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Rick and Morty

April 05, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: How does 2-D animation work?

Animated films and television shows can seem like magic, in how they manage to bring life -- or, more specifically, motion -- to 2-D art. 

How exactly does that work, though? 

We reached out to Stephen Wood, professor of animation and game arts at Moore College of Art & Design, for an explainer. 

How do 2-D drawings, functionally, get turned into the animations we're all familiar with -- cartoons, anime, etc. It's kind of mind-boggling when you think about it.

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Yeah, so it works the same way film works. An animator will draw individual images in a series, and then those images are strung together and run at 24 frames per second. The eye basically sees those frames move so fast that it interprets it as motion. That’s how you go from 2-D still image to a 2-D [motion image].

Isn’t that a lot of work to get that many frames in a second?

It is. Disney started with 24 frames per second – they started with 24 frames of individual drawings per second. TV usually uses "animating on twos" and they animate at 12 frames per second. Each screen is on the frame a few times to make up the 24 frames per second. That lowers the cost but also lowers quality of animation. That’s why movie animation is so much smoother and more fluid than, say, the Saturday-morning cartoon.

How many frames per second did the really early 2-D animations run with?

Still 24. They would capture it on 35-millimeter film and then run that film at 24 frames per second. Today, the standard is -- because we have computers and animation that’s digital -- 29.9 frames per second, which is commonly known as "30 FPS." That gives you a smoother look. In movies and film now, they're running movies at 60 frames per second, and that’s why you see this move toward 3-D animation, because it’s much easier to capture 60 frames per second on a computer-generated animation than a hand-drawn, captured animation.

Is everything hand-drawn still? You mentioned digital. What does that mean?

A lot of animation today -- it depends on the studio, but a lot of it is digital. So, for instance, "Rick and Morty," that’s done on software called Toon Boom. They can use vector-style drawings like in Adobe Illustrator ... and rig them to be more like puppets. The computer will take care of some in-betweening, and artists just clean up or fix up the animation they have to by hand. Which is faster, but it doesn’t have the same feel or quality of watching an old Disney movie or old Don Bluth movie. [See: "The Land Before Time," "Anastasia."]

What’s the biggest challenge in the work process of making 2-D animation?

The biggest challenge is the time and effort it takes. Especially if you're a lone animator doing a short film -- you have to drop thousands and thousands of images, and do the background work, and then capture those images. It’s a long and tedious process to do 2-D animation. That’s the biggest challenge.

There are different schools of thought out there right now about using computers to animate. Recently, a video of Hayao Miyazaki outraged by a presentation about computer-generated animation went viral. Is that a divide among animation professionals today?

Miyazaki is, like, the originator of the Japanese anime industry. So, I think he’s still in that old frame of mind, but he’s also using – I just saw recently, for his new short film, him working on a computer. So maybe he’s giving in a little bit to newer technology. Japan animation studios, though, you can watch a "making of" film of "Little Witch Academia" and those animators are still animating on paper in Japan. I think digital animation is a more Western – we accept it more readily than Japan has.

Are 2-D animators in the industry nervous about how much "Finding Nemo" catches on as opposed to "Aladdin"?

I think, from what I can understand from the situation, is the major studios have moved from 2-D to 3-D animation just because that's what target audiences want. Children born from 1998 to 2012 have grown up to have this sense that 2-D animation is for TV, and movies are 3-D animation. So when they go see a 2-D film, they don’t see why it’s special. The last 2-D film, or Western 2-D film that I can remember, is "Princess and the Frog" by Disney. It didn’t do as well as they expected and kids didn’t want to see it because it’s a 2-D film. That’s why you see most films that come out now are 3-D films and not only 3-D, but in 3-D with glasses because that’s what kids expect.

Do you think we're missing out?

I do. I think there’s a beauty to 2-D animation you can’t mimic in 3-D. I’ve heard recently that 2-D is going to make a strong comeback – people are getting sick of 3-D films now and 2-D will come back. I don’t know if that's true or not, but I do think there’s a beauty to 2-D that you don’t get with a 3-D film.

There is a lot of nostalgia out there for the ‘90s. So, maybe.

Yeah, exactly. If it does come back, it will be 2-D animation for adults, I think.

'Strangers,' a short animated film partly animated by Pennsylvania animator and director Charles Huettner.

If someone wanted to see a pristinely animated film that’s a gold standard, is there one, in particular, to look at?

I think the two come down to Don Bluth’s movies and Disney films – "The Lion King," "Aladdin." Go back even further, looking at "Looney Toons," those Bugs Bunny cartoons are amazing to watch. Especially since you know there as no digital apparatus to help them. So, they were doing everything on paper and film stock. It’s just amazing to look at.

Anything to add?

I think right now if anybody was really interested in 2-D animation and seeing what the best of the best right now is, it would be to check out Studio Trigger. Which, they did "Little Witch Academia" for Netflix. Their animation is amazing. Or looking into smaller studios or independent animators like Charles Huettner. There is a big boom for 2-D animation in smaller venues and independent film festivals where they have a strong identity.