Encyclopedia of Computer Graphics and Games

Living Edition
| Editors: Newton Lee

Abstraction and Stylized Design in 3D Animated Films: Extrapolation of 2D Animation Design

  • Daniel N. BoulosEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08234-9_58-1


Character Design Production Team Character Movement Stylization Ideal Visual Identity 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Stylization is at the heart of 2D animation design and is only recently being more fully explored in 3D animated films. In the early days of 3D animation, the push for realism in lighting, rendering, and deformations displaced a pursuit of stylization in the quest to expand the capabilities of computer graphics technology. With those technical problems solved, 3D animation has more recently embraced stylization in design and character movement. Stylization also can be interpreted by some as playfulness, and “play is at the heart of animation” (Powers 2012, p. 52). Nature can be seen as an “abstract visual phenomenon” (Beckman and Ezawa 2012, p. 101), and “the portrayal of hyperrealistic human characters in 3D animation can lead to the alienation of an audience, as they may not accept them as being real” (Kaba 2013, p. 188). It is the ability of animation to “break with naturalistic representation and visual realism” (Linsenmaier 2011, p. 1) that is observed as one of the strengths of the art. This entry discusses the implications of stylized design and its use in 3D animated films while drawing important references to traditional hand-drawn animation stylization processes that pose a challenge to modern 3D animation studios.



Stylization is the process of depicting or treating a subject in a nonrealistic approach according to an artistic convention. Stylization in animation includes the two- and three-dimensional graphic representations of characters and objects as well as the fourth dimension, stylization of timing, and movement.


“Traditionally, computer graphics pursued the reproduction of real world. Consequently, many efforts were devoted to the photorealistic approach of rendering and processing images” (Sparavigna and Marazzato, p. 1). This observation is important as it identifies a fundamental challenge of stylization in 3D animated feature films. Animated films are most often driven by the concerns of narrative storytelling structure. Although some subject matter in narrative story may benefit from a photo-realistic approach to 3D imagery, the desired effect of many films is to remove the audience from their daily experience and provide immersion into visualizations that depart from realism. Sparavigna observes, “However, it is not obvious that a photorealistic processing is always to be preferred…Hand drawn illustrations can better explain a scene than photographic plates, because in illustrating complex phenomena, they can omit unnecessary details and propose only fundamental objects” (Sparavigna and Marazzato, p. 1). One benefit of a departure from photorealism is the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. Visualization in narrative film structure provides an opportunity to reinforce story points, clarify what is taking place, and also enhance the emotional context of the screen experience for the audience.

When examining the art of oil painting, where the design and construct of imagery is of equal importance, the movements of Postimpressionism and Modernism exemplify this point. The visual experience in Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is entirely dependent upon his unique interpretation of the observed phenomenon of the night sky. Without this process the work would lose its visual identity and much of its emotional content (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Van Gogh’s Starry Night to photo comparison

In Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, we observe the power of stylization in communicating motion and once again emotional context (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 photo comparison

Definition of Style

The Oxford Dictionary offers the following definition for style, “A distinctive appearance, typically determined by the principles according to which something is designed” (Oxford 2015). The term “distinctive” is helpful, as one benefit of stylization is a unique visual identity. The term “designed” implies the intent to implement a process leading to visual identity.

Stylization in the 2D Animation Feature Film Process

Stylization is at the heart of the animation industry. A photo-realistic design of an animal such as a bear cannot be easily registered for copyright; however, a highly stylized interpretation of a bear such as Hanna and Barbera’s Yogi Bear is copyrightable as a creative work. Such character design copyright is at the foundation of animation merchandising. Stylized character designs are highly profitable for animation studios often generating more returns than the initial film the design appeared in.

The production process of traditional 2D animated feature films leveraged stylization at many points within the creation timeline. It was often highly stylized representations which first visualized a story idea in the visual development phase of preproduction. Stylization was a central part of the 2D layout process where line drawings for each background painting were carefully created. Following the instructions of an art director, specific stylization concepts would be applied by layout artists as they would interpret the setting of the film, designing backgrounds for all shots within the film. The supervising animators then applied stylization, as they began the experimental animation that would set the tone for their characters’ performances. The final design of the character was informed by the stylistic theme of the film. In these images from Walt Disney’s 1959 feature Sleeping Beauty, it is evident that stylistic choices created for the background design in a shot flowed into the interpretation of line and form in the character design (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Design examples from Walt Disney Pictures’ Sleeping Beauty

The architectonic styling of the gothic-inspired backgrounds by stylist Eyvind Earle carry through into the angular interpretation of the characters; a harmony is achieved between the stylization applied to the props, set elements, and the characters.

