Mark Mayerson continues to impress me with his thoughtful analysis of animated films and the medium in general. He has a great post up that addresses audience preference for films that hew more closely to their world as they perceive it everyday. As is his usual approach he takes a look at history, noting how Disney's feature film successes coincided with the studio's great efforts to make animation seem more 'real' to audiences. He looks at the current popularity of CG films over 2d films in this light, drawing some pretty cogent conclusions. You should definitely check it out.
I'll use Mark's thoughts as a jump off point for my own. I'm thinking that in a few years you could rewrite Mark's post and swap "hand keyed CG" for "hand drawn" and "performance captured" for "CG". A quick survey of many of the most popular animated films today seems to reinforce Mayerson's assertion that audiences prefer things to be more real. There has been a trend in films where the style of character animation, cinematography and editing are becoming more like live-action lite. The goal of many keyframed scenes is to closely emulate a video-recorded performance in a lot of these films. Current students and working animators see this and thus they are working to advance their skills in this style of realism based animation. Jobs are as competitive as ever, so if you can hit that style you have a better chance of working in the biz today. That serves for today. But I'm not sure how much runway is left for it.
At some point performance-capture tech is going to become that much easier, that much faster, that much cheaper & that much more accurate so as to negate the need to keyframe these kinds of scenes. Why pay an animator for three weeks to keyframe a single copy of himself doing an amateur acting job when you can just as easily put a professionally trained star actor in front of a camera and get the real deal, extract the data from the video & spatial capture and put it on a character? And on top of that you can have six takes in an hour? You're telling me that the director of Rango wouldn't want to take all those beautifully acted video reference performances of Johnny Depp and toss them onto a CG puppet? One may say "Yeah, but it wouldn't be stylized.". You don't think they're working on that, too? You should check out Hans Bacher's experiments turning photos into painterly images using off the shelf Photoshop tools. There will be an answer to the stylization question, as well. Count on it. Of course we're not there now, but look at how far the tech has come since the first Zemeckis zombie-kiddy film. If we follow the technology arc (and if no global black swan event occurs to disrupt things) it seems to me that in another 10-15 years we might just be there. And if pressed I'd say I'm being too conservative. It might be as soon as 5-7 years. Remember- the iPhone came out in June of 2007. A measley four and a half years ago. Now we're all talking to Siri the all knowing feminine voice in our phones like a bad Star Trek episode. Crazy, huh? Forward thinking folks are already messing with dual Kinects hooked into real time engines for performance capture without the need for suits, cumbersome calibration, data conversion, etc. The current results are predictably poor, but promising. It's just the beginning. This path will get better. Start thinking now about how you'll adapt. What skills will you need to gain now so that when this hits you'll be in position to take advantage? Where will the work be? Perhaps more importantly- where will the rewarding, creative work be?
Meanwhile, over on Cartoon Brew Amid Amidi discusses how the tech used in the making of Spielberg's Tintin is already making an impact. The word he uses again and again is 'realism' and how it's here to stay. The performances in Tintin aren't amazing, but overall they're not creepy like Polar Express, either. There are hits and misses- just like the best of Pixar's hand keyed films- but overall the stuff I see in Tintin is not distractingly creepy. Perhaps the corner has been turned on the Uncanny Valley. At least it doesn't seem impossible to get pleasing performances from quasi-realistic motion capture characters anymore. This means something. Amid also notes the tactic of using a 'virtual set' and how this will affect and change production roles for artists and technicians in 'animated' films. Extrapolate these advancements in technology into the future and it doesn't take much imagination to see where things are headed. Prudence suggests one ought to note this and start preparing now.
Nothing stays static for long. The highly paid animators of Disney & Dreamworks in the mid 90's never would have imagined that 15 years on they would be scratching and struggling to stay employed. CG animation in 1996 was every bit as limited and clumsy as mocap is now (trust me, I lived through it). Not to be sacrilegious or anything, but the only thing that still holds up today from Toy Story is the storytelling. The animation looks quite dated. No king of the pencil back then could imagine that in just a few short years that same tech would advance so far so quickly. Couple that cognitive blindness with a core misunderstanding of what it is that most audiences want and you paint a picture of a grumpy old dinosaur telling the mammals to get off its lawn. Ironically what most audiences want is the very thing that Walt tried to give them way back in the day, but the technology limited him. My guess is that if Walt were alive today he'd be doing what Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg or Gore Verbinski are doing. Perhaps therein lies a hint at a plan for the rest of us.