Exploring Disney’s Transition from Traditional to 3D Animation

Over the last few decades, animated films developed by large studios have notably transitioned from a traditional, hand-drawn format, to the 3D, computer animated movies we see today. At the surface, it appears easy to identify when the switch happened and visually distinguish 2D movies from more recent 3D ones. However in reality, for Walt Disney Animation Studios, technology developed for almost twenty years and twenty movies before they could create a feature length film solely using computer imagery. This article will focus on the advancements made over this time period as Walt Disney Animation Studios — not including movies produced by affiliates such as Pixar or Disneytoon Studios — transitioned from 2D to 3D animation.

The Great Mouse Detective — 1986

Disney’s experimentation with 3D environments began in 1986 with The Great Mouse Detective. Roughly two minutes of the film take place inside a clock tower designed in three-dimensional space. While “in the past, [Disney] had been limited to simply tracking in or panning left or right on a flat piece of artwork,” the camera could now rotate around the space, mimicking real-life camera movements.


The Big Ben scene of ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986)

Oliver and Company — 1988

For Oliver and Company, Disney expanded their use of computer graphics, creating many of the scene backgrounds using CGI. Most notably, however, the studio established their first department dedicated to computer animation during this production process.

The Little Mermaid — 1989

The loveable characters, plot, and songs all contributed to the success of The Little Mermaid, widely recognized as the movie which kickstarted what’s known as ‘The Disney Renaissance’ after a long period of arguably less memorable features. Its advanced integration of computer graphics and hand drawn animation support the film’s overall beauty, artistry, and impact. Moving forward, Disney could produce movies at much cheaper costs as CGI eliminated the time and money previously required when drawing every single frame by hand.

The Rescuers Down Under — 1990

Although arguably not the most well known or beloved film plot-wise, this sequel to The Rescuers (1977), played a key role in Disney animation history. Until this point, “computer assisted animation was only used for selected shots and effects,” yet The Rescuers Down Under used the Computer Animated Production System (CAPS) throughout the entire film. This software digitally colored every animation cel, eliminating the need for coloring each frame individually by hand. CAPS not only saved the studio time and money — an estimated 6 million saved on The Lion King alone- but also allowed for tricky camera zoom effects without the use of a multiplane camera as needed in the past.

Beauty and the Beast — 1991

Beauty and the Beast marked another key milestone for CGI due to the famous ballroom dance scene. For the first time, animators created the entire environment using computer generated imagery. Featuring no hand-drawn artwork as in previous films, the creators of the ballroom scene instead placed the 2D characters into an solely CGI three-dimensional space. The complex pipeline for the scene’s production process began by creating the wireframe environment, then approving and finalizing camera movements, and finally hand-drawing the characters on top of the scene while simultaneously building out the ballroom. Layers of elements, complex design, incredible music, and a beautiful and elegant final product all contributed to the truly iconic and memorable nature of the scene.

Final rendered ballroom in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991)

Aladdin — 1992

Looking through the lens of Disney animation history, Aladdin most notably featured the first computer animated character. For the magic carpet, “while its rectangle and tassels were hand-drawn, computer enhancements maintained the texture and pattern design throughout the magic carpet’s many forms and movements.” Additionally, the ‘Cave of Wonders’ scene demonstrated the advancing technology of computer generated imagery of the time.

The Lion King — 1994

Unfortunately, the Lion King scene which features the most significant expansion upon CGI technology also happens to be the most heartbreaking scene of the film. Filmmakers developed the first crowd simulation technology to animate the herd of wildebeests which kill Simba’s father. Instead of hand-drawing hundreds of animals in each frame, “Disney developed a way to use CG for the wildebeest ‘crowd’ while also maintaining a cel-shaded look to them.” This simulation technology- the first of its kind- allowed animators to make changes to the way the horde moved and looked and choose between different versions, something that hand-drawn animation would not allow for.

Pocahontas (1995) & The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

These two films continued to build upon the technology of computer generated backgrounds, props, and crowds established in previous movies.

Hercules — 1997

Hercules, while also featuring stunning CGI backgrounds, most notably showcased the first starring role of a computer generated character, other than Aladdin’s magic carpet which really only consists of a piece of fabric. Five years later, however, Hercules featured a full battle sequence with a thirty-headed Hydra. Each head and its facial expressions moved in a unique manner, all while interacting with Hercules and Pegasus, drawn in 2D.

The Hydra battle scene of ‘Hercules’ (1997)

Mulan — 1998

Filmmakers of Mulan made a conscious effort to incorporate the movie’s computer generated elements into its hand-drawn sections in order to promote a cohesive look. As movies previously used CGI as a tool to make animating cheaper and easier, the creators of Mulan aimed to “[change] the thinking to, how do we actually use CG in a way that ultimately has an overall effect on the movie itself in terms of the look and feel?”

Tarzan — 1999

The software used to develop Tarzan marked another key moment in Disney animation history. Called ‘DeepCanvas,’ the program enhanced the depth of backgrounds, allowing for the environment’s “thoroughly convincing junglescapes.” DeepCanvas, whose sequences accounted for about ten minutes of the film’s running time, enabled the camera to follow Tarzan as he quickly swings and moves through the jungle.

Fantasia 2000 (2000), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), and Lilo & Stitch (2002)

These three films continued to expand upon the technology and skills of computer animators, with some sequences of Fantasia 2000 heavily featuring computer graphics.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire — 2001

Coinciding with the movie’s theme of innovation and technology, Atlantis also “boasts the largest and most advanced type of computer graphics to date of any traditionally animated film. According to Joshi, 27% of Atlantis is digital and every scene contains computer effects.” Animators achieved the movie’s futuristic look by aiming for a hybrid of the two styles, rather than simply using computers to enhance the look of traditional animation.

Treasure Planet — 2002

The technology and unique look of Treasure Planet distinguishes it from all other Walt Disney Animated Studios productions. Treasure Planet utilized DeepCanvas to “create huge 3D environments, move the camera through them, and then draw animation on top of that.” Animators built the ship itself — where the movie largely takes place — and the surrounding space, using the software.

In this ‘Treasure Planet’ scene, Jim is drawn in 2D while the space background was created with CGI

Every Disney film before or after Treasure Planet leans more heavily toward one style or the other, yet this movie captured the best aspects of both, capitalizing on the advanced CGI capabilities of the time along with the appeal of traditional animation. Visually, Treasure Planet looks entirely unique and its hybridization of styles makes it the perfect representation of Disney’s transition period from 2D to 3D animation.

The 3D environment of ‘Treasure Planet’ (2002)

After a few more movies animated primarily in the traditional style, Walt Disney Animation Studios finally produced their first film entirely using CGI — Chicken Little (2005). While Pixar made history by doing so with Toy Story (1995) a decade earlier, the visual effects of Chicken Little truly highlight the extra ten years of technological development.

Although still creating a handful of films after Chicken Little which primarily utilized the traditional style (or, more accurately, a hybrid of the two), the studio has since moved toward an exclusively 3D and CGI style of filmmaking.

A CGI dog in ‘Toy Story’ (1995) (left), vs ‘Chicken Little’ (2005) (right)

Watching the twenty films produced between The Great Mouse Detective and Chicken Little is like watching animation technology advance right before your eyes. The steady transition of styles over the last few decades allowed for the visually stunning CGI films seen today. Given another twenty years, there is no telling how the field of animation will further challenge the boundaries of art and technology in order to create stunning pieces of film.

By: Katie Caputo

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