However, the stylization process did not end with the look and feel of the character designs, backgrounds, and props. Stylization was central to movement in character animation; the animation of the characters themselves provided a richly stylized experience of real-world motion and timing, much in the same way a ballerina stylizes such mundane activities as walking or such unreal activities as flying like a swan.

Finally stylization was also applied in the interpretation of natural phenomenon. This example from Walt Disney’s Hercules shows a stylized approach to the effect of a smoke cloud. The representation favors specific types of curvilinear treatments and angular oppositions. The visual interpretation stands in marked contrast to the same event in the physical world (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Walt Disney Pictures' Hercules to photo smoke comparison

Realism in Early Computer Graphics

The value of computer-generated imagery as a visual effects element for live-action film was evident from its early use such as in the 1973 film Westworld and the 1977 film Star Wars Episode IV. Throughout the 1980s computer graphics played an ever-increasing role in live-action visual effects. Animation that had traditionally been accomplished through stop-motion techniques was soon replaced by 3D computer animated effects. Accordingly, 3D animation tools evolved along a trajectory of photorealism. Lifelike portrayals of light and shadow as well as color were necessary for seamless compositing with live-action elements. The need for realistic treatments influenced the evolutionary path of 3D technology during the same period when uses for 3D graphics and animation were still being defined. After Pixar’s great achievement and critical success with Toy Story in 1994, it was established that 3D animation could compose the entirety of a film. Rather than a means to an end, as in the case of visual effects, 3D animation had become a final product. It would take however several years to break from the pursuit of realism and implement stylization on a broad scale.

The Influence of Technology

Early Television

Early television broadcasts were of limited resolution with two alternating fields of horizontal lines creating each final frame. The thin lines of hand-inked animation cells used in theatrical shorts did not display well, and at certain tangents to the horizontal could be lost altogether during broadcast. The use of thick ink lines in television animation produced a solution that was not only functional but also a stylistic standard for the new medium (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Example of thick ink lines from early television animation (1950s)

Early Internet

Early web animation utilized Flash software and introduced the use of stylized thick ink lines to vector animation. Flash vector animation populated the web of the 1990s offering motion graphics via the low-bandwidth Internet connection common for that time. Flash software was adapted for television production as it offered timesaving advantages previously impossible in the limited animation repertoire. The characteristic use of line and shape from early web animations found its way into many television shows of the last decade. A clear visual parallel can be seen in the flat graphic character styling favored by early television animation of the 1950s and the Flash-influenced television designs of the last 15 years (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Examples of Flash television animation styling (2000s)


Stylization and Genre

Stylizations themselves can be seen to splinter through the prism of genre. For example, the stylistic conventions in Rocky & Bullwinkle contrast against the variations seen in Johnny Quest, which was influenced by comic book illustration (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

Example – genre stylistic differences in early television animation

Early Disney theatrical features, such as Bambi, can be seen in stylistic contrast to musically derived works such as Fantasia (1940) or Make Mine Music (1946). In Bambi the soft-edged painted treatments by stylist Tyrus Wong set the mood and look of the forest in which the highly stylized design of the character Bambi, from animator Marc Davis, performed. In Make Mine Music minimalized character and background treatments in the segment All the Cats Join In were a significant departure from more detailed human characters in the narrative plot-driven features (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

Background and character comparison of Bambi and Make Mine Music

The music-driven films were segmented into separate capsules more indicative of the animated short format. Narrative-driven features had the burden of clarifying complex character arcs, staying onscreen for extended periods. More detailed facial treatments were dictated by these genre-induced requirements (Fig. 9).
Fig. 9

Facial detail stylization – comparison of Bambi and Make Mine Music

For example, the white region of the eye is important in subtle facial expressions, and a more stylized treatment of an eye may not encompass the same expressive range.

