In the previous installment I talked about how animation has advantages over live-action. While I do plan a follow-up on the reverse, I thought I’d stop to look at a debate that has settled down but still exists in animation: which is better, hand-drawn “2D” animation or 3D computer animation? Is one better than the other?

Traditional hand-drawn animation, which I’ll keep writing as 2D for the sake of my fingers and to correspond with the modern 3D computer animation, is at least as old as cinema, though we won’t get into stroboscopic disks and whatever. We see it everywhere, from bits in live-action to titles to advertisements to transitions and the list goes on. 3D computer animation, likewise referred to as 3D for the rest of the article for the same reason, is relatively new and I’m not going to go into that extended history either. There are purists who believe 2D is the sole way to go, newists (new term for you) who insist 3D is the only way to go, and the rest of us who are only concerned with what works best. So which does work best for what?

3D animation is used a lot for special effects but for a time 2D was used as well. Tron for example, and I’m talking about the original movie, used more traditional animation that you may know. 2D was used for laser effects and matte paintings were used for backgrounds. The monster in Forbidden Planet was invisible until it hit the space explorer’s force field and that effect was done with 2D animation because computers weren’t able to do that yet. It was all magnetic tape reels and punch cards. There are times where this didn’t work of course. Just watch the two Superman serials, where they replaced actor Kirk Ayan with a cartoon Superman whenever they needed to show off Superman’s flying and super strength. The Adventures Of Captain Marvel had more believable effects and getting Captain Marvel to fly required a mannequin. (Granted the effect worked better in black-and-white film than it would today.)

Of course now 3D is easier and thus used for special effects. I’ve seen the “Unreal” game engine being used in everything from The Mandalorian to The Masked Singer, and that was originally designed for video games. You don’t just generate computer special effects or 3D worlds out of nowhere though. Some 2D tricks are still used, but with templates and filters, pre-rendered models and assets you can find online (including free ones by enthusiasts), even if you were doing 2D special effects you’d probably be using a computer rather than drawing on film. Some directors only use film out of a sense of tradition and how different things look on film versus a digital image. That’s for another time and I’ll have to research the perspectives before doing that article. It won’t be anytime soon. And nowadays 3D animation is used in a number of productions. Computers are used to clean up scenes, change the look of a location, or add a crowd where that many extras would be way too expensive. Computers are even used now in show intros because it’s easier, though some intros will still use hand-drawn animation done on computers rather than cels. Again, for our purposes 2D animation, whether in a cell or on computers, is still hand-drawn 2D art, though programs like Blender do allow you do make 2D art in a 3D space for various reasons.

Even the rigging system created for 3D animated characters have a counterpart in the 2D world. A 2D animation rigger will manipulate the drawn character, though of course it’s limited by being a two-dimensional character. There’s also 2.5D in video games, a two-dimensional sprite with a three-dimensional background or layout that allows you to shift your character to different sides. It’s like 2D and 3D had a baby.

I wonder what Filmation would have done with Toon Boom or even Flash animator? Each program has their own way of doing it, as you not only rig the body movements but facial expressions. I’ve been playing in Blender when I have a chance and I like the “bones” system, where you’re basically rigging a stop-motion armature. I haven’t been able to play with it but I like what I see in demos and tutorials. There are of course artists who prefer to drawn each image separately for various reasons (you kind of have to with programs like Clip Studio Paint, though their tools do make it easier), and I’m not really focusing on the technical aspects of each animation style. These are just where animation on both the 2D and 3D front have gone.

The question is which better tells a story? Really there isn’t one over the other. 3D does a better job with “photorealistic” animation, and they’ve certainly advanced from the uncanny valley issues of something like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, but on some front that does require more work to bypass…unless you take a cue from 2D and not try to be realistic. 2D has suffered issues with this as well, since it takes more drawings and now both require not only a lot more rigging than something more stylized or simplistic (and even that can look janky in both forms), and again computers have made that a lot easier with features like “onion skin” being an improvement of trying to see the previous drawing under the current one.

However, 3D isn’t without limitations. While programs have advanced they’re still only as good as the animator. Also, even in a “cartoony” look (an odd term for it since these are all cartoons really…ignoring animation snobs) a 3D character still has enough of a physical look to it that your brain expects more from a 3D image than it does from a 2D one. 2D animators and other artists have often tried to imitate a three-dimensional space but it’s a lot harder to pull off. Each form has its own risks for animation errors though modern technology does allow fixes for some of the more traditional errors of 2D animation.

I’ve been talking more about the look, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to: cinematography. Which form in the end gives you the visual appeal that best matches the story you want to tell? I don’t have a real preference otherwise. Both can offer some amazing visuals, and more so in this age where both are done on computers each takes a technical cue from each other. I’ve seen beautiful 2D animation, ugly 3D animation, ugly 2D animation, and beautiful 3D animation. Now that 3D is just excepted instead of the “new hotness” studios want to exploit without understanding (par for the course with studio execs and money people) and has settled in it’s up to the director which form of animation can best bring the world in the script to life. Character models are still first designed on paper or some drawing program before it ever gets sculpted or built and there are certain effects that work in one format or the other, while some work in both styles. I just have one request.

Please stop trying to combine the two? It rarely works out. If you must, do it sparingly and do a better job matching the two styles. Ultimately though, choose the one that best works for your story and trust in your choice.

About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

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