Converting Hand-drawn 2D Animation to 3D is a Bad Idea

There is exactly one shot in the 3D special edition release of Disney’s The Lion King that looks absolutely amazeballs in 3D. Scar has just left Simba sitting alone on a rock in the gorge. The young lion is unaware that, on a plateau above the gorge, a grazing herd of wildebeests is about to be unleashed by the three hyenas. The filmmakers connect these two images in one crane-up, from a top shot of the rock and tree, where Simba is sitting, up the walls of the gorge, into a wide shot of the plateau (you can see the shot I mean here). In 3D, the sense of scale and menace that is built up in this reveal, is fifty times more effective and gave me hope for the future of the technology. Everything else, though, looked wrong.

The Lion King is one of the formative films of my childhood. I saw it twice at the theatre when I was twelve and when we got the VHS, I recorded the sound track onto an audio cassette and then transcribed all of the dialogue into a sort of script. I learned a lot of English this way (I was living in Holland at the time so the film was English with Dutch subtitles) and it led to me knowing the complete dialogue of the film by heart – I still sometimes annoy amuse friends by reciting scenes when I’m drunk, but that’s beside the point.

The film also represents the pinnacle of what could be achieved with hand drawn 2D animation one year before Toy Story knocked over the whole industry. In Disney Animation’s Silver Age that started in 1986 with The Little Mermaid, The Lion King was the crowning jewel. By returning to one of the studio’s greatest strengths, anthropomorphic animals, in an original story, it surpassed – in my opinion and certainly in box office figures – even the achievements of Beauty and the Beast. The universal quality and appeal of The Lion King was never equalled again. Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Mulan simply can’t live up to it (not even Treasure Planet, which I am personally quite fond of). The Lion King is the best of both worlds. It uses the CAPS coloring system, it has some scenes which were supported by Pixar computations (e.g. the above-mentioned stampede scene) and CG-effects, but at its core it relies on a compelling story and strong characters animated by hand.

“Look, Simba, everything that the light touches is our kingdom.”

In 3D, thank goodness, The Lion King loses none of its grandeur. I was blown away by the sheer amazement of seeing this beloved film again on a big screen and by the fact that it still holds up (except for the hereditary power/destiny principles it perpetuates by which my leftist dispositions were slightly irked). Some of the savannah vistas also gain some impressive depth that widens the general scope of the film.

But, man, did the actual animation look crummy when it was 3D-ized. The inklines became blurry and jumpy, facial features that are slightly abstracted in the artwork – like whiskers – seemed to stick out all over the place. The actual animation suddenly became visible in a way that I just didn’t want to see. I wanted to immerse myself in the narrative, not notice every little trick animators use to draw their subjects.

I was willing to let The Lion King change my prejudices, but now my personal verdict is clear: Converting hand-drawn animation to 3D, regardless of how much computers were used in their original background composition etc., is a bad idea from an artistic point of view. So I am wary of Disney’s plans to convert more films to 3D. Although I might give Finding Nemo a shot. It’s not hand-drawn, after all.