The Role of Stylization in Storytelling

Stylization plays an important role in narrative story telling as seen in such early live-action films as Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu where the stylized uses of shadow and form set an eerie context or in animated sequences such as the stag fight near the end of the theatrical feature Bambi where the stylistic treatments of color and form enhance the emotional drama of the battle (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10

Stylization examples from Nosferatu and Bambi

Design Principles and Screen Composition

Stylization is born of visual design principles and gains effect from their successful implementation. The elements of visual design are the tools of the stylist as they interpret objective visual facts, into their final subjective states. Shape, form, color, line, texture, etc. are manipulated in tangible ways, employing design concepts such as theme and variation and contrast and harmony while enhancing rather than reducing a film’s context.

Students in art programs are taught, as foundation, the importance of design principles and their corresponding emotional impact on the viewer. Often through slight changes in the alignment of forms in a visual field is balance achieved or such subtle linking through contour continuation fully realized. In their early years Walt Disney Studios was particularly sensitive to the relationship art had to animation and endured great effort and expense to expose its employees to these concepts via art classes and seminars. Transcripts from the 1930s recorded artists in such evening seminars isolating what are now taught as animation principles (Johnston and Thomas 1984, pp. 71–72).

Trained artists filled the majority of positions in 2D animated production pipelines. The effect of this foundational integration of artists in the animation process led to the formation of visual identities within animation studios, often around a handful of celebrated stylists. Maurice Noble had a profound impact on what came widely recognizable as the “look” of a Warner Bros. animated short. Similarly Mary Blair impacted the look of Disney features and short subjects through multiple stylistic interpretations as can be seen in Saludos Amigos (1942), Johnny Appleseed (1948), and Peter Pan (1953), three works that demonstrate a wide range of visual interpretations.

Character Animation: Stylized Timing in 3D Features

Stylization in movement is the realm of the character animator. There have been notable achievements and a new emphasis now placed on stylization in 3D character animation.

The Emergence of Stylization in 3D Character Animation

Many efforts were made toward stylization in the early history of 3D feature film production. Some labors were rewarded more than others; however, it can be clearly seen by the time of the Pixar film The Incredibles (2004); the final technical hurdles had been overcome and stylization began to enter with greater impact. Not only did this film achieve significant stylization in character design but notably in character movement as well. The clarity and exaggeration of animation poses became comparable to 2D animation. A break from realism is at the center of the appeal of Mrs. Incredible whose body stretches to outrageous lengths in the hallway sequence as she tries to find her husband. A comprehensive stylistic aesthetic carried over from development art into prop design, set elements, and lighting.

Stylized character movement began to appear more consistently outside of Disney/Pixar films, as is exemplified by the Sheriff Earl character in Sony Animation Studios’ film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), as the sheriff bounces and flips rather than walks through a crowd. It was clear that 3D animation directors were embracing nonliteral forms of movement. The trend continued in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II where the fraudulent guru, Chester, twists, slides, and gyrates from pose to pose, devoid of literal movement that could have originated with motion capture technology or other automated methods. The 2010 release Tangled from Walt Disney Pictures stood in contrast to character movement in early 3D animation efforts as it exhibited the strong clear poses and simplified exaggerated movements that had been indicative of high-quality 2D character animation. Finally, Walt Disney Pictures’ Wreck-It Ralph (2012) is full of stylistic motion intended to mimic the movement of pixel-graphic video games. Characters move in multiple styles within single shots. One character may be devoid of animation principles such as Arcs resulting in stiff and unnatural movement, while the next character may follow the standard principles of movement resulting in a natural screen presence. 3D character animation success stories such as these contrast with automated processes such as motion capture. Motion capture is a process that conceives 3D character animation as a copy of real-world movement, while keyframed 3D character animation builds on a foundation of 2D character animation traditions such as exaggeration or simplification. Automated processes negate the interpretive role of the animator as stylist, resulting in movements that are prepared rather than designed.

The Influence of 2D Animators on the 3D Pipeline

These 3D stylistic trends can be associated with the arrival of many traditional 2D animation artists who have joined the ranks of 3D studios. Many animation artists were displaced by the closure of 2D feature animation production at Disney Studios in 2005 (Forum.rottentomatoes.com 2005), as well as DreamWorks and Warner Bros. The resulting talent migrations had an impact on several 3D animated feature productions.

