Kristian Jared Robinson – Between a “Rock” and a Hard Place: The Hybridization of Analog and Digital in The Iron Giant


In his thought-provoking, seminal text Animating Space: From Mickey to Wall-E (2010), J.P. Telotte highlights that the hybridized animated film signifies a fascinating sub-discipline of animation studies that has thus far gone under-researched. Utilizing the case study of Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Telotte makes the argument that traditional hand-drawn animation was not believed to be endangered during the nascent CGI years and would survive and gain further acceptance into the then-coming decades. In this respect, Telotte highlights that Roger Rabbit’s optimistic ending communicates that the analog would “break through” and thrive despite the fact that digital techniques continued to advance at the end of the twentieth century (193). In his book, Telotte approaches the question of hybridity by situating his discussion at the very early stages of the CGI revolution. Incidentally, he goes no further then 1992, prompting the question of how the future of the hybridized animated feature was viewed ten years after animation studios such as Pixar and Dreamworks made impressive advancements with full-length features such as Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995) and Antz (Darnell, Johnson, 1998) to name just a few. Was the end of cel drawn animation a foregone conclusion at the end of the 1990s? Were the advocates of traditional animation wary of the future of the hybridized animated feature? This essay examines these important questions through inspection of the landmark film The Iron Giant (Bird, 1999) with a special emphasis on how the film’s characters are figuratively built from different technologies to comment on these technological tensions, and equally to re-evaluate how this period of innovation should be historicized.

Principally, the overarching aim of this essay is to address how The Iron Giant characterizes the transition period from traditional animation to more available digital tools as they emerged at the end of the twentieth century. While in her own research, “Population Us: Nostalgia for a Future that Never Was (Not Yet) in The Iron Giant,” Sandy Rankin has labelled The Iron Giant as a fin de siècle shadow commentary on the eventual succession of digital technology, this observation demands further scrutiny (138). Although undoubtedly it is a valid argument to say that many films are symptomatic of the culture and industries that produce them, Rankin’s investigation of competing industrial forces (CG versus analog) represents a pervasive and reductive account that has thus far been mirrored by others such as Norman M. Klein over more than twenty years (228). Indeed, if this trend of mischaracterization continues, it can only result in the skewing of the historical trajectory of filmmaking technology, and likewise prove detrimental to a more sincere understanding of the course of animation over more than two decades. Accordingly, as illustrated by the protagonists Hogarth and the Giant’s mutual love, the Giant’s passion for the arts, and the mirroring of mannerisms throughout the film, The Iron Giant communicates that the complete take-over of computer animation was by no means a certainty on the eve of the new century.

Were the technological stakes higher in 1999 than in 1988 when films such as Roger Rabbit debuted? Certainly. Roger Rabbit was conceived as an exploratory filmmaking experiment to push the boundaries of hybridity, not to be confused with The Iron Giant, which was created after numerous full-length CGI animated films had already debuted and proven digital filmmaking to be cost-effective.

Accordingly, the first portion of this inquiry is devoted to scrutinizing the late1990s/early 2000s towards the aim of investigating the history of the hybridized animated film and likewise exploring The Iron Giant’s origins as part of this 2D CGI animation trend. Unlike other scholars, such as Richard Hall who is merely satisfied with briefly mentioning The Iron Giant’s animation framework before moving on to its Cold War themes and anti-gun message, this essay does not gloss over the discussion of hybridity (152). More specifically, this essay firmly examines the presence of both analog and digital technologies within The Iron Giant to re-envision the film’s messaging as an optimistic sharing of the narrative space between characters of different technological make-ups. As Eric Jenkins highlights in his discussion of hybridity in Special Affects: Cinema, Animation and the Translation of Consumer Culture (2016), “rather than being concerned with the distinction between live action and animation or the digital and the analogue, as some scholars maintain… digital or analogue share much more in common — such as their centralised distribution, their status as an experiential attraction, and their projection on the big screen in a darkened cinema” (202). With this in mind, this essay advances Jenkins’s discussion, moving past these superficialities to examine the film’s technological framework as offering a greater potential for commentary on then-emerging animation trends. Further, as Christopher Holliday notes, “just as animation has historically demonstrated an overwhelming tendency to take the ‘familiar characteristics of a live action genre and place them with the animated context’…computer animated films no less beg, borrow and steal from the narrative structures and thematic concerns that marshal the parameters of generic meaning” (26). Contrary to Rankin’s interpretation, this essay argues that the passion for hybrid animation was strong at the close of the 1990s, reinforcing The Iron Giant as an important historical reinterpretation of the trajectory of animation in the years prior to the sweeping proliferation of the CGI-driven feature.

