A few years ago, bell-bottom pants came back. While I'm certainly no expert on fashion and don't follow the business, I was surprised to see them return. In my daily life, nobody was talking about bell-bottoms. I never heard anybody say that they missed them and wished they could buy a pair. I never read any articles or saw anything on television that led me to believe that there was a pent-up demand for bell-bottoms that was reaching critical mass.
The fashion business is like many other businesses in this consumer culture. They sell things to satisfy wants, not needs. In most cases, people have enough clothing to suit the seasons. Therefore, the fashion industry has to goose demand by constantly changing the look of what they sell, making the clothes you already own look old and tempting you with whatever they've decided is the latest look.
The auto industry operates the same way. A car will last for longer than a year, but every year the models are tweaked with new headlights, side mirrors, dashboards, etc. to automatically make your car look out of date.
Movies tend to work the same way. Genres come and go. Horror flicks are big for a while, then they're replaced by teen comedies. Science fiction films are hot and get pushed aside by thrillers. However, there's something of a difference. No matter what the design of a pair of pants, there will still be designers, pattern makers, cutters and sewing machine operators making the pants. The specialized nature of movies (the fact that each one is a unique product) often means that people in the industry are employed or not based on trends. Dancers and choreographers work when musicals are in production and stay home when they're not. Horse wranglers work when westerns are popular and don't when they're not. A Hollywood trend can have a significant impact on whether a person connected with film production is employed.
Fashion has affected animation the same as it has other genres. (I know, I know. It's a medium, not a genre, but whether we like it or not, Hollywood thinks of it as a genre.) There have been periods like the 1930's and the 1990's when animation and animators were in demand, and there have been other periods like the 1970's and early '80's when they were not.
What's worrisome now is that animation is healthy, but fashion may still hurt animators due to the existence of motion capture and procedural animation. I'm not interested in vilifying mocap or the people who work on it, but I'm acutely aware of the power of fashion (i.e. what everybody is perceived to want) and how, if we're not careful, keyframing may be put on the shelf.
It's unfortunate that throughout its history, the discourse regarding animation has been full of statistics on how many drawings or how many bodies it takes to make a film. This was no different than advertising a live action epic as having "a cast of thousands," in an attempt to impress the audience with the size of the accomplishment. I'm afraid, though, that the impression the audience was left with was the size of the effort.
Now there are techniques such as mocap and procedural animation (used for crowd shots in The Lord of the Rings and other films) where the amount of effort can be reduced. Just as we've been trained to respond to changing fashion trends, we've also been trained to expect increased efficiency and improved technology. These techniques promise (whether they deliver or not) faster, cheaper animation. The fact that the results on screen are subtly different does not seem to bother audiences.
I can easily see how directors familiar with live action productions would feel more comfortable with mocap than they would with keyframing. With mocap, they get an actor in front of them who can perform an action repeatedly until the director is satisfied. Contrast that with a director forced to describe what's in his head to an animator who goes off and (slowly) produces the animation. It takes the animator a certain amount of time to bring the performance to a state where it can be judged, and if there's been a miscommunication between director and animator, it's back to square one and time and money have been wasted.
Just as audiences will not demand musicals simply so that dancers can stay employed, they won't demand keyframing. Nobody really understands what animators bring to the screen except other animators, and these days, with TV animation dominated by design, many animators don't understand it either. Animators will possibly be discarded, just as this year's fashion gives way to whatever's next.
Animators have got to work harder to set the terms of the debate. Attacking motion capture is not the way to go as audiences already accept it. Nobody is going to stay away from a movie because animators tell them to. Families with children are looking for a place to go on the weekend, and anything that's suitable content will attract their attention, regardless of how it was made.
What animators have to do is become a lot more vocal about what they contribute to entertaining audiences.
In the '90's, animators were in demand and they hired agents and lawyers, making them resemble real, live actors in terms of how they did business. What they failed to do was hire publicists. Since the '90's, various studios have used their animation talent for publicity purposes (these days most commonly in behind-the-scenes documentaries on DVDs), but studios only let things go so far. After all, if a person becomes too important in the minds of the audience, that person has the leverage to negotiate a fatter paycheque, which is not in a studio's best interest.
However, that's exactly what animators need to do. The most well-known animators right now gained their major publicity in the '90's: Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Eric Goldberg, etc. In the computer animation era, can you name half a dozen animators and major scenes they've done? Perhaps you can if you've memorized your DVD commentaries, but I'm guessing the average audience member couldn't name even one. Except for John Lasseter and Brad Bird as directors, could anyone in the general public name someone who directed a cgi feature? Next time you're at the movies, ask people who directed Shark Tale or Ice Age 2. I'm betting that nobody knows.
The audience likes certain live performers and sees their films. Because these performers command an audience, they have clout. They're able to establish media profiles that enable them to be well compensated for their work and makes producers anxious to work with them. Within animation, the business has always been dominated by studios more than individuals. Since the development of computer animation, we've been faced with techological changes that have the advantage of novelty for audiences and ease of use for producers. If animators don't stand up for what they contribute and convince audiences and producers of their value, they're going to be tossed aside like a pair of bell-bottoms. Sure, maybe they'll come back in style in another 35 years, but can we afford to wait that long?