In the early days of “The Simpsons,” the show abided by the old-fashioned, hand-drawn, ink-and-paint style of cel animation that still makes up the bulk of animation history. That has changed in recent years, but for a long time, “The Simpsons” was held up as the last bastion of high-quality TV cel animation. At least that was the story told by this author’s animation professors in college back in the late 1990s. In contrast, “Futurama” incorporated more varied techniques, rendering a lot of buildings, exteriors, and spacecraft in CGI … but CGI that was colored and textured to look like a 2D drawing. At the time, we called it 2½-D. The characters, meanwhile, were still hand-drawn.
Producer Claudia Katz noted that this hybrid look helped “Futurama” stand apart from both “The Simpsons” and its other animated contemporaries. She said:
“In addition to having great voice acting, jokes, and storytelling, we really had to deliver on the sci-fi elements and the only way to do that was with a 2D-3D hybrid animation. […] We love a challenge, and it was a great opportunity to try and figure that out.”
And figure it out they did. Peter Avanzino, the head of Rough Draft Studios, noted that the original mandate was to only use CGI for spacecraft, but that the showrunners dropped that mandate quickly. Soon, CGI was approved for many things. He said:
“We started out just using it on the ship, but by [episode 2], we had this big reaper machine come in and actually pick Bender up. […] We were constantly figuring out what else we could do with it. Can we use it to close a door? Can we use it for a crowd?”
Yes, they can. And they did.