At a Crossroads: Contextualizing the Analog-CGI Animated Film

It is a symptom of history that the changes in new technology can appear seamless, with film enthusiasts often times forgetting that different technologies co-exist and intermingle with their predecessor before one technology succeeds the other — or at least gives the impression of succeeding the other. Such is the case with numerous animation studies publications, including but not limited to the forecasts of Norman M. Klein in 1998, “the era when digital effects shift from a service industry to production have arrived” (219). Consequently, it is easy to forget that films such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life (Lasseter, Stanton, 1998), and Antz did not herald an immediate transition to CGI but rather were paralleled by nearly a decade of intermingled animation styles, before digital eventually supplanted the older practice of 2D cel drawn animation in the early 2000s.

In the late 1990s, the animation landscape did not look as it does at the time of this investigation in 2021. Although films such as Toy Story 2 (Lasseter, 1999) demonstrated the capabilities of computer technology, the dominance of CGI did not occur instantly. By contrast, the years from 1995 to 2002 represent an intriguing timeline as animators were actively exploring how to hybridize digital and more traditional forms of animation in an interesting and thought-provoking manner.

In this regard, DreamWorks’s The Prince of Egypt (Chapman, Hickner, Wells, 1998) signifies a unique, yet simultaneously oft-neglected hybridized example of traditional animation and digital craftsmanship being sustained for the duration of a full-length film. Developed as the personal project of ex-Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, The Prince of Egypt was conceived with the support of his long-time confidant Steven Spielberg and envisioned as a flagship feature to publicise the newly founded DreamWorks S.K.G. and to promote the studio as a competitor to Disney, Warner Bros., and other animation giants. Although today, more than twenty years on, the film is often viewed as a high-priced failure, it should not be overlooked how The Prince of Egypt demonstrates an interesting case study of hybridized animation being utilized with thoughtful purpose (Russell and Whalley 248). In this respect, it is noteworthy how the utilization of CGI is often reserved throughout the film for showcasing God’s boundless wonders, such as the parting of the Red Sea, while the more conventional human characters are animated in the traditional analog manner. Far from using these two styles in an innocuous fashion, the directorial trio of Chapman, Hickner, and Wells use the animation to clearly delineate the capabilities of the higher spiritual entity from those of the mortal characters. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that the film never outright communicates that one animation style is superior to the other, but rather emphasizes that both are working in cooperative fashion. with the technology ultimately paralleling the cooperation of the characters as showcased throughout the picture.

The Prince of Egypt may have been an early pioneer in exploring this use of digital/cel-drawn hybridized animation in a subtextual fashion, but it is certainly not the only example of this trend. Disney’s Treasure Planet (Clements, Musker, 2002) represents another instance of hybridized animation being used in an intriguing manner, with John Silver’s robotic appendages being digital creations and his human elements being examples of more traditional 2D animation. To that end, the duality of John Silver’s personality is fully reinforced here, as a character capable of humanity, but likewise of ruthless, calculating ambition. While, admittedly, Treasure Planet does fall slightly outside the timeline of The Iron Giant, the two films are similar in that they both accentuate a hybridized style being used with methodical intent. Like Treasure Planet, features such as Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, (Trousdale, Wise, 2001) and Fox Animation’s Titan A.E. (Bluth, Goldman, Vitello, 2000) exemplify that the inevitable transition to all-digital was not a certainty in the early 2000s, but rather just one of the competing animation styles to emerge in the years after the rise of CGI during the late twentieth century. In this respect, it is important to note how the emerging popularity of Japanese anime globally during the early 1990s offered another important alternative to the rise of digital animation. As Gina O’Melia highlights in her book, Japanese Influence on American Children’s Television: Transforming Saturday Morning, the presence of Japanese children’s programming had been steadily rising throughout the decade, with television shows such as Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Pokemon and the increased exportation of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmmaking to North America, resulting in a newfound appreciation for differing forms of animation (2).

