Published 21st January 2019

Animation Craft vs Animation Tech

I have lived and breathed animation for over 20 years since I first joined Aardman. Over that time the animation industry has changed almost beyond recognition and we have all had to grow and adapt ourselves in order to remain relevant. We have done this by being innovative, by understanding what makes audiences tick and by being open to new technology. Aardman strives relentlessly to be the most inspirational animation company in the world, entertaining people of course, but also we want to do some good. With the ongoing convergence of the advertising and entertainment industries, the craft, the platforms and even the business models are constantly transforming and reforming moving ever closer. It’s a world of commoditisation and ‘automation’ but if you want to create a piece of animated content that really connects with people’s hearts and minds, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Animation is a unique art form which by its very nature can be all consuming, with each frame of picture a work of art. But what you really want to happen is for people to get so wrapped up in the story and the characters that they almost forget it’s animated. Big conceptual themes, quality of the writing, the visual look and its realisation should be synonymous and ideally shouldn’t be achievable in any other way other than by animation. A very simplistic example of this would be a character who has an unfeasibly large nose because he’s good at sniffing out teeny tiny things, animated beautifully, voiced brilliantly and ideally with a puff of ‘smell-o-vision’ in the auditorium.

The ever increasing capabilities offered by new technologies, such as real time rendering and the accessibility of high end animation software at desktop prices are making it possible for more people to create animations at a much lower cost and more quickly. And, with so many fast moving platforms to fill with content, quantity is often a temptation or getting something out tomorrow seems an imperative. So it seems like there’s alignment here. Or is there…?

There is no doubt that data-aided tools or high end animation or post production software which speed up the process by simplifying it for the artist, can do an incredible job of replicating great work. But, is it not a fundamental dilemma, that because the ‘‘automation’’, whatever kind it is, is usually created by defaulting to the next most commonly occurring next step, then replicating an amalgamation of previous work decisions is a potential issue, forever copying the ‘aggregated master’ without ever becoming a true master. Dare I say it, moving towards a more homogenised and less authentic outcome?

Without the imagination and invention that comes through the hand of the artist, the ability for a maverick move, or unexpected creative approach is lost? Often, it’s not about artists not having the ability, it’s about having the time to play and express it. I am often asked for ‘a bit of the Aardman magic’. Well I think that the ‘magic’ is almost entirely in the originality of thought and ability to execute with an abundance of ‘managed flaws’ flawlessly.

If only life were so black and white. Inevitably it’s about balance about working out where ‘automation’ can help and where the imagination should be encouraged to fly and time created for that to happen.

With an eye to the future, we’re looking at 4D and 5D immersive ‘event cinema’ experiences which could be permanently based in theme parks or as long runs in visitor attractions, where the story is no longer limited to the screen. This is becoming more possible as the technical quality of the VR or AR experience starts to match the expectations of audiences used to high end feature film quality CGI. R&D in this area is something we’re actively engaging in with universities and technology companies alike.

As creators, we’re looking at what the possibilities are between a character carefully animated, frame by frame to give a particular performance and a character responding empathetically using AI. Could there be a place where the fantasy and the reality become merged to give audiences the opportunity to interact directly with characters as a live experience? I don’t think it’s that far away.

It’s never been a more exciting time for animation than it is now. With endless possibilities, the future is ripe with opportunity for original, authentic and creative animation ideas.

Article originally published by D&AD at