What is 2.5D? The Look Dominating Animation and Video GamesAug 15, 2023
The history of 2.5D and the amazing current era of animation and games with big 2D/3D releases like TMNT, Arcane, and Across the Spider-Verse.
When talking about animation in film, people now talk about the current era in terms of “Pre” and “Post” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The 2018 superhero masterpiece pushed the limits of what animation is and can be. The film won an Oscar and became Sony Pictures Animation's highest-grossing film of all time.
That was 5 years ago! But the term "2.5D" had been around for a much longer time, and has continued to evolve each decade. With roots in anime, video games, and now blockbuster films, let's dive into a bit of history on 2.5D and what it means in today's world.
What is 2.5D?
The term 2.5D comes from the halfway point between 2D and 3D. It's not only specific to animation, it has roots in anime and manga, and 2.5D has also been used to describe video games that have 2D environments that use parallax, axonometric, or oblique projections to create a 3D feel. (We'll explain more about that in a second.)
There is no one true definition of 2.5D as its meaning continues to change between emerging technology and artistic styles. So let's talk about how the term came to be.
The history of 2.5D as a term can be debated on when it was first used, but it started gaining traction in the 1970s. According to Akiko Sugawa's in-depth dive into the 2.5D culture, there are roots in the theatrical stage productions of popular manga from the 1920s, but in post-war Japan of the 70s, these manga stage adaptations became massively successful. By the 1990s, there were stage productions of popular anime series where the voice actors also performed live on stage as the same characters and they were called 2.5D. In the case of the Sakura Wars, the franchise began as a video game, expanded into anime and manga, and voice actors were cast based on their looks in anticipation of the live stage adaptations.
The video games of the 1970s also gave rise to the term 2.5D with popular arcade games using microprocessors to introduce first-person environments like Interceptor. Game designer Tomohiro Nishikado created a combat flight simulator that used an eight-way joystick to aim a crosshair at enemies. The game used scaling sprites that made players feel like they were in a 3D environment.
Another trick, taken from the Disney animations of the 1940s, was the concept of parallax. While animators used multiple planes of glass to achieve the effect in camera, game developers achieved parallax scrolling by using multiple layers of sprites that each move independently of each other. The arcade game Moon Patrol is credited as the first game to use the effect, which became a staple of so many sidescrollers like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario World, Street Fighter II, and many many more.
Other games also introduced axonometric projection. Think back to your math and geometry classes and think about drawing a cube on a sheet of paper. By adjusting the perspective of how the human eyes look at the object, you can create a faux sense of depth. The most common form of axonometric projection is isometric, which shows three axes of space that share a common scale.
Image by Cmglee via Wikipedia
2.5D Flips from 2D Environments to 3D
In the late 1980s and throughout the 90s during the Disney Renaissance, the mad scientists at Walt Disney Feature Animation were working on a series of films that began using 3D set pieces that were textured to feel like they were drawn in 2D. This form of cel shading is perhaps most well known from The Great Mouse Detective's clocktower, and select shots of Prince Eric's ship in The Little Mermaid.
These 3D objects in 2D films walk the line of 2.5D, but as the decade rolled on things seemed to come to a halt with 1995's Toy Story. Pixar's now iconic classic film revolutionized the animation industry and for many years it felt like theatrical releases had abandoned 2D and hand-drawn films entirely. Now 2D and 2.5D were still part of animated television, with even series like South Park using 3D environments with 2D characters but the goal was to make the show feel like traditional 2D versus a hybrid.
Video games also saw a big shift and focus on purely 3D experiences during the console wars, with very few titles still focused on 2D experiences. This doesn't mean that the concept of 2.5D went away, in fact, it was still present but hidden. Techniques and tricks were used to optimize files to save on rendering times, especially on games produced at Nintendo.
Recent Hybrid 2D/3D or 2.5D Games and Animation
Today we're living in a post-Spider-Verse world. Fresh off the heels of this Spring's (arguably better than the original) sequel Across the Spider-Verse, animation is better than ever as studios and artists think about how they animate in a completely different way. It's no longer about creating the most photorealistic characters and environments, it's about figuring out how to tell the story in the most creative, and original way possible.
This includes many of the bigger Nintendo games like New Super Mario Bros. series which are side-scrollers with 3D characters and FX. We've also previously talked about the latest Zelda installments which are truly 3D games that use the power of cel shading to create a 2D painterly look. Anyone can debate whether that falls into 2.5D or not, but that's almost the point. 2.5D is a fluid term with many definitions. There isn't a definitive line on which side makes a project more 2D or 3D. It's the artistic and creative hybrid use of the benefits of both 2D and 3D to create a special and unique game.
The emerging genre of extended universes also plays into the world of 2.5D. Like the stage shows of the 90s, now video games are being adapted into animated series that maintain the look and feel of the game, and also include many of the same voice actors. While there were tv adaptations in the past with the likes of Mario and Sonic, the animated series of today tie directly into the game lore and style, like the recent Emmy-award-winning series Arcane.