While the all-digital film has certainly risen in popularity since the beginning of the twenty-first century, what is intriguing is how hybridized animation has continued to endure even after this proliferation of CGI. Accordingly, films such as Wall-E (Stanton, 2008), with its fascinating intermix of animation and live action – including footage of Hello, Dolly (Kelly, 1969) and the appearance of Fred Willard – highlights that the hybridized feature has not totally disappeared in the early 2000s, but rather continues to expand on the legacy of its predecessors like The Iron Giant, albeit with a far more enthusiastic initial reception for its storytelling and technological sophistication. While The Iron Giant is now revered as a cult classic with an enthusiastic, loyal fan base, this was not the case during its original cinematic release. Additionally, although superficially the film appears as a remnant of a bygone animation age, The Iron Giant was very much an important pioneer in the early development of CGI, prompting this essay to examine the film’s fascinating conceptual history before scrutinizing the animated picture for its subtextual attributes.

Indeed, the beginnings of the Iron Giant originated not in the hallways of Warner Bros. Animation, but rather thirty years before in the imagination of English novelist Ted Hughes. Created by Hughes as a modern fairy-tale to cope with the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath, his children’s novel The Iron Man (1968) soon caught the attention of musician Pete Townshend who successfully transformed it into a 1989 musical concept album, while filmmaker Brad Bird began pre-production work in 1996 (alongside Townshend as executive producer) on his own cinematic adaptation (Zahed 2). Although impressed with the novel’s overarching scope, Bird felt that the U.K. setting was not ideal for his own on-screen adaptation and therefore opted to re-orient the novel to the United States, using the Cold War as a backdrop for his updated narrative interpretation.

Aided by the animation department at Warner Bros., Bird made significant changes to Hughes’s original story, incorporating the characters of Kent, the callous federal agent, and Dean, Hogarth’s “starving artist” friend who helps conceal the Giant from the citizens of the fictional town of Rockwell, Maine. Although The Iron Giant was initially conceived as a traditional all-2D animation feature, Bird and his team quickly took note of Pixar’s success with Toy Story and opted to showcase the Giant (Vin Diesel) as an all-CG creation, conceived through the use of Pixar’s Renderman software developed throughout the early 1980s (Zahed 23). However, despite Bird’s pioneering work with these emerging digital tools, The Iron Giant gained little notice from Warner Bros., who were then highly invested in promoting another animated feature, Quest for Camelot (Du Chau, 1998), slated for release in the summer of 1998. Consequently, The Iron Giant gained only minimal marketing and little notice from audiences in 1999, ultimately underperforming at the box office and quickly disappearing from theatres. As animator Tom Sito highlights in Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson on the poor nature of this feature’s marketing, “films like The Iron Giant (2000) proved that even when artists could make films of the highest quality, inadequate advertising and marketing can cause a film to fail at the box office” (32). Nevertheless, despite its initial marketing stumbles, The Iron Giant soon caught the attention of home video buyers and has since gone on to become a perennial favourite of the American Thanksgiving season (Hoffman 2015). In 2021, the film is considered a contemporary classic, with a growing assortment of toys, memorabilia items, and even a 2015 remastered edition generating renewed fan awareness of the film. In this spirit, this essay re-examines The Iron Giant, not merely in a sidenote fashion, but as an important milestone in the history of animation, both as a pioneering technical achievement and a fascinating commentary on the trajectory of animation at the end of the twentieth century.

