Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Revisiting Hand-drawn Cel Animation in Disney's The Princess and the Frog

Computer-generated animation came into the public knowledge of Disney fans with the movie Beauty and the Beast. The much-hyped ballroom dance sequence of Belle and the Beast prince delivered in that it gave something new in the way animation was done by Disney. It heralded a new age of cartoons when computers became the basic tool for drawing and animating. It also signaled the seeming end of hand-drawn cel animation.

Walt Disney (above, left) began with hand-drawn animation and when Disney began making feature-length films of beloved fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella, cel animation was given a breakthrough advancement, which, in today's parlance is akin to motion-capture. Back then, film footages of real actors were used which were traced to produce the final animated sequence. That is the reason why the body movements of the main characters Cinderella are so lifelike, and it was this wow-factor that made those early Disney movies so endearing and appealing. The Princess and the Frog does not use this technique, but it still pays tribute to the past Disney masterpieces.

Now that it's so easy to use computers to do animation, manual drawings and tracings have become a thing of the past, or so it seemed. Disney has revisited the dying art of hand-drawn animation and given it new life in The Princess and the Frog. It was recognized as the Best Motion Picture of 2009 by TIME Magazine, and for a good reason. Producer John Lasseter said it was a way of bringing the animation of Walt Disney Studios into the future. He said that beloved storytelling, successful characters, and a musical opulence (gospel- and soul-jazz-inspired) are essential to The Princess and the Frog.

In 2006, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull (bearded; left) became the heads of Walt Disney Animation Studios. While they acknowledged the value of new technology, they still recognized the importance and relevance of hand-drawn animation. Lasseter himself was into this kind of artform and it didn't seem right to leave it behind when it was all that Walt Disney was about as an animator. People like director John Musker were invited to pitch movie ideas and the story of The Princess and the Frog was chosen to be produced.

Producer Peter Del Vecho has this to say about using traditional hand-drawn animation on The Princess and the Frog, "There's something really rewarding about watching the animator put down pencil to paper, and then when you're watching the film, you forget all about the individual pencil lines and those characters are really coming off the screen. You kind of take them home with you in your mind-each of the characters is rich and has a life of their own."

Hand-drawn animation productions has created hundreds of jobs for a lot of talented artists worldwide. With rising production costs, studios like Disney relocated production work to countries in Asia like the Philippines where numerous young people were given the break they were looking for to be a part of the magic of animation, particularly of Walt Disney. One of them is Filipino, Roland Mechael (or Michael) Ilagan, who became part of the animation team of Disney movies like Mulan and Brother Bear (left). With the rekindling of hand-drawn cel animation in The Princess and the Frog, history could repeat itself and kids who now dream of Disney cartoons may still get their chance to be a part of it all.

Watch The Princes and the Frog trailer.

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