From the bristling fur of Fantastic Mr Fox to the rag dolls of the forthcoming Tim Burton-produced animation 9 and the low-fi puppets of Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze, it seems that you can't move at the moment for animation with a homespun attitude. More often than not, these mainstream films have their blockbuster roots in personal projects and traditional techniques.
The apocalyptic adventure story 9 is a case in point. The original concept for this film, released in the UK this week, came when its director Shane Acker holed himself up in his bedroom and, using easily available modelling software, created a short film about a sentient rag doll warring against a band of psychopathic machines. Burton saw the film and helped turn the project into a feature-length story.
"I heard about him working in his spare room and I had to get on to it for that reason – to see his creativity and passion," Burton told US Wired magazine earlier this month. "It took me back to the good old days. You see a lot of personal films but you rarely see personal animated films." Burton felt it was his role to nurture such talent, which is looking more professional more quickly than ever. "The technology has got down to the consumer level and the level of the artist," adds Acker. "People can manufacture these things in their spare bedroom or wherever else."
The story of the would-be creative genius toiling away in his bedroom before winning widespread success has always walked hand-in-hand with animation, though it was never as easy to do it as now. Twenty years ago this year, Aardman Animations, the world's most successful stop motion animation house, released its first film, the 23-minute classic A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit. That was the result of six years of hard graft by the company's founder, Nick Park, who began his endeavour when he was still a student at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. Then, it took a tonne of Plasticine and the contacts and facilities of one of the world's best film schools. Now, the same effect could be achieved by one man working alone with a computer.
What the internet has done for democratising the distribution and creation of music and film, it has also done for animation. One animator who has used it to its full potential is the London-based cartoonist Simon Tofield. He dreamt up the character of a naughty moggy named "Simon's Cat" one day while experimenting with a new software package on his computer. He created a one-and-a-half minute film based in his own cat Hugo's attempts to wake him up one morning. The results found their way on to YouTube and an animation series was born. It spread through word of mouth and, by the end of last year, Tofield had scooped several prizes, including Best Comedy at the British Animation Awards.
He says that his technique is fully dependent on modern technologies. "I do my films on Flash [a programme which gained prominence as a means for web designers to add little animations to websites] and it would take me much longer if I were drawing them all by hand," Tofield explains. "If I were doing what I do traditionally I would need to draw every frame by hand, then I would need to take them to a professional – a line tester – to photograph all of the images. Then I would need to take notes on them, make corrections over a light box and then shoot them again – it can be a very tedious process." It is a tribute to the accessibility of the software that Tofield is a self-confessed "technophobe" – he says he knew nothing about computers before he started using Flash. Eighteen months later, Simon's Cat has been turned into a book and Tofield's cartoons have been seen online by an estimated 30 million people: far in excess of the audiences he would traditionally have reached. Many of his fans make their own "tribute animations" to his work. "I get a lot of these fan films," he continues. "Some of them are really sweet. They are made by people who are very young and are very basic but it's a nice compliment to have. I always try to reply when I can."
In the last five years a plethora of websites has sprung up designed to capitalise on the public's penchant for do-it-yourself work; many of them use Flash animation to allow you to create animations in your browser – you don't even have to download the programme. One of the best, Xtranormal, allows you to play the part of the director bossing around a number of pre-animated computer-generated actors. Not one for purists, but a lot of fun for casual animation fans.
This internet-fuelled animation boom is feeding back into the film industry – with interesting results. Bill Edwards, a 38-year-old graphic designer from Leicestershire, gave up on animating when he was growing up and went to work in a warehouse instead. It wasn't until software made the process easier that he found success. He entered a number of online competitions. One of the websites to which he submitted his film 2009: A Space OAP was created by the director Shane Meadows. Meadows was so impressed that he asked Edwards to direct the 97-second title sequence to his rockumentary Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee. "In the past decade, with digital technology, [animation] has begun to match my patience and tolerance levels," he says. "Now I can animate a lot more quickly than I could have done 15 or 25 years ago."
Not everyone is convinced that creating animation in your bedroom is a new trend, no matter how much easier it is to pull off these days. "I'd say animation in the UK has always been a cottage industry," says Frank Grimshaw, editor of Imagine magazine. "It's always existed for bedroom noodlers; it's such a labour-intensive thing that previously only a very specific kind of person would devote two years of their life to making a two-minute film." He says the kind of person who is drawn to the painstaking animation process has a specific psychological profile: perhaps with these new technologies, the pursuit can at last escape from the asylum.
In the frame: Animation tools
Aniboom Shapeshifter (Aniboom.com/Shapeshifter Animachine.aspx)
Essentially a simple version of the old Microsoft Paint programme that allows you to set your ideas into motion. Draw shapes, fill them in, then use a handy slider to move between different moments in time. There's also an online gallery to which you can look at for inspiration, to allow you to finalise your storyboard before you begin direction.
Xtranormal ( Xtranormal.com)
Pull on both your screenwriting hat and your film-director shoes. All you need to do is write a dialogue-rich script for a short film; you can choose between a number of pre-ordained sets and computer-generated characters, choose expressions and gestures; the programme does the rest. Office japes are going to be more hi-tech than ever. Alternatively, recreate a scene from your favourite movie.
Animasher ( Animasher.com)
This really is animation for dummies: drag and drop a number of different pre-drawn objects – a Transformer, a hot air balloon, a bottle of wine or a pair of legs – into a central screen area.
Then, hit "record" on the handily-located console before dragging and moving your objects around the screen.
Not the most advanced of programmes, but definitely one for younger animators.
Go Animate ( Goanimate.com )
As well as containing a basic Flash-based programme for creating your own cartoons from scratch (it also contains several cut-out character templates to help you along), Go Animate allows the younger users to augment their holiday snaps with cartoon-ish pre-made animations – think little bunnies in mortar boards for classroom snaps, or a woodland theme for outdoorsy pics.
Scratch online ( Scratch.mit.edu)
Unlike many of the other websites here, you'll need to download this programme, designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help children from the age of eight develop learning skills. You can create animations from scratch. Instead of it being a Paint-style interface, however, Scratch mimics traditional programming language by encouraging its users to drag and drop various commands which instruct the action on screen. Less sexy, but probably more educational.
Blender 3D Studio ( Blender.org)
If you get cocky, you can download this relatively advanced animation programme which lets you wrap textures around complex shapes and move them around; it's much more akin to the Invisible Man-style Maya graphics you'd see in movies. There's an online community which lets you share ideas and ask other animation heads for advice.Reuse content