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Why Is Disney Recycling Animations, and Should You Too?

ben marvazi 2020

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Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive.

- Walt Disney

So, you’ve heard of Disney recycling animations and at first either felt disappointed or were impressed by how inventive they are.

Disney recycling animations was a hot topic a few years ago, and while the studio never tried to hide that they did it per se, some people thought it was a little sneaky. 

Recycling animations is something most animators are familiar with, but is it safe to follow in Disney’s footsteps and use this technique from time to time? 

Recycling animation can be tricky, and in this blog post, we’ll take a look at how Disney did it, why they did it, and why you might or might not want to consider doing it too. Let’s dive in.

What Is Animation Recycling?

If you’re an animator, you would know about the worldwide shock that ensued when it was revealed that Disney animators recycled some of their animations in plenty of their films – and it was pretty obvious too. While it might sound like cheating, Disney had pretty good reasons for repurposing existing animations for a film. 

reduce, reuse, recycle, rihanna? disney recycling animations is a thing but they forgot rihanna

GIF by Comedy Central via Giphy

If you’ve never heard of animation recycling before, it’s basically taking some of your previous animations and repurposing them as an animation base for new projects. It’s the same sequence you previously animated, but you use it to create something different while keeping the fluid movements and motions intact.

Animation Recycling Can Mean Two Things

A fancier word often used for animation recycling is rotoscoping. Now, it is important to mention that rotoscoping can have different meanings. 

rotoscoping and recycling animations are a pretty important thing in older animations

GIF by CBC via Giphy

Originally, this technique referred to animators drawing over live-action footage to create animations that were fluid and lifelike. Think of Sleeping Beauty dancing, for example. Those scenes were hard to animate, and by capturing live footage over which they could draw, animators made these scenes look effortless and lifelike. 

However, Disney, being as inventive as they are, adapted this technique to reuse some of these difficult animations instead of re-filming footage again. And that, fellow animators, is what animation recycling is all about. 

Animators took old footage from previous films that were challenging to animate (like dance scenes) and simply drew over them to create the new characters and scenes. Disney was pretty fond of doing this, but should you, as a freelance animator, do it too? Let’s dig into it. 

The Revelation of Disney Recycling Animations 

Once you see it, you can’t quite unsee it. Disney recycling animations are glaringly obvious in some of their films. While the characters, surroundings, and dialogue were different in some scenes, the movements remained practically the same. 

an animator learning that disney recycles animations

Image by Jef Caine via Giphy

Some people were, understandably, shocked upon finding this out. Many took to Twitter to discuss Disney recycling animations. 

Some said that Disney recycling animations ruined their childhood, while others called Disney lazy for using it in the first place. Others thought it was simply brilliant and an incredibly inventive move. 

Some animators even jumped in on the discussion of Disney recycling animations, asking everyone to be kind to animators because the art of animation is a time-consuming process, adding that Disney recycling animations were simply the studio and animators working smart and being more time-savvy. 

Others commented on the unique challenges animators faced back in the day when animation software didn’t exist yet and called Disney a genius for actually figuring out a way to save time.

recycling animation can be a sneaky thing no one notices when done right

GIF by Reddit via Giphy

Of course, before these films were available to us on demand, people didn’t notice these similarities, but now the cat is out of the bag, and it has left many freelance animators wondering about how ethical it is to reuse existing animations to create new content, and the answer might be more complicated than you think. 

First, it’s helpful to know how obvious animation recycling can be. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples of Disney Recycling Animations

In case you’re curious, one of the best examples of Disney recycling animations is comparing “Robin Hood” to “Jungle Book.” The scene in the former where Little John plays the banjo is almost exactly the same as the dance Baloo does in “The Jungle Book” while singing “I Wanna Be Like You.” 

disney recycling animation example

Image via

If you look closely, you’ll also notice that Little John and Baloo look very similar, minus the hat. There are many more scenes like these, which makes it clear that Disney recycling animations weren’t something that happened once in a while – it happened often and various scenes were created that way. 

disney recycling animation in robin hood from jungle book

Image via

For freelance animators, this might bring up some questions. After all, Disney is one of the biggest and most legendary animation studios, and if they could recycle animations, you probably could too. But should you?