Another film example of the aftermath of this current renaissance is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. The animation is breathtaking, combining 2D stylized textures and FX with 3D environments with a signature painterly quality we mentioned earlier and turning it to 11.
Another great example of this was 2021’s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, co-directed by TMNT: Mutant Mayhem’s Jeff Rowe and produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller… seeing a pattern here? One noticeable difference, aside from the inclusion of 2D title scenes and cutscenes, is the background. Instead of a blurred, bokeh-filled background like something you’d see in Toy Story 4, the backgrounds are painterly and simple. It almost resembles a matte background that you’d see from The Wizard of Oz. He’s said in recent interviews that he specifically wanted the film to have a “concept art” look to the film.
The common thread between the case studies here, Spider-Verse and the new TMNT film, is that the source material began as comic books. Hand-drawn, hand-colored illustrations on physical paper lend themselves to a certain look and feel. What 2018’s Spider-Verse did was take that idea and translate it to the silver screen in a moving, breathing, art form that re-invented how animated movies can look and feel.
Bringing Anime and Comics to Life
Image via Paramount Pictures
So what are the characteristics of this “style” that these films are leaning more and more into?
These animated films emulate the look and feel of a comic book come to life. This is a painterly, hand-drawn aesthetic we mentioned earlier. This includes the use of Ben-Day dots (a printing technique used in comics, this one is more specific to the Spider-Verse films), vibrant colors, and bold lines to mimic the appearance of comic book panels.
In an interview with Variety, TMNT: Mutant’s of Mayhem’s Production Designer Yashar Kassai discussed the challenge of creating a visual palette that is essentially imperfect in a way that felt natural and visually appealing,
The thing that felt so wrong in the beginning was telling my very highly trained, skillful artists who are also ultra-talented that, because we’re drawing like teenagers, I need you to draw that again but I need you to peel away all those years you spent in art school learning your craft and draw like your 15-year-old self.
If you're interested in learning how to create similar painterly 2D effects and characters, check out our 2D FX courses featuring deep dives into the drawing and timing fundamentals as well as many of the programs you can expect to use including Photoshop, Toon Boom Harmony, and Adobe Animate.
So, what other characteristics define this animation shift?
Embracing a Different Style and Approach
These films incorporate multiple animation styles to represent different dimensions and characters. For example, each Spider-Person from a different universe is depicted with a unique visual style, reflecting their origin. For example, Spider-Man Noir is rendered in a gritty black-and-white style reminiscent of 1930s comics, while Spider-Ham is more cartoonish. This is yet another way that this approach to animation can open up doors that previously were never there.
One of our very own instructors, Slava Lightsoul, actually worked on Across the Spider-Verse. Slava contributed to a particular sequence involving one memorable villain from the film. We spoke with Slava recently about how the opportunity came about and the path he took with 2D animation to get where he is now.
In addition to constantly changing up the style, the animation varies the frame rate deliberately in certain scenes to mimic the look of traditional animation and comic book artwork, adding a sense of motion and dynamic energy.
Dropped frames are a staple of this new approach. This refers to frames of animation that have been intentionally omitted or removed from the sequence. For example, look no further than another 2.5D animation hit, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish!
Puss in Boots is a great example of an approach to animation that employs textures and shading techniques to give characters and objects a tactile quality, making them appear hand-drawn and dimensional. Its painterly quality is on full display here.
Another way creators have chosen to innovate the form is - visual elements like sound effects and text overlays appear on the screen in a comic book-like manner, enhancing the immersive comic book experience. The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a great example of this.
To emphasize movement and action, the animation uses dynamic motion lines and speed effects commonly seen in... you guessed it, comic books! Halftone patterns are used to create shading and gradients, giving depth to characters and environments. This technique is a hallmark of traditional comic book art. If you want a quick introduction to an animation program like Toon Boom, check out this tutorial below!
So what do we as VFX artists do with all of this inspiration and information?! For starters, we can take note of these groundbreaking animators and directors and reframe how we think about VFX and storytelling. Animation is a medium that, by design, has no boundaries. Go forth and create something beautiful!
More Reading Like This
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- Spider-Verse 2D FX Artist Slava Lightsoul on Learning VFX
- From VFX Apprentice to 2D FX Artist on Netflix's Arcane
- What Tools Do You Need to Create Video Game VFX?
- Animating 2D FX for Rick and Morty, TMNT, and The Cuphead Show!
- How to Draw Stylized Fire and Flames for Animation and 2D FX
- 5 Pro Tips on Drawing Stylized Water and Liquid FX
Featured Image: Characters via Sony Pictures Animation, Dreamworks, Nintendo, Epic Games, Riot Games, Sega, Paramount Pictures, South Park Studios, Namco, Taito.
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