Sifting Through Layers of Illusion
© National Film Board of Canada
Armen Boudjikanian · From fps #5 · November 1, 2005 | Compared to "3D animation," the term "2D animation" is abstract. When we speak of the former, we are referring to one of these three clearly different ways of frame-by-frame filmmaking: traditional model or puppet animation (often referred to as stop-motion), pixillation (animation of objects and people) and, more commonly, CGI (computer generated imagery). On the other hand, talking about 2D animation—even on a technical level—can be tricky.

One important reason for this is that the principal process of animation—the creation of movement—is more cerebral than tangible. Norman McLaren explains this clearly in the Animated Motion series produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). While this concept applies to all types of animation, it might not resonate strongly in a person faced with an actual object that needs to be animated (whether it's a physical object or one you can navigate around in 3D software). However, anyone who has grabbed a pencil and stared at a blank sheet of paper knows of the reality of how much mental energy is actually required to visualize a moving shape over a certain length of time.

Of course, concentrating only on the conceptual aspect and not recognizing the graphic qualities of animation would be ignoring how the medium presents itself to the world. There are many interesting aesthetics in animation that call attention to themselves and defy categorization (consider pre-photographed cutouts), and we see many hybrid productions today, since computers allow the combination of different techniques and their inherent aesthetics effortlessly. However, what remains largely undiscussed, even with the merging of different aesthetics, is why certain films or animated material are labelled simply as "2D" and others according to the technique used, whether it's "traditional," "pinscreen," "scratch" or "Flash". There is a tendency to use the terms "traditional," "classical" and "drawn" interchangeably with "2D". This may be practical, but does not help in understanding the artform of animation. "Traditional" and "classical" are culturally relative terms, and can mean different things at different times. Drawing is perhaps the easiest and most popular technique to learn when it comes to animation, but it is just one technique. The term "2D," however, is more than a technical suffix; it also describes the nature of an animated piece.

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