It goes without saying that as technology advances, so too does our taste and expectations with media. Nowhere is this more immediately obvious than within the global animation industries. As new heights are reached in scale, realism, and style our expectations and tastes change. As a boy, one of the first anime I ever watched was the English dubbed Tekkaman Blade, released under the name Teknoman. To give you an idea of just how far animation has come in roughly thirty years, this intro blew my mind:
Now imagine that was used today. Yeah, not so great a series. Even if it had a Full Metal Alchemist quality story you'd refuse to watch it simply on the grounds of it making your eyes bleed. Times and tech have changed and as higher quality of animation becomes easier and cheaper to produce, our expectations towards quality rise to match. But there is a cost to be paid in this.
Disney is never going back to their hand drawn art style. In fact most Western animation has effectively given up on 2d animation. The notable exception being the DC animated shows and films and Marvel projects like Avengers Assemble, but even they make use of 3d animation techniques and experimented with fully 3d shows. In terms of feature films, it's essentially dead. No one in Hollywood is giving money for such a project and Disney, once the champions of 2d western animation, have now moved on. Moana and Elsa only get a classic Disney Princess look through fan art. Is the Disney style for human proportion still intact? Yes. But it is a style that has been adapted into 3d animation.
But what about anime? Well...
For those of you who haven't run into it yet, Land of the Lustrous is a story about women made of mineral crystals. The entire series is 3d animated and, most importantly, it looks stunning. Bad CGI has been a consistent problem throughout anime history but we now have a show with a 3d CGI style that WORKS. More than that, we've seen 3d animation work in massive series, notably Attack on Titan, Sword Art, Fate: pick one, DBZ Resurrection of F and Dragon Ball Super. It seems that with even a moderate budget, because of the ease to edit and develop, you have more and more 3d animation coming into the 2d space.
So what then will eventually become of 2d animation? Well this does actually relate to our Ghoulish for Ghibli event on October 20th.
Let's take a look at stop motion. Wallace and Gromit are by far the best remembered examples of feature length stop motion films but they by no means stood alone. For a near century, if you didn't want hand drawn animation or people in costumes you had to use stop motion for creature effects as you see in the original Clash Of The Titans. But again, as other technologies developed and became cheaper/easier to work with, stop motion eventually stopped on the wider market. This is where you see works like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings define themselves. Stop motion animation in the modern day has become a stylistic choice. It looks unique because no one is doing it anymore and so the few times it is used, it is used as a deliberate tool. The makers of Kubo and the Two Strings WANTED to use stop motion animation because it better visually reflected the central theme of the film: crafting stories.
The same is true for Studio Ghibli. One of the things that has consistently set the studio apart from other animation houses is the sheer quality and liveliness in its animation. Almost alone in anime, Studio Ghibli has consistently animated gradual shifts in facial expression as emotions change. The worlds are active and characters feel more human because they smoothly move in the same way living things do. We've always been able to do this by drawing more frames to showcase transitions but mainstream anime never did because it's painstaking and not always necessary. It has always been a deliberate stylistic choice and it gets a particular theme across visually. For Studio Ghibli this theme has always been 'explore the wider world'. The sense of a grounded and established wider world is an active undercurrent in just about every Studio Ghibli film and this happens in large part because the worlds are actively drawn to BE alive.
Perhaps the same will one day hold true of 2d animation in general. That it transitions away from the norm and becomes a deliberate choice one day. Land of the Lustrous has proven that a pure 3d anime style is not only possible, but can look spectacular. The simple truth is that as 3d animation becomes cheaper and easier to get at a higher quality, we'll be seeing it more and more. But that doesn't mean that the styles of yesteryear are gone for good. If anything, history has shown us that they will only grow in quality as they are used when they are wanted rather than when they are the only option.