Wasn't there a time when we didn't have to specify that an animated film was "traditionally" animated? It's been a fairly gradual process, normalizing 3-D animation to the point where it's the dominant form. But it's still worth noting: animation is now process-agnostic, no longer "manual-normative," so it's always useful to specify whether it's traditional animation, 3-D animation, or rotoscoping, which is sort of the outlier type at this point.
I saw this incredible film recently, and it strikes me that it came out right around when 2-D animation was losing its assumed priority over the genre.
It's nice to see, in Iron Giant and others, that the computer has also proven an asset to 2-D animation. I saw another incredible animated film recently, the re-edit and re-issue of Neon Genesis Evangelion (a series that's still ongoing), and although the traditional animation is incredible -- some of the best and most inventive visuals ever put to screen -- the 3-D contributions occasionally sucked out some of the personality. It makes the use of 3-D in Iron Giant even more amazing, retrospectively.
As traditional and 3-D animation methods merge and move forward, traditional animation is slowly going the way of vinyl and vintage cameras -- it's becoming a technology for afficianados and loyalists, whose unique strengths and characteristics are being swallowed up in nostalgia. Luckily, as we've seen with so many other technologies, there will always a community of purists that keep it alive.
In fact, some of them have surfaced in my blog reader recently! Watch their shorts below. They're super-awesome.
How different the feeling is, the tactile quality, in traditional animation. The tension and responsiveness of these shapes is so palpable -- it's something that 3-D animation has tried to emulate for a while, but has it ever quite made it? Is it possible to reach the same drama of exaggeration and intensity with volumes and textures that you can get with the simple lines and shapes of that Medusa short?
Of course, in certain cases, 3-D animation seems to be going in the opposite direction -- away from exaggeration, away from the hyperactive visual dynamics of cartoons. In particular, I'm thinking of a process that's apparent in Wall-E, and that can be traced back to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, where the animation is pushed toward real-world conventions. Sure, there may be some uncanny valley issues, especially in Zemeckis movies and that Final Fantasy film, but in these special cases, it's really about simulating aspects of the real world as closely as possible, rather than exaggerating them. In the case of Wall-E, the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins was called in to consult on the shots. This creative decision had a subtle but important effect: it grounded the "camera" in real-world shooting conventions, extracting it from the normal disembodied swooping around that the camera tends to do in a 3-D picture.
And of course, Final Fantasy, as weird as it might have been, was one of the first uses of motion-capture to create realistic character movements, and it was one of the most ambitious applications of lighting and atmosphere in any 3-D animated feature, before or since.
I don't really have the ambition at the moment, but you could create a pretty great Venn Diagram thing, showing the overlapping of live action, 3-D animation, and 2-D animation. Films like Cool World and Roger Rabbit would be in that deserted space between 2-D and live action, and films that used 3-D motion capture for tons of effects -- King Kong, Avatar, etc -- would be between 3-D and live action.
If this stuff is interesting, you could definitely stand to check out a couple blogs:
The Seven Golden Camels is a blog by Mark Kennedy, a guy who's storyboarded and pre-produced with some big names in animation.
AnimationHOORAY is an animation blog that knows how to fish out great independent and student animation work.