“You’re Right in the Middle of the Road!” Hybridity and The Iron Giant

As must be reinforced, this investigation stresses that there are key differences between the Giant and Hogarth in the technological execution of both characters on-screen. The Giant, an overwhelming indestructible entity, stands in sharp contrast to the traditionally animated protagonist, suggesting that while the former digital creation will endure, the latter will eventually fade away as all mortal creatures do. While it’s showcased that the Giant’s final words in the film are, “I go, you stay, no following”, in examining the film more closely, the assumption that digital technologies as embodied by The Iron Giant are the future of animation is open to scrutiny as both the Giant and Hogarth work to help one another in different portions of the narrative. While the Giant does eventually save the citizens of Rockwell from nuclear disaster, it is Hogarth’s intervention in saving the Giant from electrocution earlier that allows the story’s events to transpire. “You saw me save you,” Hogarth exclaims, after tracking the giant into the forest, “So I guess you’re not going to hurt me now, huh?” The Giant and Hogarth are a cooperative team, emphasizing the supportive nature of digital and analog technologies at the end of the twentieth century.

Although Telotte highlights that hybridized films such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, “draw out of the past a vision of animation’s new three-dimensional promise that would soon be fulfilled in the cartoons that have come flooding forth from Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and other various animation houses,” this claim warrants further analysis. Specifically, Telotte advocates that the sharing of animation space by characters created from different technologies is tenuous, when to the contrary, this is not the interpretation promoted by many of the hybridized features released after the proliferation of CGI (200). In this respect, consider that Treasure Planet strategically uses the character of John Silver (Brian Murray), not to forecast the take-over of CGI, but rather to emphasize that he is just as dependant on his digital limbs as he is on his cel drawn extremities. Far from being a representation of the eventual succession of CGI, Silver’s depiction highlights that both the traditional and the digital can share the screen cooperatively. By contrast, other films such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire venture even further in the opposite ideological direction, promoting the survival of the analog over its digital counterpart over the course of much of the film’s ninety-six-minute running time. Accordingly, while Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) and much of the expedition crew are repeatedly spared from destruction, much of their digitally rendered submarine equipment succumbs to the ocean depths, with CGI quickly becoming of secondary importance until the film’s finale, where it is again employed cooperatively to save Atlantis.

Incidentally, motion pictures such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire are not the only films to advocate against the complete transition to CGI, with The Iron Giant preceding the former by two years in its desire to preserve the tradition of hand-drawn animation. Consequently, while scenes such as Hogarth’s power station rescue do emphasize CGI’s imposing nature, with the Giant’s massive digitally rendered foot enveloping the screen, simultaneously the film promotes restraint by having Hogarth characterized as the Giant’s saviour midway through the feature. While on the surface The Iron Giant may seem like a simple film about a boy and his pet robot, the film invites deeper readings into the intersection of analog and digital animation at the turn of the century. Whereby the digital revolution has brought about great change in the way in which animated films are crafted, the rise of the completely digital animated feature was far from being a foregone conclusion in the late nineteen-nineties.

Although David A. Price observes that “The Emperor’s New Groove [Dindal, 2000], Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) brought disappointment at the box office,” his analysis overlooks contextualizing that these films incorporate digital creations throughout their diegesis, as well as ignoring that the Disney house style was not the only aesthetic trend gaining popularity at this time (228). In analysing this argument further, Gina O’Melia does not hold to the perception that the rise of CGI was viewed as an inevitability, but rather as only one of the competing animation forms to emerge at the end of the twentieth century. As O’Melia notes on the rising popularity of Japanese animation, “in the 1990s, there was a transition that saw the conventions that governed the protagonists, the antagonists, the female characters, the use of violence, tone and even the general format of these series gradually conform to Japanese norms in American productions” (2). Accordingly, Bird’s Giant does not represent a straightforward regurgitation of Hollywood’s most iconic robots, but rather incorporates an anime-like aesthetic into the Giant’s flight and subsequent transformation sequences, highly reminiscent of Japanese properties such as Beast King Go-Lion and The Mighty Atom to name just a few. In this respect, animator Makoto Shinkai highlights that during the 1990s and early 2000s, the future of hybrid animation had strong potential with anime films such as Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Watanabe, 2001) and Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) still employing a mix of both hand-drawn and digitally rendered characters (Fenlon, 2012). While The Iron Giant has so far gained little academic attention for its hybridity, this should not diminish from the fact that the film’s merging of 2D Japanese-style elements with CGI signifies an important demonstration that the future of animation was not a certainty at the end of the twentieth century.