Now that you know exactly what recycled animation looks like let’s take a look at why Disney used it and how you might benefit from this tactic in your own freelance animation business. 

Why Disney Recycled Animation

Various outlets speculated why Disney recycled animation, and many came to the conclusion that it was done to save time and money. Let’s not forget that all of Disney’s early movies were hand-drawn, which was an extremely tedious process. 

It’s no surprise, then, that Disney recycled animations since the early days, but they started doing it more regularly in the late 60s and 80s. With the dawn of the 90s, the need to recycle animations diminished.

But did it really save them money and time? As it turns out, the studio wasn’t actually doing it for those reasons. 

when animating with a deadline, its hard to take risks

GIF by CBS via Giphy

In an interview with Geekdad, Floyd Norman, who worked on various Disney films, including those that used recycled animation, said that they actually reused some of the animated sequences simply because they had worked well before. 

Woolie Reitherman, who directed these films, liked to stick to what he knew worked instead of using new animation. “Woolie liked to play it safe and use stuff he knew would work. That’s all it was,” Norman told the outlet. 

Should Freelance Animators Recycle Animation?

While finding out that Disney’s directors liked to play it safe might come as a bit of a shock, freelance animators can learn a lot from it. 

should animators recycle animations?

GIF by Amazon Prime Video via Giphy

If you work with many animation clients or even run your own animation studio, you might have tons of previous animations you did really well that could be used again in a different way for a new project. 

Since you animated those sequences in the first place, you are the sole owner of the work, and you reserve the right to reuse it if you know that you’d basically be doing the exact same thing again for a new project with different characters and surroundings. 

Do keep in mind, however, that it would be wise only to recycle these animations if you’re planning on repurposing them for a new project. Simply doing a copy and paste job will not cut it and will harm your animation business

But before you start recycling animations, you should probably consider the pros and cons first. 

Benefits of Animation Recycling

The Animation Will Look Very Lifelike

Rotoscoping, a form of animation recycling, has been touted as one of the best ways to make the animation look as true to real life as possible. That is, after all, the reason for Disney recycling animations. 

Rotoscoping allows animators to create sequences that mimic real-life incredibly well. Even though it requires quite a bit of skill, using rotoscoping can really make your work stand out when it comes to the believability of the characters and their environment. 

recycling animations can look very lifelike

GIF by via Giphy

Recycling Animation is Becoming Easier to Do

These days, recycling animation is more accessible because of various types of animation software like Adobe After Effects. 

some animators disregard animation recycling as easy

GIF by CBC via Giphy

Recycling animation will ensure that your work looks incredible, and you could even use that same sequence again for a project that requires characters or environments with similar movements, thanks to computer software.

It Can Save You Time

While animation recycling is actually a time-consuming process, there are instances where it can actually help you save time and money. 

If you’re really good at rotoscoping, recycling animation can save you time in some instances. 

For example, the Disney team recycled the dance from “Sleeping Beauty” for “Beauty and the Beast,” and the film’s co-director, Gary Trousdale, told Geekdad that they did that to save time because the deadline was closing in, and they still had that entire sequence left to animate. 

disney recycling animation in beauty and the beast

GIF by Disney via Giphy

In this case, actually blocking characters and animating it all from scratch would have taken up more time than they had, so they used the sequence from “Sleeping Beauty” instead.

If you find yourself in a similar situation where recycling animation would actually go faster and help you meet your deadlines by speeding up your animation time, this technique could be a lifesaver. 

You Can Use Animation Recycling in Different Ways

Recycling animation doesn’t mean you necessarily reuse an entire sequence; you can also recycle smaller actions, like characters blinking their eyes or when you need a character to move in a certain way at a certain time and you already blocked and animated it before. 

animation recycling can be used to save resources everywhere

GIF by Tumblr via Giphy

These types of recycled animations aren’t really noticeable but can save you tons of time. 