In the case of The Incredibles, it was the first full 3D feature animation effort for director Brad Bird who had been brought to Pixar by John Lasseter. The Incredibles production saw the arrival of animation director Tony Fucile who had been a supervising animator on the 2D film The Lion King before working as animation supervisor under Brad Bird on the mixed 2D-3D features at Warner Bros. In the case of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Sony Pictures had been on a course of introducing 2D talent within their 3D ranks as Roger Allers and Jill Culton, codirectors for Open Season (2006), and Chris Buck and Ash Brannon, codirectors for Surf’s Up (2007), all had their roots in 2D feature animation. Finally codirectors Jim Reardon and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, 2012) were graduates of the Character Animation Department at CalArts and also had their roots in 2D animation techniques.

Challenges in the 3D Feature Film Pipeline

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to stylization nor should there be in the quest for visual identity among the scores of animated features released each year. Although stylization is widely addressed in 3D animated features today, often it is not fully realized particularly in scene design and screen composition, leaving many 3D features with a similar look, lacking visual appeal.

Stylization is a key ingredient in film, affecting qualitatively the dialog with the audience and enhancing the narrative. It should be fully implemented in animated film, where it is most readily available. It is unfortunate to see many 3D animated feature films offer little stylization and routinely forgo the advantages that stylization brings. This phenomenon can be examined from several perspectives, but here it is seen through a close look at the 3D pipeline and the hundreds of workers that create the final films.

Compartmentalization: Disintegration of the Design Process

As was explored earlier the 2D animated feature film pipeline relegated the bulk of stylistic control to relatively few artists. All of it was found in preproduction or early in the production phase of the film. The art director and key development artists along with supervising animators and the layout department determined the bulk of stylistic integration before the majority of the people involved in production would begin their work. In their early and concentrated efforts, most consequential decisions were made determining the final use of color, form, and directionality in screen composition.

However, the 3D pipeline presents a more complex and compartmentalized process. Although most 3D feature films have the benefit of both development artists and art directors, the difficulty is in the component processes collectively resulting in the final color and composition of each shot. The work of the 3D development artist gives way to the modeling artist who first visualizes the characters, props, and set elements in 3D geometry. The texture artist further contributes in ways that directly impact stylization. The composition of the scene falls to a set decorator or shot composer then continues on to layout artists who block in the camera movement affecting each scene’s composition. The animator follows with the keyframing of character elements, working primarily in the roughhewn visual context of low-polygon models. In a subsequent step further animation is added through automated simulations and dynamic options and processes. Final lighting is then applied to the scene, only beginning to address the integral role of shadow and light in screen composition, at a very late stage in the process. It is when each frame is finally rendered that the shot design and composition arrive at their final state.

Implementation of stylization in the 3D pipeline involves many departments, beginning early in preproduction and ending with final render. By comparison the 2D stylization process was in the hands of few artists, heavily weighted toward the preproduction phase of the film process. The length and complexity of the production of the 3D imagery as it moves from concept to completion poses many challenges to stylization in 3D film. Even with the efforts of a dedicated production stylist, visual influence is diluted as stage by stage a single shot is completed over a long period of time.

Demographics of the Production Team

The evolution of computer-generated technology was so strenuously focused on photo-realistic achievement for such a long period that stylization developed little momentum, often weakly integrated or entirely absent. As 3D animated features quickly supplanted the 2D animated format, the balance of production personnel changed in a dramatic way. In the typical 2D animated feature film, more than 80 % of the preproduction and production team came from an art background. The 2D production team required 300–500 people most of whom had to be able to paint or draw well. As a result most crewmembers had attended art programs within universities or colleges before contributing to the film. By contrast 3D animated films require a more diverse range of skills. Computer technology is central to all the elements in each shot of a 3D film. As a result technologists are as numerous as artists on many 3D features. While a 3D character animator will graduate from an art program, a character technical director will graduate from a computer science background. The table below clarifies the proportional difference between the two respective production teams. The example compares individuals listed in both the visual effects and animation categories in the film credits for Inside Out (2015), the 3D example, and The Little Mermaid (1989), the 2D example (Table 1). The crew totals for each film are much higher; the sample was limited to the personnel involved in the production process for the two listed categories. It should be understood that the 43 people in the technical processes for 2D animation would have contributed most of their efforts in postproduction after the hands of the 307 artists have already touched the film.
Table 1