Indeed, this retrospective evaluation of The Iron Giant’s commentary on hybridization is made even more significant when one closely examines the Giant and Dean’s ongoing partnership throughout the course of the film. Voiced by musician Harry Connick Jr., Dean is a great admirer of junk, music, espresso, and an immediate mentor to Hogarth right from their initial meeting at the film’s outset. Similarly, just as Hogarth and his metallic friend share a special bond throughout the film, equally do Dean and the Giant rapidly become friends despite an initial mistrust of one another. More accurately, the two share a passion for the arts, and it is this mutual fondness for creativity that quickly leads the duo to work together as an artistic team.

Although it may seem that the Giant is swifter and more efficient in rendering Dean’s junk into art than he is, this fact quickly becomes moot when one considers that both the human and non-human work together to forge a shared aesthetic. While the Giant does obsessively devour his traditionally animated surroundings, including in one instance Hogarth’s television antenna, this does not necessarily suggest the subtextual takeover of traditional animation by CGI. The Giant and Dean are partners and through collaboration, both characters together demonstrate a powerful self-reflexive commentary on the cooperative history of animation at the turn of the new millennium. As Holly Blackford has emphasized, films such as The Iron Giant demonstrate that the digital Giant is ultimately helpless without his 2D human counterparts (75).

Whereas The Iron Giant appears to be a juvenile science fiction adventure, deeper scrutiny reveals that the film exemplifies a noteworthy reflection on the need for balance between 2D and computer animation. Specifically, it is in the Giant taking away too much control from Hogarth that the film makes its most notable commentary on the pace of digital animation at the end of the twentieth century. Though Hogarth exhibits great respect for his metallic friend, this does not strictly limit him from demanding that the automaton show restraint at certain moments over the course of the narrative. In one noteworthy scene, Hogarth convinces the Giant to spin him around tilt-a-whirl style, only to have the young, nauseated protagonist regret his decision moments later. What follows is a blurry, disoriented scenario that is both comedic in nature and noteworthy for its self-reflexivity on the need for equilibrium. As emphasized by the film’s associate producer, John Walker, “movie audiences were really excited about CG animation at the time, but we really wanted to do a hand drawn movie. Our challenge was to show that the two-worlds belonged together” (Zahed 23). In his book The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology, J. P. Telotte echoes this sentiment, underscoring that CGI animators, especially those at Pixar and Disney, were consciously worried about moving too quickly in developing digital animation technology that mimicked realism too closely. “[Pixar] creators sought to check that naturalistic impression by exaggerating or ‘pushing’ elements of Toy Story’s world beyond the parameters of the real. Certainly, the characters [in Toy Story] — both human and toys — all have eyes that are much larger than normal. In certain instances, the size and scale of objects clearly become fluid” (166). In his retrospective analysis of the trajectory of CGI, Telotte emphasizes that there was a great deal of hesitancy among Pixar staff to transition more quickly to a more realistic aesthetic, particularly as they did not want to compromise Disney’s long history of incorporating caricature into their house style. Even though, in his examination of Toy Story, Telotte refrains from highlighting how the film self-reflexively comments on this reluctance, his analysis nevertheless opens up intriguing discussions as to the trajectory of animation at this particular intersection of technological development (The Mouse Machine 166). Accordingly, examinations of films such as The Iron Giant emphasize that the hybrid animated feature was not passively abstaining from commentary on the then-current state of CGI but engaging with it to advocate for compromise and restraint. To be clear, the purpose of Hogarth’s junkyard antics is not meant to demonize the rise of computer animation, but only to make the statement that CGI had the potential to overwhelm if not used with the proper judiciousness.

