BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

The have a little brother you might not have known about. The Science & Technology Awards run alongside the main event with significantly less fanfare and press coverage, but why exactly do they exist? This year, they exist to recognize a few spectacular film achievements — most importantly the art of hand-drawn animation.

No, hand drawn animation isn't dead. It's just changing shape.

This year at the Sci-Tech Oscars, a unique piece of software by the name of "Meander" is stepping into the spotlight. Meander is a program that bridges the gap between 2D and 3D animation, makes hand-drawn animations simpler and cleaner to produce, and opens up a wide range of artistic possibilities. Even though you might not have realized it, you've been seeing Meander in Disney projects for quite a while. What exactly is Meander, and will it ever be used to make a feature-length film?

Breaking Down Meander

Meander is a computer program. It's a series of formulas designed to erase the communication errors between an artist's hand and a digital image. Simply put: It's a middleman in the film processes.

'Feast' [Credit: Disney]
'Feast' [Credit: Disney]

Hand-drawn was traditionally done with paper and pen, then colored, and then lined up as individual frames of a scene. It's a messy, imperfect process that holds a lot of charm, but it doesn't quite have the cinematic sheer of today's feature films. How does Meander fit into this? The program cleans away some of those imperfections and allows artists to work directly in a digital space. The first layer of a project is often composed of a 3D model of a scene. An animator uses the second layer to draw on top of the 3D image, repeating the process when major elements change in the frame. Meander takes the first layer — a moving, multidimensional image — and allows it to drag the lines of the second layer along with it, filling in the gaps of the hand drawings and letting the hard lines take the spotlight. When Meander is done, you're left with a unique, hybrid style.

It's easier than ever to integrate hand-drawn pictures with modern (to this date, Meander is one of the only animation programs to accurately reproduce curves), but just how long has it taken to get here?

Meander Through History

Meander first appeared in Disney's short film, Paperman, which preceded Wreck-It Ralph in 2012. Paperman caught a lot of attention for its creative blend of CGI and hand drawn animation. Later, employed Meander in Feast, the short before Big Hero 6, which played with completely new visual style. They dynamic range of Meander was showcased in both of these short films, but Disney took it a step farther and used the program in a much bigger project.

'Paperman' [Credit: Disney]
'Paperman' [Credit: Disney]

'Moana' Couldn't Have Existed Without Meander

Moana is a technically masterful animation. We all know this. But while the beautiful fluid mechanics are the popular talking point right now, also features extensive work from Meander. The hand-drawn opening was made with the program, along with the other two-dimensional elements of the film, like the living tattoos in Maui's grand musical number, "You're Welcome." With every project, Disney's Meander software grows more complex, capable, and appealing.

'Moana' [Credit: Disney]
'Moana' [Credit: Disney]

Could A Full-Length Meander Movie Be Coming?

Postman, Feast, and Moana are all critically-acclaimed pieces of work. The Science & Technology Awards finally recognized Meander for its smart integration of 2D and 3D animation. Audience have shown, time and time again, that the wide range of styles Meander can produce are profitable and effective. But so far, Disney has only played with the tools. Will Meander be used to create a full length film?

The simple answer is this: We don't know.

The more complex answer is probably. Disney seems to be experimenting with the style, splashing in the pool before jumping into the ocean. With the current animation release lineup filled with sequels and untitled projects, it's easy to be skeptical, but one in particular could reintroduce Meander in a big way. Disney's Gigantic, set for release in 2018, is a movie shrouded in speculation. It's categorized as a 3D animation, but since Meander relies on the integration of 3D and 2D, that could be a completely accurate label. If Meander will be making a feature-length debut in the next couple of years, Gigantic is the most likely candidate.

Just take a look at this colorful concept art:

'Gigantic' [Credit: Disney]
'Gigantic' [Credit: Disney]

Meander itself (a computer program) isn't a hot topic in the animation business right now, but the concept is making waves. Alternative styles of animation — think Kubo and the Two Strings, a stop-motion masterpiece — are catching attention with more and more moviegoers. Meander represents a new style and a new era. It isn't clear when we'll see it used for a feature-length movie (although we can hope it will appear in Gigantic), but judging by the success of Disney's Meander experiments, it can't come soon enough.

Would you watch a full length hybrid animation, and when do you think Disney will make the commitment?


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