Next generation of animated films takes audiences into a rich and diverse galaxy.
If you think Jennifer Aniston's hair requires a lot of attention for a "Friends" shoot, consider this: Of the four years it took to make the sci-fi film "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," nearly a year was spent coiffing the 60,000 hairs on the head of its new digital Hollywood star, Aki Ross.Skip to next paragraph
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"Final Fantasy," the first digitally animated movie to feature photorealistic characters like Ross, is just one of many animated movies to challenge Disney's dominance in the brush-strokes and pixels domain this year.
In the past, only a trickle of animated feature films made it to the big screen. Now, studios like Sony, DreamWorks, and Nickelodeon have joined Disney in producing such a rich variety of animated films geared toward kids and adults, that Oscar has taken notice. Disney's coming "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Monsters, Inc." are possible Oscar contenders in the new feature-length animation category next year. But they'll face stiff competition from films like "Osmosis Jones," "Jimmy Neutron," and "Shrek."
Animation is experiencing vibrant changes in both style and direction. "I think being able to go to worlds you've never been before, and to places you've never been before keeps people's imaginations alive," says "Shrek" co-director Andrew Adamson. "It's the public wanting to be refreshed with something."
Veteran Disney animation producer Don Hahn says the animation boom started when studios took notice of the success of "The Little Mermaid" (1989) and "Beauty and the Beast" (1991).
"I also believe that [with] movies like 'Men in Black,' 'The Phantom Menace,' and 'The Mummy Returns' ... I think you're seeing a blurring of the lines between what is animated and what is a live-action movie these days," Mr. Hahn says. "All that adds up to a reinvigorated medium."
In particular, people are responding to cartoon movies of the CGI (computer-generated imagery) kind.
"It's sort of the year of the CGI," says Nickelodeon president Albie Hecht. "Between 'Shrek,' 'Final Fantasy,' 'Jimmy Neutron,' and 'Monsters, Inc.,' [there are] probably more movies done in CGI now than [hand-drawn] cel animation."
The first movie to employ computer-generated imagery from beginning to end came in 1995 with Pixar studio's "Toy Story." It revolutionized animation because it allowed computers to create three-dimensional models of characters that could then be manipulated by the artist. Director John Lasseter won a special Oscar for this animation milestone.
But the traditional divide between hand-drawn animation and computer animation is increasingly an artificial one - cel artists are quickly becoming as fluent with a mouse as they are with a sketchpad or paintbrush.
Computers were first used in Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" in 1986 and were later used to create sequences like the ballroom scene in "Beauty and the Beast." The three-dimensional, deep-focus backgrounds of Disney's "Tarzan" and coming "Atlantis" are also computer generated.
But although traditional animated movies of recent years, such as "The Prince of Egypt," "Mulan," "The Emperor's New Groove," "Anastasia," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Pocahontas" have performed well at the box office, few have replicated the sheer drawing power of earlier bonanzas like "The Lion King" (1994) or "Aladdin" (1992). Other features, like the acclaimed "The Iron Giant," and Japanese "Princess Mononoke" failed to find a US audience, while 2000's "Titan A.E." sunk Fox's animation studio weeks after its dismal release.
At the moment it's the eye-dazzling, fully computer-animated films, such as "Antz," "A Bug's Life," and the "Toy Story" movies that have a "buzz" factor working in their favor.
"Video games have changed kid's aesthetics with film. They are used to deep focus and detailed backgrounds," says Chris Lee, producer of the $100-million-budget film "Final Fantasy." He says that only a gaming company like Square, the Japanese makers of the popular "Final Fantasy" video-game series, would have had the vision to create photo-real characters, something traditional animated studios had once thought impossible. There is so much CGI now in a live-action movie, "it looks half like a cartoon. So we wanted to go the whole way," Mr. Lee says.