The Biggest Animation Trends in 2016—and What’s Coming in 2017

Editor’s Note: The following piece was contributed by Heather Wright, executive producer and head of partner content at Aardman, where they create animated feature films, series, advertising and digital entertainment for audiences around the world. As such, Aardman holds a unique perspective on animation trends. Here, Wright digs into the biggest animation trends that the firm saw in 2016, standout uses of animation throughout the year and what animation trends we can expect in 2017.

The Trends That Impacted Animation in 2016

A Return to Stop-Motion

The drive for authentic and honest communication between brands and consumers signaled a big return to stop-frame animation this year. The hand-crafted look and feel of the animation speaks exactly to this agenda. Even though people have been creating ‘”mock motion” (CGI that looks like stop-motion) for some years now, there seems to be a renewed desire for the real thing. I can understand this because even though you can create “anything” in a computer (and we do too!) there’s something about the discipline and natural limitations of handmade puppets and sets and capturing the performances in camera that just feels real.

And, what I call “stuff-moving-around animation”—i.e., real found objects moved frame by frame—crossed over with pixilation can generate the same feeling as is evident in this spot we did for Braun.

This trend is also seen in work from outside Aardman, as demonstrated in this spot for Tripl Stitched from Jack Cunningham at Nexus.

It perfectly marries the idea and the execution, and it’s a beautifully photographed and very contemporary take on stop-frame animation. The simplicity of the shapes and limited color palette work perfectly for the product.

Investment in Virtual Reality

Technologically, 2016 was the year that virtual reality took its first significant steps in animated storytelling. Animation is uniquely suited to VR as you can control precisely the interaction between the viewer and the subject the viewer is looking at. The movement of the headset can trigger a precise action in the animated character, bringing an immediacy and intimacy to interaction.

Aardman has now delivered two big VR projects for Google and the BBC, and we have others in the pipeline. The Google project Google Spotlight Stories “Special Delivery” used the bespoke Google Advanced Technology and Projects Story Development Kit and required a lot of joint collaboration on the technical development, although the driver for this was always to achieve better creative results.

The BBC Connected Studios project “We Wait” was an experimentation in immersive news and using VR to create a strong emotional connection between viewer and subject. Exploring the Syrian migration crisis as a group of families attempt to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe, the subject matter was intrinsically engaging. This mainly used the Unity pipeline (learn more about what that is here) but again the driver for us was getting the emotional impact of the story.

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 Longer and Shorter Short Form

Television advertising is clearly still alive and kicking, but with clients experimenting more in reaching audiences online, there has been a growth of campaigns with a “main film.” These can be anywhere from 60 seconds to two-and-a-half minutes or longer, with multiple GIFs or shorter versions sprinkled across social media, driving traffic to the main film. The main film may still be on television, but it will definitely be on YouTube as well, and it’s just as likely to sit solely on YouTube.

Freed up from the constraints of the 30-second spot, agencies and clients looked to tell longer stories, engaging audiences more deeply with multiple strands making up a larger narrative across multiple platforms. These “longer” short films often don’t command the production budgets of the big television marketing messages, which means that the style of animation has to be more graphic and stylized to be workable financially. As always in a crisis, necessity is the mother of invention, and this year has seen a lot of really great creative campaigns as a result of this trend.

Animation is also great for explaining difficult or complex messages, and this piece for Promescent (warning—this piece is for adults!) demonstrates perfectly the use of a longer form combined with the use of the online platform.

Standout Uses of Animation in 2016

Aardman has noticed some fantastic animation work coming out of the industry lately. Strong, high-concept, original, illustrative looks are everywhere. One of my favorites is Coca Cola’s “Man & Dog” spot from Todd Mueller and Kylie Matulick at Psyop. It brilliantly captures the dogs-eye view of the world and finds a way of visualizing smells in a really creative way. I kind of want to follow those smells too!

And in the area of longer shorter form: Morton Salt “Neighbors” from the ever-talented Marc Craste at StudioAKA revisits a familiar theme in that people don’t know what their pets are up to when they’re not looking. The character animation performances are absolutely delightful, and the look is a fresh 3D take on what would have traditionally been done in 2D. This one will be popular with dog lovers everywhere!

And this one: Nautilus “France A. Cordova” from Colin Hesterly at Not to Scale is a beautiful piece of 2D with a very strong, clean graphic look in a limited color palette. It perfectly marries the idea of science and the artistic representation of that in an inspirational way.

The high-concept, stylized cCGIi campaign created for the BBC Rio Olympics by Passion Pictures is also one of my favorites. The interplay between the animal and human characters captures our primal instincts to fight and to win, yet it’s conveyed in a beautifully elegant framework.

Where Animation is Headed in 2017

Growth of Virtual Reality

VR enters a make-or-break phase as the big tech companies vie to develop the best devices and create enough content to build audience share. Will storytelling in VR develop enough to keep people coming back once the novelty of the tech has worn off a bit? There are a good few more years to go before we know the answer to this one, but I think it has a great future potentially, especially for short-form series content—series form rather than features because it’s eminently snackable/bingeable on your own. For me, features will remain the big shared experience event that people enjoy. We will keep a close eye on research as to how it can potentially affect the development of young children’s brains but there’s no doubt that fully immersive experiences such as these are a full on WOW!

Entertainment & Marketing Collaborations

As the worlds of entertainment and marketing continue to grow ever closer, this is one area that is ripe for growth. With brands looking for ways to leverage new audiences and entertainment companies hungry for the media-buying power of the big brands, this is a key trend. And it’s not only about animation or even film or TV—it’s also about events, attractions and the role of interactivity in pulling audiences more deeply into meaningful communities around a show or an idea, without necessarily differentiating between something that entertains and something that sells.

It also plays into the world of the mega agency groups that offer clients project-based projects, shopping for relevant talent within the group agencies and starting to reach directly into content creators. And it’s happening already. We’re actively creating partnerships between agencies/brands and broadcasters with ourselves as content creators. Collaboration—it’s the way forward. Longer short form.

Strong, High-Concept, Stylized 3D

This will continue to be developed as budgets remain tight and expectations are high. Plus there are some amazingly talented young artists coming through, especially from the French animation colleges like Supinfocom and Gobbelins. These guys already get snapped up by the big studios, but the sheer originality of their talent isn’t coming out in feature films yet in the way that it most certainly is in commercials. We should watch out for those features. There is some serious creativity happening inside their walls!

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