Animation as a medium offers limitless possibilities. From the boom of Walt Disney to modern epics like Spider-man: Across the Spider-verse, animators across the globe are pushing the boundaries of cinema with each new release. Directors Bay Dariz and Phil Earnest bring together generations of animators and film analysts to highlight the evolution of the art in Pencils Vs. Pixels. With technology advancing seemingly by the minute, Dariz and Earnest also seek to explore the future of animation and whether it’s on a blank page or a computer screen.
Like any feat of animation, the documentary begins with “the pencil test” and the spark of creativity that drives animators. Featuring a who’s who in the world of not only animation but film itself, the documentary dives into the Golden Age of Animation with Walt Disney and “The Nine Old Men.” Dariz and Earnest then take audiences through the medium’s rebirth in the late 80s and 90s, elaborating on the rise of Disney’s Broadway-style musicals and television’s love of animated comedies. The history of animation in film is on full display just before diving into the 2020s and a new boom of hand-drawn animation and hand-drawn-inspired films.
“…explore the future of animation and whether it’s on a blank page or a computer screen.”
Pencils Vs. Pixels features countless figures within the industry, ranging from Leonard Maltin and Kevin Smith to Pete Docter and Seth MacFarlane. Each interview offers insight into the medium, from the original sketch to the pitch to the finished product. Ming-Na Wen’s narration makes excellent connections between chapters. And her having voiced Mulan in several animated works adds to the sentimental feeling that flows throughout the film. Yet, even with nostalgia and sentimentality at its heart, the film can stand on the merit of its information and generations of perspectives on the art of animation itself.
Excellent interviews can take a documentary far. However, how filmmakers use talking heads to craft a narrative is the heart of documentary filmmaking. Despite the “versus” title, Dariz and Earnest allow the film to center on the progression and evolution of animation. The story is strong throughout, giving a quick history of different eras of the art form, but most of all serves as a rallying point for future animators. Dariz and Earnest provide a broad representation of genres within the medium, complete with outstanding footage of the rough drafts for many classic characters.
Calling a film a “love letter” may seem overused, yet a “love letter” is precisely what Pencils Vs. Pixels embodies. Sure, the documentary discusses the struggles of animation and working as an animator. But at the narrative’s core sits a sense of wonder synonymous with animation. There are moments where it struggles to flow between topics, and the influence of anime is almost entirely ignored (save for a few comments). Still, the documentary is a wholesome look at imagination. By the end, you will find a new appreciation for the medium or find yourself pulled to the sketchbook.
"…a wholesome look at imagination."