To date, Pixar and Disney have all but reshaped the landscape of animation with their all-digital animated films, but this total transition was far from the reality in 1999. Specifically in showcasing its hybridized quality, The Iron Giant goes to great lengths to show old and new animation styles as co-partners in the narrative, accomplished through the motif of mirroring. Although the Giant is characterized as the quintessential behemoth, it is noteworthy that Hogarth and his robot friend are placed on the same power level. This is evident in two notable instances. The first is when Hogarth is riding on the Giant’s shoulder at eye level, and the second during Hogarth’s mentorship of the Giant. As per Leslie Bishko, the mimicking of gestures is central to the film’s self-reflexive message of co-existence between the two animation styles:

The Iron Giant and Hogarth are seated on a woodland floor having their first conversation. Holding a rock with outstretched arms, Hogarth inclines his body forwards and upwards as he lifts the rock for the giant to see, and explains, “This is a ROCK!” The Giant repeats, “ROCK,” with a forwards and upwards inclination of his head that seems to say, “Now I know what this is.” Next, he learns to differentiate between a rock and a tree. He lowers and raises the rock in his left hand, as if to sense its weight and confirm what he knows: ROCK. With head inclined towards a tree held in his right hand, he extends his arm sidewards and upwards, then rises and retreats through the upper torso, head and neck as he proclaims, “TREE!” (1)

This exhibition of teaching and learning is a core part of the film’s self-reflexive nature as a piece that’s very much aware of its hybridized foundations. Although the Giant is unquestionably a powerful figure, he relies on Hogarth to learn, just as much as Hogarth relies on the robot for ongoing friendship. Furthermore, The Iron Giant’s picturesque landscape of rocks and trees with the digital Giant placed firmly between them communicates that the hybridity is in full display, in line with the hybridization as exhibited throughout the entire film. In this regard, it is noteworthy that authors such as Klein did not initially characterize the rise of CGI as the “death knell” for the hybrid animated feature, but rather as only the beginning of a gaudy new form of animation (219). In the 1998 edited volume Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros Animation, contributing author Klein describes hybridization as distracting from the true potential of CGI but does not consider the value of films such as The Iron Giant in cleverly linking form and function for the purposes of commentary. As associate producer John Walker notes in a 1999 interview, “[Bird felt] that technology was getting away from them. They were exhilarated by technology, and at the same time afraid it was going to overtake them” (Warren 53). Although in his deconstruction of the film Walker speaks solely of technology in Cold War America, it is noteworthy how The Iron Giant parallels the dizzying pace of digital technologies with the speed of nuclear proliferation throughout the 1950s. As Michel Foucault and Jay Miskowiec notes regarding this linking of past and present through media forms, “we are now at the epoch of simultaneity, we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of near and far of the side-by-side… our experience of the world is less of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intsersects with its own skein” (1). Therefore, in contrast to Klein’s observation, hybridized animation should not be viewed as inferior in its capacity to address modernity, but rather on par in its storytelling potential.

Though it has taken a number of years for the film to garner a fuller appreciation, The Iron Giant has secured its place amongst the most beloved of animated features, consistently scoring high on film critics’ review lists, alongside the title character being repeatedly referenced in films such as Ready Player One (Spielberg, 2018), and even other hybridized animated cartoons such as Space Jam: A New Legacy (Lee, 2021). Likewise, it is noteworthy that the film was theatrically re-released in 2015 for a limited engagement, as it demonstrates that almost twenty years later there is still great interest in the film’s storytelling and enduring aesthetic.

The Iron Giant has been interpreted in numerous ways. It has been viewed by scholars such as Rankin as a “whitewashing” of the blossoming multiculturalism of 1950s America, a Cold War paranoia feature, and, additionally as has been emphasized here, as an observation on the inevitable dominance of digital animation (154-155). Specifically, in regard to the latter reading, it is my opinion that the film’s commentary on the future of CGI and analog animation needs to be re-evaluated. The Iron Giant is not a fin de siècle commentary on traditional 2D animation; instead, through the examination of Hogarth and the Giant’s cooperative salvation, Dean and the Giant’s mutual interest in artistic pursuits, and the mirroring of character action, it can be demonstrated that, at the end of the twentieth century, the future of animation was very much considered an open question.


Kristian Jared Robinson is currently a final year Ph.D. candidate at The University of Exeter researching authorship and special effects. Previously, he did his M.A. at Wilfrid Laurier University, and a teaching degree from Queen’s University. His research interests include 1980s science fiction and fantasy cinema, stop-motion technology, and visual effects history.


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