I was born at the turn of the 21st century. One of the first films I remember seeing at the cinema was a special Christmas release of Finding Nemo at the iMax in central London. It was easily one of the most exciting days of my childhood mostly because I went only with my dad and his friend so was allowed to choose a Pick N Mix bag of sweets which my mum never allowed (she was more the secretly-bring-Tesco’s-own-brand-popcorn type of cinephile). My dad is also a bit of an animation nerd having worked in sales for a few animation and CGI studios from the 2000s until the late 2010s.

What I remember most about seeing animated films as a kid was how every time we saw a new one, the adults would comment on how the animation style is becoming more and more realistic. From A Bug’s Life to Kung Fu Panda ten years later to Incredibles 2 a decade after that, the animation styles become more and more detailed. Sure, the characters themself remain cartoon-ish but their surroundings could almost be mistaken for live action videography.

In the past year or so, however, there has been a trend of films moving away from the twenty plus year old uphill climb towards more and more realistic animation styles. 

Christos Obretenov, CEO at Lollipop Shaders, told Vox that for a long time, investors wouldn’t even be interested in funding an animated movie if it didn’t look like Disney or Pixar – a reliable and safe choice. Interestingly A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carey as the lead, was intended to be a super stylised, illustrated movie but naturally, due to investors, reverted back into the tried and true Pixar style format. 

If there’s a movie that moved away from the super realistic trend and embraced more stylised art it would be Into The Spiderverse (2017). The animation style is in 3D and sees textures playing with illustrated comic-inspired styles. The studio feared people wouldn’t enjoy the style. In order to achieve the style the studio broke the traditional physically-based render used for animated movies. Instead, the combined realistic elements such as light and mist with lineup and illustrative stylisation among other features. 

Unlike Pixar films, in Into the Spiderverse, out of focus elements aren’t hyper detailed but rather static, blurry illustrations akin to what you’d see in a real life 2D comic. Light often reveals halftone pop-art style dots. Just two months after its release, the film became the highest grossest film Sony Pictures Animation ever made. More importantly, the film redefined visual goals for animation studios. 

For the animation industry, this is super exciting because non-photorealism allows animated movies to take advantage of the thing that makes them special; imagination. I would argue that this trend stems from a modern desire for nostalgia. As tech becomes more and more high def in every factor, do we subconsciously crave the ‘unrealistic’ as a form of escapism?  

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