Here is what I think has happened that's resulted in such mind-numbing energy-devoid mediocrity with that new lion king movie and it's animation clips. This is a bit of mind-to-mouth stream of consciousness rambling, not a proofread and edited article, so please take this more as me talking than writing prose for a magazine, lol
disclaimer: I'm a character animator
abstract: a lot of animators today are so micro-managed in their work to fit an ideal looking kind of overly-sterilized animation that it looks fake and shitty... or they do this on purpose because they think that's 'good' animation, cuz they see it everywhere else and get applause, and clout. when you animate pls focus on bringing a character to life, not ARCZ N ARCZ W ARCZ
character animators(and by that I mean those who animate characters instead of, say, VFX animators who do cars and animals and stuff that has to adhere to realism and isn't caricatured), especially nowadays who graduate animation school, are surrounded by this type of overly smoothed animation wherein any sort of tiny movement or little acting beat or anything at all needs to be sanded out so it "reads". These new grads see this animation and think, it's good animation, so they'll emulate it.
It just becomes this recursive nightmare where everything becomes more and more and more cliche'd like a VHS tape being re-recorded and copied again and again and again. This, combined with animation directors over their shoulder looking at little tiny acting choices like maybe a nod or a twitch or whatever that can make a shot seem authentic and realistic, the anim director is like "this won't read. remove this" and so you buff and sand away all the interesting choices for a shot until it's just... overly smoothed arcs.
The famed "arcs" every animation student has beaten into their head are guildlines for understanding physics to inform their animation, not rigid rules to obey on-screen unless strictly needed to help you out.
the problem is just that students are recursively copying animation again and again and again they think looks impressive, and think animation having smooth arcs like their teachers told them, is the PINNACLE OF ACHIEVEMENT for animation when, no, it isn't. The pinnacle for character animation imho is to have your characters be believeable breathing beings you feel an emotional attachment to right away because you know they have an internal world.
to go into that 'recursive, telephone-game, incestual animation cliches' further, recently there was this tiktok video of a girl using editing tricks to make herself look like she moved like an animated character.... but not a good one, a cliche'd one you'd see on a student reel or in a lower budget video game cinematic, and everyone was like WOW SHE LOOKS LIKE SHE'S HIGH QUALITY ANIMATION!! SHE LOOKS LIKE SHE'S AN OVERWATCH CHARACTER" and I wanted to scratch my eyes out because, fuck, has 3d animation been boiled down this far that this sort of shit is achievable? you shouldn't be able to do this, and yet shit is SO cliche'd by now and rehashed shit is so normal that this is what folks consider to be good animation! It isn't bad but it isn't good enough to be emulated again and again like this!
I look at some shots in Spider-verse and I go, "there's no fucking way that'dve made it through anywhere else, the animator would've been told to EXAGGERATE THIS!! make sure it READS!!! do this!! remove this blink!! remove this head turn!! it has to READ!!!" and so you just wind up with pose-to-pose tweened computery looking garbage and that frustrates me because 3D animation already has a terrible reputation for looking like a computer just did all of it! And of course it does- look at what is put out nowadays from the highest possible end studios. What's happening is that the life an animator can bring to a character's performance with tiny little choices is being eroded away in favour of smoother and smoother and more straightforward acting choices so that it REEEEAADDSSSS. The animation leads simply dont' trust viewers to grok an acting performance it seems, so they have to boil everything down to the strings. Like they taken their shot choices and just went over them with a brillo pad so it's smooth. In spider-verse, and other examples of what I'd consider high quality 3D animation with a high talent level(HTTYDs, the Croods, Wreck-it Ralph, BH6, Spider-verse, and quite a few more that aren't coming to mind rn but definitely count- these films I'd consider a benchmarch for 3D animation talent.), they TRUSTED their animators to put in those little things or not go cartoonishly insane with the exaggeration.
a rule we hear in animation is, "go too far with an action because then you can always dial it back!" but it's this rule taken to the extreme, where nobody wants small, emotive little movements or moments because they're so scared the audience will think it's POORLY ANIMATED!! Everyone is so terrified of twitches or mistakes or snappiness, they're so scared of it. for example- I love Wreck-it Ralph for its amazing attention to these little acting details. The original one is a master class in that, avoiding cliches and making choices with acting that feel so authentic you get the emotion and the intention across immediately and that only helps the shot because it's SO genuine. But- warning, opinion alert- I watched Wreck-it Ralph 2 and while I guess the animation is... proficient? all of that was so scrubbed over. Every single shot seemed like it was trying to be a demo reel highlight, trying its best to over-exemplify every principle of animation they could cram in there, like a checklist. No more tiny little honest actions, no more "haha omg that's exactly how that would happen, I've totally done that"
And what I feel like this winds up doing, the effect it results in, is separate the people watching this animation happen, so it's less of you being in the moment watching these events happen to living and breathing characters, and instead, you watching pre-programmed dolls act out a play. They're animatronics and everything is just a high tech Rockafire Explosion choreographed number.
animation is about making your character seem like it's acting of its own volition. When you fuck up and make them look like animatronics doing something preprogrammed, or make it look like a rehearsed theatrical performance, that goes down the toilet. Good animation is where you have the time, and are allowed, to imbue your character with their own thoughts and to emulate reality in a caricatured way.
