The word came in from Cartoonbrew yesterday that CGI animation studio C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures has shut down. They produced one feature film, "The Wild" for Disney on 2006 when negotiations for the PIXAR acquisition were still on shaky ground, and contributed to a bunch of other smaller films like "Valiant" and "The Ant Bully." This comes on the heels of last week's announcement that Disney is pulling the plug on ImageMovers Digital, the studio that produced Robert Zemeckis's motion capture films "The Polar Express," "Beowulf," and last year's "A Christmas Carol."
It's always sad to see animation studios struggle and fold, putting artists out of work, but I don't feel much distress seeing either of these companies go. The Zemeckis films were interesting curiosities, but the mediocre animation never made it to the other side of Uncanny Valley, and the older motion capture technology has now been decisively surpassed by James Cameron and "Avatar." Artistically, and apparently financially, they've just about run their course. My favorite of their films was 2008's "Monster House," one of the only ones that didn't strive for a photorealistic style and thus didn't come across as quite so stiff.
As for CORE, I was surprised to learn it was still in operation, but there are a lot of smaller animation studios out there, with new up-and-comers popping up every day, hoping to be the next PIXAR. Last year saw features from several independent and foreign operations including "Astro Boy" from Imagi Studios, "Planet 51" from Ilion Animation, and "9" from Attitude Studio. None of these did particularly well, but we can expect to see similar product getting picked up for distribution for a long while to come. Though many bomb, every once in a while one of these films will be a lucrative hit like "Happy Feet" or "TMNT."
Even with the belt-tightening going on, the animation industry is in a very good place right now. In fact, I think this is the healthiest it's ever been. There are at least a half-dozen digital animation studios that are flourishing – PIXAR, Disney, Dreamworks, PDI, Blue Sky, and Sony. All of these studios had sizable hits over the past two years. In fact, computer animated films seem to be one of the few sure bets at the box office these days, and have gotten a good boost from the recent 3D craze. Dreamworks alone is releasing three titles this year.
This is a far cry from how the industry looked ten years ago, when the closure of Fox Animation Studios after the failure of "Titan AE" had a domino effect that wiped out practically all the US studios that were doing features at the time. Even the long-reigning Walt Disney Animation Studios phased out traditional animation in 2003 and laid off hundreds. The only ones left standing were the nascent CGI animations studios, PIXAR and PDI/Dreamworks, who went on to rebuild and reinvent commercial American animation.
For the first time, there's actually sustained competition among the studios. You'll never hear anyone argue that PIXAR isn't the gold standard when it comes to computer animation, but they've never dominated the industry the way Disney did with traditional animated features. So the playing field has been much more level and accommodating to studios like Blue Sky and Sony Pictures Animation and other newcomers. And with the steady demand for these films, there's still room for other players. The last few years have even seen a small resurgence in stop-motion and traditional animation films like "Coraline" and "The Princess and the Frog."
So while it's sad to say goodbye to CORE and especially ImageMovers, there are plenty of other studios ready and willing to take their places, and the closure doesn't seem to signal any looming distress within the animation industry. The ImageMovers films in particular are expensive to make, and last year's "A Christmas Carol" underperformed and has few merchandising prospects. Disney has been seeking to cut costs and reduce its production slate, and they're juggling at least three other animation operations. They picked the right plug to pull from a financial standpoint.
And from an artistic standpoint, though there were a lot of talented people behind these films, photorealistic animation is a creative dead-end and motion-capture characters are better left to the visual effects artists. Here's hoping everyone involved can pick up and move on to better things.