In 1923, a young animator named Walter Elias Disney moved to Los Angeles after his studio in Kansas City, Laugh-O-Grams, went bankrupt. Five years and a number of failures later, he finally met success with a mouse that whistled and steered a boat. This mouse was the adorable Mickey Mouse, and his first famous film, “Steamboat Willie,” was an eight-minute-long, black and white, hand-drawn animated short. It not only placed the Walt Disney Animation Studio into the limelight but also set the stage for innumerable pieces of brilliance which have flown out of its doors for over nine decades now.
Nine decades is a long time and just like anything else, animation within the Disney studio walls has evolved. It has moved almost completely from hand-drawn to fully computer generated imagery. What does this mean for hand-drawn animation, the art form that Walt Disney built his empire on? The fact is, a Disney produced hand-drawn animated feature hasn’t been debuted on a silver screen for over six years now. Disney’s last two traditionally animated films were “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009, followed by “Winnie the Pooh” in 2011. For an animation studio that worked almost exclusively in the format of hand-drawn 2D animation for nearly 80 years, six years is a major drought.
The dry spell is logical since CG animation has long since become the animation norm. Still, it is hard to accept that the line of art which gave birth to masterpieces like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Fantasia,” “The Lion King” and so many other excellent works is defunct. Is it? Disney’s first animated feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” was released in 1937 at a time when even producing well-groomed animated short clips was considered a major feat. At such a time, achieving 83 minutes of drawings actually moving and talking was far beyond what was ever deemed possible. Snow White proved that it was, with three years of effort from over 750 artists who put together over two million sketches and 250,000 drawings for the movie’s final frames. Even today, with all the technological and artistic advancements, hand-drawn animation is no easy task. Its output is no less appealing and appreciated than it was back then.
Hand-drawn animation is still heralded as a visual art form, and it has its share of aficionados. Even if it may not have appeared as a full-length feature film from Disney for a long time now, its elements continue to govern various aspects of CG animation. Modern animators still rely on the 12 principles of the classic animation to produce comic yet realistic effects, such as exaggerated facial features and body movement. They still rely upon hand-drawn sketches for planning and imagining. It’s just that the implementation has found a new medium. Even if fully hand-drawn animated features aren’t going to be on the menu anymore at Disney, they are not a media producer that anyone can do away with — from the company’s past, present and future.