Demographic shift in the constituency of feature animation production units (Data retrieved from IMDB.com)

Inside Out (2015a) 3D animation

The Little Mermaid (2015b) 2D animation

Animator or character designer: 25

Animator, painter, character design, layout, 2D effects: 307

Software, simulation or technical: 17

Xerographic or technical: 43

Percentage of sample that are artists: 59 %

Percentage of sample that are artists: 87 %

The 3D film process is challenged by this change in balance, as the production team moves away from a common background in art to one pulling heavily toward digital technology. Thus, the largely artistic process of stylization has not only been spread across a much broader span of production time but among a different set of contributors. Without a common artistic background rooted in design principles and aesthetics, the understanding of stylization and what constitutes successful implementation may be a point of conflict within 3D production teams.


The Need for Visual Identity

Animated feature films are more abundant today than at any other time in the history of film. The vast majority of these films are 3D animated features.

Restructuring the 3D Pipeline

It may be advisable to revisit the 3D pipeline in an effort to identify alternate methods for gaining the control necessary for significant and successful stylization. There must be an effort to simplify the pipeline or further empower the art director over component parts of the process. It may be that one art director alone will not be able to track the myriad simultaneous decisions, which are the standard for efficient 3D production. Perhaps there will be room to experiment with the art director as a team or creative unit rather than a sole individual. This team could be as many as 20 or more persons; thereby, an art director for the team would be able to monitor each shot through every stage of the pipeline.

It is further advisable that other methods such as the stop-motion animation pipeline be examined as possible influences for change. Perhaps one day final lighting and texturing will precede character animation in much the same way shaded layout drawings set the stage before the 2D animator ever set pencil to paper. As many times as the 3D pipeline is repeated, it ought to be reimagined; such a young set of processes should be ripe with experimentation. These experiments should be guided by design principles and stylization ideals, which ultimately trump technology as a film seeks its emotional connection with the audience.

Education and Training

It would be equally advisable to educate 3D production teams in artistic processes in an aggressive and meaningful way, with a desire to learn how such processes were employed in 2D animation units. Educating the team and developing a common core design philosophy would help assure that stylization goals are met at all stages of production.

It is very hopeful that stylization will be fully realized in the future of 3D animated films, as the existing tools and processes are capable of far greater results in this quest.


  1. Beckman, K., Ezawa, K.: Animation, Abstraction, Sampling: Kota Ezawa in Conversation with Karen Beckman, University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons. http://repository.upenn.edu/hisart_papers/5 (2012). From web 05 July 2015
  2. Forum.rottentomatoes.com: Forum Posting on Closure of Disney Animation Australia – Derived from Australian Broadcasting Corp., 07/27/2005. http://forum.rottentomatoes.com/topicR/show/1216747 (2005). From web 05 July 2015
  3. IMDB.com: Database retrieval – credit list for inside out. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2096673/fullcredits/ (2015a). From web 12 Sept 2015
  4. IMDB.com: Database retrieval – credit list for the Little Mermaid. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097757/fullcredits/ (2015b). From web 12 Sept 2015
  5. Johnston, O., Thomas, F.: Disney Animation the Illusion of Life. Abbeville Press, New York (1984)Google Scholar
  6. Kaba, F.: Hyper-realistic characters and the existence of the uncanny valley in animation films. Int. Rev. Soc. Sci. Humanit. 4(2), 188–195 (2013)Google Scholar
  7. Linsenmaier, T.: Nea Ehrlich – animated documentaries as masking. http://journal.animationstudies.org/nea-ehrlich-animated-documentaries-as-masking/ (2011). From web 05 July 2015
  8. Oxford English Dictionary: Online dictionary – definition of stylization. http://www.oed.com (2015). From web 05 July 2015
  9. Powers, P.: Ludic toons the dynamics of creative play in studio animation. Am. J. Play 5(1), 22–54 (2012)MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  10. Sparavigna, C., Marazzato, R.: Non-photorealistic image processing: an impressionist rendering. www.academia.edu, http://www.academia.edu/4703400/Non-photorealistic_image_processing_an_Impressionist_rendering. From web 05 July 2015

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Hawai’i ManoaHonoluluUSA