Recent films have begun to push the possible boundaries of animation, creating breathtaking work that highlights the medium’s untapped potential.
CGI animation has come a long way since
and is no longer limited to photorealism. It can be stylized and explore endless possibilities.
- The use of different animation techniques, such as cel-shading and inconsistent frame rates, can create unique and visually stunning films.
- CGI animation allows filmmakers to retain the iconic look of characters from books or comics, bringing them to life in a new way that stays true to their original design.
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While animation is known primarily for its visuals, there’s a world of untapped potential when it comes to CGI animated movies. Computer-generated animation is so ubiquitous these days, it’s easy to forget that the medium is still in its relative infancy. Although it was far from the first appearance of CGI in a film, Toy Story broke new ground in 1995 by proving it was possible to animate an entire feature film using computerized techniques, and technological leaps and bounds were made with each subsequent new CGI movie.
Pixar famously used each of their early films to solve a specific animation problem, with Monsters, Inc. serving as their testing ground for characters with fur and Finding Nemo serving as a place for them to figure out how to animate water. This march of progress meant that most early CGI animation essentially represented an effort to reach photorealism. It’s only recently that Hollywood has begun to wake up to the idea that, just like hand-drawn animation, CGI doesn’t have to reflect reality at all. It can be heavily stylized, and the possibilities are endless – films have barely scratched the surface.
10 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023)
The latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, Mutant Mayhem completely redefined what a TMNT movie should feel like. It’s the first animated Ninja Turtles movie, meaning that, in many ways, it’s the closest they’ve ever come to retaining the look of the original comic-book source material. Evoking both the rough sorts of doodles you might find in a teenager’s notebook, but also the types of street art and graffiti typical of its New York setting, Mutant Mayhem surprised everyone by showcasing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ personalities by using the film’s animation itself.
9 Fantasia 2000 (1999)
One of Disney’s first notable forays into CGI animation came with Fantasia 2000, the relatively unknown sequel to the 1940 classic, Fantasia. Several sequences employed CGI, such as one set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2.” An adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” the characters move at a low frame rate seemingly out of necessity, and the whole thing is cel-shaded in order to allow for the use of hand-drawn animation for elements CGI was too primitive to effectively handle. The film blurs the line between conventional CGI and Disney’s hand-drawn fare, creating a style similar to the one Disney is using in their upcoming film, Wish.
8 Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
The 2017 film adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s children’s book series, Captain Underpants, opted to retain the iconic look of the illustrations featured throughout the books. Doing so gave the film a very particular style from the get-go. Still, the filmmakers further embraced this by providing the characters a degree of elasticity evocative of classic hand-drawn animation. The movements of the characters evoke the iconic work of Fleischer Studios (probably best known for Betty Boop and Popeye), classic Tom and Jerry shorts, and even the Looney Tunes.
7 Flushed Away (2006)
When creating The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the long-awaited debut feature film for Wallace and Gromit, Aardman Animation developed a CGI animation program they could use for certain trick shots that would have been too difficult to replicate in the Plasticine stop-start animation that the studio is known for. They essentially added imperfections such as subtle lumps and fingerprints to the CGI elements, used, for example, for a shot of numerous rabbits floating inside a vacuum chamber. Once they’d developed this tool, Aardman set about using it to create an entire film, Flushed Away, that they’d determined was unsuited to their conventional means of animation due to its prominent use of water.
6 Puss In Boots: The Last Wish (2022)
When Puss in Boots got his own spin-off after his debut in Shrek 2, the film simply looked like an extension of the Shrek franchise. The animation was perhaps crisper, cleaner, and more detailed than in earlier Shrek movies, but beyond the general technological improvements, there was little significant change. Over a decade passed between that film and its sequel, however.
With its post-credits scene, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish serves as a soft reboot for the entire Shrek franchise. It also brings a complete artistic overhaul with it. Using a mixture of cel-shading and inconsistent frame rates to evoke the look of storybook illustrations and classical paintings, the end result is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films ever rendered.
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5 The Peanuts Movie (2015)
Traditional hand-drawn animation wasn’t an option for The Peanuts Movie, but a total visual overhaul also wasn’t going to go down well. The bulbous, scruffy, pencil-drawn designs of the beloved characters are iconic but completely unsuited to conventional CGI. The filmmakers opted to create three-dimensional models that only worked when viewed from one specific angle. Both of their eyes would, for example, appear on one side of a face, meaning that if you were to look at the character from the other side, the visual illusion would completely fall apart. With its use of this technique, The Peanuts Movie remains one of the most innovative animated CGI movies to date.
4 The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run (2020)
Debuting in 1999, SpongeBob SquarePants is Nickelodeon’s longest-running show. While it soon adopted digital techniques, the first season was hand-drawn and painted. It’s a look the franchise retained inclusive of its first two movies up until the 2020 release of The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run.
The previous SpongeBob movie, Sponge Out of Water, also made heavy use of CGI, but only to bring its characters into a live-action setting. Sponge on the Run was the first time a SpongeBob movie employed a new art style simply for novelty’s sake. While many felt the new appearance was less expressive, allowing for little of SpongeBob‘s trademark visual comedy, it was still widely regarded as a gorgeous film to look at.
3 Seoul Station (2016)
Seoul Station is the little-known second movie in the Train to Busan franchise. While the rest of the series is live-action, Seoul Station is an animated prequel showing what happened as zombies first began to take over South Korea. The CGI employed is partly out of necessity. It would have been beyond the film’s budget to have someone individually animate each of the countless zombies seen on screen, whereas CGI allowed for a handful of models to be repeated over and over again. Still, cost-cutting aside, Seoul Station has a unique look that truly looks hand-drawn in places and feels more like manga come to life than many literal manga adaptations.
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2 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
South Park began life as two short films which led to Comedy Central commissioning a pilot. An interesting South Park fact is that “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” was animated using the same construction paper and stop-start animation techniques as the shorts. The arduous task was something the show later satirized in season 4, episode 17 “A Very Crappy Christmas.”
After the series was picked up, it switched to computer-generated animation which, while in its infancy, was able to replicate the crude animation with ease. In the movie, Bigger, Longer & Uncut, South Park started experimenting with what the look of the show could be, mixing the simplistic animation with then state-of-the-art sequences to depict Hell and amp up the visuals in the final battle scenes.
1 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
When talking about stylized computer animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the gold standard. While it can’t be understated how well the film works on the strength of its writing and performances, a huge part of its success is also down to its distinct look which brought comic books to life in ways never seen before.
The film utilizes countless unusual techniques for CGI to achieve its look, but most noticeable is cel-shading (which gives it its almost 2D look) combined with an inconsistent frame rate. Additionally, numerous characters are animated in their own distinct art styles, ranging from computerized anime to a black-and-white noir pastiche. Spider-Verse is a perfect showcase of what the medium could achieve in the future.