Animation recycling is also useful when you’re animating a sequence similar to the one you did before but simply can’t get right. In this case, recycling the existing sequence will provide you with the best result, especially if you’re short on time,  but you can also simply use it as a reference while reanimating it from scratch, depending on your preference. 

Downsides of Animation Recycling

It Can Actually be More Time-Consuming

We’re not kidding. Norman himself told Geekdad Disney recycling animation wasn’t because they were lazy – it’s because they were playing it safe, using what they knew worked well previously. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it often took the animation studio more time to recycle these animations than it would have if they just animated new ones. 

disney recycling animations was actually also a time consuming process

GIF by Looney Tunes via Giphy

“It’s actually harder and takes longer to redraw an existing sequence,” Norman explained. “It’s a lot faster and easier just to do new animation, and it’s a lot more fun for the animators. But Woolie [the director] liked to play it safe and use stuff he knew would work. That’s all it was.”

According to BunnyStudio, recycling animation or rotoscoping is so time-intensive because it requires the animator to pay incredibly close attention to fine detail. One slip-up and the sequence would lose its believability.

If you end up recycling animation, make sure you have enough time and won’t have to do it in a rush.

You Can Only Work With What the Recycled Footage Provides

If you recycle an animation sequence and end up realizing that the characters need to do something that’s not part of that sequence, you’ve hit a wall. 

working with such specific footage can keep you stressed

GIF by via Giphy

You can only work with what the existing footage provides. The same limitation applies regardless of whether you use recycled footage or actually shoot live footage from which you planned to animate a sequence. 

Recycling Animation Requires a Specific Skillset

While this is not necessarily a negative thing, recycling animation can be an incredibly challenging job if you don’t know how to do rotoscoping properly or have never done it before. You’ll have to draw or re-draw the footage frame by frame, and failing to do so accurately will result in animation that’s stocky and unrealistic. 

even disney recycling animations alone was a task that requires skill

GIF by DefyTV via Giphy

According to Videomaker, rotoscoping is often seen as a “difficult art form” that is actually highly respected among animators. So if you’d like to recycle animations, you’d have to make sure you develop the necessary skills first or hire someone who does, in which case you’ll actually be spending more money.

Clients Might Notice Similarities

Just like Disney recycling animations was revealed to the world and caused some to criticize the studio for being “lazy” or “sneaky,” your animation clients might notice if you recycle animation for a project, especially if you use footage from a project you formerly did for that very same client. 

animation clients might notice you recycling animations

GIF by Yellowstone via Giphy

While recycling animation is not necessarily cheating and actually requires a lot of work, people who don’t understand animation might see it as such simply because they don’t understand the process. In that case, it might be better to animate from scratch or let the client in on the fact that you’re planning to recycle animation for a specific sequence. 

This way, it won't be damaging to your brand, and you won’t come across as someone who is “lazy,” even though it actually required more work and time to recycle the animation. Always keep in mind that animation clients don’t necessarily know a lot about the different tools, and it’s better to be upfront if you know they might notice it. 

Should Freelance Animators Make Use of Animation Recycling?

The answer truly depends on the type of project you're working on and your clients. 

Some projects will warrant the use of animation recycling, while others might not. Since recycled animation can be used in various ways, you could opt to recycle less noticeable animations, like characters blinking their eyes. 

If you do a series of projects for a client featuring the same characters, recycling some animation sequences (like the way the character walks or moves during a fight sequence) might be warranted.

Keep in mind that even though Disney produced animated films solely for their studio, they still received some backlash from the public when it was revealed that they recycled animations. 

Ensure that, when you use recycled animations, your client is aware of and understands the process and legalities regarding animation recycling.

Recycling animation can be time-consuming but also help you to save time, depending on how you use it. It remains a great tool that can be of incredible value to any freelance animator, as long as you use it wisely. 

If you’re a freelance animator looking to start your own business, you can check out our free marketing handbook and masterclass to learn more about how to become a successful freelance animator. If you’re ready to start your business, check out our blog post on how to start your own animation studio.

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