Sony Pictures Animation has had a pretty checkered past, with critical reception to their films ranging from wild lows to impressive heights. Recently, however, the studio seems to be hitting a pretty stable stride, becoming a studio that other Western animation studios could learn a thing or two from. Audiences have certainly received endless entertainment from their most recent projects, from Hotel Transylvania to the Spider-Verse trilogy.
Sony Pictures Animation feels like a place that’s willing to let creative minds celebrate art for art’s sake, to have more room for fun and freedom to pursue their art. Many artists and animators would love their own shot at making something memorable, fresh, and fun for us to fall in love with. Sony has shown us that when that freedom is given, audiences end up with unique, visually spectacular, and emotionally heartfelt rollercoaster rides. It’s time for more Western studios to follow this direction and let their artists go a little wild.
Here’s how Sony Pictures Animation leads the way in unique art styles.
Update November 16, 2023: This article has been updated by Amanda Minchin with more information regarding Sony Animation’s impact on animation.
Why Sony’s Art Style Is So Interesting
One of the strengths of Sony Pictures Animation has been their willingness to dabble in different art styles. Not all of their projects could be deemed successful – take, for instance, The Smurfs or any of the Open Season films. Still, it remains admirable how much they’ve experimented over the years in spite of this potential for lower earnings at the box office.
This experimentation usually begins at the conceptual phase. If we take the 2021 film The Mitchells vs. the Machines as an example, looking through concept art detailing its creation shows how much the 2D designs contributed to the film’s stylization. Cartoonish drawings of Katie Mitchell and her family weren’t left on the drawing board. Instead, they were translated directly into a 3D space. This is what gave The Mitchells vs. the Machines such a distinctive and fun feeling.
Similar cases can be made going as far back as 2006’s Open Season, Sony Animation’s debut feature film, or the popular Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse trilogy. In the latter’s Across the Spider-Verse, for example, the team wanted to use their newfound use of different animation tools from The Mitchells vs. the Machines to create multiple, differently aesthetic universes within the same film, which, considering the number of universes visited in the film, was certainly a daunting task.
They had already punched their ticket with their combined use of 2-D and 3-D in the animation world. Still, they set off to make this a reality. In the sequel, each universe is supposed to look like it’s drawn by a different artist, from the impressionist watercolors of Gwen Stacy’s Earth-65 to the hustle and bustle of Pavitr Prabhakar’s “Mumbattan”. What’s in store for the final release of the trilogy, which has been pushed back due to multiple strikes, is still yet to be seen. Each Sony Animation film mentioned so far has a unique style that sets them apart from one another. This adds variety to Sony’s library, even if the movies and the tactics used to make them aren’t necessarily a success.
Disney’s Uniform Art Style
On the flip side of variety, we have art style uniformity, where films focus on tackling different concepts and plot lines under stylistically similar aesthetics. The most prolific adherent to this would without a doubt be Walt Disney Studios. Theirs is an art style that’s easily pinpointed: the gigantic eyes, the rounded facial features, soft lighting, and fluid movements. This is as much a marketing tool as it is an identifying mark: see the art style, and you know who created it.
Sure, there are enough visual differences from film to film to provide some measure of unique flair. The Colombian mountain village Mirabel calls home in Encanto has a different energy from the lands of Arendelle in Frozen. However, on a basic visual level, it’s clear that Disney animators have some rules about art style they must follow.
While a uniform art style to advertise yourself isn’t innately a bad thing, it’s how we end up with arguments to why, no matter the setting, most Disney princesses have little variety in their facial features, which in and of itself could have damaging effects on the viewer’s self-esteem. This was highlighted in Ralph Breaks the Internet in the scene with all the Disney Princesses and the traditionally hand-drawn 2D characters were converted into CG to match the looks of recent 3D characters like Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel, and Moana. It’s a safe and easily marketable move from Disney but not a particularly interesting or creative one.
The Elephant in the Room
A blight to this tremendous achievement comes in the form of the gross turnover of an excruciatingly large number of animators. Following the release of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, there were reports of unfair working conditions that included an unrelenting 11-hour, 7-day work week required for the quick turnaround. This partially stems from creative issues in the form of the animation not being fully conceptualized before it was rendered.
According to one animator, “Over 100 people left the project because they couldn’t take it anymore. But a lot stayed on just so they could make sure their work survived until the end — because if it gets changed, it’s no longer yours.” The whistleblower chose to remain anonymous.
While many wonder why Disney and Pixar films have such large budgets compared to Sony Animation, it is how much time the other two studios put into development. Disney and Pixar storyboard their films for years, so by the time they get to animating and rendering, they are not wasting material.
As apparent with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, much time and resources were wasted as stuff changed rapidly. While spontaneity is part of the creative process, so should fair working conditions. With Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse now delayed, hopefully, this means that they will have the time to properly animate the film and not put the animators through unfair hours.
Other Studios Are Taking Inspiration From Sony’s Animation
We’ve seen the influence of Sony Pictures Animation’s experimentation on another big-name animation studio: DreamWorks. Similar to Disney, audiences could most likely point out the more realistic style of earlier DreamWorks movies, from Shrek to Over the Hedge or The Bee Movie. Over the years, that art style has shifted into something more similar to the Spider-Verse films, most notably in The Bad Guys and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.
For their film The Bad Guys, inspiration is reported to have been taken directly from Into the Spider-Verse in terms of a more illustrative animation style. The film’s art direction received some of the highest praise. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish decided to break away from the pre-established style outlined in the Shrek movies and go with a very Spider-Verse inspired style, which was met with a very positive critical reaction.
Even most recently, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem went with a bold new visual aesthetic. The filmmakers cited they were aiming for the look of a teenager’s drawings, but it is also clear that Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon were inspired by how well-received Spider-Verse was and went with a style that would make them stand out.
Similar to how Spider-Verse wanted to replicate the feeling of a comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem was aiming for a messy underground comic, something that looked mismatched and a bit gross to match the characters. Sony Picture’s format of having the characters inform the animation style has been adopted by others, instead of the previous way of making a story fit a certain animation style.
Both Mutant Mayhem and Dreamwork’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish played around with the 2.5D style made popular by Sony Pictures Animation. Hopefully, this will be the start of more animation studios allowing their animators to experiment more often. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then Sony Pictures Animation has a lot to be thankful for. One can even see Disney taking notes. Wish looks very different from the other Disney animated films that have recently been released, looking to blend classic hand-drawn animation aesthetics with CGI character models. Sony went from a small studio that nobody thought much of us to an industry-changing titan.