So why are these mistakes happening and why are they being lauded as 'good animation'? The floaty animation with overly done arcs nowadays are because people are so scared of tiny intricate acting for one of two reasons: 1) they're not competent and able to do those tiny intricate things so they don't or can't do it, 2) because they've been told to tone it down because whoever is making those decisions values "the look" of overly smoothed floaty shitty animation. And if not these two things than some sort decision being made that forces people away from animation this complex... maybe it's time constraints? maybe it's another huge fucking problem is that our animation often has to go through a filter of executives who have no fucking idea how animation works, and also, hate 3D animation to begin with. nothing frustrates me more than pouring my heart out on a shot, sending it in, and the revisions I get back aren't fixes, but "this is too complex. simplify this"! And I know my anim director says that not because he really thinks that's an improvement, but because he already knows the higher ups will flag it because they don't get it and is saving me more anguish.
let me provide an example I love to send to people when they ask "what's really good animation look like"?
this here is a test for Big Hero 6, where an animator- I forget who it is but I know them lol- was asked to do a very simple thing like "they enter, they sit down" and then tailor it to each character's personality and presence. you instantly get these character's personalities from this test, you feel that authenticity- choices are made here that are not EASY, they're extremely HARD to implement, but they do it because it makes the character more real! they insert you into the world.
like when Tadashi does the second adjustment of his chair- one would've got it across but no, let's do 2, because he's a little bit of a perfectionist and he knows what he wants. Or when Aunt Cass takes a sec before sitting down on her crossed legs, that's so realistic because /I/ do that in chairs a lot! or the snappy floppiness of Gogo's arms and legs, because she's so unbothered and doesn't give a fuck. but, see, nowadays.... that shit would all be erased. your lead would be like, "no, this second adjustment isn't necessary! have her sit down normally, it's easier! gogo seems too floaty, just fix it" like... all that good, authentic stuff with twitches and hiccups would be smoothed away....
To bring up Spider-verse again, when Miles is saying goodbye to his dad? he bumps his backpack up on his shoulder and then kicks the door closed with his foot. you never even SEE his leg... but the animation on his body shows you exactly what happens! you can feel it, and spider-verse trusted their audience to get that... Or in a deleted scene with Peter B, he goes to crouch down and talk to Miles. But before he does so, he hitches his sweatpants up his legs so that they don't get pulled down when he crouches- it's such a realistic thing to do, it shows he's done it before, it's a total "old man" move! observation happened to even think of doing that! The fact that the animator took the time to do that... nowadays that wouldn't be allowed on a lot of productions.
so what does all this have to do with the "realism" Lion King trailer?
What my theory is, is that they took all these character animators, and gave them highly realistic characters to animate, and directed them as if they were aiming for high quality realism, but since they're character animators whose animation is caricatured and a bit more cartoony, or they had it drilled into their brains that QUALITY MEANS SMOOTHNESS, what you get is highly polished animation where all the character- which lives in those wrinkles- has been ironed out of it. You wind up with this terrible inbetween where nobody could decide what was more important: character animation the likes you see in most cartoony 3D animated films, highly realistic VFX animation that would make these animals look super realistic, and "QUALITY!" of being ultra mega smoothed... the opposite of realistic animal animation.
you get this uncanny valley feel because you're looking at highly realistic creatures with this overly polished tweeny looking animation. Every landing is soft, every head turn is cushioned, and the important parts that a shot needs to read are lost in favour of... something else?
I can tell the animators have great talent, but were made to smooth over their animation to the extreme. Adn that is DOUBLY bad looking because, technical animation 101, the realism lives in the little twitches and tiny movements that aren't smooth. If they let animators just fucking do their job like how they please, and allowed them to be honest in how they protrayed a moving lion but also put a more caricatured spin on their performance, I guarantee you this film would've looked amaaaaaaazing. I feel like the animals in the Jungle Book were very nearly there, but the Lion King didn't really take much from that.
I'm not sure we'll ever know the true reason behind what's going on until after the film comes out.
all this aside, the voice actors are great, and I'm still a massive disney shill. I'm super excited to hear Mufasa's voice again. Bey being Nala is INSPIRREEEDDD. Not sure I'll see it in theaters, but I'm proud of every animator who got to work on it regardless of what happened... despite everything, we all understand the animators are incredibly talented, and likely the entire pipeline including VFX and modeling and rigging and sim and all that is top of the fucking line!! To the folks who worked on it: we see you, you're doing amazing sweetie and I hope it wins oscars if for anything than you deserve it.
and if you're still looking forward to it? that's fine! in fact, that's great! I'm glad you get a movie that you can really love and enjoy, I love some films others scoff at too and will die on those hills. In the end this is all my opinions and beliefs, not anything more than that. I'm just a single person who works in 3d animation. I love my coworkers and I love the studio I work for, none of this shit applies to them at all which I'm grateful for. But it gave me a perspective of exactly how good it can be after knowing how bad it can be. yknow?
sorry for the spewing of OPINIONS!! but I had to get it out. I hope my thoughts have come across, if you want me to clarify anything please hit me up on twitter or reply here. if you're an animator feel free to weigh in too, because the more input we get and the more varied and diverse the input is, the more apparent the truth and consensus will become, of course. Thank you :)