3D vs. 2D Animation: Nostalgia or Aesthetics?

These days, animated films are more often than not 3D CGI (computer-generated imagery). 2D, or traditional animation, is still popular but not as popular or profitable as 3D. I do wonder why, though. What is it that makes 3D more popular than 2D?

I recently saw the 3D CGI Disney movie Tangled (2010). It’s pretty fun, but rather than talk too much about it, I’d like to compare it to the 2D Disney movie it superficially most resembled, Sleeping Beauty (1959). Both are about a princess who is taken away from her home and family as a baby, and raised in isolation. In particular I want to think about the difference between a drawing and a 3D computer-rendered image. Is there any difference in how it affects the audience?


Growing Up With 2D Animation

My first reaction to Tangled was that the CGI simply ‘didn’t look quite right.’ It was an instinctive reaction. However because I’m older, and grew up with 2D animation rather than 3D, I had to wonder whether my instinctive reaction was simply due to the force of nostalgia. The images one likes and are impressed by as a child, remain that way through one’s life.

I would say that nostalgia plays a part, but is not the only part, nor even the biggest.

First of all, take a look at these two images. One is of Rapunzel, and the other is Aurora, from Sleeping Beauty. You can form your own opinions. Think about which one seems more attractive and appealing to you, and why.

2d 3d animation aurora 2d 3d animation rapunzel

Personally, I think drawings are more appealing. A drawing is something distinct to the real, 3D world in which we live. We can all relate to a drawing, because we’ve all seen plenty of them and have all drawn plenty ourselves, especially when during childhood, when it’s almost a universal form of expression.


The Appeal of 3D Animation

A 3D thing, i.e. an object, can also be appealing too, in a different way. Toys and dolls, for example, if they are well designed, can be every appealing. I think this was one of the secrets of the first 3D CGI movie Toy Story (1995), and all of its successors. The characters in its films, even the human characters, resemble toys. In fact, they often are toys! The characters below are from the Pixar films Monsters Inc., Toy Story, and Up:

2d 3d animation monsters inc 2d 3d animation toy story 2d 3d animation up



If Pixar has a weakness, it’s in its portrayal of realistic human beings, i.e. human beings who look like the ones you see when you look out the window. In the movie Wall-E (2008), it did not even try to show them, electing to show the far more appealing real-life actor Fred Willard instead. Later when we were introduced to human characters as they appear after generations of laziness and decadence, they more resembled toys.

  2d 3d animation walle

Other films have tried to show very realistic looking humans, with some success. The first film to do this, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), despite a very realistic-looking and attractive lead ‘actress’, failed miserably and bombed. It’s not a bad film, and definitely has a ‘How curious!’ factor. But I don’t know why a filmmaker would want to limit himself by using cartoon characters that look exactly the same as real people. Aren’t real actors more capable of ‘realistic action and expressions’ than illustrations? But it was an experiment. Give them credit for trying something new, and having a go, at least. And they did do a pretty amazing job on the main character, Aki Ross:

2d 3d animation aki ross

Other such films have met with some success, for example Beowulf (2007), whereas Delgo (2008) was another failure. Delgo‘s characters were ‘realistic’ in the sense that they don’t look like toys, and are supposed to look like genuine living creatures.

2d 3d animation beowulf 2d 3d animation delgo

The Uncanny Valley – Why 3D Humans are Creepy

There is a theory to explain people’s strange dislike of artificial characters which look too real, called the ‘Uncanny Valley’. Basically the idea is that when a doll, or a CGI character, looks too much like a human, viewers notice small differences which distinguish it from a genuine living thing, become disgusted by its artificiality. And so in Tangled, the characters are a bit caricatured rather than realistic, and in fact more resemble dolls. As I looked at the characters in this movie, I noticed that even their skin looks more like a doll’s skin than real skin. And Rapunzel’s hair looked more like a doll’s hair than real hair. In fact, her face resembles a Bratz doll, which have caricaturistic, exaggerated features, but are very popular:

Another reason to make the characters look more like caricatures is because this film is a comedy, and caricatures just have more potential to be funny than realistic portrayals. Observe these two renditions of Captain Haddock from Tintin, one a CGI animated rendition from the forthcoming movie adaptation, the other drawn by his creator, Hergé. (The comedy of actual human actors is a different kettle of fish to the comedy of illustrations and animation, so I won’t compare an actual actor to these two images.)

2d 3d animation captain haddock 3d 2d 3d animation captain haddock

There was something off about the villain, Mother Gothel. Maybe it’s because depictions of characters with big-eyes are usually equated with innocence and goodness, because they are supposed to remind us of babies and children. I don’t know whether the animators were aiming for this; after all she is the villain. But I kind of thought she reminded me of the nasty little doll Chucky, from the 80s horror movies. Chucky was big-eyed, but an evil maniac killer. Am I way off here, or am I onto something? What do you think?

2d 3d animation mother gothel 2d 3d animation chucky But returning to the main theme, why is it that the 3D rendering in this film just didn’t seem quite right to me? Why do I feel that it would have been more effective as a 2D movie, like Sleeping Beauty? Am I missing something? I mean, 3D animated films are popular…

Look at these, and compare. Which one do you think is more appealing? Or are they both more or less as appealing as the other?

