Ten trends in American animation

Linda Simensky, a visiting professor of cinema studies and the vice president of children’s programming at PBS, talks top trends in animation today.

The Grinch lounges on a chair looking grouchy
A scene from the 2018 3D-animated adaptation of “The Grinch.” (Photo courtesy: Universal Pictures)

The holidays are primetime for animation.

As adults have time off from work and students head home for break, animated films start flooding theaters to grab that coveted attention during the holiday-packed months of November and December. Among just a few in theaters this season: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” and “The Grinch.”

In light of the animation fever of the season, here, Linda Simensky, a visiting professor of cinema studies and vice president of children’s programming at PBS, takes a moment to reflect on today’s American animation trends. Simensky has worked with PBS since 2003 and, before that, she was senior vice president of original animation for the Cartoon Network, overseeing development of “The Powerpuff Girls.” She preceded that role with a career at Nickelodeon, helping to launch shows like “Rugrats” and “Doug.” This semester, she’s teaching Contemporary Issues in American Animation, and will offer a course on the history of Disney animation in Fall 2019.

1. 3D animation has eclipsed 2D. By the mid-2000s, Simensky says, it became clear to animation studios that feature films were going in the direction of 3D over 2D—so clear, that Disney began closing its 2D-animated-feature studios by the end of the ’00s. Though today’s animated features are marvels of modern technology, it is, Simensky says, important to note there were, and still are, growing pains associated—especially with Disney. “A lot of people who worked with Disney agonized over the fact they’d spent their whole life training to be a classical, hand-drawn animator, and Disney’s whole angle was, ‘We make these by hand; that’s why they have so much heart.’ They really had to stand in front of a mirror of truth and say, ‘OK, is this still meaningful?’” While 2D still thrives on television alongside 3D, Simensky notes, major movies are generally expected by audiences to be in 3D, and that’s a trend quickly becoming a standard. 

Ralph overlooks a 3D-animated city
A scene from the 2018 3D-animated sequel film, “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” (Photo courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

2. Animation immersion. 3D glasses aren’t the limit to what moviegoers can expect from modern viewing. “What you’ll start seeing over time, I think, is more experience-type movies, where you’re putting on the goggles, having virtual-reality experiences,” she says. “Maybe not for really young kids, but for teens and adults you’re going to start seeing more 360-degree experiences. It’s not the future of movies, by any stretch, but you’ll see more of it as they start to figure [out the technology].”

3. Relishing in reboots and remakes. “The Lion King,” “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Grinch”—these classic films all have had remakes, or are getting remade in the coming years. The idea for Disney, Simensky says, is to bring new audiences to old franchises. Further feeding the flood of nostalgia-based content are animated television series—like Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” and “Rocko’s Modern Life”—also pegged for reboots. “Not everything deserves a reboot, though there are things that could be done better a second time,” she explains. The point: Despite the instinct to criticize, not all reboots are bad. “There is a benefit to it.”

4. Boom or bust. The business side of animation has seen changes recently, too. “In features, I think the key challenge is that you’re under a lot of pressure to explode your first week on the market,” Simensky explains of today’s animated feature releases. “If you don’t do well the first week, you won’t do well the second week. There’s not as much room for you to build an audience.” Movies that once might have stayed in theaters for an entire season, she says, might only last a few weeks. The flip side of that, she says, is that movies get a chance at a second life on streaming platforms."

5. Animated features are more expensive to make. Turns out, not needing to hand-draw only made animation more expensive, not less. “It’s more expensive because there are more people, more things that you can do now,” Simensky says. “One of the great promises in the early days of computer animation was the idea that you would need fewer people to do it, that it would ultimately be cheaper, but that’s not really the case. If you look at the credits at the end of any computer-animated film, they go on for 15 minutes. That’s a lot of people, putting textures on things, building environments, and things like that.

Simba, a baby lion, rendered in 3D
The 3D reimagining of Simba in the 2019 live-action remake of Disney’s “The Lion King.” (Photo courtesy: Walt Disney Pictures)

6. Live-action is in abundance. “The Lion King” and “Detective Pikachu” are among the more high-profile live-action films—mixing computer-generated images with live-shot ones—expected in 2019, and they’re most definitely part of a new trend in animation. Part of that trend, Simensky says, can be attributed to the sheer curiosity of animators wondering what these films might look like through a photorealistic lens, while the other element is the simple fact that they’re able to execute the vision today in a way they couldn’t have even a decade ago. “There are movies that couldn’t have existed 10 years ago because they were too hard to make,” she explains. “‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ that was a movie that didn’t get made for a long time because the amount of special effects work is epic. The industry had to be able to handle it before you could make that movie the right way. That’s an example of a movie that had to wait for technology to catch up with it.”

7. Fragmentation. Much like with other media forms today, there’s not just one or two avenues to find animated content anymore. “The interesting thing about TV these days is it used to be the cables channels were competing with each other. Now, the cable channels are competing with new platforms like Netflix and Hulu,” Simensky says. “And you’ve got gaming platforms, everything on the web, YouTube—most kids are watching their programming somehow on YouTube—and there are so many ways to watch content now that it’s the same number of kids and the pizza is the same size, but there are a lot more slices of it.”

8. 2D and 3D unite. The mix of 2D and 3D in animation is not entirely new: “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was filmed long before computers were used in animation, and “Beauty and the Beast” famously used computer graphics in 1991 during a ballroom scene. But animators are only just beginning to master how to blend the two in a way that feels cohesive. “The programs are getting better,” Simensky says. “So, now you can mix the two more seamlessly.” This is especially true of Japanese animations that still predominantly use 2D, but are incorporating some 3D elements—as in the newly released film, “Mirai.”

9. Adults are still watching animation. While adults have always indulged in animated content with their kids, what’s new is that many adults are growing up and never ceasing that viewership. “Historically, animation has been, for both features and TV, for kids, and now there’s much more of a market for people who grew up watching animation and want to keep watching it,” Simensky says. “There are even features that are starting to skew older—not so many in the U.S., but worldwide there are more features for adults or a different audience, like the art-film audience.”

Toy Story characters gather around on bedroom floor
A scene from “Toy Story 3.” (Photo courtesy: Walt Disney Studios)

10. Sequels are finding their footing. Sequels, she says, no longer elicit “boos” from film students when she mentions one in class. “Sequels are starting to become more acceptable because people building these worlds are getting better at building them and developing characters,” she explains. “If you really love characters, you’re happy to see them again.” Still, she says, examples like “Cars 2” and “Cars 3,” both relative commercial failures, are examples of backlash from audiences who smelled a cash-grab. “They knew it was a shameless appeal to sell toys, whereas people are excited for another ‘Toy Story’ because people love those characters, and they’re good characters, and people love that world. I think that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years.”