at least LAIKA’s willing to gamble on making a traditionally-animated feature film (source: SlashFilm article “LAIKA Wants To Bring 2D Hand-Drawn Animation Back”).

      • Baymax

        I am too calm Nimh! My favorite movie ever! We ge good movie out of cgi, but the only reason movies like hotel Transylvania are cgi is because they are jumping on the bandwagon. Wait. We can make a movie that’s 2d animated. I’ll be an actress and in charge of storyboards!

      • Matthew Koh

        Well said!

        I’ve just found a video awhile ago that proves there’s hope for the future of European animation with lots of variety of artistic styles (including the experimental ones) and all the mediums used are treated EQUALLY, unlike the other industries outside like US for example.


        Now THIS is how the animation industry should be treated!
        All mediums are created equal

    • Since Ghibli may not be around much longer, and Disney did Paperman and then moved back to full 3D… Um… Well, it’s not a case of “as long as” at this point.

  • Hand-drawn animation means frame-by-frame animation such as that done in the days before computers. Whether those frames are drawing digitally or on paper is meaningless. That said, if the computer is holding over frames that would normally be redrawn completely, it begins to stop being hand-drawn animation and becomes limited-style animation (even if it is very fluid). This is the major distinction between the two.

    As for Flash, I have no qualms with people using it or any other limited-style method (it is only a non-animator who calls “limited style” simply “Flash animation” or “Flash style”) however I will tell you from the experience of 10 solid years that Flash is a HORRIBLE program for animators and was never designed for such purposes. Animators discovered they COULD use Flash to animate during an era of technology when there were few, if any, other options. Now there ARE other options, including the Toon Boom suite you pointed out, and the difference is staggering. It’s night and day between the drawing tools alone, and Toon Boom is vastly superior. The advice I give to anyone looking to get into Flash is: Don’t. Find a better option, be it Toon Boom or Pencil or TVPaint. If you want to do limited-style animation, knock yourself out, but use a tool that is sharp instead of the dull, fruitless mess that is Adobe Flash.

    I do not consider Paperman 2D animation, as too much is done in 3D. It is a hybrid, but any production that is based on 3D models cannot be called 2D Hand Drawn for certain. It was a lovely short, and I would enjoy seeing a great deal more of the style, but 2D it is not.

    Sadly 2D animation has taken a huge hit in the past few decades as the masters have slowly been fired from studios or moved on to 3D, because that is where the bulk of the feature jobs are now. We are losing the art form, because the 2D of today cannot hold a candle to the drawing skill of the pioneers of animation. Technology helps bury that skillset in a shallow grave as we rely more and more on computers to do the insanely complex work of consistency for us. It is easier than the alternative: Learning to be such a draftsman that you can control line as a sculptor works in clay. The skill required is, frankly, unbelievable.

  • KG Jung

    It’s unfortunate that the technique of blending 2d and 3d that resulted in “Paperman” hasn’t been applied on a wider basis. I was hoping that it would have progressed beyond just a short at this point. As long as their is a desire to do so, I’m sure they’ll eventually iron out the technical difficulties preventing this from happening. I am not particularly artistic, but even I can see there is a certain character to the hand-drawn 2d animation that usually isn’t present in computer 3d animation. However as Rob Paulsen has stated numerous times in his VA podcast, “It’s show business . . .emphasis on the BUSINESS.” The speed, efficiency, and cost-saving that come from being able to skip a lot of the in-between drawing that computer extrapolation techniques can do is impressive. It’s a pointless argument on whether 2d is better than 3d as long as the time and cost savings from computer animation remains so large (from a business standpoint). While technology has been the bane of 2d, technology can also help bring it back to some extent as the “Paperman” short has demonstrated.

    I think the real problem with computer 3d is that it often can look too clean and perfect. It’s like when people film scenes on a studio’s backlot. It always looks like backlot. It’s too clean and shiny and looks like it was built yesterday (probably because it was). It’s missing the detailing that gives individual character. Scars, scraps, dirt, etc that give objects texture. By making things look “perfect” they can endup looking so similar. With an artist’s hand, the imperfection is built into the process.

  • Wow this article really moves me since soon I want to work at an animation studio but I suck at animating probably so I’d love to know this stuff too!

  • Marc Hendry

    When I say “hand-drawn” animation, I usually just mean that each pose is drawn individually with no tweening. Whether it’s on a cintiq or paper, or ones or twos doesn’t matter. If Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea and this year’s shorts are the state of the medium, I’d say we’re doing great. Although the UK and USA need to get it together and catch up in features.
    I hope Laika get into hand-drawn animation as they would probably give it the reinvention it needs.

  • Jordan Briskin

    I, personally, think that even with all of these advances in the production of hand-drawn animation, it can never truly replicate 2D done literally by hand- with a pencil and a stack of sheets of paper. In that time-honored fashion, you can really see the hand of the artist in the animation, even when it’s been cleaned up and colored.

  • vgmaster9

    TVPaint should’ve been mentioned in the article instead of Synfig.