2d 3d animation papa smurf 3d 2d 3d animation papa smurf



2d 3d animation tinkerbell 2d 3d animation tinkerbell 2d

2d 3d animation astro boy 3d 2d 3d animation astro boy


It’s not completely fair to put them side by side like this, because the drawing in these cases is the original creation of a unique, talented artist, but the CGI rendering is an adaptation of an original creation. It’s a bit like putting a Rembrandt next to a copy of a Rembrandt made on a computer. Still, one can wonder why filmmakers choose to use 3D CGI for these movies, rather than 2D like the original, when the 2D originals look great.

Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics (1993), proposed the idea of the ‘picture plane’. On it he drew a line between very basic depictions of characters, such as a circle with two dots and a line for a human face, to more gradually realistic drawings, all the way to photographs. A detailed photograph is a depiction of one person, but the simpler a depiction gets, the more it looks like ‘any person’. Would Homer Simpson,  a pretty simple cartoon character, been as popular if he’d looked like this?

2d 3d animation real life homer simpson

I tend to agree with McCloud. People can relate more to a simpler drawing, because they can imagine themselves breathing their own life into it more than they can into a detailed drawing, and more than into a photograph. But I think there’s more to it. Namely, when we are children, we draw. It is a part of our lives for a long time. We start drawing out simply, on one side of McCloud’s picture plane. Gradually we get more detailed. If we keep going, our depictions keep getting more and more realistic and detailed, heading to the other side of the picture plane.

So, aside from the reasons McCloud gave, in general we can relate well to drawings, either as comics or in animation, because of our almost universal and long experience as drawers, and viewers, of drawings. The simpler the drawing, the easier it is to relate to.

However, children also have an almost universal experience playing with toys. Thus, we can also relate to and enjoy toy-like depictions in movies. I think this is the reason why 3D CGI animated movies are so popular. They look like toys. In fact, don’t children always do this with their toys? Imagine them as living, and put them through adventures. The boy in Toy Story did that all the time. Gosh, had Pixar already figured all this out in 1995? Kudos to them regardless, they have made a string of successes since 1995 which doesn’t look like breaking anytime soon!

I can’t believe children prefer toys to drawings, though. Maybe they do. Maybe the 3D tactile experience of toys has more of an impact on children than drawings, whose joys are more cerebral. Regardless, I do wish more people would make 2D animated movies. I am sure they can be successful. In the 90s they were ridiculously popular. The Lion King (1994), for instance, made billions. 2D Japanese anime is still going strong, too.

So, perhaps the reason Tangled didn’t feel quite right to me, aside from nostalgic reasons, was simply that I didn’t play with dolls as a child, so had nothing much to relate it to.

A couple of other things about it bothered me too, though. One was that several of the expressions and movements I’ve seen in other movies. It feels less like the hand of the animator and more like repetition. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether there is not some algorithm that can automatically produce these reactions. So, say you have to animate a character reacting with ‘mild bemusement and shock’. Hit ‘Ctrl-Shift-7’ and what was once the work of a week is now done in an instant! Delgo had a lot of these ‘out-of-the-box’ type reactions, and Tangled has a few too. The end result is that the movements often don’t ring true.

The other thing about it was the general tone and idiom. Whereas Sleeping Beauty was created with style and beauty to be a thing of permanence, Tangled seems a bit more ephemeral. It’s set in medieval times, but the characters talk like they’re at a mall in LA somewhere. And while Sleeping Beauty really made an effort to establish its own style and look like something, Tangled feels more like an ironic reaction to 70 years worth of Disney princess movies. In fact, it can only exist because of those 70 years of movies, and the impact they have had on the cultural landscape. It’s very knowing, and that tone annoyed me a little. However, I can’t really blame the filmmakers too much for that. That’s just the way things roll these days, especially in movies. An earnest attempt at something beautiful and timeless and classical might come off as a bit quaint or naive nowadays. More, when Disney has tried to do that, it has often failed. Fantasia, The Black Cauldron and Pocahontas are a few such attempts which didn’t quite live up to expectations. It’s a shame, but at least we still have Sleeping Beauty and other such films to see.

In conclusion: though they share many similar features, comparing 2D and 3D animation is a little like comparing peaches and pears. They each have their own charms. They are akin to the different childhood pleasures of drawing pictures and playing with toys. A successful 3D animated film, along with the usual things like good story and interesting characters, should aim to have characters which look like toys, that one could imagine playing with and enjoying. The more charming and appealing, the better. But filmmakers shouldn’t ignore 2D, which is capable of some charms that 3D simply is not. To demonstrate this, here are some of the fun 2D images from the ending credits of Tangled. I think they would lose quite a bit of their unique appeal if they were presented in 3D:

2d 3d animation rapunzel3 2d 3d animation rapunzel2

J Marc Schmidt

Sydney-born J Marc Schmidt is the creator of three graphic novels published by SLG Publishing, Egg Story, Eating Steve, and The Sixsmiths; the webcomic 3rd Blade, and a book of essays, Secrets of Popular Culture.J Marc currently lives in Japan.

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