Spirited Away stands apart from other animated movies because it is hand-drawn—not computer-generated—a method of animation that is nearly extinct in the United States. In early filmmaking, all animation was hand-drawn and was almost as simple as the flip books from which animation evolved. Because moving pictures were in their infancy, animated films of this time often looked jerky. The characters bobbed along awkwardly, and backgrounds were jumpy or nonexistent. As film and filming techniques became more sophisticated, so did animation. However, the basic technique of drawing animation has remained the same. Artists draw and paint single pictures, called frames, which are then filmed in order. The work is tedious, time consuming, and tends to be expensive because of its high labor costs. Just as with other labor-intensive industries, technology seemed an answer to the rising costs of production.

In the early 1980s, filmmakers began to use computer animation to fill in backgrounds and add special effects. One of the first animated features to effectively combine a roughly equal measure of computer generated images (CGI) and hand-drawn animation was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, released in 1991. Then, in 1995, Toy Story became the first movie created wholly on computer. CGI now dominates American animation. In fact, in early 2004 Disney closed its hand-drawn animation studio, signaling a complete shift from hand-drawn animation to CGI. While most recent CGI films have done well at the box-office, other films, featuring either hand-drawn animation or a combination of CGI and hand-drawn animation, have fared poorly. Two films relying on hand-drawn animation, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron, were box-office flops; Disney reasoned the failure was due to the fact that young American audiences, who have grown up on video games, have no interest in non-CGI films.

While CGI can be impressive because the image it produces is three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional, its look is very different from hand-drawn animation. In fact, the two are actually different mediums. The difference between them is comparable to the difference between hand-drawn illustrations and Clip Art, or between oil paintings and photographs. Japanese animation studios have begun using some CGI technology, but hand-drawn animation remains the primary medium of anime.